Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Murphy Point

Green River flowing through the Canyonlands below Murphy Point
3.6 miles round trip, 150 feet round trip
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Canyonlands National Park entrance fee required

The easy hike out to Murphy Point in Utah's Canyonlands National Park ends at a stunning viewpoint over the maze of canyons carved out by the Green River. This is an easy and enjoyable hike that ends with a view that includes a gooseneck along the Green River and recommended for visitors who have a whole day or more in the Island in the Sky District; however, visitors with less time will find that the views of the Canyonlands from the many roadside viewpoints are still excellent, even though none offer quite as good a view of the Green River itself.

I hiked out to Murphy Point during a trip to the Moab area with my mother. This was the longest hike of our day at Island in the Sky, which mostly consisted of very short hikes and stops at roadside viewpoints. 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 past the visitor center, continuing straight at the junction with the Upheaval Dome Road. We made the turnoff on the right for the Murphy Trailhead to arrive at the start of the hike.

From the trailhead, the wide dirt trail cut across flat grasslands covering the mesa top of Island in the Sky. Looking back to the east, there were views over the grasslands to the peaks of the La Sal Mountains. The trail descended very gently and reached a junction after a half mile. The Murphy Point Trail heade right, while the trail descending to the White Rim led to the left. We took the right fork to continue towards Murphy Point.

La Sal Mountains rising over grasslands of Island in the Sky
The terrain changed after we passed the junction: the trail emerged onto a low crest of a protruding part of the mesa, which was dotted with juniper and pinyon pine. Some nice views emerged as the cliffs of Island in the Sky became visible, along with Junction Butte and the Abajo Mountains to the south.

Junction Butte and Island in the Sky

The trail descended gently along this crest, punctuated by a short and low-grade uphill, as it headed west along the protruding arm of Island in the Sky towards Murphy Point. The path dropped across a varying terrain of slickrock and sand and eventually arrived along the rim of Island in the Sky. Here were the first good canyon views of the hike, showcasing the canyonlands to the north: the great, flat plain of Soda Springs Basin extended between Murphy Point and Candlestick Tower to the north, broken only by one narrow canyon sliced into the White Rim. A number of Navajo Sandstone outcrops rose above the Kayenta Sandstone defining the Island in the Sky mesa, the last remnants of a geological formation that has otherwise been fully eroded in the park.

Island in the Sky
The trail then leaves the rim again and enters its last stretch, which oddly enough cuts to the south and then abruptly ends at the southwest edge of Murphy Point. The view here is of course very beautiful, encompassing Junction Butte, the Maze, and the Needles, but it doesn't overlook the great bend of the Green River, which is what everyone hikes out here to see. The best overlook here is a little further on past the end of the trail.

Green River Canyonlands and Candlestick Tower
From the end of the trail, we turned north (sharply to the right, almost back in the direction we came from) and followed faint social paths across the mesa until reaching the westernmost edge of Murphy Point. Here was the true viewpoint: below us lay the winding Green River, which forms a dramatic gooseneck as it wraps around a rock structure of the White Rim Formation known as Turks Head. Kayenta Sandstone walls defined the opposite wall of the Green River Canyonlands with Cleopatra's Chair, a notable block of Navajo Sandstone, sticking out above the opposite rim. The Henry Mountains were visible even further in the distance, a range so remote that they were the last mountain range in the contiguous United States to be named.

Green River below Murphy Point
This view encompasses the heart of the Canyonlands. The Needles District was visible to the south and the Maze was visible to the west: this is one of the few spots where casual visitors can observe the labyrinthine canyon complexes of the Maze, which remains one of the most remote and wild landscapes in the United States. Gazing towards the Maze, I spotted a small number of dark-colored buttes rising above that landscape that seem to be the Chocolate Drops, a notable set of rock towers in that part of the park. Access to the Maze District is a full day's drive on 4WD high clearance roads from Moab and there are few hiking trails; the canyons are said to be as confusing and disorienting as their name suggests.

View over the White Rim to the Maze
There was a gentle uphill on the return. Overall, this was an easy and excellent hike leading to a beautiful view of the Canyonlands and in particular of the Green River.

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