With Day One ending in a misadventure, I figured Day Two had nowhere to go but up. I put the Flaming Gorge in my pre-dawn rearview mirror and headed south on US-191 with my sights set on reaching Canyonlands National Park in time to snag a sweet campsite.
I nudged my small car over the high mountain switchbacks heading into the Uinta Mountains and soon found myself officially atop the northern end of the Colorado Plateau. Just as I rolled into the vacant Sunday morning streets of Vernal, Utah, the high desert sun peeked over the clear horizon, blinding me in all its glory and making it painfully uncomfortable to continue in an easterly direction. I hadn’t yet eaten breakfast, and the car was thirsty for gas. Great time for a pit stop to refill the car’s tank and my empty coffee mug.
I chomped down a breakfast muffin in the gas station parking lot and waited for the sun to inch a few more degrees into the bright morning sky. Across the street I spied a cool bicycle shop and decided to mosey on over and check out the shiny bikes hanging in the window.
How I longed for a new mountain bike! I sold mine a few years back when I was going through my compulsive phase with road bike racing. Unfortunately, the monotonous hours of focused training and competition took its toll, and I missed the freedom and fun of cruising through the trees on a sweeping singletrack.
In fact, a few weekends ago I had caught a wild hair and foolishly attempted to relive that very fantasy on my wife’s beater, and ended up coming home with this trophy of a scar on my leg:
The details of the wreck are a little fuzzy. I just know that when I wiped out, I felt an unseen part of the devious bike gouge into my calf in a crude attempt to resect my Achilles tendon. It was a totally fluke accident, but it was enough to scare me.
I stared through the bike shop window drooling and fantasizing about riding all the cool new bikes, when I remembered the large bandage that still covered my slow-healing wound. “I guess I better get back on the road” I muttered to myself, doing my best to pragmatically wipe the fantasy from my brain.
From there, it was only a few more miles to Canyonlands. I was already tired after almost five hours of driving, but like a horse that can smell the barn after a long day on the range, I put the pedal to the metal and arrived in short order.
The entrance road leading into the park cuts through a red cliff-lined valley for a short distance before switching back on itself a couple of times to climb up onto the mesa. I pulled over at the first scenic lookout to stretch my legs and was immediately treated to some of the awesome views I had come so far to see. In the intense light of the late morning I knew any photos I took with my main camera wouldn’t turn out to be worth the laborious post-editing process, so I took some easy snapshots with my iPod to preserve the memory and save myself a little work.
Island in the Sky is so named because it quite literally is a huge island mesa rising several hundred feet above the canyon floor. The road enters the park just before crossing The Neck, a rock span not much wider than the road itself, connecting the island mesa to the mainland.
The park service has paved roads accessing multiple scenic viewpoints at each end of the island overlooking the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers, as well as the famous White Rim Road, a rugged, 120-mile trail which traces the contours of the exposed white rim surrounding the island mesa.
I drove a little further into the park and spent a fair amount of time soaking up the sun and admiring the majestic rock features and rough-cut canyons that spread out before me in every direction, imagining adventures to be had here on future return trips. Reflecting on the previous day’s letdown at the Flaming Gorge, this somehow felt more like the place I needed to be.
As a bonus, my timing turned out to be perfect and I scored a sweet campsite at the Willow Creek campground in close proximity to some of the best photographing spots in the park. My plan was to get the sunset shot at the nearby Green River Overlook, and then rise early the next day to shoot the postcard sunrise photo at Mesa Arch. My morale o’meter spiked to a new high for the trip!
But first, since I arrived early in the day, I had a few hours to wander around and check out some other parts of the park and scout out a few photo spots. The best was the short rim trail leading from the Grand View Point Overlook. I spent the rest of the afternoon following the trail cairns and checking out the expansive views of stone columns rising more than 300 feet from the canyon floor.
By now the red desert cliffs were starting to come alive against the shallow angle of the late afternoon sun. I shot a couple more panoramic scenes overlooking Monument Basin, then hiked back to the car to drive to my sunset locale for my main shoot of the day where the show was about to begin.
When I arrived at the Green River Overlook, there were already a couple of professional photographers getting set up to shoot. Having acquired most of my photos on secluded backcountry hiking trips, this was a completely new experience for me to share a popular, prime location such as this. Being a self-taught amateur hack with no formal photographic training myself, I was blown away observing these people who actually seemed to know what they were doing!
The sun sank below some intermittent clouds on the horizon, and I feared we were going to get skunked with a blasé sunset. Some of the others just kind of stood around chatting casually. Suddenly the clouds broke open for a few moments and everyone sprang into action. Camera shutters clicked furiously as the desert below turned to alien hues of magenta, violet, and blue. Not wishing to waste this opportunity, I carefully framed up my composition and bracketed at different exposures. I had come so far to get this shot and I prayed I wouldn’t botch it by choosing the wrong camera settings.
Soon after that, the light disappeared over the horizon and the show was over. This had been a very long day, so I headed back to camp for a meal and some much needed rest. I pretty much crashed as soon as my back hit the sleeping pad in my cozy tent, and I was out like a light. Day Two of my trip had been a satisfying success, and I felt anxious to tick Mesa Arch off of my list early the next morning.
Next time: Another day at Island in the Sky, and a surprise waits in store when I head over to Arches National Park. Stay tuned!