Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Gooseberry and the White Rim

The goal this weekend is to finish all the hiking trails in Island in the Sky (ISKY), Canyonlands National Park. Only two remain on the list taken from the NPS’s hiking guide, Gooseberry (6 miles round-trip) and White Rim Overlook (1.6 miles round-trip). My overnight backcountry permit is on the other side of the road from these hikes, Murphy Point (4 miles round trip). Not enough trail-miles to fill a weekend but I have a plan.
Gooseberry Trail dropping through the Windgate Sandstone.
The secret to hiking in canyon country is that endless opportunities for exploration are found by following sandy washes and slickrock. Hiking trails provide a good introduction to desert travel for beginners but are merely a jumping off point. My off-trail plan for exploring extends my trip by taking me to an off-trail route. But first, the established trail.
Rock steps of Gooseberry Trail feel solid underfoot.
The Gooseberry Trail doesn’t mess around with flatness. This rock staircase drops 1400 miles in the first 1.5 miles, providing that falling off the edge of a cliff feeling characteristic of ISKY. Some might say the drop is relentless but my legs find a comfortable rhythm, dancing down softly into the wash. An old climbing book says that this trail was built in the late 1930’s by the WPA and was originally called the Government Trail.
Gooseberry is alive with signs of spring, including the most vibrantly red paintbrush I’ve ever seen.
The Gooseberry Trail joins the White Rim Road near a campsite teeming with mountain bikers and jeepers just waking up and strolling around camp.
Down the dusty White Rim Road following tire tracks. 
This early in the morning, there isn’t any traffic and the White Rim Road is the fastest way to get to my so-called destination. I’ve identified a peninsula of land that juts out into something called Monument Basin (not to be confused with Monument Valley). A patch of green on the topo map. Trees, I hope. Perhaps a seep? I’m just relying on gut instincts. If I had more access to wifi, internet searches could be used to find more information, but I sort of like this way too, purely lines on topo maps.
Following the edge
After the first herd of mountain bikers pass me, I veer off the road towards the edge of the White Rim rocks. This is my plan for staying off the beaten-path— following the folds of the slickrock. Sure it’s much further as the crow flies. The change is immediate and rewarding. Jaw-dropping views as the White Rim rock layer falls away revealing the softer Organ Rock shale below. The sweet sound of songbirds and an unexpected lushness all along the cliff edge. My legs work harder, leaping over cracks and cryptobiotic soil. But it feels good to be fully engaged with the landscape.
White Rim dropoffs, La Sals beyond
Mostly the slickrock here is continuous, but a few times I end up on a dead-end, surrounded by cryptobiotic soil crust. “Crypto” is a living community of cyanobacteria, lichen, moss, and bacteria that holds the soil together and retains moisture allowing other plants establish. Plus it’s beautiful in its own crusty, yellow-brown way. Rather than trampling it, I backtrack to find another route.
I join a faint old road out to the top of the peninsula. A few sparse footprints show someone else has followed the old road too. Who used to drive this road? A pile of rusty tin cans provides some sort of answer.
Monument Basin has beautiful red spires of Organ Rock Shale topped with more resistant blocks of White Rim Sandstone
A spectacular flat rock surrounded by vastness serves as lunch spot and dramatic destination for the hike. It seems like I’m out in the center of wilderness, even though by Gaia GPS calculation I’m just 2 miles from the trailhead, having switchbacked and meandered for miles. If only I had a camping permit for this spot! But instead, I have to backtrack to the trailhead, then drive over to the Murphy trailhead to reach my permitted overnight zone.
Clouds are building, the wind intensifies, storms race around in the distance. Before I find a camping spot, rain starts to fall and I find an overhang to hide beneath. Off in the distance, lightening strikes, making me wonder if I should retreat back to my car and call it quits. But the storm is mesmerizing. I stay.
Watching the storm from a sheltered alcove.
I set up my tent on flat slickrock only to have it nearly blown off the cliff by a wind gust. I’m such an amature tenter- my guylines and rock anchors are no match for the heavy winds at this exposed site. I pack up and move my tent to a sheltered site that I’d passed it up before because it has been heavily trampled and trashed by previous campers. It looks like a herd of cows have been through. Minus the cowpies. I gather up the garbage and orange peels and tuck them into my critter-proof food bag before setting up my own tent. The torn up dirt reminds me of a wound. A gust of wind sweeps up the loose, trampled sand and blasts it against my face.

I follow sloppy footprints in the cryptobiotic soil to an overlook, making my own way on nearby rocks. Mostly I feel sad about how hard it is to not leave a mark on this land. I wonder if I ought to just go home rather than sleep at the already impacted site. I decide it probably doesn’t make any difference.
Clouds break up and the sun pours through.
Storm clouds make for a spectacular sunset. Overnight, rain falls in several waves of passing clouds. The sweet sound of rain on tent. I sleep soundly.
Strong winds bring another wave of rain.
More sunsetting
The next morning, sunrise back at White Rim Overlook. A panoramic view of where I’d been yesterday, and last week, and last month. Now I recognize where I’ve been before— the Needles, Needles Overlook, the LaSals, my spot overlooking Monument Basin. I see more old road scars off the White Rim Road, including that one I followed. How long until they are erased?
Seeing where I've been from the White Rim Overlook
This week at work, I helped plant native seeds for a restoration project at a neighboring Park. Trying to heal disturbed ground. I wonder if those seeds are drinking in this rain. I wonder how long until that damage is erased. I wonder how this landscape will all look in 50 years, or 5000 years.
Light playing with rock
More Information
Backcountry camping permits are required for overnight trips in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. Make your reservations well in advance, or you may end up with a less than ideal permit.

Bring all your own water. Pack out all your garbage and toilet paper, and use a wagbag to pack out your poop if a privy isn’t available.

List of hiking trails in Canyonlands here


  1. Was only just night wondering what you were up to and you post .
    It is a worry how some people disrespect the earth and I just don't understand it. I think having someone out there who does respect the earth helps the healing and although there is an impact , I think it helps. keep it up help restore the balance.
    I spent my first night out for months the other night and the weather was very foul but it was so great to sit beneath the rain forest under my tarp with the rain and cold and just being there . It was a bit scary with tree falls happening and knowing that there was the odd dingo about but it was so great to be there in the moment.
    Stay well and contented .

    1. I've been infrequently posting not because I'm not hiking, but because I'm doing too much hiking and not enough time in front of a computer.

      Way to go for getting out there in the rain too. There is a higher activation energy required to go out in fowl weather, but it's always really great in retrospect and experiencing storms is quite something. Glad no trees fell on you! :)

  2. Oh how I enjoy your posts. I feel as if I'm there with you and after being at both Murphy Point and White Rim Road can visualize your musings.

    1. Thanks so much, Jan. Yes, the terrain is really something in 360. The verticalness. The White Rim road. Incidentally, I was just out at ISKY helping install plant identification signs and a bunch of visitors came up and asked about the White Rim Road (since we were in uniform). It was interesting to see how people react upon first seeing the White Rim-- that "oh I want to be down there!"