Off-Road in Utah’s Canyonlands

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view from top of rim

Island in the Sky

Canyonland's White Rim Road is a 100-mile off-road adventure that you will never forget.  It begins with dramatic views of plunging chocolate canyons and delicate, perilous arches.  Even strong stomachs get a tickle of vertigo close to the powdery rim of the Island in the Sky.  The vistas are so spectacular they appear unreal.  It is as if they have been painted onto some distant backdrop.

Camping under a sea of stars at the airport off-road site is a feast for the eyes.  Planes fly constantly across the bowl-like ceiling, creating streaks that rival the plentiful shooting stars.

Lathrop Canyon's off-road trail makes you feel as if you have been shrunk to an ant's size.  This must be what an ant sees coming out of its hill.  The white rim looms high above, and boulders along the wall hang in precarious suspension.  They have been paused mid-tumble.  These giant rocks look like pebbles when you are on the rim, but down here in Lathrop Canyon they dwarf your person to a degree that stupefies.

Canyonlands National Park enchants you easily, making a 100-mile ride seem like a lifetime spent in another dimension.  As you emerge from its graces, you will find yourself missing it at once.  Click here for details on hiking in Canyonlands NP.

White Rim Trail

The White Rim Trail requires more planning than most of the other trails in the Moab area.  My Dad and I had been coming to Moab annually with our friends from the Austin Jeep Exclusive club, we had both been members of for years.  Usually, we had come as part of the Easter Jeep Safari celebration.  This time was a bit different we were going to be the only rig in the group and it was a multi-day trip around the White Rim Trail.

Campsites fill up fast, therefore, you will have to decide where to camp.  There are lots of options for campsites.  Not all the campsites are open all year due to spring rains in the park.  Some of the campsites will have bathrooms as well.  I put in a phone call to the park office and spoke with one of the rangers. The ranger was extremely helpful and I would recommend this method.  I also recommend using a guidebook because it adds some more information and mileage.

We had our White Rim permits reserved in advance.  I had hoped to get backcountry permits for the Needles trip, from Island in the Sky, we could not.  The Canyonlands Park is such a large park that there are three headquarters, Island in the Sky, Needles, and the Maze district.  Each district, therefore, operates independently of each other for day-to-day operations.  Park rangers will offer you little information about the other districts other than how to get there and some overview-type information.  We headed out of the office and walked across the street for our first great view from the top of the White Rim.

Down the Canyon

Looking down we could see the trail that we were going to be driving on for the next couple of days, our excitement grew.  We drove a short distance back down the road we had come in on and turned off down the dirt road.  The dirt road clung to the side of the deep canyon.  Boulders had rolled to the bottom three times the size of our Jeep.  There were cut outs here and there, so you could pass and move out of the way for any oncoming traffic.  There were a few other vehicles on the trail but not too many.

Stopping to take in one of the vistas, a man approached us.  He introduced himself as Adam, and started asking us about the Jeep we were driving.  Adam had just moved to Austin from the West coast.  Adam took a couple of pictures, we exchanged Instagram information, and we took off down the road.  The views were nothing short of amazing all the way down to the White Rim.  Anytime there was an opportunity to stop and walk around on the edge of the rim, we took it.  Musselman Arch was one of these stops.  The arch is a thin natural bridge that is on the rim that people frequently walk across.

The Airport

We arrived at our first campsite, the airport, pretty early in the day.  The campsite has a pit toilet and has a decent amount of sites that are all really flat.  It is only a short walk from the tent sites to the rim of the canyon.  We cooked chili that night, got out the lawn chairs, and watched the stars begin to appear.  Soon we discover why it was called the airport.  It was hard to look up into the night sky without seeing a jetliner.  I took advantage of the great night and took some great pictures of the sky with our tents lit up in the foreground.  Melony spent her time chasing critters in the night with her headlamp.  It was a great start to an awesome adventure.

Melony and I woke up as the sun was coming up.  Again we made our way over to the rim to watch the sun come up over the vast canyon.  We got busy and broke camp, ate breakfast, and were on our way.

The Trailer

I was driving down the dirt road in the afternoon.  We were getting close to our second campsite as I happened to look in the rearview mirror to check on the trailer.  Something did not look right. I instantly knew something was seriously wrong.  I pulled over and went to the back of the Jeep to check things out.  What I found was horrible.  Some of the welds on the tongue of the trailer had broken and almost broke the entire tongue off.

You see the trailer that we had built was actually made out of a trailer that Dad had made some forty-plus years earlier.  It was made to be pulled behind a Ford Pinto.  Dad and I had modified the original frame and put a larger axle under it to fit the larger Jeep tires.  It was a bang-out job to get the trailer finished before we left on our trip and we never thought to reinforce the tongue welds.

The Sort-of Fix

Dad and I went to work on the trailer on the side of the dirt road.  Thankfully my Dad comes prepared for everything with everything.  The jack was used to flatten out the trailer and tongue.  We used two by fours and ratchet straps to hold the trailer together. It worked, we were back on the road in about an hour.

Unfortunately, because of how we had to strap the trailer together, we would have to undo everything to open the top of the trailer to access all of our camping gear.  It was really disappointing, but we decided it would be best to call it quits and head back to Moab.  If the 2 little welds that still held the tongue on decided to break when we took the straps off, we would have been SOL.  We made the hard choice to try to make it back and get a room.  Dad had come up with a game plan to fix the trailer.  The sun had gone down as we pulled into the parking lot of the Motel.

The Fix

Dad had come up with a plan to fix the trailer by the next morning.  Together we talked about it over some breakfast.  Dad already had a small generator with him, so we went to the local hardware store, bought a power drill, angle iron, and some bolts.  Because it was during the summer, we found the local grade-school parking lot empty and shaded.  The trailer was emptied, metal cut, holes drilled, and new hardware installed in no time flat.  It was fixed and solid this time.  Melony finished doing some of the other chores and rolled up in our car.  We were glad to have fixed the trailer so easily and were looking forward to our backpacking trip in the Needles.

From Island in the Sky, we head over to the Needles District to do some backpacking click here.

Off-Road Camping Tips:

For great road trip ideas, click here.

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