The people of Moab, Utah, have learned to respect the land. Visitors are encouraged to tread lightly and revere the region's natural beauty. The surrounding canyons, cut by the meandering Colorado River, are spectacular. And the various mining roads allow for motorized access that'll encourage even the most timid explorer to venture into the backcountry.
My wife Darlene and I followed the Colorado River south from U.S. 191 along State Route 279 (Potash Road Highway). Centuries-old petroglyphs, carved into the desert varnish by Native Americans, adorn cliff faces some 20 feet above the present-day highway and the Colorado River. Look for turnouts for a better view. The area's also popular with rock climbers.
About 17 miles south of 191, the Moab Salt Company resides on the north bank of the river. The paved road ends and a dirt road owned by the salt company took us in five miles deeper toward Canyonlands National Park. Signs recommend high-clearance vehicles and prohibit off-trail travel. The road gets deeply rutted and soft sand patches are a threat. This is a good place to shift into four-wheel drive.
Two more miles brought us to an area where large, above-ground pipes and settling ponds are separated from the road by chain-link fences. According to the visitor's center, water from the Colorado River is pumped into the salt company's mines and the mineral-rich solution is pumped up to evaporation ponds. A large lift sits on top of an island of white salt or potash.
A mile beyond the evaporation ponds, look for a sign giving the history of the trail. The Potash Road/Shafer Trail began life as a cattle trail, constructed by John Sog Shafer in 1917. But the search for ore and uranium became popular in the late 1940s and early 1950s. As uranium miners looked for ways to remove ore from what is now the White Rim area, they turned old cattle routes into truck routes, which were completed in October 1952. Ore from the White Rim area was then trucked up the Shafer Trail and out toward Moab.
Today, the road climbs high and turns rough as you approach the plateau area. Softer sand has blown away, leaving flat layers of slickrock, with sharp edges like shelves or stair steps, mixed with softball-size stones. Vegetation is limited to scattered clumps of brush and thick, hearty grasses.
We'd driven about 8.5 miles when a long hill brought us to the edge of a sharp cliff, which allowed us to look straight down to the Colorado River. The river is 1500 feet below. Be warned: the dramatic view may leave you feeling dizzy.
Continuing on, we took a sudden turn to the right and followed along the rim of the cliff. You'll be tempted to check out the river, but the road demands your complete attention. The view looks into the heart of Canyonlands National Park.
We followed the four-wheel-drive road for about 10 miles until we landed between Dead Horse Point State Park and the Island in the Sky section of Canyonlands. At a rough section of the road, 11 or 12 miles in, you'll find a sign listing the fees for Canyonlands. After a series of switchbacks through the hills finally leading to a "T" intersection, a sign notes that Musselman Arch is four miles away and the visitor's center is 5.6. This section of road to the visitor's center is rough, with places where the slickrock has cracked and splintered. We were glad to have our F-350 equipped with tough 10-ply tires.
The canyon rim appeared about four miles ahead of us, rising 1500 feet above the plateau. The road climbs steadily upward until reaching the bottom of the cliffs. The Shafer switchbacks zigzag from the canyon floor to the rim.
We switched into 4x4 low range. Keeping a steady pressure on the throttle, we eased our way upward, first one way, then around a sharp turn, and back the other. You'll find yourself wondering how 1950s-era ore trucks managed this trail.
Once safely on the rim, park for a moment and look back down the cliff to see where you've come. From below, many of the switchbacks are hidden beneath the rim, but, from above, you'll have a fantastic view of Shafer Trail and the canyon floor stretching southward to the Colorado River, Moab, and the snow-capped La Sal Mountains beyond. What a wonderful way to spend a day!
For more information
Moab Chamber of Commerce
217 E. Center St., Ste. 250
Moab, UT 84532
Canyonlands National Park
2282 SW Resource Blvd.
Moab, UT 84532
Getting There From Moab, UT: Take N. Main St. (U.S. 191) north and west to 279. Head south.
BE ADVISED: The information presented in this column is, to the best of our knowledge, correct and accurate at the time of publication. However, because of our lengthy lead time, we recommend you call the proper authorities or local experts for confirmation before visiting.
Editor's Note: Mud or snow on your windshield give you chills? Four-wheeling your weekends away? Got a good story to tell about it? Send us all the gear-popping, seatbelt-tightening, dust-kicking details in 500 words or less, along with your best photos (high-resolution digital, preferably), and we'll pay $300. Send to Truck Trend, c/o "On the Road," 6420 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90048. We'll publish your adventures.