Utah: The White Rim, Canyonlands

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

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.

Contact Information:

Canyonlands National Park

2282 S. West Resource Blvd.

Moab, UT 84532-8000

801/259-7164

Location:

The White Rim is in southeast Utah, north of the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers in Canyonlands National Park, 35 miles southwest of Moab, Utah.

For more area information, contact:

Grand County Travel Council

Box 550

Moab, UT 84532

800/635-6622

San Juan County Travel Council

Box 490

Monticello, UT 84535

800/574-4386

Getting There:

To get to the Needles District, from U.S. 91 take Utah 211 west. To get to the island in the Sky District, from U.S. 91 take Utah 313 south. To get to the Maze District, from Utah 24 or 95 take two- and then four-wheel drive routes east.

Seasonal Information:

The busiest seasons are spring and fall, when daytime highs average 600 to 80ºF and lows average 200 to 50ºF. Spring brings wildflowers to life and autumn ushers in golden leaves.

Summer temperatures average in the low 90s in the day and the 60s at night. In July and August, there can be a strong chance of thunderstorms.

Winter temperatures average in the high 30s in the day and low 20s at night.

Wildlife:

Common are desert bighorn sheep, mule deer, coyotes, peregrine falcons, golden eagles, red-tailed hawks, ravens, blue herons, river otters, and beaver.

Insects:

Mosquitoes, cedar gnats, and deer flies all make their presence felt in Canyonlands' backcountry. At times, mosquitoes and deer flies can be so intense as to make tentless camping very difficult and long pants mandatory for hiking in wash bottoms. Early spring and fall are good times to avoid these pests.

Plant Life:

There are 94 types of flowers that grow in this region.

Facilities:

Backpackers stay either in designated sites or in at-large camping zones.

In the Needles district, there is frontcountry camping at Squaw Flat, offering water and pit toilets for $6 per night. In the Island in the Sky District, Willow Flat offers free sites with pit toilets. Both campgrounds provide picnic tables and grills. These sites operate on a first-come, first-served basis.

There are group sites for 11 or more people in the Needles District. These must be reserved for $10 plus $2 per person per night. To reserve, call 801/259-4351.

Needles Outpost, a private campground, is located adjacent to the Needles District. This site provides gas, food, and jeep rentals spring through fall.

Campgrounds usually fill every night from March to Memorial Day and again from Labor Day through mid-October, so be prepared with a backup plan in case no sites are available.

There are visitor centers in the Sky and Needles districts. The information center for the Maze District is located at Hans Flat Ranger Station.

Parking:

Contact park office for information.

Permits:

A backcountry permit is required and should be reserved well in advance. Permits are also required for both day and overnight horse use in the park. No permit is required for day hiking.

During the spring and fall, demand for backpacking and four-wheel-drive camping permits frequently exceeds the number available. To reserve, call 801/259-4351.

Policies:

  • All wood fires are prohibited in the backcountry except in the river corridor. Charcoal fires are allowed only at vehicle campsites and in the river corridor.
  • Pets are prohibited in the backcountry, even inside vehicles.
  • Hunting or feeding wildlife is prohibited.
  • Climbing on natural arches is prohibited (except for Washer Woman Arch) and climbing is not permitted in the Salt Creek Archaeological District in the Needles. All climbing must be free or clean aid climbing.

FEES

From March through October, there is an entrance fee of $4 for private vehicles or $2 for cyclists and walk-ins (good for seven days).

For day use in restricted areas, the permit fee is $5; for backpacking, $10; for flat water, $10; for four-wheel drive campsites, $25; for Cataract Canyon white water, $25. During the spring and fall, reservations (800/22-3770) are recommended.

Hazards:

  • Though large snowfalls are uncommon in the park, even small amounts of snow or ice can make trails and roads treacherous or impassable.
  • Beware of flash floods.
  • Bring your own water. One gallon per person per day is the minimum recommended.
  • Pack in, pack out.

Leave No Trace:

  • Remain on marked trails.
  • When you see rocks piled along the roads or campsites, do not try to move them or drive beyond them. They are placed there by rangers to help stop further destruction of impacted areas. All LNT guidelines apply.

Maps:

Topos and other maps are available at any of the Park Service visitor centers. Backcountry Trip Planner is a good source.

Publications are also available from:

Canyonlands Natural Historical Association

3031 South Highway 191

Moab, UT 84532

801/259-6003