Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Lathrop Canyon Trail to White Rim Road: Canyonlands National Park, Island in the Sky

Essence: Island in the Sky is a colossal, elevated mesa with deeply-incised canyons shredding west to the Green River and east to the Colorado River. The White Rim terrace rests at mid-point between the mesa top and the West's signature rivers. The Lathrop Canyon Trail, a dedicated footpath, descends from the erosional remnant to the White Rim Road. A 4X4 track continues downcanyon to the Colorado River. This is a hike of contrasts, transitioning from flat and smooth to steep and rugged. The improbable trail must penetrate three impermeable members of the Glen Canyon Group: Navajo, Kayenta, and Wingate Sandstone formations. It makes a lengthy and convoluted traverse on a narrow shelf to access a rubble field choking the smooth throat of a side canyon. The historic trail incorporates admirably crafted stone stairways and tight switchbacks.
Travel: Measure from Center Street and Main Street in Moab and drive north on U.S. Route 191 for 10.8 miles. Turn left/west on Utah State Route 313 South. At 25.1 miles, 313 South goes left to Dead Horse Point State Park. Stay straight. Pass the Canyonlands National Park entrance station (closed) at 30.8 miles. Show your pass or pay fees at the Visitor Center, 31.9 miles. Continue south on Grand View Point Road, driving across The Neck. Pass the Shafer Trail Viewpoint. Park on the left at 33.8 miles, 1.9 miles from the Visitor Center. No facilities.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 12.2 miles; 2,100 feet of climbing
Total Time: 5:00 to 7:00
Difficulty: Trail; navigation moderate; mild exposure; avoid on hot days (very little shade) and be wary of seasonal afternoon thunderstorms; carry more water than you think you will need.
Fees: Please check this link for current fee information. The Visitor Center is closed seasonally. For a snow report during that time, call Park Headquarters, (435) 719-2313. No pets, no bicycles.
Map: Musselman Arch, Utah 7.5' USGS Quad
Reference: I consulted David Day's website,  www.utahtrails.com, for information on the trail's origin, sheep herders, and mining operations.
Date Hiked: October 22, 2019
Remote for detachment,
narrow for chosen company,
winding for leisure,
lonely for contemplation,
the Trail leads not merely north and south
but upward to the body, mind and soul of man.

Harold Allen

Episodic runoff through lower Lathrop Canyon perforated White Rim Sandstone and joined forces with the Colorado River.

Route: Hike on-trail bearing generally southeast. Drop through a weakness in the Navajo Sandstone and then begin a circular double-back to a rubble field located in the north arm of Lathrop Canyon. Descend steeply to intersect the main canyon. The runout to the White Rim Road is gradual. It is an additional 9.4 miles roundtrip to the Colorado River.

The sign at the trailhead, elevation 6,000 feet, claims it is five miles to the White Rim Road. And yet the posted mileage at the White Rim Road is 6.8 for the return. My GPS unit clocked 6.1 miles each way. My calculations confirm that it is 2.5 miles to Canyon Rim and 10.8 miles to the Colorado River.

The trail launches out across Gray's Pasture, an open prairie. Peering into never-ending distances is a distinguishing paragon of the American West. Far away and way up high are the La Sal Mountains, the Abajo Mountains, and Cathedral Butte in the Needles District. At ground level a soft, thin footpath, sometimes dirt, sometimes sand, is bordered by ephedra, snakeweed, rabbitbrush, sage, blackbrush, and a variety of grasses. I was glad to see Indian ricegrass but distraught that invasive cheatgrass was overwhelming native plants.

The land swells almost imperceptibly to a shallow rise at 1.1 miles, 6,120 feet. Look north and locate a tin-sided line shack, image-left. While hiking, I was consumed with questions about the trail's origin story. Who would engineer this unlikely treadway and why? According to David Day, Howard Lathrop, a domestic sheep herder, grazed his flock on the White Rim platform during the winter in the 1940s. He constructed the trail to move supplies between the mesa and the river. The trail was used by ranchers until the 1960s when Canyonlands became a national park. Today, the footpath is maintained by the Park Service.

Transition onto Navajo Sandstone and follow cairns across the slabs while wandering through moderately sized globular formations.

Venerable piƱon and Utah juniper live in a sandy basin sheltered by low sandstone domes.

After passing by the trees walk a few feet off-trail to overlook the Lathrop Canyon amphitheater. The trail can be seen 100 feet below on a sloping Kayenta Sandstone shelf.

The trail takes a circuitous route to get underneath the overlook on its way to the north arm of Lathrop Canyon. This image shows the wind scoured Navajo Sandstone wall and the path working its way down the block field.

The trail begins its descent through the Navajo in a series of weaknesses beginning at 2.1 miles, elevation 5,960 feet. It burrows into a slope and curves down into a sandstone-floored bowl.

Then it rounds a thin, stone corner (how fortuitous) with a sensational view of the White Rim terrace and the Colorado River making a lazy meander.

Arrive on Canyon Rim at 2.5 miles. From here, the trail drops down one final break in the Navajo to rest on ledge-forming Kayenta Formation overlying the Wingate Sandstone, shown. The shelf is generous (ten feet at its narrowest) but the drop is significant and hikers with a fear of heights may wish to turn around at Canyon Rim. The route utilizes the bench for the better part of a mile as it travels south and then west back into the Lathrop amphitheater. Long, pleasurable traverses to access passageways are common in canyon country. Grand prize is awarded to the 95-mile-long Tonto Trail in the Grand Canyon.

Across Lathrop Canyon are Airport Tower, the standing spires of Point 5,601', and the column cluster on the south wall. All three are typical of cliff-forming, vertically fractured, gleaming Wingate Sandstone.

The image below looks back on the pathway, a thin thread suspended above an 800 foot wall.

Reach the back wall of the north arm of the canyon at 3.2 miles, 5,700 feet. The ensuing plunge (drop 900 feet in 0.7 mile) reminds me of weaving down the rubble field on the Murphy Hogback Trail, my favorite Island in the Sky hike. To begin, step down a series of boulder strewn Kayenta ledges.

Enter the stone throat and descend the Wingate chute on engineered and reinforced switchbacks. Be patient; the steepness is complicated by loose debris.

The admirable path is actually a series of winding staircases made from scavenged stone. One thousand steps is a conservative estimate. The footing felt more powerful and secure on the upclimb.

The grade lessens significantly at 4,800 feet in the hardscrabble runout zone.

Swing back into the canyon's interior and cross the primary and typically dry watercourse at 4.5 miles, 4,640 feet. This image looks back at the access route.

The canyon continues descending while the track holds the contour on an abandoned road through the slope-forming Chinle and Moenkopi Formations, shown.  David Day writes about the uranium boom that took place in Canyonlands during the 1950s. The prospectors used the Lathrop Canyon Trail as access to several mines very near the road on both sides of the canyon. Stay on-trail. Radioactive material is present in the mines, on tailing piles, and in contaminated springs.

The path narrows to a single track and descends southeast into a tributary wash at 5.5 miles. Stay in the drainageway until it meets the White Rim Road at 6.1 miles, elevation 4,400 feet. The pretty pouroff is our turn-around location but one could wander endlessly on the soft-edged, cracked slabs of White Rim Sandstone.

The Lathrop Canyon Trail once extended downcanyon to the Colorado River. After the White Rim Road was constructed in the early 1950s, the trail was widened into a 4X4 double-track, shown. The signed junction is 0.1 mile south. It is 10.2 miles roundtrip to the river. The climb out adds 500 feet of vertical.

In this image, the Lathrop Trail sign is directly below the Lathrop amphitheater. The lengthy Kayenta ledge traverse is image-right, overlying the beautiful Wingate wall. This is the halfway point of the hike. There are so many astounding features I was glad for the opportunity (and necessity) to retrace my steps.

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