Canyonlands National Park in the Winter

Date hiked: 01/09/17

Mileage: 22.2 miles total:

8.9 miles to hike the loop

9.6 miles to hike Upheaval Canyon down and back

About two miles to hike to the second overlook and back.

Head Count (how many other hikers I saw): 2 groups on the overlooks, nobody hiking the trail.


Since moving to the Western Slope, one experience I’ve been hoping to see through is snow in Canyonlands National Park. And I found that in some ways, the park is even better during winter. For one, I had it nearly to myself the entire day – there’s really nothing like having 300,000+ acres of land and no one around to share it with.

And two, there’s something oddly alluring about a dusting of snow on these lonely canyons.

But one thing to keep in mind, the road wasn’t plowed through Canyonlands on this early winter morning. Thankfully it hadn’t snowed more than an inch the night before, but you may want to rethink if a snowstorm is expected in the area. Also, though it may not seem the case, Canyonlands is cold during the winter, especially near the water. While it got warm by late afternoon, mittens, snow jacket, thermals, and gaiters are a must for the morning hours. This is a high desert, don’t let the summer heat fool you.

And be aware of the weather. I barely got out of Grand Junction in time for a unpredicted snowstorm to blow in, prompting the traction law near the state border.

Dropping into Upheaval Canyon, the mesas surrounding the Green River dominate your skyline. Look hard, and you can spot the water’s reflection. Beyond that, nearly forty miles across the vast Utah desert, are the raised bands of the San Rafael Reef.1s


The snow makes quite a difference. The route can be slippery, but I found crampons to chew up the dirt and snow too much, causing more problems than it was worth.

Once you reach the mouth of Upheaval Dome, another trail spurs off to the northwest. 3.7 miles down Upheaval Canyon, the trail ends where the wash meets with White Rim Road, near the Green River in Upheaval Bottom. While you can’t clearly see the river from this point, follow the road either direction for a bit, and you’ll eventually find a good view.


Looking back on the trail at the deformed southern arm of Upheaval Dome.

At White Rim Road, I went north about a mile and ended up at the Labyrinth Campground:4-2


Looking southwest, with the tip of Bighorn Mesa to the left.


A look back on the route from White Rim Road. The trail follows the depression towards the left-center of the image. Buck Mesa is the landmass to the left, while Bighorn Mesa is to the right.

I’m glad I got here when I did, because as the sun rose and the clouds parted, the snow started to melt. By the time I reached Upheaval Dome again, just a few hours later, nearly everything had already melted.


Find the stairs for your exit.


The trail leading into the dome. I opted out this time, but not on my summer trip to the area.

Circling towards Syncline Valley, the remaining scramble up what’s known as “the Breach” looks daunting.8-29 (2).JPG



Head towards the cairn, then the trail sign bolted to the rock.

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This is the most difficult segment of the trail, where you’ll have to shimmy between the boulders to gain the upper hand. In winter, with the route cloaked in shadow, ice makes for a much more arduous approach.

Looking back on the trail as it heads towards the juncture between Steer Mesa (far left, barely in view) and Bighorn Mesa (left-center). The Syncline Loop wraps southward (to the left), while Upheaval Canyon heads to the right.11 (2)

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Now that I’ve done this loop both directions, I can safely say it’s much easier to follow the route when travelling counterclockwise.This is about the point I got off track the first time around. Instead of heading around the tree towards the red arrow on the bottom half of the picture, I instead continued to climb, finding myself in more difficult terrain.


Where the route levels briefly along the wash, foliage grows thick.


Almost to the trailhead, I was glad to see the snow and ice had at least melted from the road.


Looking down on Upheaval Crater from the first overlook, about a half mile from the parking lot. The second overlook is a half mile beyond this point.

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Sunset over the canyons. Nothing beats seeing this place from sunrise to sunset.

Click here for another look at the Syncline Loop from my summer trip.


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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

2 thoughts on “Canyonlands National Park in the Winter

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