One Epic Hike in Canyonlands National Park: Syncline Loop Guide

View from a boulder field on the Syncline Loop Trail in Canyonlands National Park

Syncline Loop Trail

Looking for an epic day hike in the Island in the Sky section of Canyonlands National Park? Skirting around Upheaval Dome, a large impact crater, is the Syncline Loop Trail. This hike showcases much of what the Island In the Sky Section of Canyonlands National Park has to offer. Stunning canyons, towering mesas, large boulders, sheer cliffs, and beautiful desert scenery encompassed in shades of tan and red with pops of green.

Walking along the Syncline Loop is a lot like walking through time. If you look closely as you trek along the long and winding sand and rock trail you will see clear instances of years of erosion and unique rock formation, desert washes, ample wildlife, and even a small meandering stream.

Choosing this hike is a commitment to adventure. It is also an acknowledgment that you may find yourself going outside of your comfort zone. Potentially more than once! The Syncline Loop Trail is big on adventure, tough on the knees, legs, and lungs, and tons of fun!

Hiking couple looking out at Upheaval Canyon after climbing steep switchbacks on the Syncline Loop Trail in Canyonlands National Park
View overlooking Upheaval Canyon after the first steep section of switchbacks. In the distance, you can see Steer Mesa to the left and Bighorn Mesa to the right

Syncline Loop Quick Facts:

Location: Island In the Sky Section, Canyonlands National Park, Moab Utah

Canyonlands National Park technically has 4 sections:

  • Island In The Sky
  • The Needles
  • The Maze
  • The Rivers (which just separate the other 3 sections)

Island In The Sky is the most easily accessed and most visited section of Canyonlands National Park. Sitting at about 6,000 feet, it is also the highest section of the park. It offers dramatic views from the top of a large plateau that sits between the Green and Colorado Rivers.

Driving Time: Roughly 1 hour to the trailhead from downtown Moab

Cost: $30/vehicle (good for 7 days); National Parks passes accepted

Parking: Drive past Whale Rock to enter the parking area for Upheaval Dome and Syncline Loop Trail. This is a circular parking area that can be tight. We were able to find parking for our long bed dually in a dirt area adjacent to designated parking spots, though. You can also park off the entrance road to the parking area if spots are filled. We even saw vehicles pulling small trailers parked here as well.

Trailhead amenities: Restroom facilities (pit toilets), shaded picnic areas, no drinking water. Drinking water is available at the Visitor Center via an outdoor fountain and spigot.

Sand trail leading to desert wash area on the Syncline Loop Trail in Canyonlands National Park

Is Hiking Syncline Loop for you?

Hiking the Syncline Loop Trail is a great option for experienced hikers and adventure seekers who enjoy trails that feel like playgrounds. While challenging, it is also rewarding and offers multiple types of experiences throughout this one trail. It is also a great choice if you don’t mind losing GPS signal and getting a little lost or retracing steps and enjoying a bit of rock scrambling. It is important that you are not too afraid of heights and feel comfortable navigating through tight spaces.

You will enjoy this if you prefer trails with lower traffic, plenty of quiet, and are looking for a Canyonlands adventure from a different perspective below the rim. You might want to consider skipping this trail if you are afraid of heights, are not confident in your ability to hike long strenuous trails, are not a fan of rock scrambling, or if the weather is too hot or rainy/icy (as rocks can be slick and dangerous).

Syncline Loop Hike Details

Distance: 8.6 mile loop

Elevation Gain: 1,630 feet (with most of this occurring at the end of your hike)

Estimated Duration: 4-5 hours

Warnings: Primitive trail, difficult to follow, strenuous (we recommend having an offline map ready)

Hiking Direction: While many recommend completing this trail clockwise, we chose to hike this trail counterclockwise. This resulted in climbing down over the large, steep, and sometimes scary boulder section and then having a very steep incline in the final 2 miles of the hike. The final steep incline included nearly 1,000 feet in elevation gained in just over 1 mile. We can see why many choose to hike clockwise and avoid the ascent through this treacherous winding section of loose rock.

Choosing to hike clockwise will result in going downhill initially for a short and steep descent, climbing uphill over the large rock scrambling section after walking through the valley, and finishing with a longer but more gradual incline back to the top of the rim. Both directions are challenging and require ending the hike with steep climbs after already expending a lot of energy in the miles prior. Pick your challenge.

When to hike this trail:

Spring, Fall, Winter (be mindful of conditions, check with Park Rangers)

We would recommend hiking either early or late in the day, especially in the spring or summer months when temperatures can soar. This trail is difficult, has steep sections, and requires hiking on rocky/sandy trails AND scrambling. It also does not have much shade. We started the hike at the rim where the temperatures were around 70 degrees and found temperatures down in the canyon below to be 10-20 degrees warmer in places.

Add-on possibilities: Venture on the spur trail into Upheaval Dome (roughly 1 mile in, but you can go as far as your energy levels and time constraints allow). If you have time you could also add a hike to the Upheaval Dome overlooks (not far from the trailhead) to catch a glimpse of Canyonlands National Park’s geological mystery from above.

Large rocks in the boulder field on the Syncline Loop trail
Rock cairn marking the way on the Syncline Loop Trail in Canyonlands National Park
Rock cairns mark the trail in many places, but can be easy to miss

Know before you go:

This hike will be a good workout!

Before beginning the hike you will pass several signs about how strenuous or difficult this trail is. Those should not be ignored. We hike often and met other hikers along the way who agreed; this hike is tough. It can be very hot and easy to lose your way. While sometimes these warnings can seem overzealous, in this case, it is a very accurate description and should be heeded.

  • Bring lots of water. We each finished 2 liters of water by the end of the hike. It will be warmer below the rim and down in the canyon and there is not much shade
  • Bring snacks, sunscreen, and wear shoes that are comfortable for very uneven terrain (your ankles will thank you)
  • The path can be hard to follow so keep an eye out for cairns (pictured above, second photo). Consider using pre-downloaded AllTrails maps to help navigate. Look for footprints and know the general trail follows down toward and then along the (potentially dry) river bed.
  • Fairly small/tight parking area that also serves short trails to popular overlooks. It may be crowded during peak hours or tough if you are towing/driving an RV

What We Found Fulfilling About Syncline Loop

The Syncline Loop, for us, was the perfect trail to get a midweek workout in among beautiful scenery. It offered the perfect way to release some stress after a busy day at work and find quiet moments. While we were a little nervous after running into a hiker nearing the trailhead warning us about how difficult it would be, we are glad we trekked on.

Following only a single-track primitive trail (and sometimes no trail at all), this hike allows you to really feel one with the landscape and at times like there is no one else around for miles.

We sat in awe gazing out at Upheaval Canyon and the Steer and Bighorn Mesas, navigated over and under massive rocks, and squeezed through narrow passages between precariously positioned boulders. We listened to our echos bouncing between the rock walls in the Syncline Valley, basked in the shadows of towering slabs of tan sandstone at The Breach, skirted around several lightning-fast lizards, and watched a family of Bighorn Sheep grazing.

Along this hike, we felt fully present. And at the end, also pretty tired. A sign of a successful and engaging hiking experience!

Woman hiking the Syncline Loop Trail in Canyonlands National Park
Hiking through The Breach

Syncline Loop Wildlife

We also enjoyed the serenity of this hike. We saw more wildlife than people! During our time on the trail on a Wednesday afternoon, we passed five hikers in total. Three hikers were finishing up their hike in the initial mile of our descent, one was in the boulder field playground, and we met one final hiker at the steep switchbacks.

Standing on rocks looking down into the Upheaval Canyon and Syncline Valley we felt on top of the world. As we sat among the greenery in the valley to catch our breath and look up at the rim, we also were reminded of how small we truly are and how amazing this planet is.

Looking on at 12 bighorn sheep and their lambs was the biggest treat of all. We were in awe by how much life is happening all around us when we take the time to truly notice. We were challenged, we were humbled, and we felt free.

Big Horn Sheep grazing in Canyonlands National Park
Female and offspring Bighorn Sheep grazing in the valley
Broken Arch framed by green vegetation on the Syncline loop trail at Canyonlands National Park

Fulfilling Travel Tips

Be Present. Be Where Your Feet Are:

With most hikes, it can be easy to find yourself racing toward the finish to soak in the views. We want to challenge you to find opportunities for mindful moments in your hikes as a way to slow down and enjoy both the journey and the destination. On the Syncline Loop Trail, a great place for this is at the convergence of the valley and the desert wash. This spot will be near the primitive campsites (permit required).

From here, you can look out into Upheaval Canyon and beyond from right at eye level and take in the remnants of what may have once been a mighty arch. Perhaps take a few moments to just breathe. Maybe listen to the wildlife and the wind trickling through the green plant life. Soak in the quiet moments you have in this beautiful landscape. Give yourself permission to slow down and just be.

Guidance: Consider taking a few moments at a place along the trail of your choosing to count your inhales and exhales as you scan the beautiful landscape. For example, inhaling for a count of 3 and exhaling for a count of 6 is associated with stimulating a relaxation response in the body. Your heart might be pumping and your breaths shallow and taking some time to reconnect with your breath might be just what you need to reconnect with the present moment.

Syncline Loop Overall

If you are looking for a more strenuous and less popular hike while visiting Moab and the Island In The Sky section of Canyonlands National Park, this is a great choice! This is a trail that is just as much about the journey as the destination and gives you the opportunity to be really satisfied with what you accomplished over the course of a few hours.

Play around on the rocks, experience the magic of Canyonlands from below the rim, and enjoy the peace and solitude among bighorn sheep and various species of lizards and birds. Don’t be afraid to go off-trail! Bring lots of water and sunscreen, and get lost among the rocks as you release the stress of a long work day or work week. If you are looking to get even more remote, consider venturing out to The Needles section of Canyonlands and hiking Chesler Park Loop!

Moab is home to so many amazing parks and adventures that allow you to appreciate some of the United States’ most unique landscapes. Some of our other favorite hikes include Delicate Arch, Fiery Furnace, Devils Garden, and the Rim Trail at Dead Horse Point State Park!

Beautiful view of Canyonlands National Park from Shafer Canyon Overlook
View from Shafer Canyon Overlook as the sun was setting after completing our Syncline Loop hike

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