Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Wilhite Trail

The Wilhite Trail is a 6.1 mile route with 1600 feet elevation change in the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park in southeast Utah. The trailhead is west along the Upheaval Dome side road.

The first segment of trail crosses a section of the mesa top Island through scattered Pinon Pines and Utah Junipers. There is one point with a good view toward the Green River canyon with the Henry Mountains rising above the Wingate sandstone cliffs. The trail is heading for one of the few gaps in the Wingate cliffs that allow a descent. There are six long trails in the Island in the Sky that travel from the the grassy mesa top to the White Rim Road that circles around below.

The descent through the gap in the cliffs is scary looking from both the top and the bottom. The upper switchbacks are gradual and easy walking, but further down there is some minor scrambling.

The going is slow through this section whether descending or climbing, but the views are spectacular. The route through the jumbled rocks is well marked with rock cairns.

At the bottom the trail turns south and works along another canyon rim, coming very close to the edge in some places. Candlestick Tower is in view for the rest of the hike.

This segment is about 1 mile before the trail turns west and makes a final descent to the red Martian looking surface below.

Looking back toward the north, there is a large alcove visible. The different layers of sandstone in this part of Canyonlands are clear here. The massive Wingate cliffs seem to dive down, as does the ledgy Kayenta layer. The smooth layer on top is the Navajo sandstone, the same as the nearby Whale Rock Trail. The whole sequence sits on top of the softer shale and mudstone Chinle layer.

The view from inside the alcove toward Candlestick Tower is a favorite of photographers and features an Indian ruins circle of stones that is known as the False Kiva. There is an obscure trail leading into the alcove that is not mentioned on park maps and seems to be somewhat jealously guarded, in the name of preservation, by those who know where it is. The ruins are similar to the circle of stones that are along the Aztec Butte Trail, but it is the view in combination with the stone circle that seems to be special.

I turned around at the point where the trail makes the descent to the floor of Holman Springs Basin, near a large boulder. It took me about 2:30 hours to get to this point, about 3 miles down the trail. The rest of the trail doesn’t look as interesting for a day hiker, though the side canyons might be good for a backpacker to explore.

It took me 3:00 hours to return to the trailhead for a total hike of 5:30 hours for about 6 miles. I carried 3 liters of water and drank most of it on a 60 F degree late March day.

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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Syncline Loop Trail

The Syncline Loop Trail is an 8.3 mile circuit around the Upheaval Dome in the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park in southeast Utah.

The Upheaval Dome is one of the most interesting features in Canyonlands and may be the remains of a 500 to 1000 foot meteor strike that occurred 60-160 million years ago. The alternate theory is a salt bubble rose and deformed the area. There are interpretive signs discussing the alternate theories on the Upheaval Dome Overlook Trail.

The Syncline Loop crosses the Upheaval Dome Trail a few feet from the trailhead. I turned left but hikers can go either way. Turning left and following around clockwise puts the wide views more in front of you. The descent going clockwise has many switchbacks and is much like walking down stairs. It looks like some of the rocks have been arranged to make the footing easier. Large sandstone outcrops highlight the scenery.

Near the trail beginning there is a sign warning that the trail is strenuous and may be difficult to follow. The 1300 feet of elevation change makes the hike fairly strenuous but it is also well marked with rock cairns and isn’t hard to follow. The upper segment of trail is Pinon Pine and Utah Juniper Forest with the common desert shrubs including Mormon Tea, Prickly Pear and Barberry.

It is 3.4 miles to a signed junction with the Upheaval Canyon Trail that makes a left turn and leads down canyon 3.5 miles toward the White Rim Road and the Green River.
Staying on the Syncline Loop Trail it is another 0.3 miles to the 1.5 mile Crater Spur Trail that makes a right turn and explores the interior of the Upheaval Dome.

The Loop Trail doesn’t have any rim views into the Upheaval Dome crater, so this side trail is the only place to view the interior. This low area of the trail follows a dry wash and vegetation is very sparse.

I met some returning backpackers who had traveled further down canyon and had visited a ruins site near the river. The clockwise route is a shorter distance to the bottom trail junctions and looked to be an easier climb for those carrying a heavy pack.
The trail segment that starts to climb back up the Syncline Valley has some pools of water in the creek and has quite a bit of rock scrambling. The scrambling section is about the midway point of the loop hike.

There is one spot where steps have been carved. There were the remains of some metal bars next to the steps. This might have been a formerly difficult spot that has been made easier. I thought this section seemed a little more slippery with loose material than other parts of the trail.
After the scrambling section, the trail continues to climb but only gradually. In mid March, an always shady segment along the Syncline Creek still had a large snow patch on an otherwise mild day. The 4.6 mile north section of the loop stays in the canyon and doesn’t have any wide views.

My hike took 5:15 hours for the 8.3 miles. I carried 2 liters of water on a 55 F degree mid March day, but I think 3 liters would have been a better choice. I met two groups of hikers taking the counter clockwise route, a group of 2 and a group of 8.

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