Although you may not guess it by its name, Dead Horse Point State Park is a delightful place. It sits atop a lofty mesa with see-forever views, stunning cliffs, mountain bike trails that are fun and challenging, and hiking trails that lead to views that are even grander.
The park is southwest of Moab, a town known for its awesome mountain bike trails, and the world-famous arches at nearby Arches National Park. Dead Horse Point is accessible from Moab by traveling northwest on U.S. Highway 191 for about nine miles and then west and south on Utah Highway 313 for 23 miles. This route, known as the Dead Horse Point Mesa Scenic Byway, is an easy drive for RVers and also provides access to Canyonlands National Park.
Along the way be sure to look for wildlife, and if you like being amazed by ancient art, look for the pictographs and petroglyphs just off the highway. They are past mile marker 20 on the north side of the road. Although researchers still haven’t figured out what the ancient artwork actually symbolizes, you can see drawings that look something like a fox, bighorn sheep, and perhaps some sort of mystical people. There really isn’t much room to park, so if you are towing a trailer, you may have to park elsewhere and drive back to the site.
There are paved parking areas where you can pull off the road and admire landmarks such as the Monitor and Merrimac buttes, which tower 600 feet above their Navajo sandstone base. The buttes were named for two Civil War ironclad ships, the Monitor and the Merrimack (although the butte is spelled without the “k”). The Union sent the Monitor to destroy the Merrimack, and today the buttes appear to be locked in timeless battle.
You’ll also want to stop and view the La Sal Mountains in the distance and the potholes in the foreground. Desert potholes on the Colorado Plateau are different from the potholes we find on back roads and highways. They are naturally occurring sandstone basins that range from shallow puddles to deeply carved pools, and provide a temporary source of water for animals.
At Dead Horse Point State Park, you’ll find a potpourri of potholes. My husband, Mike, and I arrived the day after it had rained and while the soil was already dry, there was water in some of the potholes. Microscopic invertebrates live there, and if you look closely, you may find a clam shrimp, fairy shrimp, tadpole shrimp or Great Basin spadefoot toad tadpole.
The park covers 5,300 acres, so be sure to stop at the visitor center for maps and information. We stopped and learned much about the local plants and animals, marveled at the geology, and were amazed by prehistoric cultures and park history. You can take a self-guided tour along a nature trail to learn more about the local environment.
Although the park has a climate that is dry and harsh (an average of 10 inches of precipitation a year), plants and animals have adapted. More than 90 different species of desert plants, including pinion, juniper, single-leaf ash and oak, make their home here. In addition, there are sagebrush, squawbush, rabbitbrush, buffaloberry, yucca and cactus.
More than 100 species of animals live in or visit the park. Mammals include desert bighorn sheep, mule deer, kit fox (a small desert fox on Utah’s sensitive species list), desert cottontail, black-tailed jackrabbits, rock squirrels and a number of bats. Among 63 species of birds are golden eagles, peregrine falcons and ravens. Reptiles include sagebrush lizards, whiptails and gopher snakes.
Dead Horse Legend
The park gets its name from an event that legend says occurred in an isolated area that was used as a natural corral for wild horses. The area is a peninsula of rock that sits atop sandstone cliffs. Cowboys would drive wild horses into the area and pen them in with a fence across the only escape route, a narrow, 30-yard neck of land. After the cowboys roped and broke the horses, they chose their favorites and herded them north. Unwanted mustangs, often called “broomtails,” were left to fend for themselves. According to one legend, a band of broomtails was left behind the fence for reasons unknown, and being unable to return to the open range, they died of thirst. Remnants of the fence are visible today.
Humans have been coming to this area for at least 10,000 years. First came the Paleo-Indian culture, next the nomadic Archaic people, known for the rock art and stone tools found in the area. Both the Ancestral Puebloan and Fremont peoples settled in the area by the sixth century. They hunted game such as deer, rabbits and bighorn sheep, and they grew crops of beans and maize. Years passed and the Ute and Paiute cultures may have arrived in the region as early as 800. The Navajos moved into the area sometime after 1300.
The first Europeans settlers were Mormons, who established the Elk Mountain Mission in 1855, but abandoned the settlement after conflicts with the Utes. In 1878, settlers returned and founded the ranching community of Moab, today’s gateway for Dead Horse Point State Park and Arches and Canyonlands national parks.
Hiking and Biking
After making camp, we headed to Dead Horse Point to gaze at the view. The plateau sits 2,000 feet above the Colorado River and 6,000 feet above sea level. We looked east to see the snowcapped peaks of the La Sal Mountains that are 12,000 feet high. We could also see Utah’s Abajo and Henry mountain ranges, and Colorado’s towering San Juan Mountains, which are only visible on clear days.
We hiked all seven miles of the park’s hiking trails, and we thrilled to nine miles of beginner-level single-track mountain biking. The Intrepid Trail System is awesome. Designed for beginner mountain bikers, but fun for everyone, the Intrepid Loop offers 1.1 miles of fun.
The Great Pyramid Loop is 4.2 miles and provides great views. Bikers with additional energy will thrill to Big Chief/Canyon Overlook, a nine-mile loop. The trail through pinyon-juniper flats is considered easy, but there are many tight corners and a few technical spots where you will probably have to walk. We’re moderate-level mountain bikers, and we definitely had to walk on occasion.
If you’re out hiking or biking, you’ll see the biological soil crust called cryptobiotic crust. Meaning hidden life, this is a unique ecosystem, a living soil crust composed of bacteria, lichen, algae, fungi and mosses. The unique soil should be left alone, so please stay on the trails.
With its unique ecosystem, legends, history and scenic views, Dead Horse Point State Park offers plenty of reasons for RVers to visit.
Donna Ikenberry is a writer and photographer who lives in South Fork, Colorado.
IF YOU GO:
Dead Horse Point State Park is open year-round, though most people visit in the warmer months from May through September. From June through early September, expect thunderstorms. Spring and fall are grand times to visit. The park averages about 26 inches of snow.
If you visit the park for the day ($10 per vehicle with up to eight passengers), you’ll find day-use facilities with shade pavilions at the overlook, covered picnic areas, restrooms and water.
The 21-site Kayenta Campground is especially nice. The fee is $25 per night. Campsites have electrical hookups. The campground has restrooms, a dump station and picnic tables. RVers should fill their water tanks before coming to the park as all water is trucked in from Moab. Showers are not available, and wood fires are banned. For reservations and information, visit stateparks.utah.gov/parks/dead-horse.
Although the park doesn’t have a length restriction, if you have an extra long RV, or you just want a larger site or you want to have a campfire, consider staying at Horsethief Campground, about eight miles north of the park. It is a BLM facility with 58 sites, many suitable for large RVs. It has outhouses, fire grates and picnic tables, but no charcoal grills. Price is $15 a night, and sites are first-come, first-served. Water is not available. For information, visit blm.gov/ut/st/en/fo/moab/recreation/campgrounds/highway_313/horsethief.html.