White Rim Road… alone in the desert wilderness
September 3, 2017
Canyonlands, Utah–White Rim Road
White Rim Road
To prepare us for this road trip, we took a side trip down the Shafer Trail when we visited Canyonlands, Utah in 2016. This road has to be seen to be believed. It heads over the side of the Mesa and in 8 km it drops 1400 ft. into the canyon. It follows the cliff with many switchbacks and is a single track gravel trail. We didn’t need 4 wheel drive that day, but high clearance is necessary. Once at the bottom, we turned on Potash Road and followed an interesting road out to Moab, with views of arches and the river.
There is another road that continues from where we turned off. It is 160 km and travels around a third of the park with the Green River to the west and the Colorado River to the east. There are a number of campgrounds available for booking along the way. Peter decided then he wanted to take this White Rim Road and explore the desert in his truck.
This was his trip so he did most of the research and planning. He read up on the regulations in the park. He watched YouTube on others who had done it and checked out the route on Google Maps. The campgrounds were analyzed and booked. The truck had all the fluids topped up and the tires checked. Extra water jugs were pulled out of the basement and the backup battery charger for the engine’s battery was prepared.
I was rather anxious about this kind of adventure, but I trust his driving and I knew the truck was safe, so I was in. Not ecstatic, but in. I thought of it more like a backpacking trip with our Coleman Instant Tent, where you needed to be self-sufficient for a number of days, in this case, 4 We had 2 coolers, 1 for ice and 1 that runs off the 12 volt. I checked the first aid kit and made sure we had all the necessary supplies.
After a pleasant journey through Montana, Wyoming and Colorado, we arrived at Canyonlands National Park at 5 pm on a Friday afternoon. It is about 45 minutes north and west of Moab, Utah. We fully expected to have to camp somewhere in the Land Management Area in order to find a spot, but drove through Horsethief Campground just in case. It was almost empty! We couldn’t believe our good fortune. Our site overlooked the desert and although it didn’t have water, vault toilets were available and it was only $15.
It was hot and breezy, but the sky was so dark. The moon was almost new and I enjoyed working on my night photography skills without having to wear my toque and mittens. The MIlky Way was so clear and it was hard to see all the constellations for the stars.
Shafer Road to White Crack Day 1
We stopped at the information center at Island in the Sky to check in. The sites we booked were confirmed and after looking at the entire trip, we decided that 3 nights would be adequate for this trip and cancelled our final night. The fee for our back country permit was only $30 and was good for up to 7 days. It included our camping.
There was water available here and we topped up all of our containers. They recommend 4 liters per person per day when travelling in the desert where temperatures were usually 35 Celsius in the day and 18 at night. We had 47 L plus our filled water bottles. The cooler had a variety of canned drinks as well. There was plenty to drink, but I felt thirsty the whole time between the heat and knowing that my water supply was not unlimited.
We tipped off the top of the world onto Shafer Road. I felt okay since we had been down this cliff before. I had been in the back last time so hadn’t seen how many times the road seems to disappear at the corners. The road was smooth and a little more than 1 lane wide with amazing vistas. Looking back though, it is hard to know where you just drove. As we wound our way to the bottom, there are sheer red cliffs above you, and sheer drops below. Fortunately we didn’t meet anyone until the bottom.
We passed 2 tour vehicles ready to head up the trail. We also met a park ranger whose truck you can see in the picture. The info center told us they drive the White Rim Road daily, but this was the only official we saw in 3 days. We were also passed by a couple of Land Cruisers. They didn’t have any camping reservations and were driving the entire loop in one day. They could travel much quicker than us as they had a shorter wheel base, were not loaded with equipment and could reduce their tire pressure to go over the bumps and rocks more easily.
The road was primarily one lane wide. It was dirt or small gravel in lots of places which made for easier driving. The challenging sections were in the drainage and washout areas. Rain run off had washed away all the small rocks and left large rock or sometimes bedrock called sliprock. There were many large holes in front and behind these larger rocks that required lots of driver attention.
It wasn’t too bad in the flat areas, but the same thing happened on lots of the steep up and down climbs. Some climbs were so steep we couldn’t see past the hood of the truck. Watching for rocks sticking out from the side, holes in the road, drop offs and having no idea if the road turned left or right at the top of a climb made for full-time navigating for us both. Fortunately the 4 wheel-low works flawlessly. 4 high did a good job too when needed.
The advantage of being 1400 ft below the usual viewpoints is that you are that much closer to the canyons. We walked into Mussleman Arch and could look at the other hoodoos and formations and colours that are not apparent from the top. I took a picture of Mesa Arch from the top last year and was able to look at it from behind this time. The Washerwoman looks so interesting from close up. It is just a tiny formation seen through Mesa Arch.
There were a few campgrounds and picnic stops along the way. We had a picnic in the truck and completed 60 km to our first stop. It had taken most of the day as we were travelling between 10 and 40 km/hr. White Crack Campground was 2 km off the road and set on a rise overlooking the lower basins. We were at the very southern tip of Island in the Sky section of Canyonlands.
White Crack Campground
The camping area can be booked by a group of up to 10 with 3 vehicles. Since we were only 2 people with 1 vehicle, that is all they booked into this site. It is remote and silent. The sound of jets flying over were all there was to remind us that we were still part of the modern world.
It consisted of a vault toilet with the most spectacular view in the world, a large slab or red rock and a single juniper tree that we moved our chairs around to get a little shade. There was a short squall soon after we arrived but the wind died quite quickly and we didn’t lose any of our supplies over the cliff.
The sunset showed itself with clouds and lots of virga, although by true dark, the stars could be seen through the open windows of the tent, even without my glasses. We got up to watch the sun come up over the mountains and light up the canyon walls in the west. There was a short trail that took us neared the views to the south where we could clearly see the white rim of stone that was the uppermost layer in the canyons.
White Crack to Murphy Hogback Day 2
Our second day was much shorter than the first at only 15 km and about 1 ½ hours. We returned to the main road and travelled over several washout areas. We stopped several times to look at rock formations. Erosion is always at work here. We saw towers with harder rocks balanced precariously on top. There were some rocks that stood out from the canyon walls like fins.
Our first real challenge for the truck was driving up Murphy’s Hogback. It is a section of land raised up from the White Rim where we felt like we were driving straight up like those trucks you see in the commercials. It was very scary but the truck and driver did a great job. By the time I arrived at the top, I had a few tears of relief.
The camping area was right at the top of the Hogback at almost 1600 m. We were there by 11 am but I was glad for a break after all the anxiety of this trip. The steep section was a success, but I knew we had to go back down the other side. We did see one more truck go by all day, and that was the last of humanity that we saw until we completed our trip.
This campground had 3 separate sites, but we were the only ones there. Again we had a vault toilet with a view and a friendly juniper tree to give us so more shade. There were no tables provided, but we had a portable table top that unrolls and sits on a base.
We also had Coleman Instant Screen room. It was really handy on our trip to the Alaska Inside Passage. We set it up over the picnic table and used the propane fire ring in the doorway to keep us warm and dry in all the rain. Since we were encouraged not to exert ourselves in the heat of the day, we set up the room, covered the sunny side with a tarp, spread out our camping mat and had a day off. I worked on my blog and read. Peter read the maps and rested from the driving of the last week. We had lots of water to drink and finished the day with rib steaks on the grilling pan and wished we had brought wine as well. Those kinds of meals are definitely not backpacking meals. (Pinot Grigio)
The sky was very cloudy around sunset. There was rain and virga in the area, but we didn’t get moisture. I didn’t want to have to worry about slippery roads for the way out. After sitting and relaxing all day, we realized that we didn’t need another night in the desert so planned to drive out the rest of the way. We planned to stop at our last camping spot and check it out just in case. It was also the day of the North American Solar Eclipse so we needed to be somewhere open enough to see what effect an 80% eclipse had on the landscape.
Murphy’s Hogback to Potato Bottom and beyond Day 3
Getting up so as not to miss the Canyon sunrise meant we were on the road by 7:30. The trip down off the summit was like pointing your skis down a black run. You just have to go. It was steep and rough, but it was okay. Luckily no one was coming up at the time. We used the GPS more today to see which way the road curved before we got there.
The road today took us along several canyon edges and eventually down to the Green River. The weather was clear and sunny again and the views amazing. We could look up at towers and mesas. We got to our booked camping spot about 9 and decided to carry on to the Mineral Bottom boat lauch for the eclipse, just past the end of White Rim Road.
Or next scary section was up Hardscrabble switchbacks which very quickly takes you up and over a high section and back down to the river again. It really took 2 of us to get through this. I watched for rocks and holes on the right and Pete kept his eye on the left. I was also responsible for any big rocks jutting out from the right although there was seldom any room on the cliff side of the road to do anything about it. Neither of us looked down. There was one switch back that we had to enter a turn around area to get the right angle to continue up the hill.
We got back down to the river again along a narrow trail that caught us by surprise and were soon found ourselves at the exit to the White Rim Road, 3 days and 160 km of adventure later.
We got a chance to see the eclipse through some paddler’s glasses. The light seemed to glare less off the cliffs but it was really not that noticeable, considering how much of the sun was covered by the moon. We did notice some really interesting shadows on the sand and the temperature dropped from about 35 to 25 Celsius for a short time.
After watching the paddler’s prepare for their trip, we finished our trip on the White Rim Road by exiting up the Mineral Bottom Road. It was steep with lots of switchbacks, but it had signs for curves and reinforced corners and felt like a highway. It was time for a shower and dinner in Moab.