Road Biking Canyonlands National Park

Island in the Sky Cruise

The Island in the Sky Cruise is a 51-mile out-and-back ride over undulating terrain between and through Dead Horse Point State Park and Canyonlands National Park. The elevation ranges from 5,639 feet at Upheaval Dome, in Canyonlands National Park, to 6,184 feet on Big Flat, on S.R. 313 between the Canyonlands and Dead Horse Point Parks. The route is entirely on state highways and national park roads, so the pavement is generally smooth. This is one of the few rides in this book that does not begin anywhere near a city or town. That said, be prepared for this route by bringing any provisions needed — there are only limited facilities along the way. Bring cash, too, to pay park entrance fees.

Start: Dead Horse Point State Park visitor center, located 33 miles from Moab via U.S. 191 and S.R. 313. Length: 51.0 miles (out-and-back).

Terrain: Rolling hills and false flats. Minimum and maximum elevations: 5,639 to 6,184 feet.

Traffic and hazards: SR 313: 750 vehicles per day in 2005 near Dead Horse Point State Park. There are seasonal variations in the traffic volumes.

Maps: Canyonlands, Canyonlands National Park, Utah, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior. Distributed at the park visitor centers.

Southern Utah, AAA Sectional Series, American Automobile Association. A detailed map of Canyonlands National Park is included.

DeLorme: Utah Atlas & Gazetteer: Page 46 E3.

Benchmark: Utah Road & Recreation Atlas: Page 70 H5.

Getting there: From Moab, head north on U.S. 191 11 miles to the junction with S.R. 313. Head west on S.R. 313 for 22 miles to the Dead Horse Point State Park visitor center.

Miles and Directions

0.0 Start at the Dead Horse Point State Park visitor center. Turn left onto main park road,

heading toward Dead Horse Point. Terrain is rolling.

1.3 Enter loop and parking area for Dead Horse Point overlook.

1.4 Exit loop and return to main park road.

2.7 Visitor center on the right.

2.8 Entrance station; no need to stop if the signal is green.

3.6 Enter Grand County.

4.7 Stop at entrance station; proceed (no exit fee required) — now on S.R. 313.

5.0 Cattle guard.

9.2 Stop at T intersection with Grandview Point Road; turn left (toward Canyonlands National

Park).

12.8 Enter San Juan County.

13.6 Enter Canyonlands National Park.

14.8 Stop at entrance station; pay $5 fee (per bicycle).

15.9 Visitor center on the right (lavatories, vending machine, and information).

16.6 The Neck (elevation 5,800 feet); begin climb.

17.7 Crest of climb; begin false flats and rolling terrain.

22.1 Turn right onto Upheaval Dome Road and head toward Upheaval Dome.

22.3 Aztec Butte on the right.

26.0 Whale Rock on the right.

26.8 Stay right; enter parking area for Upheaval Dome.

27.0 Exit loop and return to Upheaval Dome Road.

30.8 Aztec Butte is now on the left.

31.7 Stop at main park road (Grandview Point Road); turn left.

37.9 Visitor center is on the left.

39.0 Stop at entrance station; proceed (no exit fee required).

41.0 Enter Grand County.

44.6 Turn right onto S.R. 313 (toward Dead Horse Point State Park).

48.7 Cattle guard; enter Dead Horse Point State Park.

49.0 Stop at entrance station; confirm payment of entrance fee either here or at second

entrance station.

50.2 Enter San Juan County.

51.0 Stop at entrance station; confirm entry fee payment. End of ride; turn left and enter parking lot.

Ride Description

Canyonlands National Park is a true showcase of Utah’s deep canyons, goosenecks, and buttes. The landscapes here are equally harsh, intimidating, intriguing, and alluring. There are five park districts, not all of which are accessible by paved roads. The Island in the Sky and Needles Districts are probably the most accessible to visitors.

Relative to Moab, both Island in the Sky and Needles are to the southwest, although access to the former is from the northwest. The Island in the Sky District was selected for a road biking ride, in part, because it is closer to Moab than the Needles District and, in part, because Dead Horse Point State Park is adjacent. Thus, it is possible to integrate two parks into one ride. The Colorado and Green Rivers meet within Canyonlands; the two rivers’ powerful actions were the main players in carving out this wonderful landscape. Surprisingly, Canyonlands is “only” Utah’s fifth most visited national park. In fact, Canyonlands is not even the most popular national park in the Canyonlands region — that would be Arches National Park. But the numbers are misleading: The scenery here is staggering, and the recreational opportunities are endless. The roads that ply the area are lightly traveled, except during peak summer months, making road biking an attractive activity. The “islands” are actually mesas, or plateaus situated at about 6,000 feet in elevation, overlooking canyons and rivers that are some 2,000 feet below. Dead Horse Point and Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky District are both “islands in the sky.”

Signs near the entrance to Canyonlands National Park warn that there is no water in the park. This is not entirely true — it is possible to purchase water from a vending machine at the visitor center. But there is no running water; the lavatories, for example, are modern-day outhouses.

The route involves entering and exiting a state park and a national park. Entrance fees are required for both. There is a fee for autos at Dead Horse Point State Park. Pay this, and park your car at the visitor center. Take your receipt with you on the ride as proof of payment, so that you will not have to pay again to reenter the park at the end of the ride. There is a fee for bicycles at Canyonlands National Park. Despite the fees, riding through the world’s most stupendous collection of bends, buttes, canyons, cliffs, craters, mesas, and monuments is priceless.

Start at the Dead Horse Point State Park visitor center. Turn left upon exiting the parking lot, and head toward the Dead Horse Point overlook. The road undulates and winds for 1.3 miles before entering the overlook parking area. Notice the cliffs and deep canyons on either side of you. You will not be able to see the overlook unless you dismount and walk to the end of the short path, adjacent the parking area. It is worth a peek — the Colorado River winds its way through the canyon-scape some 2,000 feet below. Legend has it that cowboys used the mesa as a natural “corral” for wild mustangs. The series of flat stones along the road as you near the overlook were one of the techniques for confining the horses to a certain space. The neck here is only 90 feet wide, leaving little opportunity for any horse to escape. The good horses were chosen from the bunch, while the others were left corralled. Horses that went unselected eventually died on the point from thirst (a sad ending; no horses were known to leap into the canyon).

Return to the main park road and head toward the visitor center, taking time once again to view the remarkable cliffs and canyons. Head past the two entrance stations; now you are on S.R. 313. The terrain throughout the entire ride is rolling, with short climbs, short descents, and false flats. The self-explanatory “The Knoll” appears on your right as you near the junction with the main road into Canyonlands National Park (Grandview Point Road; also referred to as Island in the Sky Road). Turn left here, at mile 9.2, and begin heading south over Big Flat. Enter the park at mile 13.6. The entrance station is at mile 14.8; pay the $5 fee and proceed. The visitor center is on the right, 1.1 miles later. There are lavatories and a vending machine. Continue into the park. While you may have been unimpressed thus far with the scenery, you cross The Neck at mile 16.6, just 0.7 mile beyond the visitor center, and your perception changes.

As you cross The Neck, look left to see Shafer Canyon, which plunges deeply (and steeply) to the Colorado River below. The elevation here is 5,800 feet. Do not fail to look right, as well, for views of multiple springs and canyons. The road begins to wind and roll across the fanciful landscape. At mile 22.1, turn right to head toward Upheaval Dome. On the right is Aztec Butte, a masterpiece of slickrock. About 2 miles into this road, you will be surrounded by some mighty nature: cliffs on the right, and uplifts and monuments of Holman Spring Canyon on the left. Whale Rock is on the right at mile 26.0. Enter the parking area for Upheaval Dome at mile 26.8. The Dome is directly in front of you — or, more precisely, looming above you. At this point, you can circle through the lot and return to Upheaval Dome Road. Or — better yet — dismount and hike out on Crater View Trail to at least see what’s inside the dome. Geologists have surmised that Upheaval Dome is actually a crater that was formed by the impact of a meteor. The crater is 3 miles across and about 1,200 feet deep.

Return to Upheaval Dome Road for the trip back to the entrance of Canyonlands National Park. The left turn onto Grandview Point Road comes at mile 31.7. Enjoy the winding, gentle descent near The Neck. The visitor center appears on the left at mile 37.9, and the entrance station is at mile 39.0. From here, it is 5.6 miles back to the intersection with S.R. 313. Turn right here and return to Dead Horse Point State Park. You will arrive at an entrance station at mile 49.0. There are two entrance stations; signs indicate where you should stop to confirm payment of entry fee. The second entrance station is at mile 51.0; turn left to enter the visitor center parking lot immediately past this point.


Ride description from Road Biking Utah (FalconGuides).

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