Canyonlands National Park: Syncline Loop

Date hiked: 04/27/16

Mileage: While the sign at the trailhead says 8.3 miles, my GPS logged 12.9 miles to complete the loop and the trip to the center of the dome; 5.5 hours (unless you’re an expert navigator, route-finding will slow you down)

Head Count (how many other hikers I saw): 5 groups.


With snow on the forecast for much of the San Juans, I figured a trip over to Utah should be in the books.

Drive three hours one way: snow; drive three hours the other way: desert. That’s what I love about living in southwest Colorado, its sitting right in the crux of every kind of landscape imaginable.


The Syncline Loop is one trail not to be taken lightly.

As is the norm with every unfamiliar trail I venture to, Google is my constant companion in preparation. And every site I landed on heeded the same warnings: strenuous, difficult to follow, only for the seasoned hiker. But I’ve logged hundreds of miles of trails, a good handful of them with my GPS as the only trail marker in sight. That’s where I knew I had to make the Syncline Loop’s acquaintance.

As the name suggests, the trail follows the warped syncline around Upheaval Dome. While the dome’s sixty million year old history remains a mystery, theories suggest  it’s either the result of an eroded bubble which gurgled forth from the salt underlying much of Utah; or the puckering scar of a partially collapsed, and heavily eroded, crater impact. Either way, the site offers a truly rare glimpse into the rock layers that were once buried deep within the earth, and not visible anywhere else in the park.

The Syncline Loop starts out easy enough. Treading between the iron-red sand and exposed bedrock, the route is pretty well defined leaving the trailhead, and where it’s not, cairns and dusty footprints mark the way. Just be sure to keep your head up and your eyes open, it’s way too easy to wander off trail into one of the washes…trust me, I may or may not have done just that. The views of the surrounding landscape are spectacular, but while you never venture far from the crater, you won’t gain much of a look inside until you come around the north side.

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The trail crosses exposed bedrock…

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…and sandy patches marked by unusual cairns.

Nearing the northeast quadrant of Upheaval Dome, things start to get interesting. Drawing away from the crater, cairns grow scarce, and the earth camouflages the trail as it descends into Syncline Valley. At times, my GPS would cut out as the satellite reception grew weak beyond the towering cliffs. But down to the creek bottom, plenty of shade envelops the dry bed,cottonwoods and desert grasses marking a nice green contrast to the sandstone. I took my time through this section of the trip, unaware of what the trail had in store for me next.



As a side note, your odds of finding another private spot to go to the bathroom get slim after this point.

The 3.5 mile mark (4.5 miles if heading counterclockwise) is the point at which the warnings on this trail originate. Where the canyon walls open up to grand views of the meeting point between Steer Mesa and Bighorn Mesa, a sheer notch known as “The Breach” drops out below your feet. Having gone into this hike without much insight, it was a shock to say the least. Wayfinding is laborious, and I almost came to regret my extreme thirst for unburdened solitude while hiking. I kept hoping for someone to come along in the opposite direction to give me some sort of bearing, but I was completely alone. Shimmying between boulders, and easy class-three scrambling, relying mostly on my GPS, I strayed from the trail, eventually finding a good vantage point to catch sight of the trail etched into the earth 500 feet below me. From here, it’s the final descent into a talus slope. Again, watch for the cairns along the way.109 (2).JPG11 (2)1213 (2)14 (2)

Where the Syncline Valley and Upheaval Canyon meet, the crater’s spur trail breaks off from the main drag. With another mile of hiking through this alien landscape, you’ll reach the center. I can safely say, nowhere I’ve ever been quite compares. 15.JPG16.JPG

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Some of the rocks at the center – estimated to be no older than the Jurassic period – are tipped to nearly seventy degrees. This formation bears similarity to a Komodo Dragon to me.

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The view from the dragon’s foot.

Breaking for lunch, I then backtracked to the main trail and set out on the last leg towards the trailhead. The second half of the trail offers much of the same, this time with sweeping views of the far-off mesas shrouding the Green River. The terrain stays relatively flat until one last final climb out of Upheaval Canyon.


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Leaving Canyonlands to a rainy sunset.

Trail Map

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(From Moab): From Center Street, drive North on U.S. 191 (Main Street) for 11 miles, then turn left onto Utah 313. After 14.6 miles, continue straight onto the Grand View Point/Island in the Sky Road. After 5.7 miles, pay at the fee station, then follow the road another 7.4 miles, where you’ll turn right onto Upheaval Dome Road. The parking area is 4.8 miles beyond the intersection.

43.5 miles; 57 min

Fees: $25/car to enter Canyonlands National Park

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