Utah: Moab – Canyonlands National Park
Deep canyons and a harsh desert landscape, an ideal place for off-road cycling or 4×4 touring
Today we decided to head off to Canyonlands National Park. After doing some research prior to visit it was apparent that the best way to explore this vast and remote area was not by the normal paved route but on the off-road track across the park itself.
The three options were; go on foot (too far to cover realistically in the time), on a mountain bike (we didn’t have ours with us) or off-road in a car. We chose the latter as we had limited time and wanted to explore as much as possible. We decided not to take our own Jeep, which after 160,000 miles of service we did not believe was up to the task and we still needed her to get us around afterwards. So we hired a modified Jeep Wrangler, in an olive green colour which got it dubbed the name Shrek.
Taking the road West out of Moab we turned after a couple of miles down the Potash Road – which surprisingly goes to a potash factory. This paved road follows the mighty Colorado River for 7 or 8 miles until it reaches a potash factory, from this point on the road, becomes a track. For the most part, the road is fairly smooth -with the occasional bump. We climb higher to where the potash evaporation pools dot the landscape, the chemicals in the water making them appear a vivid azure blue in the sunlight. This is a very dry and arid landscape but its starkness offers it own beauty – as we leave the potash pools behind we are in a valley with the sandstone cliffs surrounding us -some 1000 feet or so above where we are.
The track takes us right to the edge of the Colorado River Canyon. Far below us the river, swollen by the melting snow, flows rapidly through the canyon it has carved over many millennia. We are a bit wary of the cliff edges, the fall here is several hundred feet – but the views are spectacular. Moving on we reach and ox-bow turn in the river which then leaves us to go South West whilst we follow a shelf road around the upper canyon wall.
Eventually we reach the end of the canyon and from here the only way is up. This is the scary bit – these series of switchbacks, known as the Shafer Switchbacks (the trail is known as the Shafer Trail), wind their way up 1000 feet or more on the outside of the sheer cliffs of the canyon. The road here is very, very hairy, filled with large rocks and is only about 8 to 10 feet across. This is not a route for those who suffer from vertigo as you get to look down several hundred feet to the valley floor. The worst thing here is that this road is two-way and unfortunately there are quite a few people who have the crazy idea of driving the opposite way to us. Luckily there are a few wider spots in the road but even at these points one or other vehicle teeters on the edge of the cliff with huge drops. Finally, finally, we reach the top of the Mesa and let out a big sigh of relief. To calm our nerves we go to the Canyonlands National Park, Island in the Sky Visitor Center. Ranger Karen gives us a presentation on how some of the animals and plants survive in the high desert environment.
A rock bridge – I am not good with heights so I didn’t cross
A flowering cactus – beauty in the barren landscape
With our nerve-wracking climb up the Shafer Switchbacks already a distant memory we set off again, this time taking a different trail back to Moab. On this trail the main attraction is a set of natural bridges. To get down to these bridges there are some large boulders to navigate, but in our modified Jeep we decided to take route one over the top. Having been on the Pink Jeep tour in Sedona we had some confidence in what these off-road vehicles could do – so we went for it. At the bridges we pull short of a several hundred feet drops – Jack, Emily and Karen, who are considerably braver than Mark, take a walk across these natural bridges.
From the natural bridges, we head back toward Moab. We then decided to take a detour from the path down another track to the canyon floor. The trail is rough, climbing over large boulders, following a dried-up river bed and up sand dunes. At one point we get stuck in an area where we have to try and climb out up a sandbank – after several minutes of panic about being stuck in an area miles from nowhere with no passing traffic eventually, we make it out and get back on our trail to Moab! The final challenge is another trail following a shelf down the side of a cliff – but after the Shafer Trail, this is no problem. We get back on to the paved road and head back the few miles to Moab, stopping at a massive sandbank we had seen the previous day. Jack and Emily had really wanted to climb up this sandbank and roll down – this proved to be harder than they expected so after catching their breath at the top they came down with a mixture of running and rolling. Bear Grylls is Jack’s hero…and he makes it look so easy!