Outdoors: Savoring Utah’s White Rim Trail
December 1, 2012
CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK, Utah – It’s amazing what kind of reaction you get from friends and acquaintances when you mention you traveled the White Rim Trail in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park.
One friend recalled fond memories of taking a Jeep tour. Another said he was lured into riding the 100-mile route in one day on his mountain bike. He claimed he didn’t like it, but he must have. He did it twice.
The most common reaction, however, is a big smile and quick reflections on a multi-day mountain-bike and camping trip through some of the coolest terrain in southeast Utah’s canyon country. For some people, it was a one-time event, years ago when they were more fit. For others, it’s an annual happening.
Somehow I never made it to the White Rim for an extended tour prior to an October trip this year. I pride myself on having “discovered” Moab in the mid-1980s, well before it became a cycling mecca overrun with T-shirt and curio shops, fast-food joints and sprawling development. But the White Rim was never in the cards, maybe because it requires some logistical planning. Most of the desert rats I hang with don’t like to plan more than a day or two ahead.
I’m now thankful I didn’t let another year go by without experiencing the ultimate backcountry tour.
The White Rim Trail has eight designated camps spread along the interior 65 miles of the route. The camps are essentially places where the U.S. Park Service has staked boundaries, and flat spots have evolved for tents. There are typically spots for two to four groups but they are spread out enough that you really have to strain to hear and sometimes see any other group. Each camp has a pit toilet or two thrown into the mix.
Securing a campsite during the prime months of late September and any time in October is almost as difficult as securing a permit to float the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. I started working on a permit in January, but my group’s preferred dates in early October and alternative dates were taken. We finally reserved camps for three nights in the last full week of October, a time when the weather is unpredictable.
It turned out to be fine – not great, but fine. Our group of seven launched on a sunny Tuesday with a west wind blowing so hard you felt like you were riding in quicksand when pointed straight into it.
Seven of us made the journey. Our gear was piled high in the bed of my brother-in-law’s Dodge Ram. He fortunately had a bike rack positioned on top of the bed rails, which created a little cage. We stacked our gear high and secured it with a cargo net.
We brought close to 40 gallons of water as well as crates packed with food, duffels loaded with clothes and coolers bursting with beer and meat.
We covered 19 miles the first day before arriving at a stunning camp called Airport Tower. Our spirits were high, and our bodies remained strong after an easy ride. The highlight was the quick descent down the snaking switchbacks of the Shafer Trail. We also had plenty of time to hike among the Walking Rocks – oversized mushrooms that protrude out into a canyon until the last of them rise up hundreds of feet above the floor.
The camp featured red rock buttes that soar up from the road. Six or so of the isolated formations stood like sentinels around our tents, the steep sides and flat tops ablaze in an orange glow at sundown and again at sunrise.
Our next few days were ideal. Sometimes we cruised along the sandy and rocky road jabbering away in groups of two or three. Other times we challenged one another with sprints over rises and hills. The road was often suitable for a high-clearance passenger car, but there are enough technical spots and rock outcroppings to make the bike riding fun and the vehicle maneuvering tricky.
I caught myself numerous times screaming along the trail and catching a glimpse out of the corner of my eye that made me stop and gawk. Sometimes the road would come perilously close to the edge of a cliff with an ominous drop-off. At one such spot, twisted rock formations called hoodoos emerged from far below. They looked like melting dark chocolates piled on top of one another and smooshed in layers.
Other times, we would stop and gape at buttes separated by wind and water erosion from nearby cliffs. Some of the highlights included Washer Woman Arch, so called because the odd-shaped arch appeared to be a washer woman leaning over a large bucket. There was the Candlestick Tower, named for an obvious reason, and the Turk’s Head, an odd little triangular parcel of rock tucked in a gooseneck of the Green River.
I mentioned these highlights to my friend who blasted through the ride in one day a few years ago. He acknowledged that he and his buddies had to stick to such a frantic pace that he kept his head down and plowed ahead. He never had time to enjoy the scenery.
Our group definitely wasn’t in a rush. We stopped frequently, ate ample snacks while on the road and took time to explore some of the hikes and weird rock formations.
We traveled 26 miles on the second day with a steep climb at the end to Murphy Hogback, where we huddled beneath a rock ledge at our camp and drank beer while nasty-looking clouds blew by but didn’t dump snow or rain.
The third day was a rocky, 21-mile, occasionally technical route to Potato Bottom on the banks of the Green River, which – to our dismay – was essentially blocked by a wall of tamarisk trees.
The last day was the least interesting scenery-wise and the longest pull with 34 miles to close our loop. We climbed off the White Rim shelf up the steep hill at Mineral Bottom, then some of us traveled the boring cross-country slog to where we stashed our vehicles.
We drank a lot of beer, laughed for hours, howled at the moon, ribbed one another and built memories that will last our lifetimes. We even cured our sag wagon driver of his fear of heights. At first, he needed someone to drive the truck down the steep descents. He sat in the passenger seat and pulled a sweatshirt over his head. By the last day, he handled the steep climbs and dicey downhills like a real pro.
He might even return. I know I will.