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.
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.
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.
The river soon began to hide behind impressive red sandstone.
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!
But make no mistake, we were still plenty high above the Colorado river--
Now it was time to climb the second 1500-foot canyon and the Shafer switchbacks. The scenery got better and better as we climbed…
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!
Thank goodness the little yellow Tracker continued to carry us merrily up the canyon without a complaint!
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!
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!
Soon, Long Canyon revealed how it got its name!
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.
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!”
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!