Southwestern US, Travels, US National Parks

Whales, Ruins, and…a Meteorite Crater? – Canyonlands National Park, Utah (part II)

Okay, so obviously we didn’t see whales in Utah. But we did climb a giant rock that was somewhat shaped like one.

For day #2 in Canyonlands, we headed back into the Island in the Sky district, this time keeping right at the fork in the road. We followed the right fork all the way to the end, parking at the trailhead for Upheaval Dome.

Upheaval Dome is probably the most unique geologic feature in Canyonlands. Or anywhere, really. I’ve never encountered anything else quite like it. It gives the appearance of a giant mound of sand inside a large crater. However, the rocks visible at Upheaval Dome are from the same rock layer that, elsewhere in the park, lies nearly a mile underground. Somehow, those rocks ended up at the surface. There two possible explanations for how this happened.

Explanation #1 is that Upheaval Dome is a salt dome. A salt dome forms when sand, which is less dense than rock, is forced upward due to pressure exerted by the surrounding rocks. Over thousands of years, the mineral-rich sand was pushed up, and then over time the surrounding rocks began to erode away, leaving behind what we see today.

Explanation #2 is that Upheaval Dome is the result of a meteorite impact approximately 60 million years ago. The resulting crater partially collapsed, and rocks from beneath the surface were pushed up. Recently, scientists identified shocked quartz in Upheaval Dome. This type of quartz forms only under extreme pressure, such as that provided by a large impact or a nuclear bomb. The presence of shocked quartz supports explanation #2 over explanation #1.

Personally, I like #2 better anyway. Meteorites are cool!

Upheaval Dome
Upheaval Dome

Anyway, after hiking to both the first and second overlooks of Upheaval Dome (2 miles/3.2 km round-trip with a 100 foot/30 m elevation change), we began making our way back down the right fork of the park road. The next hike was to Whale Rock. Summiting Whale Rock required a 1 mile (1.6 km) round-trip, moderate hike, and we were rewarded with expansive views. Whale Rock is a large, smooth rock rising out of the landscape, much as a humpback whale may rise out of the ocean. At least, I assume that’s where it got its name. It could just be because it’s enormous and whales are too.

Whale Rock
View from Whale Rock

Our next stop, back towards the fork in the road, was Aztec Butte. This was a moderate, 2 mile (3.2 km) round-trip hike to the summit of Aztec Butte. Not only are there 360° views from the summit, but also remains of Ancestral Puebloan granaries. The faces of Aztec Butte are steep and rocky, but with many natural caves and cut-outs, making for excellent storage facilities. The Ancestral Puebloans took advantage of this geology, and also built a few small structures atop the butte.

Aztec Butte
Aztec Butte
Aztec Butte
View from Aztec Butte

Aztec ButteAztec Butte

Aztec Butte
Ancestral Puebloan ruins on Aztec Butte

Our last stop in Canyonlands, just down the road from Aztec Butte, was the short scenic drive out to Green River Overlook. Willow Flat Campground, the only one in the Island in the Sky district, is located down this road as well. Green River Overlook is incredibly scenic, and the contrast between the flat White Rim and the Green River Canyon below is very evident.

Well, this concludes our two days spent in Canyonlands National Park. I highly recommend this park. The geology is incredible, the colors are beautiful, and I easily could have spent many more days exploring it!

The Important Stuff:

  • Getting there: located 33 miles (53 km) southwest of Moab, UT on Utah Highway 313. Maps are recommended, as a GPS may not lead you to the correct location
  • Fees & passes: $25 per car for 7 days
  • Camping: Willow Flat Campground; 12 sites, $15 per night, no water or firewood available; reservations not accepted
  • Hiking: Upheaval Dome (2 miles/3.2 km RT), Whale Rock (1 mile/1.6 km RT), and Aztec Butte (2 miles/2.3 km RT);

    all are rated moderate, and can be easily completed in the same day

  • Other: Water is available only at the visitor center. There is no food, lodging, or gas in the park, and cell phone service is spotty at best.

12 thoughts on “Whales, Ruins, and…a Meteorite Crater? – Canyonlands National Park, Utah (part II)”

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