Last Updated on September 5, 2023 by Grant
Located adjacent to the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park, Dead Horse Point State Park preserves a vast wilderness of canyons carved by the Colorado River. While this park is relatively small, there are a good number of hiking trails that allow you to immerse yourself in this grand landscape. In fact, one of the best ways to explore the park is on one of the Dead Horse Point State Park hiking trails.
When visiting Dead Horse Point State Park, you’ll explore the rocky mesa top peninsula that rises 2,000 feet above the Colorado River. As you peer over the cliff edge, the network of winding ridges and cuts that stretch across the canyon before you is almost incomprehensible. Yes, sometimes it is difficult to believe what you are seeing with your own eyes. It’s just that magnificent.
Yet, as vast as this landscape is, you’re viewing just one small area of buttes that make up the greater canyonlands region of southern Utah. I dare you to visit Dead Horse Point State Park and not walk away filled with awe at the beauty of this rugged desert landscape.
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How Dead Horse Point Got its Name
The towering butte of Dead Horse Point is just one peninsula off the large mesa top near Canyonlands National Park. Legend has it that the point was once used by cowboys to corral wild mustangs. The cowboys built a fence at the narrow strip of land known as the neck, which is only 30 yards wide.
Between the fence and the high cliff walls, the horses had no way to escape the point, unless released by the cowboys. For reasons unknown, some horses were abandoned here in the corral. Sadly, these horses died of thirst on the high waterless point.
Despite the tragedy of how the point got its name, the viewing platform it provides onto the surrounding landscape is simply magnificent.
What to Do at Dead Horse Point State Park
Even though it is fairly small, there are still several things to do when visiting Dead Horse Point State Park. While the entrance fee ($20) is a little pricey for such a small park, it is good for two days. That makes it easier to do multiple activities in the park and take advantage of cool mornings.
The one can’t-miss stop is the namesake Dead Horse Point Overlook. To reach the overlook, simply follow the entrance road all the way to the end (about 5 miles past the entrance station).
At the end of the road, a large overlook provides a variety of panoramic views of the canyons and buttes below. Be sure to give yourself plenty of time to take in this dramatic scene from several different viewpoints.
While the visitor center doesn’t have much in the way of exhibits, it is still worth a stop. It’s a great place to pick up a few souvenirs and talk to a ranger if you have any questions about the park. Additionally, the overlooks here provide a different snapshot of the canyon below. A short (1/8-mile) nature trail right outside the visitor center provides exhibits on desert plants and the bright blue evaporation ponds in the distance that are used in mining potash and salt.
Mountain bike enthusiasts can enjoy 16.6 miles of trails across the mesa top. Along the way, you’ll enjoy a mix of juniper and pinyon trees, slickrock and canyon views. You can even rent a bike right onsite at the trailhead.
Finally, there are about seven miles of hiking trails that cross the desert plateau and hug the cliff edge. Since there is minimal elevation change, all trails are considered relatively easy. That said, the terrain is uneven in many areas and some trails can be difficult to follow.
Dead Horse Point State Park Hikes
The trails at Dead Horse Point State Park connect 8 different overlooks along the east and west rim of the park. The East Rim and West Rim Trails can both be reached from the visitor center and follow the two rims south to Dead Horse Point Overlook.
The Colorado River Overlook takes you north from the visitor center to a view of a large S curve of the river below. Finally, the Bighorn Canyon Overlook Trail branches off the West Rim Trail to one of the most isolated areas of the park.
We chose to connect several of the hiking trails to create one big loop around Dead Horse Point State Park. I have to say, this might just be the best way to see this park. In fact, we rate this loop trail as one of our favorite hikes ever!
East Rim Trail
Dead Horse Point State Park’s East Rim Trail starts right behind the visitor center and follows the eastern rim of the mesa top to the south. While you can clearly see the canyon for most of the hike, the trail is not too close to the edge. Even those who have a fear of heights (like me) should feel safe and secure on this trail. In addition to the canyon below, you’ll also have a great view of the La Sal Mountains off to the east.
Much of the trail passes follows a clearly defined sandy path through the sagebrush. There are parts that pass over slickrock, though, so be sure to look for cairns and/or yellow striping on the rocks. Towards the end, some of the trail is even paved.
As you pass by the neck (the narrowest part of the mesa top), you’ll briefly hike close to the road. Most of the time, though, you’ll be far enough off the road to not see or hear cars. If you’re looking for a place to rest (or enjoy a snack or lunch), the trail passes right by a picnic area as you near Dead Horse Point Overlook.
My Apple Watch recorded 1.8 miles from the visitor center to Dead Horse Point Overlook, which took us just under an hour. We generally hike at a moderate pace and we definitely stopped quite a bit to take pictures and just enjoy the landscape stretching before us. I would rate the trail as easy, though there are a few places with uneven terrain.
West Rim Trail
At 3 miles one way, the West Rim Trail is the longest single trail at Dead Horse Point State Park. We hiked north on this trail, leaving from Dead Horse Point Overlook. If starting at the visitor center, you have to follow signs carefully and then cross over to the other side of the road to access this trail.
The southern part of the trail, closer to the overlook, stays fairly close to the cliff edge. As you travel farther north, the trail moves inland and you lose the canyon view. A couple of spur trails (each 1/4-mile, one way) take you out to additional overlooks off to the west. Since our entire hike was already shaping up to be 6+ miles, we did not add on those side trails.
This trail is still relatively easy, without any significant elevation change. That said, I would rate the West Rim Trail as slightly more difficult than the East Rim Trail. Mostly, that is because there is more uneven terrain. Additionally, the trail is not always easy to follow. Be sure to keep your eyes open for cairns or even just carefully arranged brush marking the route.
Bighorn Canyon Overlook Trail
The Bighorn Canyon Overlook Trail branches off the West Rim Trail near the campground. From there, it takes you back above the canyon and the vast network of rugged escarpments it holds. The trail bends north and west around an inlet of the canyon out to what is known as Big Horn Overlook. The name comes from an eroded butte in the distance that resembles a pair of horns.
The first part of the trail passes through packed dirt and sagebrush. There is a short part of soft sand, but, thankfully, it doesn’t last long. If you’re like us and hate hiking in sand, just push through… it’s worth it for the short distance it lasts.
The last part of the hike passes over open rock pocked with natural potholes. These potholes actually are home to a tiny ecosystem that must be able to withstand the harsh climate and dramatic temperatures of the desert.
When the potholes are filled with water, take a close look. You just might find tadpoles, fairy shrimp and other forms of life. As you might guess, this is a very delicate ecosystem that can easily be destroyed by human interaction. Even if the potholes are dry, you should not step inside them.
At the end of the trail, you’ll find unobstructed views of the canyon before you. Just be careful as you’ll be walking over rounded, exposed rock and there are no guardrails.
This trail must be done as an out-and-back and measures about 3 miles round trip.
Dead Horse Point Rim Loop
We connected all three trails to form one big loop around Dead Horse Point. We started at the visitor center and followed the East Rim Trail to Dead Horse Point Overlook. From there, we took the West Rim Trail north. If you return to the visitor center from there, you’d be looking at 4.5-5 miles, roundtrip.
Adding on the spur out to Bighorn Canyon Overlook took our total up to 7 miles. It took us nearly 4 hours total, but that included quite a bit of time taking pictures at the overlooks and a couple of brief stops to rest.
If you’re looking to do some longer hikes in this area but don’t want to venture into the backcountry of Canyonlands National Park, hiking the Dead Horse Point loop is a great option. And, despite the proximity to the road at times, you’ll still feel like you’re off the beaten path. In fact, we saw very few people during our entire hike, other than at Dead Horse Point Overlook.
I also really loved that it’s easy to make your hike longer or shorter depending on your time, ability and interests.
Tips for Hiking at Dead Horse Point State Park
When hiking anywhere, you should always make sure you are prepared with essential gear in case of an emergency. This includes items such as food, water, maps, and a first aid kit. In the desert, these items are even more important. You just never know what could go wrong even on a short hike.
Most importantly, make sure that each person in your group is carrying more than enough water. Wearing sun protection (such as sunscreen, a hat, and sun-protective clothing) will also help to keep your body temperature regulated and prevent sunburn.
Additionally, we recommend hiking early in the morning, before the sun is at its peak. We really lucked out in that the sky was nearly covered with clouds when we started hiking at Dead Horse Point State Park. No, it’s not the best for pictures. But, it did help us to stay nice and cool for a large portion of our hike.
By the end of the hike, when the clouds had burned off and we were under abundant sunshine, we could really feel the difference! If you’re not used to direct sun exposure, especially in the desert, you’d be amazed at how intense it can be.
Yes, hiking is a great way to see Dead Horse Point State Park. Taking a few precautions to keep everyone in your party safe is just smart.
Where to Stay When Visiting Dead Horse Point State Park
Dead Horse Point State Park lies just north of Moab, Utah and adjacent to the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park. You can easily stay in Moab to visit both parks but it is a bit of a drive. If you prefer to be closer, there are a few options inside the park.
At Dead Horse Point State Park, there are two campgrounds offering a total of 52 campsites. Of these, 41 offer electrical hookups and can accommodate tents or RVs. The other 11 are walk-up, tent-only sites. Due to the low water level, water is not available at either of the campgrounds.
In addition to the campsites, there are several yurts available for rent at Dead Horse Point State Park. Each yurt can sleep up to 6 people and provides heating, air conditioning and electrical outlets. Bathrooms are available within easy walking distance.
Not only does staying at the park allow you easier access, but it also allows you to take advantage of its status as an International Dark Sky Park. It is also quite close to Canyonlands National Park, making this a good base camp for exploring both parks.
If you prefer not to camp, you’ll find a wide variety of hotels in Moab. We have previously stayed at the Hampton Inn, which was comfortable and conveniently located. There are also a number of private campgrounds in Moab offering full hookups. We had a great stay at the Moab Rim Campark, which is located on the south end of town.
But, we’d love to camp at Dead Horse Point SP if we ever return to the area.
Final Thoughts on Dead Horse Point State Park
Overall, a visit to Dead Horse Point State Park is a great way to spend a few hours. In that time, you can easily enjoy a hike and visit some of the many overlooks that provide views into the vast canyon below. Those with more time can take in nearly all of the various canyon views and really soak up the endless beauty of the landscape.
Even if you only have a few minutes on your way into or out of Canyonlands National Park, a stop at Dead Horse Point State Park is well worth it. The view from the main overlook alone is simply breathtaking. With even more time, you can visit Arches National Park, which is closer to Moab and offers a significantly different landscape.
Regardless of how long you stay, hiking at Dead Horse Point State really provides the perfect opportunity to take in the grandeur of the Utah canyonlands.
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