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Utah: The White Rim, Canyonlands

A bit of nerve opens up the stunning canyonlands made famous by Wile E. Coyote.

by: Steve Howe

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Little-Known Fact: Besides Native Americans, cowboys, river explorers, and uranium prospectors, few were familiar with these remote lands when Canyonlands National Park was established in 1964.

There are few vistas on Earth as humbling as those from Grandview Point in Utah's Canyonlands National Park. The area offers panoramas of rugged canyons, dramatic cliffs, isolated buttes, desert basins, mesas, and lofty mountain ranges. This must be the inspiration behind the Roadrunner cartoons.

What has always amazed me about Grandview Point, besides the scenery, is the multitude of adventure possibilities that beckon. Stand and stare and you can see dozens of potential destinations. Old jeep roads snake between the cliff bands ~ perfect for a mountain bike. And below, running around Monument Basin, is the White Rim Trail, a 100-mile-loop jeep road through the most scenic part of the area known as the "Land of Standing Rock."

When I first saw the trail, I didn't know what to do with it. It was too long and dry to hike, and I wasn't into four-wheelin'. A few years after mountain bikes had begun to gain popularity, I heard about a friend who had ridden the entire loop in a day. Traveling this trail by fat tire sounded interesting, if not a trifle brutal. Before long, I found myself plunging down 1,200 feet of switchbacks on the Shafer Trail, beginning a three-day-two-night ride of the White Rim.

Dropping down the Shafer Trail ~ especially in winter when it's snowpacked ~ is as close as you can get to taking a mountain bike through orbital re-entry. But the scenery soon brought my focus to other things. Below me, the trail stretched off arrow-straight along the White Rim shelf, disappearing into a land of red cliffs and moss-green benches.

Within a couple of hours I'd passed Musselman Arch and Washerwoman Arch, and skirted around Buck Canyon. I rounded Junction Butte and passed the turn-off to White Crack campground at the southern apex of the triangular loop. Within half a mile I rode up against the western edge of the White Rim shelf and there, in the slickrock mounds, I caught a superb view of the crimson sunset.

After sleeping through a night of gusty rainstorms, I was back on the trail the next morning thinking that until this point, gnarly uphills had been suspiciously lacking. But my karmic wheel was about to come full circle. Up, down, up, down, UP ~ when I saw the last steep incline, I hopped off my bike and started pushing.

Descending the north side of the Murphy Trail was just as exciting as plunging down the Shafer Trail had been, but instead of switchbacks it was dead straight, with serious exposure and loose rocks waiting to deflect unwary riders into space. Having successfully navigated the descent, I wanted to sleep next to the Green River, so I pedaled on and spent the night at Mineral Bottom, making camp deep in the tamarisk tunnels.

A monster one-pot meal put me to sleep by 7 p.m., but I awoke for a full-moon midnight walk; a slow, thoughtful shuffling in the desert. The broad bend of the Green shone in the moonlight, banking its way around and off to the south. No movement, no wind, no sound, just the endless patience of the wilderness.

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