The White Rim Trail

With each trip, Utah continues to unveil its splendor, reaching out to the uninitiated with a powerful grasp. Your mind struggles to adjust to the scale, as thousand foot cliffs fill your periphery, begging you to blink and open your eyes to a more comprehensible image. Yet, this Island in the Sky that I behold is real, and delivers a new gift around every turn…

White Rim Trail Utah

Date: 9/16-19/2004
Trail Time: 2 days
Location: West of Moab, Utah. Trail starts off of Hwy 313 and the Shafer Road
Mapping / GPS / Waypoint File: .gif Map Image (Main) / .MPS File / .TXT File
Trail Rating (1-5 scale): 2- This trail is not difficult, but the road conditions are rough over a very long distance. Good tires are critical.
Major Obstacle: The most challenging section of the trail is from Monument Basin to the Murphy Hogback, with a few areas beyond the may require spotting lower clearance vehicles. All road surfaces are good. Some sand is present, but is not very deep.
Brush (minor, moderate, severe): Minor
Scenic Value (1-5 scale): 5- There are not enough adjectives to describe the beauty of this area. Truly breathtaking
Scott Brady- 2004 Toyota Tacoma
Jack, Eric and Robb- 1995 Toyota Land Cruiser 80
Chuck- 2001 GMC ZR-2
Randi and Linda- 2004 Jeep Wrangler X
Trip Planning
The White Rim trail requires a permit for camping, which can be obtained from the Canyonlands Visitor Center, but should be reserved in advance. Canyonlands Website: Main Page / White Rim

Reservation information: Canyonlands National Park Website. Reservations must be made by fax or mail. There is a $30 fee which allows for three vehicles and nine people.

Contact Information:
National Park Service
Reservation Office
2282 S. West Resource Blvd.
Moab, UT 84532-3298
Fax: (435) 259-4285
(435) 259-4351


Day 1

Just getting to Canyonlands offers wonderful views, as I travel through Flagstaff north on Hwy 89 into the Navajo Nation and the Painted Desert. It was a quiet road at 4:30 in the morning, with the light of dawn highlighting the vermilion and magenta cliffs that make up the Black Mesa and the Ward Terrace.
I head east on 160 towards Tuba City and the Hopi Indian Reservation along the Navajo Trail that splits the Black Mesa along the Klethla Valley. The elevation and rainfall in this area sits in stark contrast to the Sonoran Desert to the south, with huge grassy plains stretching into the distance, spotted with Juniper. The Navajo Nation is the largest of all of the Native American lands, encompassing over 25,000 square miles, and supporting the largest tribal population in the country. This land supports several significant destinations, including Canyon de Chelly and Monument Valley.

At Kayenta, I left 160 and headed north on 163, which leads directly towards Monument Valley and angles to 191 and my destination in Canyonlands. Monument Pass provides spectacular view to the south and Sentinel Mesa. After passing through Mexican Hat, I make my way to 191 and on to Moab!

White Rim Trail Utah Monument Valley
Monument Valley, Utah

163/191 continues north of Moab for about 11 miles before intersecting with Hwy 313, which leads to the northern entrance into Canyonlands National Park. Our camping spot for the first night is located just north of the park, with the turn-off at (N38 30.996 W109 48.115 NAD84). This is a very nice little trail that runs just north of the Whitebeck Rock. Beehive Butte is seen in the distance. The campsite we chose is located at (N38 30.352 W109 50.269), and has incredible views into Taylor Canyon and the White Rim from the north.
We were treated with a beautiful sunset, made ablaze by a distant fire to the west. The White Rim awaits…

White Rim Trail Utah Sunset
Sunset over Taylor Canyon with Beehive Butte

White Rim Trail Utah Sunset Sandstone
The sun’s gentle glow across broken sandstone


Day 2

White Rim Trail Utah
Musselman Arch

…I spent the night under the Utah sky, resting comfortably on my cot, rousing at times as the breeze whipped across my face. Years spent indoors makes us unprepared for these feelings, and sights during sleep. I find myself adjusting to stars in my view, where the lack of light pollution brings layers of lights and detail to the sky.
The group woke early in our attempt to make the Shafer switchbacks under the soft glow of the rising sun. After leaving camp we returned to Hwy 313 and continued south until reaching the Shafer / White Rim trail signs and the dirt track that heads east (N38 28.297 W109 48.683), transitioning our group from the smooth pavement to a deeply corrugated surface, rattling any loose items in the vehicle. We settle into that magic speed that lessens the body vibrations by maintaining a consistent suspension cycle across the washboard trail. Within a few miles the group reached the Shafer switchbacks and we began the descent of over 1000′ in less than 4 miles. I found this to be a perfect time to trade the driver’s seat for the saddle of my Specialized Epic FSR full suspension mountain bike. I was able to move at 3-4 times the speed of the vehicles cushioned by the front and rear Fox shocks and slowed by the large hydraulic disk brakes. It proved to be quite a thrill!

Whiute Rim Trail Utah Mountainbiking

White Rim Trail Utah

White Rim Trail Utah

White Rim Trail Utah

We continued along the Shafer trail for approximately 5.3 miles until reaching the Potash turn-off. The Potash Road eventually ends up in Moab. We continued along the rim (there is great signage along the entire route) road stopping at Musselman arch, which is a 4-5′ wide and 3-4′ thick arch that spans a good 50-60 feet. Those in the group with a fear of heights stayed way clear.
This portion of the trail parallels the Colorado River, and at a few points the trail provides impressive views into the canyon bottom, framed by thousand foot cliffs and massive spires, hoodoos and arches. Each viewpoint left us in awe of this place, and thankful of the efforts of those who built this road. Most of the White Rim Trail was built in the 1950’s, in the government’s attempt to stockpile Uranium for atomic weapons. This required building roads in this inhospitable terrain using bulldozers, hand picks and shovels. Most of this effort was sponsored by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and continued until just after 1964, when Canyonlands National Park was established. More information can be viewed on the history of this area on the NPS website.

White Rim Trail Utah

After the Lathrop Canyon Trail, the White Rim Road drifts away from the canyon edge and continues to hug the mesas. The white surface of the rock and sliver of white in the walls of the mesa add credence to the trail’s name, created by wind blown beach sand eons ago. At times, the entire surface we drove upon was ashen, standing in stark contrast to the crimson cliffs above and below.
The group continued past Monument Basin leaving the Colorado side of the Island in the Sky, and heading west towards the Green River. The Green River terminates at the confluence with the Colorado just a few miles down stream. The Green is an impressive site and gets close enough to the trail, and at several points it is within walking distance. The headwaters of the Green are 750 miles upstream from the White Rim where it begins on the eastern slopes of the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming.

White Rim Trail Utah Spires
Sppires near Monument Basin

White Rim Trail Utah
The sun’s gentle glow across broken sandstone

White Rim Trail Utah

White Rim Trail Utah Land Rover

White Rim Trail Utah 4WD Vehicles
The White Rim trail became much more interesting as we rounded junction butte and drove north towards Murphy Hogback. We encountered small sections of slickrock and a few climbs that will require 4wd, mostly to prevent damage to the terrain. The longest climb was at the Murphy Hogback, followed by a steep descent on a narrow shelf road. This trail will be much more intimidating to newer drivers and those piloting full size vehicles. Despite the few challenges this is still a very easy 4wd “road”.

Just before reaching the upper west basin, we encountered a young ram (Desert Bighorn Sheep Ovis canadensis) on the rocks above. This was a great thrill and totally unexpected because of the rarity of these animals.

White Rim Trail Utah Desert Bighorn Sheep
Desert Bighorn Sheep Ovis canadensis

White Rim Trail Utah

We continued along the White Rim trail for another 30 miles, paralleling the Green River, and at times dropping to its level before climbing back up against the mesa. Potato Bottom looks to be a very nice campsite, and affords some shade and close proximity to the river. Our camp for the night was at the Labyrinth (N38 28.485 W109 59.944),which provided beautiful views of the Green River and surrounding mesas. This proved to be a very nice campsite, but required a long day on the trail. We covered over 70 miles from the campsite at Taylor Canyon Rim.


Day 3

White Rim Trail Utah
Along the Green River

I slept well under the shadows of this great mesa, dreaming of the day’s journey… These adventures bring me so close to the things I cherish in life, but always for such a short time…

White Rim Trail Utah

White Rim Trail Utah

The sky blankets me with a thousand small clouds as I stir on my cot, resisting the desire to rise, wishing my camera was not in the truck, but much closer. I moved my chair over to a little outcropping and sat facing east in anticipation of the coming sun. The sun was already toying with the sky and me, setting a glow upon distant cliffs with rays of light peeking above the mesas. Time does not seem to move this slow in daily life… but I waited for the sun, as I warmed my body with a strong cup of coffee, my camera resting in my lap, waiting.

White Rim Trail Utah Morning Sky with Clouds

White Rim Trail Utah

White Rim Trail Utah

White Rim Trail Utah

White Rim Trail Utah

Reluctantly we left camp and completed the last few miles of the trail. This portion of the trail could be difficult in wet conditions, as deep ruts held testament to the challenges previous travelers faced. The trail finished with a steep climb to the mineral Bottom Road, and back to the Island in the Sky.

White Rim Trail Utah

View the complete album for Day 3 here.

Scott is the publisher and co-founder of Expedition Portal and Overland Journal. His travels by 4WD and adventure motorcycle span all seven continents and include three circumnavigations of the globe. His polar travels include two vehicle crossings of Antarctica and the first long-axis crossing of Greenland. He lives in Prescott, Arizona IG: @scott.a.brady Twitter: @scott_brady