It’s hard to describe what kind of experience the White Rim was. If you’ve ever been to Moab, or any part of the Desert Southwest, you might think you understand: red rocks, towering sandstone monoliths rising above you, canyons… But you don’t quite know the desert southwest until you’ve spent time on the White Rim (and I mean meaningful time, not just passing through to Potash Canyon or popping in to see Musselman Arch).
The start of White Rim trail, traveling clockwise, has you not far from the Island in the Sky visitor center. Across the road from the visitor center is an overlook, that gives you the first glimpse of the White Rim trail, meandering its way into the distance. On a clear day, the La Sal mountains make for an impressive backdrop, paired with the thousand-foot drop off from the top of the Island in the Sky mesa to the White Rim sandstone layer, the geologic layer that the road runs on its entire route until the very western end. The White Rim Road is a 71.2 mile road that was built in the 1950s by the Atomic Energy Commission, as a uranium prospecting road. It follows roughly along the base of the Island in the Sky mesa.
The White Rim Road, despite being fully within Canyonlands National Park, is lightly trafficked. No more than 50 vehicle permits are issued daily (which, most of the time, are all issued by 8am), and there are a limited amount of campsites which are often booked as early as four months in advance. Backcountry camping and wood-based fires are prohibited on the White Rim, so you must use a designated campsite. There is very little to burn on the White Rim, so most of the time having a camp fire isn’t even an option.
There are very few access points from the Island in the Sky, and even fewer river access points. At nearly all times on the White Rim, you have a thousand-foot cliff on one side that is the Island in the Sky mesa, and on the other side, you have a thousand-foot drop off to the Colorado or the Green River, or a random canyon which drains into one of the rivers. There are places on the White Rim that you can walk to the edge of the cliff and can to throw a rock into the river below, but, unless you want to jump, there is no way to actually get to the water. Even if you were able to make it down to the river, it would be quite the pain in the ass to try and follow along the river, since on both sides of most of the river it is densely thicketed. It’s really something to experience the desert in this way. You wonder what activities the Native Americans engaged in, if any, on the White Rim, with such limited access to water, and the geographically limited access.
A prepared traveler can have an experience of a lifetime on the White Rim. It is a requirement to have extra water, food, and fuel if you’re planning any kind of trip on the White Rim. High water conditions on the Green River can make the western side impassable, and a complete loop impossible. Having to turn around at this point if you started from the Island in the Sky visitor center/Shafer Trail adds an 80 mile return trip back the way you came. The trail is open to both street-legal vehicles and mountain bikes. Dirt bikes and OHVs are permitted with special permission. To obtain a permit to drive this trail, a high clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle with low range capability is required. If you don’t know what low range capability is you probably shouldn’t drive this trail. Even though low range and four-wheel drive isn’t required through most of the trail, a few obstacles and certain spots could require both if conditions are right. Attempting parts of this trail with an improperly equipped vehicle could be outright dangerous.
When it’s dry, the White Rim Road is a well-passable unpaved gravel/dirt road, albeit quite bumpy in many spots. If it’s dry, a stock SUV or truck could probably do most of the road. Driver experience offroad is a definite game-changer for the White Rim.
The White Rim is 100% scenic. There are exactly zero campsites which don’t have a view, and we found ourselves stopping roughly every quarter mile to take pictures. This, additionally, tacks on a lot of time to a journey on the White Rim, so it’s advisable to get an early start (and trust me, you will want to take pictures). One of the most striking things about the geology of the entire Canyonlands area is the hundreds if not thousands of massive sandstone monoliths towering out of the landscape. The White Rim provides you with unmatched access to and unrivaled views of the Canyonlands. There are plenty of drastic sandstone towers rising out of the canyons below the White Rim.
It’s a must to stop, walk around, and explore. Stop the car, turn off the engine, and immerse yourself in the landscape. One of the most interesting things we found were these hexagonal patterns in the rocks:
How these formed, or why they formed here, is an open question. My buddy said he heard somewhere that nature organizes itself into hexagons when everything falls exactly where it ought to be, when nature is in perfect harmony with itself. I think that could be true. Some research pointed to the idea that rocks and other polycrystalline material form these patterns in response to thermal deformation. Cracks form in response to stresses in the material, and hexagons emerge over time from this process of deformation and reformation. It has been proposed that the processes of crack healing, in response to thermal or mechanical deformation, eventually can lead to the formation of hexagonal structures in rock and mud, even if the tessellation structure was originally rectilinear (contained T-junctions, which become Y-junctions) Gray (1986), Huang (2015). However, it’s still an open question in geology regarding how and why these patterns emerge, and in the way that they do. Regardless, there was a unique sense of power that we felt walking around on these patterns and in the landscape in general.
These seemed to go on for miles, and could have followed the entire cliff all the way around. We followed them for several hundred feet before continuing our journey. Whatever the nature of these patterns might be, they were certainly quite interesting to observe and definitely lent a sense of power of the landscape, ever evolving. The hexagonal pattern appeared more or less unbroken throughout the several hundred feet we followed it for, and went all the way to the edge, even extending into and including plants and larger fractures in the rocks. Further in from the edge of the cliff, they were covered by dirt and sand, but it’s possible they could have continued underneath the soil.
It’s discoveries like this that make it worthwhile to stop and explore. We realized we’ve been following and observing the pattern for over an hour and a half before we turned around and walked back to the Jeep, to continue on.
For a trip on the White Rim by vehicle, the minimum recommended time to plan for is two days. It is possible to do the entirety of the White Rim in a day, it’s a 10-12 hour trip at moderate pace. But you will miss out on a lot if you try to do it in a day. The maximum speed you should expect to go on the White Rim road is probably 15 mph. Yes, you can get away with faster speeds on certain parts of the trail, but be aware that a) it will probably be bumpy, b) hopefully your shocks are good, c) there are large potholes, rocks, dips, or other bumps that can hide in an otherwise smooth looking road and surprise you, and if you’re going too fast it will be a very bumpy moment (ask me how I know).
The campsite of destination was Candlestick campground, mostly because it was the only one available for the night we were planning to camp, and I reserved the site two weeks ahead of time. One site at Airport campground opened up, but Airport campground is only 10 miles into the White Rim road, and for a one-night trip, a campsite that’s in the middle of the trail is necessary. The ideal campsites are almost exactly at the halfway point on the trail. The first, and most desired campsite is the White Crack campsite, which is at the end of a spur road and lends some of the best views the White Rim has to offer. This is a campsite which is booked as early as four months in advance, the furthest out the National Park Service allows people to reserve campsites. The second most popular choices are one of three campsites atop the Murphy Hogback. Those were all taken as well. Just beyond the Murphy Hogback is the Candlestick campground, where we were destined.
The Murphy Hogback
The Murphy Hogback is one of the most treacherous obstacles that the White Rim trail offers, both to vehicles and mountain bikes alike. It has been improved over the years, but still remains a challenge should adverse weather conditions arise. If the trail is muddy, snowy, or otherwise wet, this can be impossible or very dangerous to attempt. The approach to Murphy Hogback is relatively steep compared to everything that lies before it. For a while I thought some of the hills I was driving up was the Murphy Hogback. However, with all the research I did about the White Rim road, no picture or video compared to what the actual final ascent to the top of the Murphy Hogback entailed.
After reaching the top of a smaller “foothill” of the Murphy Hogback, the final stretch was immediately apparent. A narrow, steep, uphill shelf road. When we got to the base of this final ascent, there was a group of mountain bikers negotiating the section uphill. Their support vehicle was at the bottom, waiting for them. I pulled up next to the support vehicle and talked to the driver, who informed me that the bikers were waving me through. This was a section that required low-range, yes, to go up. It was that steep.
In person, the road appeared to be at least a 40-45 degree incline uphill, from the horizon. Pictures really don’t do it justice. I unfortunately did not take any decent pictures of this part because daylight was running low, so we were just trying to get to the campsite. However, I did get dashcam footage of both the climb and descent, which does a decent job of showcasing what we were dealing with.
About 90% of the way to the top, the road turned and, naturally, the sun was aligned such that it was shining right into my windshield, and I could see nothing but the silhouette of the hill on the right and the drop off on the left. Illustrated below:
Fortunately, a biker was standing at the top, on the outside next to the edge, and gave me indication of which way to go. Here’s another still from the dashcam footage showing what I’m describing:
The top of Murphy Hogback was relatively flat. As mentioned earlier, there are three campsites at the top, all of which were reserved. The cyclists were actually staying at one of them. The descent (or north side) is steep, but not as steep as the ascent. It is a little bit longer though.
I was in low range, first gear the entire way down, and at times still had to apply the brakes. From this point, it was only about 10 miles until reaching the Candlestick campground. The sun was low, but there was still enough daylight we would be setting up camp just after dusk.
The two big obstacles are the Murphy Hogback, and Hardscrabble Hill. Both of these involve a narrow shelf road which is steep, loose, and rocky, with limited visibility. You do not want to encounter another vehicle while you’re on either the ascent or descent to either of these, as there are exactly zero places to turn around. These obstacles are what makes White Rim not for the faint of heart. Driver experience is a must, and knowledge of how to properly drive a 4×4 vehicle on these types of roads is required. It is not a scenario in which you can simply put it in “D” and brake your way down. It could be outright dangerous to attempt these obstacles without a properly equipped vehicle. The worst story I saw while researching the trail was someone who attempted Murphy Hogback while it was raining, and their vehicle (a Jeep with low range, mind you) slid off the road. Towing fees are in excess of $1000 in a location this remote, so this is not the place to take risks, even if you’re in a party with other vehicles.
After the Murphy Hogback, it was a relatively easy-going cruise to Candlestick campground. We were the only vehicle from here to the campsite. However, along the way, we passed a pair of people on a tandem mountain bike. More on that later. The sun was on its way down, and we were keeping up the pace in hopes that we would have at least the light of dusk to set up camp. Fortunately, it was a full moon when this trip was underway, and about an hour after the sun fully set, a very bright moon popped up over the horizon and lit the landscape up. It’s usually very dark at night in this part of the country, with very little light pollution. The moon was bright enough it was possible to see detail and navigate the campsite without the use of a light.
Candlestick Campground is located at the base of Candlestick tower, on the northwest side. The picture above was taken about halfway to Candlestick tower. We actually had to drive around the tower itself before we got to the campsite. When we arrived, we started unpacking and getting set up. Fortunately the light of dusk was bright enough it made things easier. I have work lights installed on my Jeep, which weren’t necessary. The tandem bikers we passed shortly after the Murphy Hogback came by the campsite while we were setting up, they arrived about 15 minutes after we got there. It was a dad and his 11-year old son. We asked if they were alright, and where they were heading. Their original plans were to make it to Potato Bottom campground, another 11 miles away, and it was dark. They asked to share the campsite and of course they were welcome. It turned out that they were from Fort Collins as well, and have been doing long-distance trips on a tandem mountain bike for quite some time. I initially thought they had a vehicle at Potato Bottom they were trying to make it back to, and just took a cruise for the day on the bike. But nope, they started from where we did, albeit a day earlier, camped the night before, and this was their day two. So they were doing the entirety of White Rim on a tandem mountain bike, with all their camping gear stored in panniers on the bike. That was impressive, especially because the kid was so young. We all settled in for the night, still taking in the sights from the day before.
Day two was an early start. The sun was up nice and early, and it was a clear day. The forecast for the day was a high of 79f and the rest of the week looked equally as nice. Quite nice for the third week of March. The morning started with a bit of a cruise around the area on our mountain bikes, and generally the game plan was to take it easy and laid back, because, from Candlestick campground, we were more than two-thirds of the way to the end of White Rim trail.
There were plenty of opportunities to stop, explore, and sight-see between us and the end of White Rim.
It’s interesting to compare photos taken with my DSLR (above) and my iPhone 6s (below). There are some in which I like the “feel” of the photo produced with the DSLR, as opposed to the same subject shot with the iPhone 6s. There are also many scenarios in which the iPhone camera cannot get good exposure and a DSLR can. I have not specified which pictures were shot with which device up until this point, but I don’t really see it to be all that important.
Stopping and exploring is definitely worth it. I would not have gotten a lot of pictures if it weren’t for pulling over, and taking a walk to the edge, or to check out something cool. I found this cracked rock, that cracked perfectly in its original shape.
Ever wonder where your balloon ends up if you let it go? I found this about 1500ft from the road, in a ravine:
The rest of the White Rim road was fairly easy-going. After tackling Murphy Hogback, Hardscrabble Hill seemed a lot less daunting. It was equally steep in sections, but not as long or as high up as Murphy Hogback. Still, good judgement is required. At the top of Hardscrabble Hill there is a hiking trail, called Fort Bottom, that leads to some old ruins, visible atop a hill near the end of the trail. It is, by all appearances, however, not accessible from the hiking trail unless you brought climbing gear, and even in that case probably against park regulations to tamper with it.
After Hardscrabble Hill is the area that’s known as Upheaval Bottom, and this is also the area that’s prone to flooding when high water conditions are on the Green River. Parts of the White Rim road through this section actually follow and pass through (usually dry) creek beds. But you are driving in sand, and it’s clear that if water were present there could be up to two or three feet in spots.
If planning a trip on the White Rim trail during any part of the spring or early summer, it’s important to check stream gauge readings for the Green River, accessible for free from the U.S. Geological Survey (here). If the stream gauges read 20,000 cubic ft or more then it’s likely parts of the White Rim road on the western side will be flooded and impassable. If attempting the White Rim road and there’s a chance of high water conditions, it’s advisable to run the trail counterclockwise, starting on the western end. That way, if the trail is impassable or flooded, it’s the first thing you find out, and you don’t have to backtrack 80 miles.
The White Rim trail is absolutely a trip I’d do again. No words, or even pictures, really match what the experience is like in real life. The White Rim, even though it’s in a National Park and has regular visitors, is an experience that can consist of total immersion in the desert. The desert is a powerful environment, that can endanger the unprepared and provide thrill to those who seek it. It is absolutely a bucket-list item if you love the desert southwest, the outdoors, or even simply traveling. A route like the White Rim route is not for the faint of heart. It is not for the unprepared. It is not for newcomers to the desert or to outdoorsmanship. But that is precisely the reason it draws only those who choose to seek it. Only those who are willing to traverse the White Rim and experience the desert like they never have before are those who you will find on the trail. Many people from many walks of life have set foot on the White Rim trail. Even more have set foot in Canyonlands National park. But compared to the millions who visit the National Park, few experience the White Rim Road.
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