1 May 2012
The drive from Moab to Canyonlands was cramped. Four people, three bikes, food, water, and camping equipment for the three nights on the road — all in a 2-door jeep. But with a stuffed roof box, bikes strapped on any available exterior space, and laps full, the 45 minute trip from Moab was over before anything popped out or dropped off of the jeep.
The overcast morning sky did little to dampen our excitement. We offloaded the bikes and repacked the jeep at the visitors center. After getting the paperwork for our reserved campsites, we headed north to the Shafer Trail turnoff. This was the last pavement for the the next three days, and I don’t think we cherished the smoothness as much as we should have.
The Shafer Switchbacks look incredible: the vertical drop of the road cutting and winding through over a thousand feet of layered sandstone. But the road itself was in good shape — not too rough and fairly wide. And the gentle descent belies the view from further away — they are switchbacks and not a straight shot down. Oh, you can still die a plummeting, tumbling death as nary a guardrail can be seen. But as long as you gaze upon the scenery only when safely stopped, you’d be fine on a bike or in a vehicle. It’s a fun free-ride from rim to bottom – steering and braking is all you do until you reach the bottom. But as the road ends up back on the Island in the Sky mesa, you know this free ride is just a temporary credit to your elevation account.
The road continues going down between the towering red walls of the South Fork of Shafer Canyon, passing the Shafer Trail turnoff. As we come out of the canyon, we hit the White Rim Sandstone that underlies the road for the next few days. We put down the bikes and walk to the Goose Neck Overlook. This gives us our first view of the Colorado River. From the edge you can see the brown swirling river almost double-up, almost but not quite making an island of the cliffs in front of you. And now as far as you can see, the red brown cliffs surround you.
After a short ride, we again walked out to the edge of the canyon to the Walking Rocks. Here the White Rim Sandstone has eroded so that it’s just a large capstone over a thin hoodoo of underlying rock. From here the high cliffs of Dead Horse Point loom over the river and smaller cliffs.
This first part of the trail contains lots to see and is well within an easy day trip from Moab. Another short ride and we arrive at Musselman Arch. After a bit of lunch we go out to the arch and take turns walking along its 120′ length. The 300′ of air below makes the arch’s sidewalk-sized width seem uncomfortably narrow.
Musselman Arch concluded our off-bike excursions for the day, and the remainder was just biking. The wind had kicked up from the south which made for some hard pedaling as that’s the direction the road took us. And you know it’s blustery when you have to pedal while doing downhill.
As we passed by Airport Campsite, I stopped and fixed a flat. Looking around at the barren landscape, I’m glad that I didn’t book a night here. Nobody wants to stay at the airport.
We made it into Gooseberry Campground 8 hours and 29 miles after setting off from the visitors center. In plenty of time to view the sun’s final light on the La Sal mountains. We stayed at campsite A, the first one you get to on the left (traveling the White Rim Road clockwise). B is on the right and is up-canyon. I think A is the preferred site here because it has good access to the canyon rim and decent views of the La Sal mountains. We had weather moving through, so the wind was unrelenting.
2 May 2012
The dawn brought us another cloudy morning. We said goodbye to the items the wind blew away during the night, packed up camp, and set off. The morning was easy-going — the road today was mostly smooth dirt. And by now the extraordinariness of the landscape had settled into the expected. You still saw as many towers, hoodoos, and vistas, but after a night in their company they became more ordinary. To gawk at them would be unseemly — they belong here.
Much like yesterday’s Walking Rocks, the tall brown hoodoos in Monument Basin wear their White Rim sandstone hats as they seem to line up down the canyon.
For lunch, we took a left from the main road and went down the sandy road to White Crack, the southernmost point you can easily get to. It’s here that the Colorado and the Green rivers narrow the Island in the Sky to a point. And though you can’t see their confluence from here, you can feel it. And it really is a special place. The La Sals, the Henries, and the Abajo Mountains all beckon in the far distance. But in all directions, except the thin trail you just walked, the layered & gouged landscape offers no hope of a journey to meet them.
View from White Crack
On the map it’s called Vertigo Void, and as the road drew is closer we could see why. The curving section of thick White Rim sandstone had been undercut by erosion. So when you carefully peered over the edge, you did not find the cliff wall under you. You saw only the empty space where you thought the cliff would be. We had our snack break a safe distance away.
The Murphy Hogback provided the challenge of the second day, one that we weren’t particularly up for. As we approached the steep ascent to the top of the 300′ ridge, we saw Rich drive the jeep up the road. Sticking to the easy-going theme of the day, we skipped the peddling and walked our bikes up to the campsite.
The Murphy Campground gave us the best views of the whole trip. Only a bit removed from the White Crack, it retained the wildness and impenetrability of the landscape. Facing south, we could see the slanting sun on both the Needles and the Maze District. The day’s clouds had cleared and we watched the canyons slowly fade to night.
Simply stunning. Murphy A Campsite has got to be one of the best in the whole National Park Service.
First and foremost, there’s the view – the southern part of the park is laid at your feet. Next, it has a beautiful rock formation that serves as the focal point of the camp, with seating and wind-break features built right in. And it’s after the hard ascent of the Murphy Hogback — believe me, you’ll need to take a break. This campsite was both literally and figuratively the high point of our White Rim Road trip.