White Rim Road, Sky District in Canyonlands National Park

Reading Time: 11 minutes

The White Rim Road has always been on my to-do list for trails. I have been thinking about taking this trip for a very long time and yet there are so many good places to visit that it has somehow been neglected in my overland travels. That is until now. And let me tell you it was worth the wait. The White Rim Road for those of you who do not know is a moderate 4wd road that circles the Island in the Sky District in Canyonlands National Park for about 100 miles or so. When the typical tourist visits Canyonlands National Park in the family mini van they go out and see the sites from far above. The White Rim Road is basically what you are looking down on when your are high above standing in the established “scenic overlook” points. The funny thing to me about Canyonlands National Park is that even down on the White Rim Road you still feel like you are looking down from far above. The road is definitely rough but fairly easy to complete if you have a high clearance 4×4 vehicle that has low gearing and is in good working order. For this trip we decided to take the Volkswagen Vanagon Syncro.

The van handled very well on the road but I do have some modifications that give me quite a bit of ground clearance and I have some heavy duty skid plating both of which I was very grateful for on the trip. I think that there are a few stock SUV’s and most trucks would be fine but I would be very careful as there are some rough sections and some very steep sections. I will talk more about the steeper sections in a second. As I said before the road is approximately 100 miles long and for that 100 miles we averaged about 8 mph. You can do the trip in a day but the time of year we picked (early November) and our desire to not rush through the scenery determined that we were going to stay overnight. In order to stay overnight on the white rim road you need to purchase both a ticket into the park as well as a backcountry permit to camp from the NPS. We were lucky we got there on veterans day which saved us from paying to get into the park but we still had to get a back country permit ($30 as of 2011). There are fairly strict rules to follow in your back country conduct and for the benefit of everyone else and the very fragile desert environment it pays to speak to the Park Rangers before hitting the trail. This is not the place to wander off the beaten path. Here we are picking up the permit. It gave us a great chance to talk with the Park Rangers as well. November is an excellent time to visit since most people visit earlier in the fall.

The trail is amazing. You want to make sure you gas up in Moab before you go. Be sure you take enough fuel that if you had to turn around in the last mile of the trail you could and do the whole thing backwards to make your way back out. The funny thing to me is that the start of this trail and the end of this trail are only about 8 miles apart on the same highway. The 100 miles is simply a large loop. The nice thing is that you could probably hike out to the pavement above on the designated trails within a day if you had to. I guess the other thing to mention is that you need to take lots of water and extra food in case it rains. I think a tank would get stuck down there when it rains hard. The dirt turns to clay and it is nearly impossible to move when it is saturated.

The scenery is Amazing. It is almost to the point of saturation to where you just sort of miss some of the spectacular sites because the whole trail is simply amazing. You just can’t find a dull spot to stare at anywhere.

The first obstacle you encounter is the Shafer Switchbacks. They are steep and they look scary but really they are pretty tame. I down shifted and let the engine hold us back and we simply coasted down to the bottom. If you get nervous here just turn back now because the shelf roads and the steepness factor multiply by 10 down the trail.

At the bottom of the switchbacks the road splits. You can take the Potash road back to Moab which is a 4×4 road but is much tamer and is a fun drive. There are only a couple of mild rough spots and with careful driving any stock 4wd can make that road. It is a great way to get down into the canyon you overlook at the Dead Horse State Park overlook. Both roads are very well marked and easy to follow. On the White Rim Road we only had a couple of times where we had to look to follow the road and only for a brief second or two. My Garmin road GPS was pretty much worthless however.

Sorry about the dirty GPS. Driving with the windows down produces lots of muck which does not photograph well. The first place you come to is the Goosenecks trail head. It is a short hike yet long enough that we didn’t want to go back for the camera we forgot in the car. Here is the trailhead.

Next is Mussleman Arch. Cross if you dare. It really is a long way down.

A few miles after Mussleman is the first campsite called Airport Tower. There are pit toilets stationed along the way about every 10 miles and also campsites about every ten miles all the way along. Which would be good for backpackers or bikers. Motorcycles can go so much faster than 4wd vehicles that they rarely need to spend the night unless you want to. Off road motorcycles and ATV’s however are banned. Only street legal bikes are allowed to avoid the crowd from tearing up the fragile desert crust. I think it would be just a little too tempting.

The next stop is washerwoman arch. Which looks like someone doing laundry the old fashioned way.

The next campsite is Gooseberry. None of the campsites are bad and the park service has done a great job in trying to make any that have multiple sites far from ear shot so you truly feel alone but Gooseberry isn’t my favorite site. It is pretty much just right on the road. The next site however in my opinion is by far the best. That would be where we slept at White Crack. The road to White Crack is approximately 1 mile off of the White Rim Road and even if you don’t camp there it is very much worth seeing.

Here is our campsite. It was amazing. I will warn you however that it is a good idea to bring some mint extract and stick it in a few places in open baby food jars throughout your vehicle or camp. The White Crack Mice are notorious for breaking in and having their way with everything you own inside and outside your vehicle. The ravens are just as bad and the rangers warned us that if you leave stuff for the ravens you will have a hot mess to clean up in the morning. The idea of camping along this trail is to leave no trace. I thought it was funny that there was a ton of toilet paper stocked at White Crack and Murphy’s camps because they are the furthest away. The rangers must not like to visit any more often that they have to.

The night was beautiful. We had too much cloud cover to check out the stars and it was pretty chilly but thankfully we had the Goal Zero Solar equipment that charged the batteries up and we had time to work through some of the images we had taken and a good chance to watch a movie on my laptop.

The night air was rather chilly in November. We took extra warm sleeping bags and I slept in a hat and gloves. In the morning it warmed up to 50 or so fairly quickly an defrosted us a bit. It actually seemed colder inside my van than outside once we got up.

In the morning we had a chance to explore and get some great pictures. There is just so much to see it is amazing. One of my favorite things to see was simply the puddles from rains earlier in the week. The puddles can be the life blood of the desert. Be careful not to step in them because you can contaminate them and cause the death of untold wildlife that use them as their only source of water. Here was a fairly good sized puddle. It felt like the blood of the desert to me.

Here is a shot from monument basin which we passed between White Crack and Gooseberry.

The next part of the road is not too bad but it does get rougher after White Crack. And then you get to Murphy’s Hogback. It looks scarier that it is but that doesn’t make you feel any better. It was good I had the granny gear and I was grateful for my rear locker here. Slipping is scary and it is super steep. I can only imagine that if you are in a truck all you will see is hood and sky. I was glad I had the Syncro with it’s panoramic views of the road ahead.

It is a pretty good drop off on the side with a very narrow road and as I said extremely steep. The pictures don’t seem to do the road justice. Here we are at the top at the campsite which is an excellent 3 sites. We stopped to unpucker our back sides for about 10 minutes.

Also keep in mind that everything that goes up must come down. The back side of the hogback is almost as steep and the are a couple of overhangs that I was worried I would not fit under. My van is pretty tall needing about eight and a half feet of clearance with the gas tanks on the top. Anything taller would not do so well after the top of Murphy’s Hogback. There are several places on the trail where damage would be very likely. There was lots of great scenery just from them cutting the road. This wasn’t and overhang but was kind of narrow.

There were one or two places on the trail that were mere inches from the edge of a shear cliff going down on one side and inches from a shear cliff going up on the other side. The worst spots are just above the green river before Labyrinth and the Taylor Canyon turn off.

After Murphy’s we stopped and Candlestick and made some lunch. The wind was fierce here and dust was flying everywhere. This area is full of deep sand. We were fine because of some recent rains which had actually left the sand a bit firm but beware and air down accordingly. Digging out would be a pain and there are some very long stretches so sand to worry about. Here we are at Candlestick.

Here is the view from the candlestick campsites.

Here is a good view of the pit toilets. I know my wife is always much happier when there are decent facilities. The rangers told us if we absolutely had to pee we could on the road or in a wash but preferred we keep it to the pit toilets. They ware actually quite nice. I didn’t love seeing or smelling them in the beauty of the park but I understand their need.

From Candlestick you drop down to the River. The time of year was so awesome for us because of the leaves changing on the banks of the green. It is hard for me to understand the water that is in the Colorado and the Green right there based on how dry it is everywhere around it but there is a ton of water flowing down the rivers. They are massive for this state.

From Potato Bottom which I thought was an excellent campsite with trees and high cliff walls for shade during hotter weather you make it to Hard Scrabble Hill. It is every bit as steep as Murphy’s Hogback and the switchbacks are very very tight. I was grateful that the German’s made my van with a very tight turning radius. I can image most pickups having to do multiple point turns on some very steep hills with very close ledges. Here is the bottom of Hard Scrabble.

You go up the Hardscrabble and at the top you find a very cool shelf road.

The road looks like it is ready to fall at any minute. Passing is out of the question and it runs like this for several miles with about 1000 feet falling off to the side. You are literally sticking off the side of a cliff. The shade of the cliff also had kept the ground a little more moist here than I would have liked. Water and gravity are the enemy of shelf roads together.

The views of the Green River where amazing. One of my favorite parts of the trip. There were so many colors I didn’t expect to see in the red rock country. Photos don’t do it justice.

Later on you get very close to the river on perhaps the most narrow of shelf roads. You are about 100 feet straight up off the water with only inches to spare for a good 500 yards. I would not have enjoyed it as much in a full sized pickup that would be for sure. I didn’t take any still pictures of that so you will have to wait for the video to see that footage. Also as with Murphy when you go up you must go down and Hardscrabble was just as steep going down. By the way at the only point you could pass another vehicle for several miles of shelf road we saw the first person that we had seen for 24 hours straight. I don’t know how or why he was sitting there because I don’t think he could have seen us coming in any way but we lucked out. It would have been a very long back for either him or us on some very nasty narrow shelf road. We lucked out. Here is the road we were on.

They say learning takes place on the edges. I guess we took it literally.

Here is the Hardscrabble Campsite. Just on the other end of Hardscrabble hill.

The road turns sandy once again and you follow the river. Here is where we encountered the most narrow shelf roads. Sadly I don’t have still pictures so use this as a teaser to check out the video when I stop being lazy and produce it.

After the river you start to ascend just slightly and you end up at the Labyrinth Camp and the turn off to Taylor Canyon. We didn’t go up Taylor but there is supposed to be a very nice campsite up there. Maybe a good one to bring the family back to at a later date.

The road greatly improves after this point and you head through some big washes. I can’t believe the amount of water that must have come down in the Spring of 2011. They had to re-route part of the road through one of the washes and it just boggles my mind. I wish I could have been there to see all the water just pouring over the cliff walls. I can imagine it was so beautiful and the energy of all that water must have been amazing. Our speed picks up after the Taylor Canyon turn off as we head out of the park to about 25. Some muddy sections but nothing we couldn’t plow through. You get to the boat ramp turn off and you are almost home free.

After this you head up the Mineral Basin switchbacks which are as steep as the Shafer Switchbacks but wider and have paved sections as you make the turns. They had a huge washout about a year before we went but all was repaired and was better than new. After the Mineral Basin Switchbacks you hit what feels like the Interstate of dirt roads.

14 miles of 45 miles an hour. It felt like we were flying after the slow trudge through the White Rim Road. Suddenly you break out onto pavement and head back to Moab for dinner and gas. We didn’t use our Jerry Cans so we filled up the gas tank from them to avoid carrying extra weight when we didn’t need to. We had 10 gallons of gas or so in the Jerry cans and we headed to the gas station to top off before heading home.

.28 gallons was all that was needed to make us full. It literally stopped just as I started pumping. We ended up averaging about 14 miles per gallon on the trail. Normally I average about 20 in my van. All in all it was an excellent trip and I hope you take the time to make it at least once in your life. There are very few places on earth with scenery like this and if you go in the off season you will enjoy almost absolute solitude. It made a great trip and one I am sure I will do again.

Now Get Out and eXplore.

By David Fowers for getoutexplore.com

Photo by NPS.gov

Leave a comment