Murphy Loop - Backpacking

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This spectacular overnight trip offers a crash course in backpacking the desert—and unbeatable views of the iconic Island in the Sky District.

Written by

Emma Walker


11.0 miles

The 10.8-mile round-trip distance doesn't include side trips—while it's important to stay on marked trails where they exist, you'll likely want to explore the mini-side canyons and washes, and a trip to Murphy Point is an absolute must.


2 of 5 diamonds

Not including the side trip to Murphy Point (a must-do, either at the beginning or the end of your trip), this hike clocks in at just under 11 miles. You'll switchback over 1,000 feet down a steep, exposed trail to get to Murphy Wash—and ascend it again the next morning. Aside from the descent, the hiking isn't particularly strenuous, though good route-finding skills and comfort in a remote backcountry setting are essential.

Time To Complete

2 days

You could certainly hike this loop in a day, but with its sweeping views and remote backcountry feel—all just a few miles from the parking lot—Murphy Loop is a great intro to desert backpacking.


Spring, Fall, and Winter

Regardless of the season, you'll need to bring all your own water—there's nothing potable (and often nothing at all) along the trail. Summer in the desert is sweltering, so shoulder seasons (or, for the hardy, winter) are the best time to backpack. Check the forecast before heading out; a big rainstorm could affect the condition of the wash.

Dog Friendly


No dogs are allowed beyond the parking lots in Canyonlands National Park. Do not leave dogs in the car; even cooler days in the shoulder seasons can mean dangerous temps for your pup.

Fees Permits


As with many national parks, backpacking in Canyonlands requires some planning in advance to get permits in order. All overnight backcountry trips in the park require a permit. A permit for this particular trip costs $30 for a group of up to seven people to stay up to seven consecutive nights in the park. Reserve a permit online (no more than four months but no less than two days before your trip), or visit the Hans Flat Ranger Station within 24 hours of the start of your trip.

Topographical Map

Murphy Loop - Backpacking



It’s hard to believe you can find such solitude just 45 minutes from bustling downtown Moab, but a trip to the Island in the Sky District in Canyonlands National Park offers unparalleled panoramic views, fascinating history, and, once you’ve descended into Murphy Wash, an escape from the crowds. 

The trail is a remnant from World War I-era cattlemen who brought their herds to Island in the Sky—then a prominent area for exploratory uranium prospecting—for winter grazing. Prospecting was banned in 1964 when the area became part of the newly-minted Canyonlands National Park, but the roads and trails remain; about a mile and a half of this loop is along the White Rim Road, where you’ll likely see jeeps and mountain bikers.

What Makes It Great

Words—and even pictures—can’t do justice to the 360-degree view from Murphy Point. You’ll want to visit the overlook at the beginning or end of your trip (it’s just over 3.5 miles round-trip and leaves from the same trailhead as Murphy Loop), and plan to spend some time soaking it all in. The view—and, in fact, the entire hike—is quintessentially desert: layers and layers of seemingly bottomless canyons, the Green River snaking its way to its confluence with the Colorado, and far-flung views of the La Sal and Henry Mountains will have you cashing in your vacation days and plotting your next trip to Canyon Country.

Murphy Loop begins atop a broad mesa and descends over a thousand vertical feet to the sweeping valley below; the steep, rocky switchbacks require some scrambling and shouldn't be attempted in wet conditions, when the slickrock lives up to its name. Shortly after the descent, the trail splits: left to hike the loop clockwise; right for counter-clockwise. (The elevation gain/loss is similar either way.) The trail is well-cairned across Murphy Hogback, which offers excellent views of the canyons. Take a left onto White Rim Road, which you’ll follow—keeping an eye out for mountain bikers and motorists—the crusty white salt deposits of Murphy Wash. Emerge from the wash to orient your campsite, watch the sunset, and get a good night’s sleep—you’ll need it for the strenuous hike out.

Who is Going to Love It

Murphy Loop is a perfect introduction to the desert for those who are comfortable carrying a fairly heavy pack (you’ll need to bring all your own water) and navigating remote backcountry—though much of the trail is well-marked, Murphy Wash occasionally requires some creative routefinding, and choosing an appropriate campsite is key when flash flooding is a very real possibility. If you’re new to desert backpacking, read up on the importance of cryptobiotic soil to the desert ecosystem before you go: the NPS needs your help to protect the delicate environment.

Directions, Parking, & Regulations

From downtown Moab, head north on US-191 for 11 miles, then take a left on UT-313 West. Follow this for 21 miles to the Island in the Sky Visitor Center, where you will pay your entrance fee and check in at the backcountry office. Follow the main park road to the trailhead for Murphy Point.

It’s recommended that you make reservations in advance for your permit, since there’s no guarantee you’ll get a first-come, first-serve permit if you wait until the day of your visit. Backcountry camping in Island in the Sky District is at-large, meaning there are no designated backcountry sites—it’s up to you to find an appropriate place to pitch your tent. Be sure to check the weather (and keep an eye on the horizon throughout your trip), as you’ll want to avoid the wash if there’s rain in the forecast.

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