Amazing Places

White Rim Road Might Be the Wildest Vehicle Tour Route in Any National Park

Tour roads through National Parks are typically agonizingly slow, RV-choked, blacktop wastelands dedicated to staring out your window and drooling angrily over time wasted in America's most beautiful locations — hardly the adventure of choice for anyone who really wants to explore these treasures. But one 80-plus-mile road in Canyonlands National Park in Utah is hardly that unexciting, crowded strip of pavement. White Rim Road is a weathered dirt path that sits deep in the canyon, encircling the "Island in the Sky" mesa far lower than the typical tourist stops, and in an area that generally only hikers venture into. Between the rugged driving, cliffside campsites, and the lack of tourists stopped in the middle of the street to photograph animals, this is a park road to beat all others.

Circling the "Island"

The massive Island in the Sky Mesa juts out into an ocean of deep red and white sandstone like the prow of a ship. The Colorado River to the east and the Green River on the west converge in the center of Canyonlands and isolate a peninsula that serves as the observation deck of the national park. The Island in the Sky is the perfect vantage to look down — on three sides — into a hole created by the rivers that's so deep, you often won't see the water at all.

But rather than simply plunging straight down a single cliff that's more than 2,000 feet (610 meters) to the bottom, the rivers cut a shelf about halfway down. This zone takes its name from the more resilient White Rim Sandstone that resisted the rivers' weathering more than the rock above it, but the tier that it creates is the perfect staging ground for exploration of the canyon and escape from the throngs taking the busy park road to Grandview Point at the southern tip of the Island in the Sky.

In the 1950s, a road was built along the White Rim, 1,000 feet into the depths of the canyon, by the Atomic Energy Commission in search of uranium to fuel the Cold War arms race. The mines along the White Rim mostly disappointed prospectors, but the more than 1,000 miles of roads built in search of yellowcake would eventually be used by conservation advocates to take government officials on tours of the area to convince them to make it a national park, which they did in 1964.

The Tour Road to Beat All Others

Today, the White Rim Road is the perfect four-wheel-drive or mountain-bike escape from the crowds up on the rim, dropping adventurers down deep below the fortress of rock for an isolated, rough ride through Canyonlands. Most cars spend two to three days driving the loop, while bikers will take upwards of three or four days wandering through the dusty heat. (Bikers will want a support car close behind, as there's no water on the entire loop.)

You won't see any heavy RVs or low-riding sedans down on the White Rim Road, however. Rocky, steep, and exposed in several sections, the route will be a challenge for even high-clearance and four-wheel-drive vehicles. When the water is high on the Green River, parts of the route can even flood and become impassable.

From the Shafer Canyon Overlook, the Shafer Trail winds for 5.3 guardrail-free miles down hairpin turns and steep slopes until it meets the White Rim Road. From there, the road winds along the cliff line, passing close under Musselman Arch, Airport Tower, and Washerwoman Arch.

Just over 36 miles from the pavement and directly below Island in the Sky's southernmost terminus, a spur road heads south to the White Crack Campsite. At the tip of the White Rim's peninsula, the campsite looks out on both rivers as they meander toward the confluence and a maze of canyons twisting and falling away down to the water's edge. The cliffside views make White Crack one of the most spectacular overnight vantages in the park.

Heading back north following the Green River, the road begins to switch back toward the Murphy Hogback at mile 46, following a narrow path to the top of the smaller mesa. As you pass the Hogback, you can see a wrecked pickup truck down in the canyon. A sign reassures drivers that no one was hurt, but it's an obvious reminder of the route's dangers.

The trail gets rougher as it winds closer to the Green but a handful of oxbow bends, various towers and buttes, and the Black Crack — a 65-foot (20-meter) deep, 3-foot (1-meter) wide crack in the sandstone where the canyon rim appears to be falling away — keep the drive interesting and worth the bumps. At mile 70, Hardscrabble Hill begins the road's climb away from the water. Eventually, at mile 79, the road exits the National Park and meets up with Mineral Road and a much easier 13-mile drive back to the main park road.

But after a dusty, bumpy, dry, and quiet few days driving through the depths of Canyonlands, you'll have a hard time heading back to the pavement to idle behind crowds on any other tour road.

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Planning a visit? You'll want to pick up the Moon Travel Guide to Arches & Canyonlands National Parks. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

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Written by Ryan Wichelns August 3, 2018

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