Sunday, May 24, 2020

Gooseneck Trail (Canyonlands NP)

Colorado River cutting through the Canyonlands
0.8 mile round trip, 100 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: 4WD high clearance road access to trailhead, Canyonlands National Park entrance fee required

A short walk off the car-eating 4WD White Rim Road in Utah's Canyonlands National Park is one of the most spectacular viewpoints along the length of the Colorado River's extensive canyonlands. At the end of the Gooseneck Trail lies a viewpoint over a sweeping bend in the mighty but peaceful Colorado River, surrounded by soaring desert walls and buttes. Only approachable by very rough 4WD high clearance vehicle roads, this overlook sees only a fraction of the visitors that crowd Deadhorse Point State Park or the Canyonlands Island in the Sky above. The hike is short and the drive is long, but if you have an appropriate car to handle these roads you shouldn't miss it. Come around dawn or dusk to experience this absolutely superlative landscape in dramatic golden lighting.

I hiked this trail during a November visit to Moab with my mother. There are two approaches to reach this trailhead and we ended up covering them both. The first is to descend the Shafer Canyon Road, a switchbacking 4WD road from the Canyonlands Island in the Sky District; the other is to take the long, dusty, and bumpy 4WD Potash Road from Moab along the Colorado River. These two can be combined with the US 191/Hwy 313 approach to Island in the Sky to form a driving loop, which I highly recommend if you have a vehicle suitable for driving it and the experience to tackle it.

From Moab, we took US Route 191 north to the left turnoff for Canyonlands National Park's Island in the Sky District. We followed this road into the park and spent the day in the Island in the Sky District; in the afternoon, we left via the Shafer Canyon Road, which leaves from the east side of the main park road just north of the visitor center. The Shafer Canyon Road is an absolutely spectacular and hair-raising driving descent down a canyon via a narrow, switchbacking, cliff-hugging 4WD dirt road. We drove slowly to manage the difficult road and to enjoy the awesome scenery and took our time to reach the junction of the Shafer Canyon Road with Potash Road and White Rim Road. Here, we headed straight and took White Rim Road, a long 4WD road that explores much of a middle layer of the Canyonlands- the White Rim- surrounding Island in the Sky. We followed White Rim Road for about two miles until we reached the trailhead for the Gooseneck Trail, which was marked with a sign by the road. There was enough room near the road by the trailhead to pull off and park.

Shafer Canyon 4WD Road
If you're arriving from Moab via Potash Road, simply take US Route 191 north from Moab across the Colorado River, turn left onto Potash Road, follow that road until it meets White Rim Road, and then arrive at the trailhead two miles after that.

From the trailhead, the trail starts in red dirt but soon moved onto the hard sandstone that defines the White Rim Formation of the Canyonlands. The trail winded through open, rocky terrain punctuated with low desert shrubs that offered plenty of views of the high-walled canyon cathedral around us. The soaring buttes and ramparts of Island in the Sky towered above. Cairns led us across the rock with a gentle ascent until we reached the rim of the canyon.

Buttes of the Utah Canyonlands
The Colorado River wrapped around a beautiful, curving bend beneath us, perhaps the most famous gooseneck of the Colorado after Arizona's Horseshoe Bend. Another sky mesa rose in the distance on the other side of the canyon and the La Sal Mountains were visible even farther back. We were all alone, experiencing an overwhelming sense of awe in this unbelieveable landscape by ourselves. Beneath us, we realized that the rock layers underlying the White Rim Formation were eroding faster, leaving mushroom-like rock sculptures under the cap rocks of the White Rim Formation, the sort of bizarre and otherworldly shapes that become commonplace on the Colorado Plateau.

Colorado River Gooseneck

La Sal Mountains rising over the Colorado River and the Utah Canyonlands
What more can I say? The Colorado Plateau is one of the most unique landscapes in the world and this overlook over the Colorado River is one of the great views of the Colorado Plateau. The scenery here rivals that of the Grand Canyon.

Ridley Scott thought so as well when shooting Thelma and Louise, choosing a viewpoint along Potash Road just further upstream along the gooseneck from this overlook as the setting of the movie's dramatic final scene, when the two women drive into what's billed as the Grand Canyon. After my mom and I finished soaking in the amazing views at the end of the Gooseneck Trail, we drove back to Moab via the Potash Road, stopping at the Gooseneck Overlook along the road to take a last glance at the stunning canyons of the Colorado as the sun set.

Colorado River views along Potash Road
The hiking to reach this viewpoint is easy but the driving is hard; it's worth it for some of the most incredible scenery of the Utah Canyonlands.

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