Whale Rock: What a View!

Ascending the highest point on Whale Rock, Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Ascending the highest point on Whale Rock

Whale Rock isn’t a long hike.  Whale Rock isn’t a hard hike.  Whale Rock isn’t even difficult to drive to.  So why I haven’t heard more about it from day-hikers is beyond me.  The trail is fun (you get to climb up slickrock along a wire railing), the view is stunning (360 view of beautiful Canyonlands scenery), and it’s only 1 mile (1.6 km) RT.  It’s also a great place to hang out if it’s windy – you’re above almost everything else in the area, so you really get blown around (so if that’s not your idea of fun, stay clear on a blustery day).  We did it on a trip to the area in October, in the early morning.  The light at that time makes the view even more stunning, though it would also be a great place to hike around sunset.

Key GPS Coordinates for Whale Rock:

Whale Rock Parking Area: 38.426871N / -109.913850W (38N 25’ 36.735” / -109W 54’ 49.8594”)

Where the trail begins to ascend the slickrock: 38.429766N / -109.915792W (38N 25’ 47.1576” / -109W 54’ 56.8506”)

Approximate end of the trail: 38.427452N / -109.918448W (38N 25’ 38.8272” / -109W 55’ 6.4122”)

Getting to Whale Rock

The trail to Whale Rock, Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

The trail to Whale Rock

From the Island in the Sky Visitor Center, drive about 6 miles (9.6 km) south (continuing into the park) to the Upheaval Dome Road.  Turn right; this road is very well-marked.  This turn is about 6 miles (9.6 km) north of the Grand View Overlook, which is also the end of the main park road.  Drive up the Upheaval Dome Road about 4 miles (6.4 km) to the Whale Rock parking area on your right; this is well-marked and is soon after the parking area for Mesa Arch (which is also a worthwhile, though well-known, stroll while you’re in the area).  The parking area isn’t huge, so it may fill up quickly at popular times.  If you hike it early in the morning, you shouldn’t have much trouble finding a parking space – I found that on an early morning in October we were the only car in the parking lot.

Handrails on Whale Rock, Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Handrails on Whale Rock

The trail begins on the left side of the parking area, and quickly begins to wind its way through the desert on a sandy trail.  The beginning of the trail is quite flat and uninteresting.  This approach will take you to the “tail” of the “whale” as the “whale’s” sides are too steep to climb easily, though numerous visitors appear to have tried to scale the sides anyhow.  Soon you will reach the “tail” and the trail will turn up the slickrock.

Cairns now mark the path as you steadily ascend the slickrock.  Occasionally, handrails have been installed – at times it doesn’t seem like there is a rhyme or reason for where the handrails have been installed; at other times the rails are quite helpful.  Whatever the reason for the wire handrails, our children had a wonderful time “pulling” themselves upwards with the rails.

Part of the view from Whale Rock, Island int he Sky, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Part of the view from Whale Rock

Some of the best views can be seen from the middle, rather than the end, of Whale Rock.  However, it is worth going all the way to the end to make a 1 mile (1.6 km) out-and-back trek.  From various parts of the rock, you can see views in all directions: Upheaval Dome, expansive canyons, and classic Canyonlands scenery (in other words, red rocks, spires, and canyons galore!).

Return by the way you came.  This may be a short hike, but it’s well worth doing, whether with children or on your own!  For an especially memorable hike, climb it for the sunrise/sunset, or climb to the top when the wind is whistling harder than normal – you may find you’re nearly blown over!

Round Trip Trail Length: 1 mile (1.6 km)

Facilities: None

Fees: $10 per vehicle fee to enter Canyonlands National Park, good 7 days in all districts (in other words, if you buy it in the Island in the Sky District, the 7-day pass is good in the Needles District, etc., as well).  America the Beautiful (Interagency), Senior (Golden Age), Access (Golden Access), Volunteer, Military, and Canyonlands Annual Passes also accepted

Trail ★★★☆☆

Road ★★★★★

Signs ★★★★☆

Scenery ★★★★☆

Would I go 100 miles out of my way for this? ★★★★☆

Overall Rating: ★★★★☆

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