Exploring Island in the Sky/Canyonlands, Mesa Arch and Syncline Loop

Not all adventures start off pretty.

This one began with a whimsical dream. We literally decided to leave town for the weekend, jumped in the Xterra, hooked on the camper and were on the road within an hour.

It was awesome. As a mom that struggles with a hyper-scheduled life, I often dream of the times we can just act on a whim. You know, like when we were single and in college without many obligations.

After an uneventful drive to the Moab area, we soon learned the rest of the world (the busy, crazy, hyper-scheduled world) also decided to invade Southern Utah. The first two campgrounds we went to were full – we needed reservations months ago.

The start of the Mesa Arch hike, and our moods were improving!

The start of the Mesa Arch hike, and our moods were improving!

No problem we thought – this is our stomping grounds and we know every major and minor campground and open BLM land within the surrounding 50 miles.

2 hours later, humbled and defeated, we limped back into the town of Moab. Every campsite, every campground, and basically every square inch of dispersed camping was already claimed for hours around the city of Moab, UT. Not ok.

We were rescued by some local friends that allowed us to spend the night parked in front of their house. 🙂 Yay for friends!

"No, I am not trying to put sunscreen on, just bop your cute nose."

“No, I am not trying to put sunscreen on, just bop your cute nose.”

We woke bright and early to head into Island In the Sky, the northern part of Canyonlands National Park. People were already trolling for campsites, quickly snatching up any that were vacated. I began to wonder just how this adventure was going to end. But later that morning our luck turned and we snagged the last campsite at Dead Horse Point State Park.

This is where the good part of our trip begins. For information on camping and hiking at Dead Horse Point State Park, visit our post here: Dead Horse Point Camping and Hiking. Dead Horse Point SP turned out to be an amazing base camp for exploring the whole northern Canyonlands area and I cannot wait to return, maybe with the mountain bikes this next time. 🙂

Mesa Arch

Our first ticket on the agenda was to head straight to Mesa Arch. We knew this was a popular hike (only .24 miles one way) and was not our major objective for the day. Better to do it first.

Hiking Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park

The hike to Mesa Arch begins with a gentle uphill and then downhill to the actual Arch. The trail is very well maintained and very family friendly, in fact our kids ran most the way.

Hiking Mesa Arch, kid friendly

I was glad to tick this off my “noteworthy destinations” list! And we got a family photo!

family photo at Mesa Arch, Utah

Syncline Loop
  • Mileage to the Overlook: .6 miles out and back
  • Mileage for the Full Loop: 8.3 miles

Upheaval dome, syncline loop canyonlands

The Syncline Overlook + the entire loop was on our agenda for the day. Honestly, we were looking for a reasonable way to test our kids on a longer, harder hike in preparation for backpacking this summer.

The trail to the Overlook proved a good warm up, was decently steep and provided a bird’s-eye-view of the loop we were going to hike next.

Syncline Overlook

Syncline Overlook

Following the advice found in the park brochure, we took the Syncline Loop the clock-wise direction, as to ensure the most amount of shade possible during the hottest part of the day. This ended up being a great decision.

The trail starts off mild and smooth for roughly a mile but then begins a technical, steep descent. We descended nearly 2000′ to the valley floor.

Beginning the steep descent. On longer hikes with the kids, we don't make them wear their own backpacks, limiting how much they carry.

Beginning the steep descent. On longer hikes with the kids, we don’t make them wear their own backpacks, limiting how much they carry.

And this wasn’t without a bit of complaining from our already “tired” kids. Chris and I looked at each other, wondering if we needed to amend our goal and head back to the car.

My son was eager to lead down a steep scrambling section. Don't worry, it wasn't too steep.

My son was eager to lead down a steep scrambling section. Don’t worry, it wasn’t too steep.

But the kids responded well to a sugary snack – always a must have on any hike, so we continued on.

The lower part of the hike soon became a sandy adventure, following narrow creek beds and washes. A little less than half way, (maybe around 3-4 miles), we watched for the sign pointing the direction of our return route, and the inevitable climb back out of the canyon.

The lower part of the Syncline Loop, canyonlands

This was where the fun began!

Approximately 5 miles into the hike, we began the steep climb, which began with a set of rock stairs. Thank you volunteers and rangers that worked hard to put in these steps!

Syncline loop stairs

After making our way through flats and more climbing we finally reached the scrambling section!

Our kids love scrambling and route finding – and yes, groups could easily lose the trail even though they did their best to mark the direction:

A worthy trail marker.

A worthy trail marker.

This trail is not for the beginner hiker and according to park rangers has led to many rescues in bad weather or of people who find themselves in terrain they are not prepared to handle.

scrambling with kids

We were reasonably assured of our kids scrambling ability, all of which have quite a bit of rock climbing experience.

We made sure to approach each section carefully, and with an adult spotting if possible.

We made sure to approach each section carefully, and with an adult spotting if possible.

Syncline Loop, technical trail, Island in the sky

After the fun scrambling, we threw ourselves down in the shade and had a bite to eat. The kids were tired and as we continued on down the trail, a mix of steep sandstone climbs and sandy creek beds, it became the trail that would never end.

We were all at our wits end, but it was still pretty.

We were all at our wits end, but it was still pretty.

I am not sure I’d want to do this hike again any time soon. Compared to the epic overlooks we’d seen the last two days, the views were minimal. But when I look back, this hike was a major milestone for our family.

Our older daughter learned to push through the exhaustion. At one point she just burst into tears. Not the “I hate this” tears or even the “I give up” tears, but just tears. She reminded me so much of myself during my first ultra trail race (Antelope Canyon 55K). When you reach the end of long endurance races, emotions become thin and frail. During my own race I burst into tears when I saw a Denny’s (yes, the restaurant) in the distance. I just gave Anibel a hug, a “you can do this,” and let her weep for a good ten minutes.

This was actually taken at the start of the hike!

This was actually taken at the start of the hike!

My son found his own pain cave. I saw a side of him I’ve never seen before. Not the little boy who wants his mother to carry him, or who wants to pout on the side of the trail. He put his head down and began jogging and walking quickly (even with a mild limp). He didn’t look back, he didn’t slow down, he put his head down and finished the hike in some intense place. I was SOOOO proud of him.

Hiking with kids,

And my youngest daughter, the one who wasn’t even 6 years old yet? Yes, her feet hurt. And yes, she needed to hold a hand for many of the miles. But she never once asked to be carried. She is tougher than nails, this one.

Together we had victory! And guess what, after a good meal, those very same kids were back out playing “500” with our neighbors at the campground. So much for tired, eh?!

playing camp games at the campground

Here is our map, as well as our mileage, though Chris’ watch becomes overly excited in narrow canyons and over-estimates mileage sometimes.

Please be sure to bring adequate food and water as this is a very committing hike and should not be underestimated. The heat down lower could be excruciating. This hike will be difficult for a number of adults, and should not be approached with the attitude of, “Well, it can’t be that hard, kids did it!”

Syncline Loop Map

 

One comment on “Exploring Island in the Sky/Canyonlands, Mesa Arch and Syncline Loop
  1. This is awesome! We have a family we camp with and almost all of our trips have had some crazy twist to it. It’s now a joke we have. Totally been there when everyone and their mother decided to go camping. We ended up in some creepy backyard camp spot. We still laugh about it.

Leave a Reply