Jumbled debris in the center of Upheaval Crater
Distance: 8.0 miles (loop)
Walking time: 6 hours
Elevations: 1,460 ft. loss/gain
• Upheaval Dome Trailhead (start): 5,680 ft.
• Upheaval Canyon: 4,220 ft.
Trail: This is one of the most popular trails in Canyonlands National Park. It is very steep and rocky but well marked with rock cairns and easy to follow.
Season: Spring, summer, fall, winter. Canyonlands is very hot in the summertime and receives some snow in the winter. The best seasons for this hike are spring and fall. For current conditions call the Canyonlands National Park Headquarters in Moab at (801) 259-7164.
Vicinity: Canyonlands National Park, Island in the Sky District, near Moab
Upheaval Dome is one of the most interesting geologic formations in Utah. At first glance the unusual circular structure appears to be a large crater, but geologically it more closely resembles an ancient dome. The strange formation consists of a huge circular pit, about a mile in diameter and 1,100 feet deep, surrounded by concentric rings of uplifted rock that were originally several thousand feet under the ground.
What kind of natural force could account for such a structure? Volcanic forces often cause both uplifting and cratering, but it is highly unlikely that Upheaval Dome was created by a volcano. There is no evidence of volcanism anywhere in the area, and none of the rock in or around the dome is volcanic. A meteorite could have produced the crater, but it is difficult to explain how a meteorite could have caused the extensive uplifting. A third theory is that Upheaval Dome is the remanent of an ancient salt dome that was pushed up by subterranean forces millions of years ago and then eroded to its present form. But this theory doesn’t adequately account for the crater at the top of the dome.
In the past the salt dome theory had the widest following among geologists. However new research, including a microscopic study of the sand grains at the bottom of the crater, suggests that Upheaval Dome may indeed have been formed by a meteorite. Scientists now hypothesize that the meteorite that struck Upheaval Dome was about one-third of a mile in diameter, and fell about 60 million years ago-long before the formation of the Green River or the Colorado Plateau.
A short trail leads from the parking area to several nice viewpoints on the south side of the crater rim. Be sure to take this walk before beginning your longer hike around the crater on the Syncline Loop Trail. From the rim a magnificent panoramic view of the crater will give you an appreciation for the geology of Upheaval Dome as well as show you where the hike will take you. The best viewpoint is the first one you will come to, only a quarter mile from the parking area.
The Syncline Loop Trail intersects the viewpoint trail just a few feet from the parking area. This is the trail you will use for your eight-mile hike around Upheaval Dome. You can walk around the loop in either direction, but I recommend that you circle the crater in a clockwise direction by turning west at the junction (left, if you are coming from the parking area). Walking around the loop in a clockwise direction will insure that the best scenery is always in front of you.
The trail stays on fairly level ground for about 0.8 mile as it skirts along the southern edge of the crater, but soon it begins a downward plunge which will eventually take you to the bottom of Upheaval Canyon. The trail is steep, but the scenic rewards are ample. Occasionally you can catch a glimpse of the Green River peering up through the twists and folds of Upheaval Canyon. Finally, after a descent of 1,000 feet, the trail reaches the bottom of a wash and then descends more gradually until it reaches the bottom of the canyon. When you reach the bottom of Upheaval Canyon you will find a sign pointing the way down the canyon to the Green River, three miles distant. You should turn right at this point in order to continue on the Syncline Loop Trail.
Continuing eastward from the Green River Trail junction for a short distance will bring you to a section of the canyon where there is usually water, often in pools large enough for bathing. These pools offer a welcome opportunity to cool off on a hot summer day, but please be careful not to pollute them in any way. This is also a pleasant place to have lunch and rest up for the long climb out.
Just beyond the water, 0.2 mile from the junction with the Green River trail, the path comes to another junction where another trail leading into the center of the crater begins. You may want to make a side trip at this point; the trail into the crater is about 1.5 miles, one way. Inside the crater you will find a massive jumble of debris, including great piles of gray pulverized sand that was once a part of the White Rim geologic formation. It is this debris that has provided the strongest evidence to support the theory that Upheaval Dome is the product of a meteorite impact.
Continuing around the loop, the trail abruptly ascends into a side canyon called Syncline Valley. In order to get around a large pour-off at the foot of the valley the trail follows a route up the north side of the canyon. The way is very steep and rocky, and some scrambling may be necessary, but once you are above the pour-off the trail once again turns into a pleasant walk. Syncline Valley is a green oasis in the desert canyon country where the presence of water makes all the difference. The path meanders for about a mile through the tamaracks and cottonwood trees, and then suddenly exits to the south through a large, unexpected break in the canyon wall. Hidden as it is from the outside world, Syncline Valley is the kind of place that would have made a perfect hideout for a band of outlaws at the turn of the century.
Once you have climbed out of Syncline Valley through the narrow slot in the canyon wall you are back on top of the Island in the Sky. From there it is a relatively easy walk of about two miles through the juniper forest back to the trailhead and parking area.