Before Canyonlands National Park was created in the 1960s, the area was used extensively
for such activities as prospecting with the result that the park now has a rather
extensive network of dirt roads and trails.
[Photo, left: The White Rim in the foreground is a plateau below the Island in the Sky which rises in the background.]
The roads offer four wheel drive
enthusiasts an excellent recreational opportunity. While vehicles must remain
on the roads and trails, and camping is limited to designated areas,
four wheelers have the chance to experience a large and highly scenic backcountry.
[Photo, right: A designated camping area on the White Rim Trail.]
The park's three districts offer varying possibilities for backcountry travel.
The Needles District offers the infamous Elephant Hill, a hair-raising climb
over a supersteep and ragged slickrock ridge. The remote Maze District is accessible
only by many miles of tough four wheel drive routes. If you are very skillful
and self sufficient you will find unspoiled solitude in the Maze.
The pictures featured on this page are from the White Rim Trail in the Island in The
Sky District. The Island is an isolated mesa which towers thousands of feet above
the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers. The White Rim is a plateau at
the foot of this mesa. The trail essentially follows the White Rim around the Island.
Its length is about 100 miles which makes for an excellent 3 or 4 day camping
trip with non-stop wonderful scenery.
The White Rim Trail is a moderately easy four wheel drive road but does have some difficult stretches. Most people make the trip in a clockwise direction, descending the Island in the Sky via the exciting Shafer Trail which starts close to the visitor center where you would pick up your permit for the trip. The Shafer Trail offers an exciting switchbacked descent to the White Rim where it meets the White Rim Trail. Alternately, remaining on the Shafer Trail offers a very interesting and shorter trip east back to the town of Moab.
On our first night we stayed at the designated camping area on the Shafer Trail just east of the White Rim Trail. Here we had quite a daunting problem with some very aggresive rodents.
On the southeast side (Colorado River) of the mesa, the White Rim remains several hundred feet above the Colorado River offering many scenic overlooks. On the southwest side (Green River) the rim comes down closer to the Green River, and offers some access to a lusher environment nearer to the river.
Lathrop Canyon is a spur off the White Rim Trail, which reaches the Colorado River. It is a very challenging four wheel drive route, extremely steep, loose, and rocky. My experience was sliding down the rocky trail in 4WD low with my foot on the brake the entire way. The return uphill to the main trail was much easier. Where the route reaches the Colorado River, it is extremely lush with plenty of shady tree cover. It made for very pleasant camping. However it is now a designated picnic area.
[Above right: the Colorado River at the mouth of Lathrop Canyon. Above left: a Colorado River vista.]
Just past the midway point, on the Green River side, there is an exciting stretch of road with an extremely steep climb up a ridge known as Murphy's Hogback. The road becomes very narrow with no shoulder and little room for error. As you approach the top, it is so steep that you can't really see over your hood. If a vehicle was approaching from the other way you would have a problem. My experience was blowing the horn and hoping for the best. (No one was coming.)
Further west, Hardscrabble Hill also offered some challenges. Past that, we stayed the final night at the Labyrinth designated camping area along the Green River. The route stays close to the river for a number of miles before ending at the Mineral Road, a rough and very steep two wheel drive road which climbs back up to the Island in the Sky and the main road. The difficult Mineral Road switchbacks (photo, left - courtesy NPS) have been recently refurbished after having been closed for an extensive period due to washouts. There is a spur to Mineral Bottom where boaters and rafters embark on Green River trips.
Touring the White Rim Trail
The White Rim Trail is typically toured with a four wheel drive vehicle in two to three days. It is a very challenging three or four days with a mountain bike. (ATVs and non-street legal dirt bikes are not permitted.) The White Rim is part of the backcountry of Canyonlands National Park, and overnight stays require permits. The trip is very popular in the spring and fall when the weather is comfortable. (It is extremely hot in the summer, there is no potable water, and little shade.) Therefore, reservations are accepted and advisable during the busy months.
Overnight visitors must stay in one of the ten designated camping sites each night. Pit toilets are provided, but not drinking water. To make a reservation, you need to spell out an itinerary with your choice of camping sites and alternates. The following links will help you plan your trip:
Visitors to the White Rim must be very self-sufficient and ready for adventure. It is a very remote wilderness with no amenities. The summers are long and hot, the road is rough, there is very little shade, and no potable water (carry a gallon per person per day during hot weather). Carry plenty of food and water, as well as tools and emergency gear. Support vehicles are suggested for mountain bikers. If you get into trouble, it will be a long time for help to arrive. Do not expect cell phone service. If you needed to be towed, it will cost a small fortune. The reward for all this is a superb wilderness experience.
[Photo, above right: the Shafer Trail coming down to the White Rim from the Island in the Sky.]