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Trips : Utah : Canyonlands National Park : Island in the Sky : Mesa Arch

The trail to Mesa Arch is one of the easiest that you will find in the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park. It is short — about a half mile total — and has only 100 feet of total elevation gain. The elevation gain is a series of small rises and drops. Frankly, you may barely notice them as you anticipate your arrival at the arch. Comfortable walking shoes (rather than hiking boots) would be just fine for this trail.

Since it is fairly easy (and therefore popular) the park service has posted signs that identify different plants. (You can also pick up a trail guide.) The trail is a loop that both starts and finishes at the same parking lot.

"On the Mesa Arch Loop Trail"
Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Big Picture

Here you see some of the foliage that you might encounter along the way. Junipers and Pinyon Pines are the most common and most visible, since they are the largest plants. If you look closely around the roots and under branches, you may see signs of the smallest desert plants... collections of microscopic organisms called "cryptobiotic crust". It is very important to stay on the trails that are marked because of this living soil.

Utah Junipers have an interesting way of adapting to the desert. In extremely dry times, the juniper will actually cut off the water supply to parts of the tree. Those portions will die, allowing the remainder to survive. It's a tough world they live in; drastic measures are sometimes required.

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"La Sal Mountains Through the Mesa Arch"
Canyonlands National Park, Utah
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When you are about half of the way around the loop you will be able to see the arch that gives the trail its name: Mesa Arch. If you arrive during the day, you might see something like this picture. Those are the La Sal mountains about 35 miles away, and the Colorado River is in the canyon nearly 2,000 feet below you. If you have children, be sure to watch them carefully, as there are no guardrails or fences to spoil the view... or keep them or anyone else that might be careless from the edge of the precipice.

"Washer Woman Shadows"
Canyonlands National Park, Utah
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One part of the scenery in the picture above that does not stand out very well is much more obvious in this shot: the Washer Woman Arch. This picture was taken very early in the morning, just after sunrise in fact. Because the formation is illuminated from the back, the shadows help define the formation. Click on the image to see a larger version and it is even more apparent why they named the formation that way.

Just to the right of the Washer Woman Arch is Monster Tower. The larger formation behind both of them is called Airport Tower.

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"Sunrise at Mesa Arch"
Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Big Picture

This picture is one of the most popular images from the area. You will find a similar shot on post cards, book covers, posters, even t-shirts. Depending on the time of year the sun will be seen peeking under the left or right side of the arch. This shot was taken during the fall season, when the sun rises at the southern edge of the horizon.

We were actually fairly lucky on this trip... just a few moments after this picture was taken a huge cloud bank moved in from the south and covered the sun. The rest of the day we focused on taking more detailed shots, including some of an ancient Native American granary.

Getting sunrise pictures like the one shown above does require some sacrifice. Most people sleep in on vacations. Not us! Our base of operations in nearby Moab is about a 45 minute drive from the beginning of the loop trail. So we had to get up early enough to get dressed, heat some water for our thermos, allow time to load the truck, drive, and then hike the loop trail via flashlight. The thermos of hot water? After arriving at the arch and setting up our tripods, it was time for hot chocolate. A well deserved treat, and a way to warm up on a chilly desert morning.

If you are planning a day trip to Canyonlands, we suggest that you allow time to hike the loop trail to Mesa Arch. You don't have to get up early in the morning like we do to enjoy the scenery.

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Canyonlands National Park
National Park Service Web Site

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