May 9-10, 2016: The White Rim Trail had been on our radar for a long time as it’s one of the most epic trails in the west. The 100-mile long trail is a mecca for mountain bikers, motorcyclists and off-roaders alike. The dirt trail meanders along the edge of the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park, and overlooks both the Colorado and Green Rivers for many of its miles. The Trail is too long (for most folks) to drive comfortably in a single day and backcountry permits are required to drive it and to stay at one of the campgrounds along the way. Although the most scenic campgrounds (Murphy Hogback and White Crack) are booked a year in advance, a few weeks earlier we had applied for and gotten a permit to camp at the Airport Campground.
We had gotten rid of all our car-camping gear when we moved into the RV, so our first few days in Moab were spent acquiring some new sleeping bags and some compact/lightweight cooking & kitchen gear. Luckily, we had the Moab Gear Trader and Walker Drug, Sporting Goods & General Store (love this store!) to help us out. We didn’t want to invest a lot of money in a new tent because we weren’t sure (at the time) that we’d get enough use out of it to justify the cost so, since the weather was supposed to be mild and dry we decided to use our L.L. Bean Woodlands Screen House for the one night. The screen house has a rain fly that goes all the way to the ground for privacy, and also has a clip-in floor for some protection against dirt & rocks. If it looks like a duck & quacks like a duck, it must be tent, right?? So we loaded up the car, set the automatic feeder for the cats, and off we went!
Our campsite at the Airport was only 19 miles from the Shafer Switchback entrance to the White Rim Trail, so we knew we would have a leisurely first day of driving and a long second day. It was nice not having to get up too early, and we also stopped at the Island in the Sky Visitor’s Center for some Park stickers. The first part of the Trail is visible from an overlook near the Visitor’s Center and it just calls out “come and explore, see where I go…”. And so we did!
This end of the Trail was in pretty good shape, and we soaked in the views of towering cliffs and spring wildflowers as we drove along. Musselman Arch was our first big landmark, followed by Lathrop Canyon, a side trail that leads down to the Colorado where Eddy Beer and his best girl Ducky got to dip their tail-feathers. The Canyon road was a bit rough, but nothing Lana (our Jeep) couldn’t handle.
We arrived at the Airport Campground in the late afternoon and got the screen house set up and our air mattress inflated. Glamping, baby! We set up our folding camp table and made dinner, and just sat in our camp chairs marveling at the peace and quiet and the gorgeous scenery.
Later, we were just turning out the lights to sleep when one of us said “Crap, is that thunder?” Sure enough it was, and the storm kept getting closer. So much for our clear & calm weather forecast! Lesson #1: never trust the forecast in the desert (#desertnoobs). Then it was upon us. We didn’t get wet and it didn’t rain for long, but remember the part about the screen house having a clip-in floor? Yeah, it overlaps but doesn’t seal. When the first big gust hit, the fine silty red Utah sand came flying through the crack and right onto our sleeping bags. The second gust bent a corner pole, so we spent the rest of the squall with me on my knees supporting the tent pole and trying to keep my side of the floor gap closed, and Eric on his stomach trying to hold the rest of the gap closed. Needless to say, we might as well have been trying to stop a speeding freight train with our bare hands, and both of us just closed our eyes, scrunched up our faces and sputtered through. When the wind finally died down we shook about a half-pound of sand out of our bedding. The rest of our night wasn’t very restful as we had 2 more squalls come through. Although they weren’t as violent as the first, each one required tent support and sand dumping afterward. Between discussions of finding and killing the weatherman, we decided that if we were going to keep doing this kind of trip we were going to buy a real tent!
But the next morning dawned bright and glorious, and after a much-needed coffee infusion we were on our way again. We continued to enjoy the stunning scenery, and lunchtime found us at the famed Murphy Hogback campground. The campground sits on the top of a mesa and the road to it is steep and narrow. It’s one of the more interesting driving challenges along the trail but the view is worth it! On the road leading down there’s a wreck waaaay at the bottom, as if we needed any reminders that caution was needed (don’t worry – there’s a hand-painted sign stating that it’s an older wreck and that no one was seriously injured).
After Murphy Hogback the road meanders closer to the Green River. Just before reaching the Candlestick Campground, a large River oxbow comes close to the Trail. Our FunTreks guide mentioned a feature called the Black Crack so we parked and set off to explore. The Black Crack runs for hundreds of feet and ranges from a few inches to a few feet in width. If you peek over the edge you can see that it is hundreds of feet deep, so exercise extreme caution of you check it out. It’ll get your heart racing for sure!
The trail deteriorates as it gets closer to the Green, and some sections were really bumpy and awful. Thank goodness it was dry at the time of our visit because I think the mud would be really slick! Even though it was a long day, it was beautiful and fun driving. Will we do the White Rim again? You betcha! We already have a reservation to stay at the Murphy Hogback campground in 2017 and have invited some friends to come with us. Can’t wait! Maybe we’ll see you out there.
We are so thankful to live in a country where these incredible landscapes have been preserved for the use of all, and that the National Park Service goes to the trouble to keep features like the White Rim Trail open when it would be much easier not to. We passed a Ranger in our travels who was checking permits and restocking the toilet paper at the campgrounds. It wasn’t until we had moved on that I wondered if they too camped overnight on their “rounds” or if they just drove it in one long, grueling day. I hope for the Rangers that they get to camp overnight! Our America the Beautiful pass is such a bargain, and we’re more than happy to support the NPS.
Oh, and we have a great tent, an actual honest-to-goodness tent, to take with us next time.
TIPS FOR YOUR WHITE RIM TRAIL EXPEDITION:
- The Trail is rated as “moderate” and should be fine for stock, high-clearance SUVs with 4-wheel drive. Always check road conditions with the Park before setting out, as rain and rock slides can make the drive more challenging.
- Camping is permitted in designated sites only: no dispersed camping is allowed.
- If you plan to camp overnight, a backcountry permit is required. The most popular campgrounds are usually booked a year in advance. You can apply online at canypermits.nps.gov.
- If you plan to drive the whole Trail in a single day or if you want to drive part of the Trail, a free day-use permit is required. You can apply online using the link above.
- You must pack in everything you’ll need (including water) and pack out all of your trash.
- Vault toilets are located at each campground along the trail.
- Not specifically a White Rim tip, but we have found the FunTreks Guidebook series and downloadable maps to be invaluable off-road planning tools. [We wouldn’t have known about the Black Crack without it.] Their detailed trail analyses with recommendations for what your vehicle should have in order to run the trails (stock, high clearance, locking diffs etc.) are fantastic. There is an iPhone app with all the info in one place and we’re anxiously awaiting the Android version because we’re about out of room for storing books!
MUST-SEE & DO LIST:
- Watch for Musselman Arch at MM8.9 (note: Park regulations prohibit walking out onto the arch).
- The Lathrop Canyon side trip to the Colorado River is a cool drive.
- The Black Crack is terrifying! Just before the Candlestick Campground where the river ox-bow is close to the Trail, park and walk 0.1 mile toward the river. Extreme caution is advised.