Fun and quiet loop hike with stunning viewpoints at Utah’s Dead Horse Point State Park

Distance: 8.6 mile loop (including side trails to Shafer Canyon, Rim, and Bighorn overlooks)

Type: loop

Difficulty: moderate with minimal elevation change

Best season: spring and fall

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Sometimes even us type A ultra-planers have to fly by the seat of our pants.  Our October 2013 vacation was not at all as I had originally planned.  Plan A was to hike the Canadian Rockies the first of September, but I had a new hire coming on board at work and really couldn’t get away.  Plan B was Yosemite the middle of September, but one of the largest wildfires in California state history hit in mid-August.  Plan C was Rocky Mountain National Park, but in mid-September the area received 26″ of rain in just two days—they were calling it a “1,000 year flood event”.  Roads were washed away and much of the park shut down.

Plan D became hiking several National Parks/Monuments in SW Colorado.  Our vacation was set for October 4-13…then on October 1st, three days before departure, the United States federal government entered a 16 day long shutdown closing all National Parks/Monuments.

With a bit more scrambling and last minute planning, plan E came together.  All state parks and BLM land in Utah were open (BLM facilities were shut down, but they left the land open to hikers).  We planned to head for the area between Moab and Bluff in SE Utah where we would hike Amasa Back, Dead Horse Point State Park, Grand Gulch (Kane Ranger Station to Junction Ruins),  Cedar Mesa (Fallen Roof and Citadel Ruins), Sand Canyon (SW Colorado), Tower Ruins, and what ended up being an early sneak into Capitol Reef National Park as the governor of Utah was cutting a deal with the feds.  Best of all, our friend Lisa would be joining us for the first two days.  And we didn’t know it yet, but we would meet a couple on the Citadel trail who would end up being dear friends.  We were set!

Our first day in Moab had been picture perfect.  The weather was beautiful and we enjoyed hiking to the bighorn petroglyph panel on the Amasa Back trail with Lisa.  Since the government shutdown had shuttered nearby Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, many were headed to nearby Dead Horse Point State Park which was open and doing a good business thanks to the incompetence of the feds.  It would be a busy day at all the major viewpoints, but we had something else in mind.

We left Moab in the dark and headed toward Dead Horse Point State Park to meet Lisa.  I was hoping to get there early enough for some good sunrise shots, but shortly after we passed the Monitor-Merrimac turnout, I realized that the sun would likely be up before we reached the park.  I stopped at a big pullout that looked like it might have good views, grabbed my camera and tripod, and waited in the predawn cold.  As dawn broke, I tried for some good photos.  I wasn’t super happy with any of my shots, but ironically one of them ended up being my most “liked” photo on my Flickr account.  If nothing else, it was incredibly beautiful and the silent solitude was wonderful.

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After the dawn broke, we headed up to Dead Horse.  We found Lisa at the end of the road at Dead Horse Point Overlook still shooting photos.  I joined her there for some more shots before we grabbed our packs and hit the trail.

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early morning light at Dead Horse Point

Our plan for the day was to make a big loop around the park by connecting the West Rim and East Rim trails.  Starting at Dead Horse Point Overlook (elevation 5,918′), we traveled in a clockwise direction to Meander, Shafer Canyon, Rim, Bighorn, and Basin overlooks.  Shafer Canyon, Rim, and Bighorn overlooks were all at the end of side trails off the West Rim Trail.

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The trail was relatively easy to follow and was well marked by cairns.  We took in all of the side trails to the viewpoints and eventually made our way around to the visitor center where we had a nice break.  Afterward, we resumed our hike back toward Dead Horse Point along the East Rim Trail where we saw a little more traffic.  For most of this stretch, we had nice views of the La Sal Mountians and the Potash Ponds.  My favorite overlook ended up being Big Horn Overlook off the West Rim Trail.

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This was a great trail with very little traffic aside from some tourists at the visitor center, Basin Overlook, and Dead Horse Point Overlook.  We saw very few people on the trail, a stark contrast to the trails at nearby Arches National Park.  Admittedly, we had bypassed this little gem more than once in favor of the location national parks.  I was glad we finally took the time to visit.

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We had hiked 8.6 miles round trip on another absolutely perfect weather day with temperatures in the low 60s and sunny blue skies.  After a victory drink with Lisa, we said our goodbyes—Lisa heading back home and Jason and I heading back to Moab for the evening.

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Directions to trailhead:  From Moab, Utah, drive north 8.6 miles north on highway 191.  Turn left onto highway 313 (following signs for Canyonlands National Park) and travel 14.5 miles.  Turn left and travel 4.2 miles entering Dead Horse Point State Park.  Once in the park, begin your hike at either the Visitor Center or travel to the end of the road and begin at Dead Horse Point Overlook.

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