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  • Writer's pictureInger and Jeff Latreille

Island in the Sky

~Tuesday, April 19, 2022~

Day 674

A windy morning sweeping through the canyon here making any attempts at journaling or reading outside, nill. But it is warm.

Today we ventured to another section of Canyonlands about 30 minutes away from Moab, called Island in the Sky. The other two sections are The Mesa (more remote) and The Needles (where we last camped). Along the drive you notice Utah Junipers and Pinyon Pines dotted throughout the landscape. We stopped along the way to read a few interpretive signs about these “smaller” forests and learned that Pinyons and Junipers grow very slowly. A tree that is only 6-10 inches in diameter, for example, may be 100 to 150 years old. So thank you pinyon pines for your gourmet pine nuts (we use them a lot in our cooking) and thank you Junipers for providing your bluish berry used to flavor botanical gins, perfect for Jeff’s martini concoctions. Even the Hopi Indians found something useful out of their shreddy barks for bedding and diapers. Strangely enough, I have wondered how people tackled diaper changes before there were diapers.

Between the forest of short trees, you also have the grasslands which are an important food source for the wildlife and livestock that thrive in this area. But if you look closely, the reason these plants and trees produce in the first place is from Cryptobiotic Soil (or Biological Soil Crust), the building block of the desert plant environment. This “living dirt” creates usable soil out of sand and prepares the ground for all other vegetative life. Plus it decreases soil erosion. Most people, including us, would think this was just simply, dirt. So thankfully, there are signs everywhere in the park that alert you to be careful and mindful of where you’re walking or driving; Roads and trails only!

The Visitor Center for starters. The displays and interpretive signs were pretty informative, but could be way better, leaving me to do more of my own research, again. On our travels we’ve observed many of these educational centers to be too dummied down (if you will), lacking more in-depth history and references to people and their way of life. We’ve seen only a handful that were quite extraordinary, Yellowstone and Bayfield, WI to name a few.

From there, we began our scenic drive which took us to the Shafer Overlook.

From above, you witness 2 roads, one being the Shafer Canyon Road that takes about an hour of driving time. It is passable only with high clearance 4 WD vehicles, leading you down 1,400 feet into the canyon and ultimately connecting you to Moab. It also provides access to Canyonlands’ backcountry and the other passable 100-mile road called the White Rim Road. These are historic pathways with their purpose evolving over time. It’s thought that native people once used this route to travel from the mesa to the Colorado River. In the early 1900’s, ranchers drove livestock on it. But it was the 1950’s that saw big change. The uranium boom and all the mining that came with it changed the face of canyon country forever. The Shafer Trail was upgraded to accommodate trucks hauling mining equipment and ore. Eventually abandoned, narrow scars across the desert floor are visible today.

Next…..Mesa Arch, right on the edge of the canyon rim, and a very short hike to get to. Its hollowed out “window” has quite a

dramatic view of the La Sal Mountains to the east. Like most arches, repeated cycles of freezing and thawing created this geologic rarity with water seeping through its cracks. Eventually the same process will lend to its collapse.

Our final stop took us to the Grand View Point Trail on this very windy day. About a 2-mile out-and back trail along the canyon rim, it displays spectacular panoramic views. And we’re talking rims without a guardrail in sight. You’d never get away with this at the Grand Canyon with the high number of tourists. But, you especially have to watch yourself on gusty days like today. You hear stories about people being swept off canyon edges by wind or missed footings. Below the canyon rim are other series of buttes and canyons below them, creating a dramatic three-dimensional view. It almost appears, at least from the Grand View Point, as if the earth is opening up (do you remember the movie 2012?)

What characterizes this landscape vs. the Needles portion is that it rests on sheer sandstone cliffs over 1,000 feet above the surrounding terrain, reaching from the depths of the Green and Colorado Rivers. The Needles landscape consists of more spires and arches. Adding to the drama, are even taller mountain ranges capped from recent snowfall……La Sals to the east, Abajos to the south and the Henrys to the southwest. The only ones we could see on this hazy day were the La Sals. Whatever precipitation that Canyonlands lacks, these mountains well make up for, creating their own weather systems. It really is amazing how dramatically different the 2 regions are.

Arriving back to the campsite, we strategized our move for tomorrow, and what we hoped to accomplish. Since we’re hitching back up anyway to make our move, it would behoove us to do a dump run in the morning as well, after we stake our claim! Our French neighbor stopped by to see if we were still interested in the site in the morning which without a question received an enthusiastic 2 thumbs up. Sounds like things are working out!

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