Moab clears out in winter and motels advertise rock-bottom prices. In a mere three hours, transition from Colorado snow country to Utah’s rough-hewn rock wilderness.
Of all the trail hikes in Island In The Sky District of Canyonlands National Park, Murphy Hogback is my favorite. It features a continuous vista into immeasurable Western reaches. You will want to go where your eyes take you but much of this vast tract of land is impenetrable, the horizon unreachable. The American West holds mysterious places that only the Earth remembers, quarters off-limits to even the most ardent explorers. The power and sublimity of this landscape will ignite desires that will never be answered.
I ventured solo into this Big Earth territory a few weeks ago. The trek features a rocky descent into an amphitheater, flat platform walking, an off-trail foray to the neglected west end of Murphy Hogback, a one-mile stroll down the White Rim Road, and a wash bottom maze.
A wide, level footpath leaves from the trailhead – elevation 6,240 feet – and heads westerly toward the Henry Mountains distinguished by three groupings of peaks. The treadway is bounded by an Indian ricegrass plain dotted with ephedra, prickly pear, yucca, rabbit brush, blackbrush, and piñon-juniper.
The trail divides in half a mile. The right spur goes to Murphy Point. Go left toward White Rim Road. Upon approaching the canyon rim, the path turns southeast hugging the drop while it looks for a break in the imposing Kayenta Formation, the sandstone layer that makes up the I-Sky mesa top. From the rimrock the field of vision is inexhaustible.
The engineered trail plummets into an amphitheater stepping down a series of wide ledges. Most hikers will find the horizontal shelves comfortable, a few may feel exposed.
Tread on the ledgerock to the center of the concavity where the escarpment gave way depositing a swath of pulverized earth and big block jumbles making this passage down an otherwise sheer wall possible. Stone steps weave down the rubble field.
Cross a suspended boardwalk. Back on the north side of the drainage, the trackway descends through the slope-forming Chinle Formation. Reach a trail junction at two miles – 5,200 feet. The 6.7-mile loop segment of this hike begins here. There are two ways to reach White Rim Road: via Murphy Wash or Murphy Hogback. Promise me you will turn right toward the Hogback. By going counterclockwise, you will be walking into the immensity instead of having it at your back.
Walk on a Moenkopi Formation platform all the way to the road. On this day of untroubled air, I walk in an envelope of silence under the protection of cliffrock.
The terrace bends southwest at 3.0 miles. A short spur steps west to an overlook. Candlestick Tower is off in the north. Navajo Sandstone domes stand out because there is so little of this rock layer on the sky island. See Soda Springs Basin, White Rim Road, and even cottonwoods drinking from Green River. Cross a slender neck onto the Hogback.
Upon arriving at the White Rim Road at 4.8 miles, turn left. Our route utilizes a fraction of the acclaimed 100 mile 4WD and mountain bike route that loops around I-Sky. Murphy Hogback is one of the permitted camp sites and there are vault toilets in this area.
I highly recommend doing a 1.5-mile roundtrip spur to the western end of the Hogback. At the crest in the road, turn right/west and walk off-trail on blocks of White Rim Sandstone, nature’s slab path.
The peninsula ends at an abrupt drop. Welcoming flat boulders are picnic perfect. It is going to take more than a few moments to process this enrapturing landscape.
Off in the east are the La Sal Mountains. Spin clockwise to see Elaterite and Ekker Buttes in the Maze District. The Green River, a glistening, sliding plane of water is very close now to its destiny with the principal water carrier of the American West, the Colorado River. Cipher our route between Murphy and Grand View Points. Junction Butte straddles the confluence of our Western heritage rivers.
Upon returning to the road, turn right/east and drop off the Hogback. Murphy Wash – elevation 4,800 feet – is the low point of the hike. Leave the road at 7.5 miles, turning left/north into the wash. Walking is unfettered and fast on coarse sand and gravel.
A plethora of drainages contribute to the mazeway, and we will employ several of them to find our way out. Be watchful at every tributary for cairns that mark the way; it is essential to get this exactly right. Rock piles mark bypasses around small pouroffs.
The wash is shallow as it cuts through the Moenkopi Formation. Deposition layers are thin stripes of siltstone and mudstone. Ripples decorate bedrock. According to their nature, going upstream watercourses grow smaller and boulders on the floor grow larger. Expect a rubbly channel.
Close the loop at the now familiar junction at 10.2 miles. Remount the hardscrabble trail and top out on the island at rest below the sky.