Canyonlands National Park: Confluence Overlook

Date hiked: 08/03/16

Mileage: 12.1 mi, 5 hrs

Head Count (how many other hikers I saw):0 groups


Where Highway 211 (the main thoroughfare through Canyonlands) runs out of pavement, lies a dead end and a lightly traveled path.

From the road, the Confluence Overlook trail drops an immediate 150 feet down to the Big Spring Canyon floor. Wasting no time in the dry, sandy reaches, the trail takes a sharp swing to the left, then makes quick work of the sandstone cliffs inside a gently sloping ravine to climb back to higher ground. Passing through a courtly keyhole, a panorama of desert mesas opens up in every direction beyond the mushroom rocks and spires.

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The Keyhole

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Junction Butte to the left.

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Stormclouds drenching the La Sal Mountains with much needed rain.

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Beyond the keyhole, a steel ladder bolted to the rock assists in the final lunge to the summit, where a shrubby oasis waits to be explored. The next 7/10ths of a mile brings you through arid fields of cryptobiotic soils shrouded by low-lying bushes and Utah Junipers, culminating at the foot of a 50 foot slickrock cliff. From here, only one final cairn-led ridge of exposed sandstone separates us from Elephant Canyon.

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The 50 foot cliff.

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Our first views at Elephant Canyon, with Elaterite Butte (left center), and Ekker Butte (far right) in the far distance.

From the ridgeline, the trail drops into Elephant Canyon by way of a gentle tributary crowded with native bunch grasses. Straying from the dry canyon bed, the route eventually intersects the main wash before entering into one last tributary and gaining its exit along a series of exposed sandstone benches. At the cusp, 5,100 feet of elevation finally arouses views of The Needles off to the south, and of the La Sal and Abajo Mountains in the east.

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This particular challenge necessitates a four-limbed downclimb along the left side of the trees.

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The Needles.

At mile three, the trail levels at Devil’s Lane, but rather than following this 4WD road, an unmapped shortcut connects the Confluence Overlook Trail to Cyclone Canyon.

The route traverses the Grabens – wide bands of collapsed rock bordered on either side by ancient faults. Caused by the movement of the underlying salt towards the Colorado River, these three-hundred million year old hollows don’t look like much from the ground, but a bird’s-eye view reveals deep ravines etched across the bedrock like mystic claw marks.

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A look down the Cyclone Canyon graben. This trail will take you all the way to the Lower Red Lake Canyon Trail, a straight 2.5 mile shot to the south. From there, another 4 miles of hiking ends at Spanish Bottom on the banks of the Colorado River. This option has a total round-trip mileage of 20.8 miles. If it weren’t for looming stormclouds (which eventually did gather overhead), I would have made the trip.

The final .7 miles follows Devil’s Lane to the overlook’s 4WD trailhead, where a short half mile spurt finally ends at the cliffs above the confluence 100 feet below.

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Exploring off-trail on the trip back home:

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Trail Map

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(From Moab): From Center Street, follow Highway 191 south for 39.6 miles. Turn right onto UT-211. In 5.7 miles, pay at the fee station, then continue another 6.7 miles to the roundabout at the end of the road. Park here and locate the trailhead just past the roadblock.

80.4 miles; 1hr 31 min

Fees: $25/car to enter Canyonlands National Park.

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