Canyonlands National Park: Lathrop Canyon

Date hiked: 12/18/16

Mileage: 21 miles

Head Count (how many other hikers I saw): 1 biker on the lower half of the canyon below White Rim Road.

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During the 1940s, before Canyonlands was designated a national park, Howard Lathrop – a Colorado sheep farmer – blazed this trail into the canyons so he could get his and others’ supplies to and from the river, and to their grazing sheep. But in time, the numbers of Bighorn Sheep in southeast Utah dwindled due to the diseases (scabies and anthrax included) these domesticated sheep brought with them. When Canyonlands became a national park, only about one hundred Bighorn Sheep remained, down from the believed two million who once roamed these desolate mesas.

Thanks to the exhaustive efforts of the National Park System, Bighorn have slowly made their comeback. Now, there are roughly 350 Bighorn in Canyonlands alone – though sightings are rare.

Howard Lathrop’s trail travels first across Gray’s Pasture, a flat, expansive plain stretching miles along the canyon rim. Cattle once grazed the hardy grasses until they were banned under the park’s stricter measures. Now it’s more common to spot herds of mule deer in the cooler early morning and evening hours.

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Relics from the area’s early days still litter the trail. One mile in, look towards the La Sal mountains in the northeast, where you can spot an old shed in the distance (visible on the far left above). Lathrop and the other ranchers would use this cabin to store their supplies before descending into the depths.

Where Grays Pasture melds into the slickrock, the horizon offers up a dramatic landscape of heavily eroded canyon walls and geological wonders surrounding the Colorado River two-thousand feet below. A more diverse canvas of vegetation thrives here, including blackbrush, juniper, pinon and sagebrush.

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As witnessed by the Lathrop trail, slickrock isn’t entirely nonexistent in Island in the Sky, but it is much more common in the Needles District of Canyonlands.

Many choose to turn back here. Continue on, and you may have the trail to yourself. Straying east before wrapping back to the west, the route circles an outcrop of Navajo Sandstone, quickly losing elevation as it drops onto the first narrow bench below the canyon walls. Just below you, the sheer cliffs of red Wingate Sandstone make access into or out of the canyon few and far between, but Lathrop Canyon uses an ancient landslide to find it’s entry.

Descending nearly fifteen-hundred feet along a series of tight boulder strewn and cairn-marked switchbacks, the route meets up with the braided wash inside Lathrop Canyon. Unlike Lower Red Lake Canyon or Upheaval Canyon, both of which follow deep washes to the riverside, the descent towards White Rim Road never looses its vantage of the Colorado River through these one and a half miles.

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The lone outcrop near the center is Airport Tower.

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The trail marches on.

Straying west, the trail finds a raised spine. Gradually losing ground again, the route soon meets with White Rim Road.

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Another glimpse at the southern cluster of the La Sal Mountains. With a better viewpoint, United Nations Tablet, A.K.A. Mitten Butte, stands out against the mesas on the far right.

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On White Rim Road, looking back at the Island in the Sky mesa where we just descended from.

On White Rim Road, head right, where the lower half of Lathrop Canyon branches off to the left. Following an abandoned mining road once used by uranium prospectors in the 1950s, the route drops off the ledge of the White Rim bench into an exposed bed of Organ Rock Shale. The trail finds the wash once again and follows it for the remainder of the way. The views aren’t as noteworthy through this section, but it offers an exemplary glimpse at the area’s vast history, both man-made and natural.

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The Abajo Mountains in the farthest distance. If you look closely, you might be able to spot the hazy triangles of north and south Six Shooter Peaks.

Though the views at the water’s edge aren’t as stunning as other spots along the Green and Colorado Rivers, the panoramic vantages on the approach make this my favorite hike in Canyonlands thus far.

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Upriver.

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Downriver.

The park’s positive impact has made strides in the preservation of local wildlife and wild lands, but the increased human activity now threatens their newfound resurgence. Conservation efforts are key to survival, so play your part in protecting these celebrated places for future generations.

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Overlooking the Colorado River and Abajo Mountains.

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A peak to peak view of the La Sal (left) and Abajo (right) Mountains.

Trail Map

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Directions

(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 3.2 miles. Watch for the pullout on the left side of the road. There is space for maybe five or six cars here.

34.4 miles; 40 min

Fees: $25/car to enter Canyonlands National Park

 

 

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