If you’re like me, you have a bucket list, a lifetime wish list of things to do and places to see. My bucket list is pretty extensive. It includes destinations and 4×4 roads from Alaska in the north to the Patagonia’s in the south. One trail I’ve been anxious to explore is the popular White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park. Truth be told, I’ve been waiting to take this epic trip for years. The wife and I were finally able to tackle this amazing, 100-mile-long trail three weeks ago, led by veteran trail runner, Alex Blasingame, and his wife Julie. I was thrilled when Alex accepted my invitation to lead this expedition. Having driven the White Rim Trail five times before, there are few truck camper owners who have more experience on this trail than Alex. We were also joined on this expedition by Nolan Sturgeon and his family, but due to a late start caused by a freak snow storm they had to drop out at the end of the first day.
What draws so many people to the White Rim Trail? What’s the lure? The amazing scenery of Canyonlands National Park is the main reason. The other is the challenge of traveling on this sometimes rugged but always enjoyable trail. Canyonlands National Park is a showcase of geology. The park lies within a region called the “Colorado Plateau” a geologic uplift straddling the Four Corners of the United States and encompassing 240,000 square miles. Within the high desert confines of Canyonlands National Park you’ll find winding rivers, towering buttes, deeply carved canyons, and a breathtaking array of color. Much of the multi-layered landscape was carved by millions of years of erosion from the Green and Colorado Rivers, the confluence of which lies within the borders of the park. Summer rains have done their work to help shape and mold the colorful landscape as well. Indeed, the process of erosion within the park never ends.
As you drive through the red rock wonderland of Canyonlands National Park, you’ll come upon several unique spires and buttes. These serve as important landmarks during your time on the White Rim Trail. The most notable of these include Airport Tower, Monster Tower, Junction Butte, and the Candlestick. These monoliths can be viewed from either the trail below or from atop the Island in the Sky mesa. Having viewed the park from both vantage points, I can tell you that the view from the trail is more spectacular. The reason is the topography of Canyonlands, which consists primarily of three gigantic levels or steps of multi-hued rock. A good portion of the 100-mile drive takes place along the second level, which offers a better perspective and view of the park. The latter part of the drive also offers some amazing, closeup views of the aptly named Green River. If you happen to travel along the river during the spring and summer, you’ll be rewarded with thick strands of Cottonwood trees and lush green vegetation, which stand in stark contrast with the red color of the surrounding canyons.
Because of the White Rim Trail’s isolation and popularity, a fair amount of planning is required before visiting the park. A backcountry permit must be purchased on the Canyonlands National Park website. The permit and campsite reservations costs $30 regardless of how many nights you want to camp on the trail. Like most national parks, dispersed camping is not allowed. You must camp at designated locations. These campsites go fast, especially during the peak seasons of spring and fall, so reservations often need to be made months in advance. The park offers only primitive camp sites, the only services offered at each site is a pit toilet. You must bring your own water when exploring and camping on the White Rim Trail. We spent three days and two nights on the trail. The first night we camped at Gooseberry, while the second night was spent at Potato Bottom.
We completed our expedition in three days, averaging 33 miles a day. In retrospect, I wish we would’ve taken an extra day to savor our time on the trail even more. As it stood, we were on the road a good eight hours during the first two days and five hours during the last. If I had to do it all over again, I’d allot four days to the trip and stay at Airport Tower on the first day, Gooseberry on the second day, Murphy Hogback on the third day, and Potato Bottom on the last day. Spreading the days out would’ve allowed more time for not only photos, but also more time to relax and take everything in. It’s true that the drive can be completed in two days, but that’s really pushing things. The incredible beauty and majesty of the park should be enjoyed not rushed. The more days on the White Rim Trail the better.
Due to the challenging nature of the White Rim Trail, there are some limitations on the size of the rig you can take on the trail. Rock outcroppings on the backside of Murphy Hogback and along the Green River require a rig not much taller than 10 feet. Tight switchbacks and narrow roads also mean that your rig should be no wider than 7 feet, 2 inches. I also recommend removal of your jacks due to the numerous V-dips caused by washouts and large boulders that you’ll encounter on the switchbacks. Unfortunately, I ignored Alex’s advice to remove my jacks and I paid the price. On day three, while negotiating the backside of Hardscrabble Hill, both my front passenger side jack and Talon tie down snagged a large rock. Fortunately, the damage to my truck and camper wasn’t too severe, but I learned my lesson and learned it well. Remove your jacks if you’re planning on tackling the White Rim Trail.
Canyonlands National Park has strict rules for backcountry travel on the White Rim Trail. First and foremost, permits are required and come in two forms; day use (free) or a backcountry permit ($30) that I just discussed. A high clearance, 4×4 (low) vehicle is required. We used 4×4 low several times on the trail, including the steep climbs up the Hardscrabble Hill and Murphy Hogback. All vehicles must remain on designated roads. Unfortunately, wood campfires aren’t allowed, but visitors are free to use gas for fires and cooking. Pets, discharging firearms, hunting and feeding wildlife are prohibited on backcountry roads as well, though pets are allowed in the paved, main areas of the park. All camping activities on the White Rim Trail must remain within campsite boundaries at designated sites. For those who are curious, swimming is allowed in both the Colorado and Green Rivers.
During our time on the White Rim Trail, we were blessed with terrific weather, mostly dry with temperatures in the 50s, but it didn’t start out that way. We actually tried to leave a day early, but a freak snow storm hit the area the night before, which left us with little choice but to wait another day for the weather to clear and the road to dry out. We discovered that the weather in the Moab area can be unpredictable in early spring. The weather forecasts showed no sign of precipitation the day before, but there we were caught in a freak snow storm that blanketed the area with a couple of inches of white powder. Even in favorable weather, the White Rim Trail is considered moderately difficult for high-clearance, 4×4 vehicles. When conditions are wet, the exposed sections of the Shafer, Hardscrabble Hill, and the Mineral Bottom switchbacks can be dangerous and demand extreme caution. Not only that, but during high water conditions, the Green River can flood out the northwest side of the trail, making a complete loop impossible and adding another 70 miles to the drive. This actually happened to Alex the first three times he went on the trail. Top off your fuel tank and keep a close eye on the weather reports before you hit the trail.
The White Rim Trail switchbacks bring up another point worth mentioning. If you have a paralyzing fear of heights, avoid this drive. Several times along the route we found ourselves hugging steep cliffs with 500 foot drops. You won’t find any guard rails anywhere on the White Rim Trail. These dizzying heights not only can be found on the aforementioned switchbacks, but also as you climb the Murphy Hogback and skirt the edge of numerous canyon rims. Some of these drop offs along the rims are marked off with large boulders, but not all, so some amount of caution is required when negotiating these areas. Those who know me know I have a fear of heights. We joked about it quite a bit during my time on the trail, but with sweaty palms, determination, and my eyes fixed firmly forward, I confronted this phobia head on and conquered it. There was no way I was going to let a few cliffs get in the way of completing this important bucket list item.
At this point, you might be wondering about communications and cell service. We were pleasantly surprised to find that we had up to three bars of 4G cell service on the east side of the trail with AT&T (Alex found out that his coverage with Verizon was pretty much the same). According to park rangers, the cell towers are located in the nearby La Sal Mountains. These towers provide coverage for Moab and nearby towns, but their reach extends far out to Canyonlands National Park, which is a bonus. On the west side of the trail, however, past the White Crack turnoff, there is no cell coverage at all. When we were up on the Island in the Sky mesa, I took note of several radio towers. I asked Chief Ranger Kevin Moore about this system and he explained that it is a secure radio system for park service use only. He did point out, however, that satellite phones work very well in the park, and during one accident, a satellite phone helped coordinate the evacuation of a seriously injured visitor. Chief Ranger Moore said that SPOT devices work also, but not as well as satellite phones, which provide two-way communication.
Day one, which covered 30 miles, was the longest, most difficult day of our three-day trip. If you drive the White Rim Trail going clockwise, you’ll start the drive a short distance from the park’s visitors center. The first part of the drive features the descent down the Shafer switchback. One writer called this switchback “intimidating, yet easy to negotiate” and I agree. However, cyclists and vehicle traffic flowing in the opposite direction can make things on the switchbacks a bit challenging. Still, we found the views pretty spectacular as we twisted and turned our way down to the canyon bottom below. Soon after completing the switchbacks we reached the Shafer campsite. This campsite is notable as it also lies at the junction to Potash Road. This scenic road also serves as another entrance to the White Rim Trail when the Shafer switchbacks are too wet. We briefly considered taking this route, but decided to pass due to a lack of time and our pressing schedule.
The drive to the Gooseberry campsite was always beautiful and sometimes rugged. Alex noted that the condition of the trail during this part of the drive was the worst he’s ever seen. The poor condition of the trail required us to negotiate some badly rutted and rocky sections slowly, especially during a tight turn Alex calls “the Big Tilt.” The stop at the Musselman Arch was a notable highlight during the first part part of the drive. You can actually walk on this flat arch (though signs nearby clearly prohibit doing this). When we got there there were several cyclists on the arch taking photos. My wife, Karen, of course, had to join in on the fun as she took several selfies on the arch with her cell phone (as you can imagine, I didn’t like her being out there on that arch one bit). Another highlight during this portion of the drive was the haul up a small summit located about three miles east of Airport Tower. The decent down this sloping hill provided me with some spectacular photographs of Alex and Nolan’s truck campers with Airport Tower in the background. We ended day one with an overnight stop at the Gooseberry campsite which afforded us with gorgeous views at both sunset and sunrise.
The pace during the second day of our trip was much more enjoyable. We were able to cruise along the sandy, 9-mile stretch to the White Crack intersection, completing it in less than an hour. We bypassed the 1.4-mile spur to the White Crack campsite in order to stay on schedule, but I’m told the views of the crack and the surrounding area are pretty spectacular. Without a doubt, the highlight during day two was the climb up Murphy Hogback. Before this trek, I had seen a large number of photos and videos of the climb and the decent down the backside. When we reached the base of the hogback, I looked at Alex and said, “this is it? It doesn’t look very large.” Alex laughed and said, “this is only the front part, you can’t see the rest of it from here.” Alex, of course, was right. The steep climb wraps around the ridge and is fairly long. In all, it took seven minutes in 4×4 low to get to the top (click here to see a video of the climb). As you’d expect, the views atop Murphy Hogback were breathtaking. In fact they were so good, I wish we could’ve camped there the rest of the night, but, alas, it wasn’t to be. Our reservation that night was at the Potato Bottom campsite some 22 miles away.
The descent down the backside of the Murphy Hogback was equally thrilling. Rains had eroded a small section of the road near the top, but we filled in those deep gaps with flat stones which were lying nearby. The drop down the hogback features several sharp twists and turns and terminates where two large rock outcrops lie. From atop the hogback, these two outcrops resemble massive billcaps. The route forces you to pass underneath them. My camper, which stands at a height of 9 feet, 8 inches, had no problem getting by these, and the same applied to Alex’s rig, which sits at 10 feet. The rest of the drive to the Potato Bottom campsite was pretty amazing as we rose and dipped and snaked our way past several canyons and the so-called Candlestick monolith. The final highlight of this day was the gradual drop down to the Green River that suddenly appeared before us. Before we could only view this winding river from afar, but from this point on the trail essentially runs next to it.
The third and final day began at the excellent Potato Bottom campsite. Alex and I had a few anxious moments during the night as a few storm cells passed through the area. The Hardscrabble, which sat less than a mile away, stood as an imposing obstacle if the road got too wet. Fortunately, the amount of precipitation that fell during the night wasn’t enough to close the switchback, so we were able to get rolling around 8:00am. We found the drive up and down the Hardscrabble switchbacks pretty exhilarating with several sharp turns and a few minor washouts. The only downer during this stretch was the aforementioned damage to the passenger side jack mount and Talon tie down. Unfortunately, there isn’t much room to maneuver when you’re hugging the side of a steep cliff down a narrow road. Still, I’m sure I could’ve avoided the rock that caused the damage if I had paid particular attention to it.
After removal of the damaged jack and tie down, we proceeded with the rest of the drive. The final part of the trail is notable for its proximity to the Green River. There are several washes that empty into the river and during one lengthy stretch the trail actually passes through and along one of these wide, sandy washes. Minutes after passing the Labyrinth campsite, we came to our final hurdle, the passage I call the Green River pass, a narrow, half-mile length of road that hugs a steep cliff with several rock outcroppings. This narrow stretch of road is no big deal for Jeeps and pop-up truck campers, but for those hauling hard-side truck campers, like us, it was slow going as we took turns spotting for each other. Basically, we had to hug the edge of the road in a few places to avoid damaging the top sides of our rigs. It took some time to get our rigs past these outcrops, but once we did so, we were essentially home free. With the exception of the climb up the Mineral Springs switchbacks, the remainder of the drive was smooth, quick, and easy.
If you have any desire to explore this challenging, yet rewarding 100-mile-long trail you really need to do it. The key to making the trip enjoyable is a combination of preparation and know how. Bring an experienced guide with you who knows the trail as well as adequate supplies of food, fuel, and water. Make sure your rig is small enough to get past the rock outcrops. Check in with the park rangers at the visitors center and get the latest report on the condition of the trail before setting out. Air down your tires to at least 40 psi and go slow when passing over rough spots and wash outs. You’ll also want to keep a close eye on the weather before and during your trip. If you do these things your time on the White Rim Trail should be enjoyable and one you’ll remember for years to come. How difficult is the trail? On a scale of 1 to 10, with the 10 being the hardest, I’d have to give the trail a difficulty rating of 7 for hard-side truck campers, a 6 for pop-up truck campers, and a rating of 5 for Jeeps.
If you enjoyed this feature piece on the White Rim Trail (and the recently released video), be on the lookout for more of the same in the days and weeks to come.