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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