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living it up on the island in the sky

So much of how we perceive the world and ourselves depends on circumstances that maintaining perspective is crucial.

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Juggling our adult responsibilities while struggling to squeeze in a few hours of sleep has left us frayed and feeling older than we normally think of ourselves. Yet, barely two months ago — during our tour around the Southwest — we felt youthfully invincible. We spent each day out on the trails, covering 9-10 miles a day, no different than during our backpacking days a decade ago. After our incredible hike through the Needles, we returned to Canyonlands the following day to hike around the Island in the Sky.

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Whereas Needles overwhelms visitors with spectacular scenery every step of the way, the draw of the Island in the Sky district are the jaw-dropping views along its rim. As a result, the trails may seem monotonous at times, but the views the dull stretches earn are truly majestic. This section of Canyonlands is very appropriately named. The island is, in fact, a large mesa complete with a network of paved roads and groomed trails. One wouldn’t know it until standing at the very edge that the mesa is surrounded by sheer sandstone cliffs. The bottom literally drops out; beyond the precipice are canyons whose magnitude is difficult to comprehend.

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Because of its proximity to Moab and the ease with which it is possible to see its highlights, the Island in the Sky attracts at least twice as many visitors as Needles. Most are content to tour the park from the comfort of their car. There are half a dozen overlooks and many short, neatly maintained trails throughout the park. There are also a handful of longer trails that meander around the mesa and even lead down into the abyss around it.

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The forecast promised a 30% chance of rain, and drops started falling as we pulled up to the visitor center. We broke out our rain gear and then discussed our options with a park ranger. The Murphy Trail, which we intended to hike, was widely recommended on outdoor forums as being the best long hike in this section of the park. However, part of the trail runs through a wash that is prone to flash flooding, and we wanted to be sure we would be safe before attempting it.

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The park ranger at the visitor center didn’t seem to know too much about the trail, but advised us against attempting the Murphy Wash part of it. We ran into another volunteer ranger as we began the hike and he was much more sanguine about the route. It wasn’t supposed to rain that hard, he said, advising us to hike the other parts of the trail first and then see what the weather held in store when we got to the wash. As it happened, we were in luck. The skies stayed leaden for most of our hike, but the heavy rain held off until we had returned to our car.

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Perhaps the greatest challenge of the 10.8-mile Murphy Loop is knowing that the hardest part of it lies at the very end. For about a mile the trail meanders through scrubland until reaching the edge of the mesa. The precipice seems sheer. Impossibly, not only is there a trail that leads down to the plateau below, but also the path is quite manageable and much safer than it would appear at first glance. Every step downwards, however, brings with it the knowledge that the way back lies up the same steep path.

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After descending about 1,000 feet into the canyon, the trail lazily loops around the Murphy Basin for the better part of three miles. Every once in a while, the path approaches another edge, treating hikers to stunning view after stunning view deeper into the canyon. Eventually, the trail meets up with the White Rim Road, which is a popular destination for mountain biking.

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We met a large group of mountain bikers who had pitched camp at the Hogback campground where the road meets the Murphy trail. They were in the midst of an elaborate lunch prepared on an electric grill that had been hooked up to an RV and were genuinely surprised to see us on foot so far into the canyon. The way they talked about us having descended from the Island in the Sky called to mind our prehistoric ancestors discussing their pagan gods.

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We followed the White Rim Road down for a little over a mile before it met up with the Murphy Wash, which would lead us back to the Island in the Sky. Although the canyon panorama views were without doubt the highlight of the trail, the actual hiking was more interesting inside the wash, which offered a more diverse perspective of the Murphy Basin.

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The way back up was as challenging as we had anticipated and very steep in some parts, but also did not take too long. Once we started climbing, we needed just 40 minutes to make our way back out of the canyon, and another half hour to retrace our steps back to the parking lot. The rain picked up just as we got into the car, but rather than return to Moab, we drove around to get a glimpse of the views from the various overlook points. The weather cleared up by the time we made it out to the Grand View Point, so we made the most of the remaining daylight by hiking the half-mile loop trail to the beautiful Mesa Arch before ending the day with another short hike out to the bizarre crater of unexplainable origins that is known as Upheaval Dome.

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