This post strays from my usual Big Bend haunts to the spectacular state of Utah, one of my favorite places outside of Texas. This trip features one of my favorite pastimes, off-road Jeep camping, and the location is Canyonlands National Park. The planning and permits for this trip were executed by a great friend and ex-neighbor, now living in San Diego, David. We met in Monticello, Utah, and it is there our adventure begins. 

Canyonlands National Park is divided into several “districts,” The Maze, Island in the Sky, Needles, and White Rim. Having visited The Maze together several years ago, we planned this trip for the Needles district, and a 4-day trip around the White Rim Road, an old uranium mining road built nearly a hundred years ago, which is a 100-mile long 4-wheel drive road that circles Island in the Sky near the rim that overlooks the Colorado and Green Rivers:067IMG_5151As we enter the back country, we pass a famous landmark, “Newspaper Rock,” a large panel of pictographs left as testament to the presence of native peoples here over the past 2,000 years:001IMG_5055The road we have selected to penetrate the Needles district is the Elephant Hill Road. The term “road” is really an oxymoron, as it is little more than a marked route up and over the slickrock formations that are so iconic to this part of Utah. It is designated by the National Park Service as the “most technically difficult 4-wheel drive road in all of Utah.” That is an understatement! David and I needed every bit of the customization (lift, skid plates, oversize tires, etc.) that we’ve added to our Rubicons to get through with no damage:

Camp for the next two nights was in the “Devil’s Kitchen” area, and we spent the first afternoon on a day hike along a trail near camp:016P1030842010IMG_5075010P1030823013IMG_5081015IMG_5085First night out, we were treated to clear skies and beauiful starsa:018IMG_5091Next morning after breakfast, we headed north into the heart of the Needles:019IMG_5102021P1030811Along the way, an unexpected surprise…a panel of pictographs under an overhang:022IMG_5122Many hand prints, and a few older “shaman” figures that are familiar to this region:022IMG_5128From here, a really technical obstacle confronts us, but we make it through with little difficulty:024P1030849We reach the trailhead for the “Joint Trail,” a somewhat misleading name, that winds its way through a labyrinth of joints between huge rock slabs, to a fantastic overlook:032P1070022033P1070026037P1030887035P1070032037P1070043044P1070053-54 PanNext morning, we wake to gray and overcast. The light rain begins as we are heading through the washes and down the “silver stairs” enroute back up and over Elephant Hill and back down:

After a night in Moab, we meet up with Jeff, a friend of David from San Diego, and he joins us for the 4-day trip around the White Rim Road. It begins with an exposed drop through the switchbacks of Shafer Trail Road, down 1500 feet to the plateau of the White Rim:063P1030950064IMG_5143Along this road, totally unmaintained through primitive backcountry for over 100 miles with no facilities, no gasoline, and no cellular service, we are treated to spectacular scenery:067IMG_5148-49-50 Pan065IMG_5147A stop at Musselman Arch, where we take a walk on the wild side:069IMG_5157071IMG_5167Campsite the first night on the White Rim, and a walk for a view of “Washerwoman Arch”:076IMG_5178080IMG_5203Fresh snow caps the La Sal Mountains, visible in the distance:078IMG_5193A beautiful clear night with a crystalline moon:078IMG_5195The “White Rim” describes the hard layer of white sandstone which caps the softer underlying layers of red sandstone. In places the White Rim Road ventures perilously close to the edge which falls off to the plateau a thousand feet below:086IMG_5222The occasional mountain biker cruising this flat part of the White Rim Road:084IMG_1835We reach an area of Canyonlands know as “Monument Valley,” with the Needles seen in the background:087IMG_5228089IMG_5234-35 PanAn unnamed arch we dub “Keyhole Arch”:090IMG_5248At White Crack trail, we do some capstone hopping out to a high point for a 360 degree panoramic overlook at the spectacular land below:095P1040086095IMG_1878c094IMG_5259-65 PanAfter a climb up “Murphy’s Hogback” we set up camp 2 on a high point for the night:104IMG_5293111IMG_5302Pancakes hit the spot on a cool morning:114P1040110With rain in the distance, we break camp and get out on the road. Along the way we stop for several magnificent vistas where the Green River bends its way through the canyons below:116P1040114The peninsula formed by this bend in the Green River has been inhabited for thousands of years by native peoples who hunted and farmed this rich bottom land. The remains of a cliff dwelling still stands on the side of the “Turk’s Head” formation at its center:120IMG_5330-31 Pan124IMG_5354-5-6 Pan125IMG_5361Canoeists make their way through spots where the river widens and slows:126P1040169The last big climb up and over a granite intrusion that prevents following the river, we drop down the back side to our final of three campsites for the evening, located at river level just above the river bank:128IMG_1889Mountain bikers start the descent down:131P1040193Camp along the Green River:132IMG_5373133IMG_5379134IMG_5378135IMG_5382The next morning we slog our way through mud, water, and more mud as the road snakes its way through “Potato Bottoms” to meet up with the gravel road that climbs back up to the Island in the Sky, and ultimately back to Moab:136P1070121137IMG_5384It’s no wonder why we’re continually drawn back to the canyonlands country of south central Utah. If you go, be sure you are properly equipped for desert survival and self-rescue. That said, the scenery and solitude makes it well worth the effort.