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The Portal Overlook – Peering Down On An Icy River
by Marcy Hafner

According to the dictionary, a “portal” is a door, a gate or an entrance. In canyon country, the term “portal” describes an opening through which a river enters and then leaves a high-walled paradoxical valley, a rare geological phenomenon of a collapsed salt dome creating a deep depression. Paradox Valley, crossed by the Dolores River, is a paradoxical valley southeast of Moab in Colorado. Moab Valley is also paradoxical, and as the Colorado River crosses the valley north of town, it exits on a southerly course between Poison Spider Mesa and the Moab Rim through a gap known as The Portal.

The vantage point above the river, where I am hiking today is called the Portal Overlook. Covering a distance of just 1.5 miles, the Portal Overlook Trail gains a thousand feet in elevation. In other words, it’s a steady uphill grunt!

Since this trail is south facing, the snow melts off more quickly than on other more shaded trails, and during this snowy, super cold winter, an almost snow-free walk is exactly what I’m looking for! Bundling up to protect myself from a sharp breeze coming off a frigid river, I feel like a penguin who can barely move! What a contrast to summer’s oven-baking heat!

To get to the trailhead, drive north on Highway 191 and shortly after crossing the Colorado River, take a left on the Potash Road (Utah 279). Then go down river for 4.2 miles and park at the Jaycee Campground. Another access, however, just after mile marker 12, with parking on the left shoulder, will shorten the hike to the top by about a half-mile.

At the beginning of the trail, I scramble up a path of cobbled rocks, which mark the ancestral deposits of the Colorado River at a dramatically higher elevation from the current river corridor. Some of these deposits were swept downriver from as far away as Westwater Canyon, Glenwood Springs and the Uncompahgre Highlands in Colorado.

When I reach the first switchback, I pause to peer down on a river choked up with ice, an uncommon winter event. But with our steady string of sub-zero lows, this icy riparian scene should come as no surprise. Only the swiftest current survives the Polar Express freeze-up, and within the enclosure of a solid sheet of snow-coated ice, a small section of fast moving green water sparkles and shimmers in the reflecting sunlight.

After awhile, I arrive at a spot that I refer to as “The Hump,” and this is where I receive my first glimpse of town. Then going around the bend, the view of the river and town vanishes, and the domes above the Portal Overlook suddenly appear beckoning me onward. My goal is now in sight, and that gives me an extra boost as I continue walking on the steeply uplifted Kayenta Sandstone that wraps around the face of The Portal on the north side of the river.

Suddenly I hear the chatter of robins as they fly over and land in a small tree. Their sunny appearance momentarily brightens up a chilly winter’s day, but all too quickly they move on. Watching them depart, I wonder what called them here in the first place, as these birds tend to hang out at lusher locations.

The trail traverses along the base of a Wingate cliff, and I constantly crane my neck to absorb the overwhelming height of those towering reddish walls. Most unique along the ridgeline, which comes into sight towards the end of my walk, is a distinctive v-shaped break in the sandstone wall that I like to call “The Notch” – an impressive landmark that can be seen from town.

The final switchbacks, which swing steeply from one ledge to another, tell me that I am close to my destination. This trail continues on to the Poison Spider Mesa, but since I don’t have a death wish I am definitely stopping at The Overlook. Especially during the winter, this precipitous north-facing ledge can be very hazardous. Just one slip, a loss of balance and it’s a several hundred foot drop off the edge. It is much safer to travel when the snow, ice and mud are long gone, but even then a hiker should tread cautiously, realizing that three mountain bikers have died here.

Struggling to stay warm burns up the calories, and as I wolf down some all- important munchies at this unfenced viewpoint, long distance scenery stretches out before me: the white silhouette of the Bookcliffs on the northern horizon, the enchanting arches within the Windows section in Arches National Park and the distinctive snow-mantled image of the La Sal Mountains. Then looking southeasterly across the river, I am gazing upon the massive features of the Moab Rim and Behind The Rocks. From this bird’s eye perch, I also have an encompassing view of town, the Matheson Preserve and the wide sweep of an icy river with side channels wrapping their long fingers around snow-covered islands.

Peering down on a cold, frozen land, I take heart knowing the worst of winter is almost over and the promise of spring isn’t all that far away! Before long the winter snows will nourish early blooms of Newberry Twinpod - violet-green swallows and white-throated swifts will follow their migratory route along this ridge – turkey vultures on their spring migration will catch the thermals as they make lazy swirling circles in the sky – and black-throated sparrows will be singing their endearing three-note song. All this and so much more is worth waiting for!

Cryptobiotic soil garden
Cryptobiotic soil garden

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