Steep Cliffs and Towering Spires: Dead Horse Point State Park, UT

Dead Horse Point State Park is perhaps Utah’s most spectacular state park. The park lies on the same broad mesa as The Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park.

The meandering Colorado River 2,000 feet below Dead Horse Point. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dead Horse Point is a peninsula of rock atop sheer sandstone cliffs about 6,000 feet above sea level. Two thousand feet below, the Colorado River winds its way from the continental divide in Colorado to the Gulf of California, a distance of 1,400 miles. The peninsula is connected to the mesa by a narrow strip of land called the neck.

From the overlook, canyon erosion may be viewed on a grand scale. This erosion process has taken approximately 150 million years. Much of it is caused by the river slicing down into the earth’s crust as land is forced upward. These powerful forces are still sculpting the fantastic shapes of the precipitous bluffs and towering spires.

Vegetation and wildlife in this desert environment exist on a very limited water supply. Plants have adapted by diminishing the size and physiology of their leaves—smaller leaves tend to lose less water through evaporation.

Most animals are nocturnal. They venture out in the evenings when the relentless heat has subsided and there is less need for water.

The Legend of Dead Horse Point

Many stories exist about the naming of this high promontory of land.

The beauty that is Dead Horse Point State Park near Moab. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

According to one legend, around the turn of the century the point was used as a corral for wild mustangs roaming the mesa top. Cowboys rounded up these horses, herded them across the narrow neck of land and onto the point. The neck, which is only 30-yards-wide, was then fenced off with branches and brush. This created a natural corral surrounded by precipitous cliffs straight down on all sides, affording no escape. Cowboys would choose the horses they wanted and let the culls or broomtails go free. On one occasion, for some unknown reason, horses were left corralled on the waterless point where they died of thirst within view of the Colorado River, 2,000 feet below.

Park facilities

Park facilities include a visitor center, picnic area, and a 21-unit campground with flush toilets and shade ramadas. Water is limited. Visitors should fill their recreation vehicle water tanks before coming to the park. This campground is not suitable for large RVs. Nightly campfire programs and daily guided walks are offered from Memorial Day through Labor Day weekend.

The Park has 10 miles of hiking trails following the canyon rim around the park. Entrance and camping fees are charged.

Dead Horse Point is reached by following the same route as the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park. It is 23 miles from U.S. Highway 191 to Dead Horse Point State Park via Utah Highway 313.

Photo tips

Dead Horse Point is best at sunrise. For the warmest light, shoot between May 1 and mid-August, when the sun rises north of the La Sals, or from late October to mid-February, when it rises to the south.

Four view areas, ideal for photography stops, are located along the highway.

When photographing the scenic wonders of national and state parks, work the area. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Don’t plant yourself at the first spot that gives you a glimpse of the canyon below. Work the area!

Search along the canyon rim, for a Utah juniper or other foreground elements that will give your images more depth and interest.


Dead Horse Point State Park

Elevation: 5,900 feet

Size: 5,362 acres

Operating hours: Open year-round

Location: 9 miles northwest of Moab on US 191 and then 23 miles southwest on Utah 313 to the end of the highway.

Admission: $10/vehicle

Camping: $20/night

Address: P.O. Box 609, Moab, UT 84532-0609

Contact: (435) 259-2614

Worth Pondering…

Happiness is not a station you arrive at, but a manner of traveling.

—Margaret Lee Runbeck

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