Canyonlands National Park is a vast area of bare rock cliffs, mesas, and canyons. It is trisected by the Colorado and the Green Rivers which divide it into the three districts, the Needles, the Maze, and Island in the Sky. Most tourists only visit the highest area, Island in the Sky, which is a huge flat-topped mesa surrounded on three sides by the canyons. The Needles is reached via a single rugged road, and The Maze is entirely deserted but for a few adventurers coming down the river on rubber rafts or an occasional fly-over by a sightseeing airplane.
The defining theme of Canyonlands is the grand vistas available from theedges. The road on Island in the Sky provides easy access to the edge of the cliff that offers such expansive views that they are almost incomprehensible. The hiking trails are likewise perched on edges.
I was glad to be without small children when I was at Canyonlands because there are unguarded drop-offs everywhere.
In my experience, there seems to be a psychological connection between risk and adventure: The greater the perceived risk, the greater the sense of adventure. Because of this phenomenon, I would call Canyonlands a high-adventure location. There is an abundant risk factor because of the abundance of edges. The drives and the hikes all require frequent encounters with the edge.
After exploring Island in the Sky, adventurers who can afford the time and want to multiply their sense of adventure will likely drop down off the edge via the Shafer Trail and explore the White Rim Plateau 1200 feet below.
The White Rim Road is another level of high risk and delivers correspondingly high adventure. It follows the edge of the Colorado River canyon for 100 miles of rough one-lane rocky off-roading fun. (See my scary YouTube video of a 3-mile stretch of the road at the bottom.)
My drive on a section of the White Rim Road was a bucket list experience never to be forgotten. Those with a fear of heights will be ill-advised to attempt either the Shafer Trail or the White Rim Road.
Visitors with Jeeps and high-clearance SUV’s will have the easiest time at Canyonlands National Park. Despite the huge expanses of geography, the parking lots on Island in the Sky are small, and below the rim the turns are too tight for the big rigs. If you want to get off the high mesa and explore the more challenging areas below, it’s best to leave the RV in the town of Moab and rent a Jeep.
Otherwise, there will be chaos in the chasm.
Beyond the Jeep trails, there are multiple adventures for river rafters, hikers and mountain bikers.
I met a Star Wars stormtrooper while hiking in Arches National Park. He was posing for his young son who was shooting photos under a rock formation that looks strangely like Darth Vader. They had driven over from Colorado to get that photo (above).
That says a lot about the bizarre magnetism that Arches exerts on artists and adventurers – not just from the next state, but from all around the world. There were buses full of tourists and hikers who were anxious to experience the otherworldly landscape that is reminiscent of the desert planet Tatooine in the Star Wars movies (those scenes were actually filmed in Tunisia).
My encounter with the movie character did not actually surprise me in the least as I rounded a bend in the trail on the back side of the North and South Windows. I had actually searched for an affordable costume on Amazon when I was planning my expedition; I could easily visualize a Star Wars character in this setting with no real stretch of the imagination. The most authentic costumes were quite expensive and I ultimately built my own cowboy and Indian costumes instead, which also fit the desert theme.
A rock shaped like Darth Vader is only the beginning when one continues to explore the geological wonderland that is Arches. The park sits on the huge seismic Moab Fault, but it must not have been active for a very long time or hundreds of these fragile formations would have collapsed by now.
I can only imagine how drastically the landscape will change if ever this region is jarred by a major earthquake. The park holds more than 2000 arches and as many balanced rocks and in fact, a few of them collapse without provocation every year.
One of the most frail spans, Landscape Arch is longer than a football field but only 11 feet thick at its thinnest point. Hikers are not permitted beneath the arch since a 70-foot-long slab fell from it a few years ago. I noticed an awed hush among the hikers near the span, as though the slightest noise would produce a vibration that would end the structure.
Of course, the signature formation in Arches is the aptly named Delicate Arch, so famous a landmark that it appears on the Utah license plates. It is as ironic as it is iconic, as the hike is all uphill and steep, making this famous place almost out of reach to the general population.
I found the view quite worth the hike. This was one of two sunset hikes for me inside the park. South Window, where I met the stormtrooper, was the other where I returned for nighttime photography.
While hiking back to the trailhead with a stormtrooper and his son, I was also scouting the landscape for some night sky photography and I was pretty sure I had found the best spot at South Window. I checked the compass on my iPhone to discover that its orientation situated it crosswise to the Milky Way, which would be perfect for my picture, but of course, I wouldn’t know for sure until the sun went down. Grabbing some supper in the camper, I then hiked back to the spot around behind the formation before sunset and waited for dark.
I had talked to other photographers at the trailhead and they were headed for Turret Arch and Double Arch, but when I reached my spot on the backside of South Window, I was all alone.
And I was not disappointed.
As the light faded, the Milky Way slowly came into view – exactly where I had predicted. I set up the tripod, got the camera automatically doing its thing and then climbed up into the huge rocks to “paint” the arch with some warm light from an old dive light I had saved from my scuba diving years. It had a soft diffused beam that would work better than a focused flashlight.
There is something truly awesome about being alone in the desert at night adding my own touch of artistry to the cosmic canvas.
For me Arches National Park lived up to its reputation as a land of intrigue and unforgettable experiences. High hikes to fantastic panoramas, encounters with other enthusiastic hikers along the trails, and a dark night under the stars — after an encounter with a Star Wars impersonator — all added up to an epic life experience.
This is the 6th in a series on my Southwestern Photo Safari.
I didn’t really know what I was in for when I planned my route across southern Utah. I actually thought I had prepared pretty well, but the maps don’t even come close to conveying the extremes of these roads that cut through deep canyons and alternately wind across high ridges with drop-offs on both sides. I watched lots of YouTube videos of other travelers’ adventures and still wasn’t able to grasp the scope of what lay ahead of me.
It’s probably a good thing, or I might have lost my nerve. As it turned out, it seemed that my itinerary alternated between scary drives one day and scary hikes the next.
This is about three of the most adventurous drives I encountered on my photo safari to southern Utah.
The Hogback on Highway 12
I ended up driving this road twice since my side trip to Capitol Reef National Park was an out-and-back overnight trip from Escalante rather than a loop route.
Highway 12 east of the town of Escalante is a study in extremes. Much of the route east and then north to Torrey is across bare stone landscape called slick rock. It’s not actually slippery, since it is sandstone; its surface is more like sand paper.
The route drops down into the canyon to cross the Escalante river and then climbs as quickly up the other side to traverse the Hogback where the drop-off is 600 feet on both sides of the road!
There are a couple of turn-outs where I was able to stop for some photos and video, but most of the high section is narrow and winding with no shoulders or guardrails. It’s not for the faint of heart.
(My video gives a much better idea of what the Hogback is really like; I have posted the link to it at the bottom of the post.)
The Shafer Trail
This is one of the most extreme roads in America, and should not be attempted by anybody with acrophobia – a true fear of heights. Mostly Jeeps and SUV’s travel the gravel road because the hairpin turns are tight and will not accommodate long vehicles. Would-be adventurers with trailers and motorhomes should absolutely stay away. Just park your RV in Moab, rent a Jeep from one of several outfitters, then head out here for the drive of your life!
The Shafer Trail connects the Island In the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park with the White Rim plateau as it drops more than 1000 feet in about 2 miles of steep switchbacks and hairpin turns.
Of course, there is no room for guardrails on these steep cliffs and shoulders are non-existent. One wrong move and it’s a tremendous tumble to the pearly gates!
(Go to my 26-second video of this road at the bottom of the page.)
The White Rim Road
This tortuous trail follows a 100-mile-long route through the Canyonlands National Park on what could be considered the middle level of the park, as it were. The lower level would be the Colorado and Green Rivers, and the top level would be the high mesa called Island in the Sky. Most tourists only get to visit the upper level, but they are able to peer down 2200 feet into the canyons on three sides of Island in the Sky.
The White Rim Road requires high clearance and four wheel drive. Unless you are peddling it; mountain bikers take 4 to 5 days to travel the route, camping in campgrounds at night. Jeepsters usually take 2 days or more to cover the 100-mile loop because they are in low gear much of the time, only barely staying ahead of the bikers.
My day-trip on the White Rim was an out-and-back from Moab, Utah, via Potash Road as an alternative to the Shafer Trail. I only ventured about 25 miles out as far as Musselman Arch, and then back, and it took all day because of the grueling conditions. Stones, gravel, bare rock, steep grades up and down, dry and wet creek beds; at one point I drove up a dry wash for some distance, secure in the knowledge that no rain was in the forecast and no flash flood would be forthcoming.
The views from the edge of the Rim are absolutely incredible! The road travels on the cusp of the drop-off for several miles in some places. Of course, the road is only one lane, which means when you meet another vehicle, somebody has to back up to the last turn-out so they can pass each other. That encounter happened to me three times on a particularly dangerous stretch on the ledge!
Most adventurers take the 100-mile loop and only have to drive it once, but since my trip was an out-and-back, I got to see it twice. That meant twice the white-knuckle fun on the White Rim Road.
On one of the most scary mountain sections, I stuck a video camera to my windsheild with a suction cup mount and captured 11-1/2 minutes of stomach-churning adventure. I have posted the clip on YouTube so the whole world can view it.
I finally made it back to Moab by nightfall and drove straight to the car wash to reward my truck for its faithful performance on the awful trail, then I headed across the street to the Moab Brewery to reward myself for my awesome off-road driving on America’s second most radical road.
If you ever plan to drive this challenging road, I suggest you view this video so you will know what you are in for. Full screen mode will give you the greatest gasp-per-mile factor (bottom of the list below).