Friday, November 14, 2014

Off-Roading to Canyonlands, Part II

Looking at Canyonlands National Park’s Island of the Sky District from the mesa-top is a breathtaking and frustrating experience all at the same time.  Breathtaking for the vast Colorado and Green river canyons that envelop the mesa from both sides—each a “canyon within a canyon”, and each appearing even larger than the Grand Canyon.

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But frustrating too—one never seems close enough to get a really good look at these canyons when looking at them from the mesa-top.  I remember that same feeling during my previous visit in 1998, and also remember watching with envy as Jeeps as small as Matchbox cars went crawling down a curvy, steep dirt road to get into the canyon.

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It may have taken me 16 years, but on this visit, I finally got to drive this road and experience Canyonlands below the mesa-top.

This infamous curvy road, known as the Shafer Trail, is an 18-mile 4-wheel-drive road that connects Highway 313 on the Island In the Sky mesa all the way down to the banks of the Colorado river along Highway 279 just west of Moab. It also gets you to the mid-level rugged White Rim trail (an even more incredible 100-mile Jeep & bike road that follows the “white rim” outline of the mid-level canyons all the way around the mesa), but I’ll save that drive for a future trip! 

The guide books recommended driving the Shafer from “bottom to top” (as climbing the steep switchbacks feels slightly more reassuring than sliding down them)!  Another recommendation was to take the 4WD Long Canyon trail on the return trip to complete the 37-mile Shafer/Long Canyon Loop Trail.  Sounded like fun to me!

Suzanne was a bit nervous about climbing up and down the 3300-foot elevation change, but when she heard we’d be passing by “Thelma & Louise Point”, the jump-off spot made famous by the movie’s finale, she was buckled in and raring to go!  Millie, on the other hand, could care less about off-road or Thelma & Louise adventures.  She would have been happier swimming and waiting for us at the sandy banks of the Colorado all day, but alas, this is as close as she ever got to it as we turned off the paved highway onto the Shafer and began to climb.

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The river soon began to hide behind impressive red sandstone.

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Soon we were up to the “white rim” mid-level about 1500 feet below Dead Horse State Park.  A much less crowded view of the gooseneck from down here!

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But make no mistake, we were still plenty high above the Colorado river--

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Now it was time to climb the second 1500-foot canyon and the Shafer switchbacks.  The scenery got better and better as we climbed…

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As we reached the bottom of the switchbacks, a group of bike riders were quickly starting to realize the flipside of their thrilling fast ride down into the canyon…the agonizing climb back out!  Many iron men were now walking their bikes up these steep hills!

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Thank goodness the little yellow Tracker continued to carry us merrily up the canyon without a complaint!

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After such an amazing drive, the mesa-top park attractions seemed anti-climatic, but we still did a few more obligatory walks to the overlooks.  Mesa Arch at mid-day was not as crowded as it is for the iconic sunrise shots, but we still had to wait for a few photographers to clear before getting it to ourselves.  It’s a much smaller arch in-person than photos would make you believe!

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After a couple hours of hot afternoon sun, it was time to get to our cool, shady Long Canyon drive back down to Moab.  The road started by zigging and zagging through a narrow “slot”—thank goodness for a small SUV!

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Soon, Long Canyon revealed how it got its name!

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Suddenly, we appeared to reach an impasse—a mega-sized boulder blocking the road with what seemed like barely a sliver of space to wiggle through.

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Whenever reaching an obstacle, it is best to get out and walk the road to determine if it is drivable.  Fortunately, a quick look back at the Tracker confirmed that this boulder would be “no problema!”

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Long Canyon continued to get better and better as we descended.

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A truly remarkable (and technically easy) 4WD loop that will surely be (for me at least!) an off-roading day hard to top any time soon!

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32 comments:

  1. Love your photos. We rented a jeep in Moab a few years ago so we could drive those same roads/trails. After 100 miles we knew that was our last jeep ride! If my legs won't take me somewhere, I'm not going!
    Enjoyed meeting you and hiking in ZIon.

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    1. Well, I might have felt the same way after 100 miles off-road in a Jeep-- those things are bouncy and uncomfortable! I stick to 4WD trails marked "easy" and usually just 15 miles or less (with certain exceptions for super-special drives like the Shafer)!

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  2. All familiar country…used to be one of those Iron-men riding those steep roads, but now must get off and push. Oh well, at least I still go and ride…and carry my bike.

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    1. Plenty of Iron-Man still in you Mark! The guys walking their bikes up the Shafer were in their 20's and 30's!

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  3. Such an awesome drive and the pictures are great. We did the Shafer Trail in 1999 - alway remember it as a super drive for the brave of heart

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    1. It certainly looks scarier from the top than it really is when you drive it! But how great to get to see the canyon up close.

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  4. I did part of this road from the Potach side (bottom up, in a four wheel drive full sized truck) I finally chickened out and turned around..... your pics make me glad I did. Though a couple of days later I did another 4 wheel drive trail to Gemini Bridges marked 'easy' on a 4 wheel guide that I picked up in Moab. Ha..... plenty challenging enough for me. The hardest part was near the end so I hung in there and finished it. Loved the views - hated the kidney jarring, back busting, brain scrambling. Most of the last section had to be traveled at 5 miles per hour. Ah, memories, sweet memories.

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    1. Yeah, I drive these roads pretty slow (5 to 10 mph) to avoid most of the rattling and rolling-- after all, the Tracker is my daily driver and I gotta keep it running! Glad you got to see some of these gorgeous views yourself, even if they were nerve-wracking.

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  5. Nice trip and photos. Thanks for sharing. I will put the loop on my to do list.

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  6. Looks like a great drive, one that I plan on doing. Great photos as usual.

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    1. The Moab area really rivals the Colorado San Juans (around Ouray and SIlverton) for interesting 4WD trails with gorgeous scenery. I think you'll love it!

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  7. Loved this series on the 4-wheeling-- very inspiring!

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    1. Thanks. It really can be fun if you research each trail carefully beforehand to ensure that there will be nothing beyond your comfort level. I really like the FunTrek series of guidebooks-- their rating system is spot on for me!

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  8. Beautiful pictures! So glad I finally got to cross your path.

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    1. Yes, it was a pleasure meeting you too John and hope the next time we can break out the paddles and get on the water!

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  9. You are brave. We were up on top (Canyonlands NP) in September, -can you say "crowded"- and enjoyed the view down. Great pictures as always.

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    1. Yeah, the roads look so tiny when you're looking at them from on top, but honestly, the Shafer was fairly wide in most spots and very well graded, so not much more than a county dirt road with a few more turns and hills thrown in!

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  10. Ahhh, memories of decades ago when exploring that country with my parents in our Chevie carryall. Dad just loved that country. Beautiful pictures and will use them in my mind - too chicken to do that now.

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  11. Great article and fantastic pictures. I did that ride back in 1997. We went down the Shafer trail. Thought I was going to have the big one on the way down.

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    1. I would have been a lot more scared driving it downhill. Thankfully, uphill was a piece of cake!

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  12. I enjoyed reading blogs from driver and passenger points of view. I hope Millie has recovered. The pictures are amazing!
    Thanks for sharing.

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    1. I fear Millie is a "lost cause" when it comes to 4-wheeling. So I just have to balance it out by finding her a good swimming hole!

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  13. Lynne, once again you have taken me to a part of this country that I did not know about or much less even knew existed! Your adventures grab my attention and inspire me like no other. Thank you, thank you for sharing your experiences. I am adding them to my "must see" list. I am still working toward my "full time" adventures daily. Hugs to Millie.
    Jane

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    1. Keep at it Jane, full-timing is so worth it once you finally get there!

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  14. Some, well, all of your photos take my breath away - or maybe it is imagining what it was like to ride along....my toes were tingly just looking at the switchback road. Beautiful and enjoyed your commentary.

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    1. I keep forgetting to bring my GoPro video camera along. Will do it next time so you can "really" get the experience!

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  15. I have been one of the people on the rim longing to drive on those jeep roads to explore the canyons. I would have to get over my fear of falling off a cliff in a vehicle. (Well, falling off a cliff, period.) Thanks for sharing your adventure.

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    1. Yes, the secret is to drive it from the bottom up. Much less scary that way!

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  16. I wonder if you could get an F250 under that boulder?

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    1. As long as a 5th wheel isn't attached to it, I bet you could! There was actually quite a bit of room once I finally got out and looked at it!

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