(Island in the Sky District)
Canyonlands National Park
Favorite Jeep Roads & Hiking Trails
by David Day
Favorite Jeep Roads and Hiking Trails
Distance: 12.8 miles (round trip), or
6.4 miles (one way to White Rim Road)
Walking time: 8 hours (round trip)
31/2 hours (one way)
Elevations: 1,470 ft. loss (one way)
Alcove Spring Trailhead (start): 5,690 ft.
Alcove Spring: 5,250 ft.
Taylor Camp: 4,220 ft.
Trail: The trail through the bottom of Trail Canyon is not well marked, but the route is easy to follow. There is no water after the first 0.7 mile.
Vicinity: Begins on the Island in the Sky Mesa near Upheaval Dome
USGS Maps: Upheaval Dome
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Alcove Spring undoubtedly played an important roll in the lives of the prehistoric peoples of Canyonlands. The Anasazi Indians who lived in the canyons made frequent trips to the Island in the Sky Mesa for hunting and gathering purposes, but water is scarce on the mesa top because most of the springs are located far below the rim. Alcove Spring is unique because it is so easily accessible from the mesa. The Indians could always count on finding water there-even in late summer.
This spring was also well known to the sheep and cattle ranchers who grazed their animals in the area from the late 1800s. The present trail was probably built during the early 1900s by cattlemen in order to provide water for the livestock, but the details of its construction have been lost to history.
Many people walk this trail only as far as the spring before returning to the trailhead, and if you choose to do that the hike is relatively easy. Alcove Spring is only 0.7 mile from the parking area, with an elevation loss of 440 feet. If you cannot arrange a shuttle to pick you up in the canyon it is probably not worth walking all the way to the Taylor Camp Trailhead, but if a shuttle can be arranged there is a lot of interesting scenery to be seen along the route through Trail Canyon. You can also see the Moses and Zeus monoliths near the end of the hike.
The trail as far as the spring is very well constructed; the amount of effort put forth by the early ranchers to make the water accessible to their livestock was considerable. The route descends along the base of the Navajo Sandstone cliffs for about 0.3 mile, then switchbacks to the left and continues its descent for the rest of the way to the spring. The water is located at the bottom of a huge alcove about 200 feet in diameter near the base of the Navajo Sandstone formation.
Notice the green grass growing just below the alcove-a sure sign that there is water present. The main trail does not actually pass the spring, but if you are observant you will notice a hiker-made spur branching off to the left for the last 200 feet to the alcove. This primitive trail goes directly to the bright green patch of grass, under which you will find a tiny stream of water trickling down the slope.
It is interesting to note why the spring is located at this particular place. The Navajo Sandstone above the spring is well known for its water storage characteristics. This geologic layer is composed of small grains of sand that were loosely deposited as sand dunes about 195 million years ago. The dunes were subsequently buried and then cemented together by lime and other minerals dissolved in the water that percolated down from above. The interstitial spaces between the grains of sand were not entirely filled in, however, and today these microscopic voids enable the sandstone to hold water as surely as if it were a storage tank.
Underneath the Navajo Sandstone there is another layer of clay and sand-based material called the Kayenta Formation that is relatively impervious to water. Water seeping down from the desert floor cannot go beyond this layer, so it has a tendency to move sideways and emerge in the form of springs wherever the boundary between the Navajo and Kayenta Formations is exposed. It is also common to find alcoves in the sandstone above these springs, because the running water leaches out the minerals that bind the sandstone together.
As the trail leaves the Alcove Spring it begins to descend rapidly through a series of rocky switchbacks that take it down through the Kayenta and Wingate Formations to the sandy bottom of Trail Canyon. Once the path reaches the bottom of the canyon it becomes much more vague, but there are still frequent cairns to mark the way. The route simply winds down the dry desert wash for the last 4.4 miles to the Taylor Camp. There is no water along this part of the hike, so be sure to carrying plenty.
If you are interested in a supplemental map of the Alcove Spring Trail, we recommend:
Canyonlands, Island in the Sky District (Trails Illustrated, map #310)