Canyonlands Island in the Sky

After seeing Delicate Arch and Balanced Rock on a Thursday morning, we drove to the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park that afternoon. Shown above, we’re standing on a high mesa, 1,400 feet above a flatland sliced by 1,000-foot-deep canyons. The sides of the mesa are on the left; Wingate sandstone forms the red vertical walls. This high mesa is like an island in the sky.

The white rim at the edges of the canyons is a sandstone bench that’s harder than the rock above and below. The softer rock beneath the sandstone bench erodes faster. The white rim collapses when the underlying rock has eroded away.

canyons of the Colorado River

This detail shows Monument Basin, a part of the canyon with steep-sided columns and pinnacles. Some of the spires are topped with the hard sandstone that provides some protection from water and erosion. The highest column is 305 feet tall. The light-colored trace on the near side of the canyon is White Rim Road, which requires a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle.

Monument Basin

We visited Mesa Arch to scout for a classic sunrise photo, when the rising sun paints the bottom of the arch red. It’s pretty, even on a cloudy afternoon.

view through Mesa Arch

Mesa Arch is surprisingly small. As you can see from the photo below, spots for photographers to set up for a sunrise photo are very limited. As we left, a half dozen photographers with backpacks and tripods were walking in. I asked if they were getting ready for a sunrise shot; they said they were going to photograph the Milky Way. It was overcast almost all day, so the chances for clear sky seemed slim.

Mesa Arch is small

Mesa Arch at sunrise was on my shot list for this trip, but we never returned. We’d have to wake up very early to secure one of the few excellent spots; instead we went to Arches NP for the Milky Way and sunrise. Arches roads would open at night during the weekend.


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I enjoy travel, art, food, photography, nature, California native plants, history, and yoga. I am a retired software engineer. The gravatar is a Nuttall's woodpecker that visited our backyard.

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