The approach to Canyonlands National Park’s Gooseberry Trail is a short stroll across pock-marked slickrock dotted with various shades of desert brush and gnarled juniper. The distant La Sal Mountains peek through the atmosphere.
There’s a clear sense of distance, and a growing sense of depth, separating the point where you stand and that rugged ridgeline that will become a near-constant on the horizon during this journey — this descent — to the famous White Rim of Canyonlands. It’s a long way down to the White Rim. This is the shortest — and steepest — path, and perhaps the best introduction to the dramatic geology of the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park.
You can count the number of routes off the 1,000-foot mesa of the Island in the Sky on one hand. Gooseberry is by far the steepest, and the most ingeniously plotted route, built into the imposing face of the mesa. Start at the White Rim Overlook parking area and follow the sign to Gooseberry. (The short hike to the White Rim Overlook is a great spur trail now or at the end of the hike). As the edge of the mesa approaches you’ll find yourself wondering where this so-called trail even starts. Soon enough, it appears. Now the fun begins.
Over the course of the 2.7-mile journey to the White Rim Trail (so named for the layer of white sandstone), the trail sheds 1,400 feet in elevation. Roughly 1,100 feet come in the first mile as you follow sandstone steps and cairns down stunning switchbacks on the exposed east face of the mesa. Good conditioning and strong knees are a must. Feel free to pause frequently to gaze out over the jagged canyons that lent this land its name. Those distant, shadowy breaks in the sandstone mark incredible chasms carved by millennia of rushing water from flash floods, and feeding the mighty Colorado River.
When you finally touch level ground, you’re in a wide, sandy wash that leads to the edge of the famed White Rim Trail. Once a mining road for the transport of uranium ore, it’s now a popular jeep and mountain bike trail. Wave at the bikers and they pass. A few feet beyond the trail is the rim of Gooseberry Canyon. Here, you’ll head back.
Looking back at the Island in the Sky Mesa, you’ll strain to find where the trail even fits in the picture, it’s so well integrated into the rock. It’s 2.7 miles back to the top. Gooseberry is the shortest trail on the Island in the Sky’s list of “strenuous” trails and you’re about to find out why.
It’s 1,400 feet back to the top. All that extra water you carried will come in handy here. Happily, frequent breaks to catch your breath are each visual rewards back out over the panoramic landscape, and as the top of the mesa inches back into view.
In the peak of summer, hike early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the hottest sun. You’ll have some hiking in the shadows later in the afternoon after the sun crosses the mesa. Regardless, a wide-brimmed hat, sunscreen, extra water and possibly treking poles are essential hiking companions on Gooseberry. Keep your eyes on the trail, watching for cairns and shallow, steep steps. Pause for views. Return home with a sense of accomplishment. With a permit, hikers can camp overnight on the White Rim.