Saturday 3 May 2014

Canyonlands White Rim Trail: 4 days, 100+ miles, 100s of beers

I did the White Rim trail in Canyonlands, Utah with a group of 12 friends over 4 days from 28 Apr to 1 May. I'll cover all the logistics and preparation in a separate post, this one is just about the experience.

Theme song: Ways to Go and Shark Attack by Grouplove.

Day 1: Moab to Airport (29.6km/18.4mi plus 17.5km/10.8mi side-trip)

We met at Moab Cyclery, and jumped in the van for a short drive out to the park and Shafer Canyon Road.

This direction of travel (clockwise, starting at Shafer) is sometimes called red to green, because you start with red rock and end with the green river.  The tour company chose the route for us, but apparently this is the most popular direction and puts most of the sand on the downhill slopes and has you climbing the shorter sides of Murphy's Hogsback and Hardscrabble.

View Larger Map

Canyonlands park map with the white rim trail in blue
We began the trail by launching off the Schafer switchbacks. The jaw-dropping scenery made me want to stop and take photos constantly, but fun downhill made me want to keep going :) Be careful on those sharp switchbacks covered in loose stones, it only took a couple of minutes for the first person in our party to eat it...

Shafer Canyon Rd

Shafer Canyon Rd

Dropping down the Shafer switchbacks to the White Rim

We took the short detour out to Gooseneck overlook for a great view of a loop of the Colorado River.

Gooseneck overlook
Merrick our awesome one-man support crew whips up the first of many amazing meals for lunch at Musselman Arch
Standing on top of Musselman Arch
Musselman Arch
Just ridiculously pretty all the time.  The entire 4 days.  It was like riding through the Grand Canyon.  The Colorado River has done some excellent work.
Giant slabs of sandstone are not enough.  Must go prettier.  Add carpets of wildflowers.
"Airport" campsite

Probably the best pit toilet I've ever seen.  It even had an air freshener!

The real drinkers (i.e. not me) cracked their first beer sometime between breakfast and lunch on the trail.

The stash.  Plus the liquor cooler, this *just* got us through the 4 days.
"Airport" campsite.  There are very limited sites, just a couple in each location and they are well separated from each other.
Lathrop trail side-trip down to the Colorado from just near the campsite.  Sketchy tyre-grabbing sandpit down at the river level, but a great addition to an otherwise fairly easy day that seemed to be done too quickly.

The Colorado at the bottom of the Lathrop.  You *could* swim here, but it's not the greatest spot.  Hard to get down to the water, fairly fast moving river.

The wind was brutal.  When I got back to my tent after doing the Lathrop everything was covered in dust (despite the tent fly).  The wind blew pretty much all night and the only people who got sleep were those who slept outside in the lee of rock windbreaks without a tent flapping around them.
Elaborate tent support to try and stop it blowing away or snapping a pole.  The air temperature overnight wasn't that cold (probably above freezing), but the wind added such a strong chill that we all retreated to our sleeping bags shortly after dinner.

Day 2: Airport to Murphy Hogback (43km/26.7mi including White Crack side trip)

The wind eventually stopped blowing just before dawn :(  Anyway, we fueled up on french toast and coffee and got back on the bikes.

Washer woman arch on the right (not a good angle for it)

You can see why it is called the white rim

Another arch along the way

We took the side trip out to White Crack, which was definitely worth it.  Some of the best views on the entire trail.

View from White Crack.  It's a short walk out from the end of the trail to almost 360 degrees of amazing scenery.  Click to see the larger version, there are people in this photo :)

Looking out from White Crack

Treacherous sandpit on the way to White Crack


Yet more wildflowers

Murphy's campsite.  The climb up here was the first big one of the trip.  Really really windy still.

View from the camp shower

Sunset at Murphy's

Sunset at Murphy's

Considering doing the penguin shelter thing for warmth...

Day 3: Murphy's to Hardscrabble (41.8km/26mi)

Day 3 started with a crazy descent down terrain similar to what we climbed up to the campsite.

On the way down

The Holeman slot canyon is a lot of fun.  It's not signposted but you can find it where the Wilhite trail (which is signposted) intersects White Rim road.  It is easy to spot from the road once you know where to look.  There are some pools of water, which required some gymnastics for us to avoid.  No-one fell in the water although we had some near misses and one of our party dislocated his shoulder briefly...ouch.

Bare feet are probably better than bike shoes.  Sandals, Tevas or similar, would be best.  No equipment was needed for us to travel most of the length of it, but being confident rock scrambling/climbing is a must.  You can exit close to the other end, or come back the same way with more effort.

Entrance to the Holeman slot canyon

Holeman slot canyon

Holeman slot canyon

The end of the slot canyon.  You want to stop at the big chockstone, otherwise you're probably going to need a fair bit of help to get out.  And if you keep going to the end there's this huge drop.

After another big climb to end the day, the Hardscrabble campsite was very welcome.  Nice soft sand, and thankfully, no more wind.  No other campsites nearby, so we even had a little dance party :)

Hardscrabble campsite

Day 4: Hardscrabble to Moab (54km/33.5mi via Gemini Bridges)

The final day we started with nice river scenery following the path of the Green River.

And then there was the final brutal climb up the Horsethief switchbacks.  Apparently this road has been very recently rebuilt at great expense after being completely destroyed by a landslide.  Fresh drill marks for explosives are visible in the rock.

Horsethief switchbacks
We had lunch at the top, then got picked up by the van to avoid riding the boring part of Mineral Road back to 313.  Instead we got dropped at Gemini Bridges Road, and rode that back to the Moab bike path and right back into Moab and the bike shop.  Gemini bridges was interesting, and the ride was a lot of fun.  Even the bike path was a nice gradual re-introduction into civilisation.  I'd highly recommend this return journey.

Gemini Bridges Road
So our riding total was 168.4km/104.6mi.  It was a fantastic trip.  Based on discussions with Merrick, the best (in terms of scenery and getting away from other people) multi-day mountain bike trip in the whole US is a trip they do through a remote part of Canyonlands called the maze.  Sounds like that's next :)

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