We didn’t set out that morning to run the entire 100 or so miles White Rim Road in a day. In fact, it wasn’t until 10AM that we had any idea of what we might do. But, I had been browsing the internet and saw that there were permits available for the trail and we had nothing better to do…
The White Rim Trail is a beautiful road that runs through Canyonlands National Park in the Island in the Sky area. Because it is unimproved and remote, recommendations are to have both high clearance and four wheel drive. Since we have both and, since we were staying at Dead Horse Point State Park right down the road, we figured we would drop down the rim and take a closer look.
There are two routes to get to White Rim Road, the Shafer Trail, which we had done two days before, and Mineral Bottom at the other end. Our goal, at 10AM, was to go down Mineral Bottom, check things out for a couple of hours, then come back up. So, by 11AM we were in the Jeep heading over to Mineral Bottom along BLM 129 just outside of our campground.
We made it down to the bottom with clean and dry seats in spite of the fact that we passed two other cars going up. In our case, it was much worse for the passenger than the driver, as the driver at least has a steering wheel to brace themself with (Here is a video of someone else going down the road). Honestly, for me, who is really afraid of edges, going up Shafer Trail is way worse than coming down Mineral Bottom. Coming down, you can see the road ahead of you for a bit and you don’t have to worry about rolling backwards over the edge.
Once we got down there, we could make a left or a right. Mike decided on left, which took us onto White Rim Road. We figured we would head a couple of miles down the road, see a little, wander, then turn around and head back.
The road follows the river for a while and we passed people camping and quite a few bike riders. We pass through some pretty deep sand that we had to race through and I felt sorry for the bicyclists coming up to it – it was going to be a rough slog and there was no path around it.
The scenery just kept getting more beautiful and the road more bumpy.
And then we finally hit it – our first tight squeeze.
After making our way around the cliff, the world opened up a little onto a plateau.
And then continued back around towards the mesa.
Where we were met with this:
We weren’t sure what to make of it. We were pretty sure there was a road up there because the road supposedly went all the way around. We just couldn’t see it. Until we spotted the bright yellow jeep. It is impossible to find in the picture above, so here is a crop of near the center:
That is how incredibly large the wall before us was. While we waited for the jeep to get where we were (a good five minutes at least), we had a talk.
M – “We can go forward, or turn around here.”
C – “You mean go back along that cliff?”
M – “Either forward along that cliff or back along the other.”
C – “Or just live here on granola bars and handouts.”
M – “…”
C – “Okay, I prefer the dangers I don’t know to the ones I do. How much gas do we have?”
M – “A little over 1/2 a tank.”
C – “What time is it?”
M – “12:30. Best case, we make it back to camp when the low fuel light comes on at around 9PM. Worst case, we fly off the cliff. In between case, we end up stuck somewhere on the road eating granola bars and hand outs.”
C – “…”
M – “…”
C – “Forward it is.”
And that is how we ended up trying to drive 100 miles at about 10 miles an hour through Islands of the Sky on the White Rim Road.
When the yellow jeep made it down to us, we got ready to go up. They waved to us and drove over. They were being followed by three street motorcycles (they didn’t know them) and one of the drivers was petrified. He kept getting off and walking his bike, afraid he would fly off the cliff. I honestly didn’t blame him.
When the motorcycles finally made it down and on their way, we headed up the side of the mountain. We stopped for a minute when we saw this:
This is where we were headed. How amazing is that?
We started up the cliff face and I didn’t take a picture for ten minutes. I’m guessing I was too busy holding on to pay attention to taking pictures. I did get a shot 11 minutes later of the road we had been on, and another one of the road we were on.
From the top of the mesa we could see where we were headed next.
We just had to get down there. I was kind of looking forward to it. It wasn’t possible that going down was worse than going up. Mostly.
We hit the first major ‘down,’ a 45 degree hill that banked to the left into what felt like a slolom course for luge sleds. And just as suddenly we were out, down by the water and in a new landscape.
The world was full of cracks. Large gaping cracks in what looked like an otherwise normal desert landscape. It was both beautiful and scary at the same time. Not an ‘I’m afraid of edges scary,’ more of an ‘I am so completely awestruck by this amazing scene it might swallow me whole scary.’
Then the cracks become canyons and then their bottoms fall away into deeper canyons and the white rim dribbles over the side sucking you into the view. In one moment you suddenly realize you no longer know where the bottom is anymore because a minute ago you were at the bottom, the cliffs to your back, but now you are at the top of cliffs before you and there are more cliffs below them and it just becomes one insane Ecsher painting you may never be able to escape and so you sigh. And you sigh deep because you want to catch your breath – the view took it away and you realize – this is islands in the sky what can the maze possibly be like? And suddenly, for just a moment, I understand how Billy Pilgrim felt.
Or maybe we had just been here for too long without a break.
We noticed the shadows getting longer and checked the time. 2:30, and we weren’t halfway through. We decided we needed to stop a little less and move a little more. The road and the terrain changed once again as we move away from the river.
It was about here that we hit a blind hill. I failed to take a picture of it, but the road went up at a really steep angle and disappeared. Because we needed to accelerate hard to get up the hill and we didn’t know what was on the other side, we stopped. I jumped out to see where the road went and literally ran into a park ranger. He was coming up the other side at the same time and must have seen my head pop up over the ridge. He was on a motorcycle and cut his engine and steered away. It could have been really messy, probably more for him than us, had we continued up without checking.
We chatted for a few minutes. His job is patrolling the White Rim Road which he does by off road motorcycle. He really loved his job and I really couldn’t blame him. Back and forth a couple of times a day, checking for wayward hikers, broken down cars, injured campers and whatever else may happen along. He told us we should have no problem making it out as he had already run the road. The Hogback was dry and fairly safe (it had rained off and on the day before) and only a little scary. We both moved on in opposite directions.
And then we came to the Murphy Hogback. The hogback is a ridge that must be ascended and descended to run the White Rim Road. It brings together all the impediments to easy off-road driving: steepness, loose sand and gravel, slick clay and cliffs. On our ascent, we only had to worry about three.
To ascend the hogback, you need forward momentum and traction. But, if you have too much speed, you run the risk of being bounced right off the trail and off the side. So we popped the jeep into four wheel low and went for it. The very last hill, just below the top, is incredibly steep. We could feel gravity pulling us back as the jeep tried to move forward. Its a delicate balancing act: torque vs. weight vs. speed vs. traction. In the end, momentum won and we crested the top.
There was a crowd at the top, some of them campers some of them day trippers wanting to run the hogback on bicycles. It was a party atmosphere as everyone celebrated every crest of the hill. We took a short break then headed over to the descent.
We made it down to the bottom with way less drama than we had reaching the top. Gravity assisted on the steep hill.
It was now 3:30 PM and we still had about 50 more miles to go. We sped up, knowing there would be a lot of things we missed.
We passed through some beautiful landscapes that demanded further exploring – some other day. We hit an area of slick rock, some of it steep, but the ground was dry and the jeep had no problems climbing it.
We kept moving, through sublime landscapes, trying to beat the sun to the top.
We would our way around canyons and cliffs as the sun sunk further. Photography became difficult as the shadows overtook the view.
We made it to the Shafer trail at dusk with just enough light to see our way up. While I couldn’t get good photos of it this day, we had run the Shafer Trail two days before and include a picture from that here:
We crawled out of the canyon around 7PM. Our low fuel light came on just as we made the main road in the park. We made it!
It is possible to do the White Rim Road in Canyonlands in a day, though it is a very long day and we missed a lot. But we would not hesitate to do it again and plan on it in April of next year. This time, though we start with the Shafer Trail earlier in the morning and follow the sun around to the other side.
A high clearance vehicle is definitely a requirement. There are some ledges and rocks to scramble over. Because the road was dry, we may have been able to get by without four wheel drive, but I wouldn’t recommend it. There are a few spots of deep sand easier to navigate in four high and some of the steep hills are easier done in four low. Our jeep has a manual transmission which made controlling speed on the steep down hills simple. I’m guessing an automatic could run in first gear and accomplish the same thing. But, compared to many of the jeep trails around Moab, the White Rim Road is easy for a stock jeep with a capable driver.