We spent most of September in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. But, by the third week in September, the first major winter storms chased us out of the Rocky Mountains. Tired of shoveling our trailer out of the snow every morning we left Pinedale Wyoming and the wild Wind River Mountains on September 22nd for sunny Utah, or so we hoped.
Following highway 191 south from Pinedale we drove through the high plains and badlands of southern Wyoming and then entered Utah at Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area. Immediately as we entered Utah, we entered the red rock canyonlands for which it’s famous. Flaming Gorge was impressive, but our goal was Dinosaur National Monument in northeastern Utah, one of our favorite places.
By mid-afternoon we pulled into the Green River campground inside of Dinosaur National Monument (entrance into the monument is $20, but free for us with my senior pass). The campground costs $18/night ($9 for us with my senior pass) with no services except water at community spigots and bathrooms with flush toilets. We didn’t care. It was sunny at last with magnificent views of Split Mountain and we scrambled to find our warm weather clothes after weeks of camping in the snow.
The next morning we drove out to Jesse Morris’s cabin where this hardy woman lived alone for fifty years, into her nineties. Along the way we climbed up to the spectacular petroglyphs along Cub Creek. Then, we took the short hikes into the spectacular box canyons behind Jesse’s old cabin.
After a relaxing night in camp we drove around to the remote far eastern side of the monument and spent a night at Deerlodge, a primitive campsite on the Yampa River. Since the water had been turned off for the year, camping here was free. The campground was deserted, but it had only seven tent sites, so we set up our trailer on the gravel turn-around area by the boat launch for the night. It was quiet, cold and beautiful. We hiked to the Veil of Tears canyon a mile or so downriver the following morning.
From Deerlodge we drove down highway 139 along the western edge of Colorado, through the Canyon Pintado (painted canyon) where we stopped to see the ancient pictographs on the rock walls, and on into Grand Junction Colorado. There we met our friends John and Lorie who were traveling in their RV. We spent the night at High Line Lake, Colorado State Park, for $27, no electricity, but community water and bathrooms with a laundromat even.
From there we caravanned with John and Lorie to Moab Utah near Canyonlands and Arches National Parks. We knew that anywhere near Moab would be crowded since this is high season, so we avoided Moab altogether and set ourselves up at Horsethief, a BLM campground with nothing but vault toilets – no water, not even at community spigots, you have to bring your own. But, we had full jugs of drinking water, empty holding tanks, and plenty of food and beer (stock up on beer in Colorado; many parts of Utah sell beer only in liquor stores, expensive and limited selection).
Horsethief was a bargain at $15/night ($7.50 for us with my senior discount pass), and; we had a strong Verizon cellular signal so we could even get online with our portable Jetpack router. The camp was quiet and located just outside of Canyonlands National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park, two spectacular places. Plus, Moab and Arches National Park are only 20 miles away through a magnificent canyon of red rock. We set ourselves up in a comfortable, spacious site set in a grove of juniper trees for the next week.
That afternoon we entered Canyonlands National Park. It’s $28 per vehicle to enter, but free for us with my America the Beautiful senior pass. The canyons were overwhelming. The Colorado River flows through deep, red rock canyons while the Green River enters from the west in its own network of spectacular canyons. The rivers join inside the park below a high mesa called The Island in the Sky and from there we could see over a hundred miles in every direction.
We took short hikes to various viewpoints of Schaefer Canyon and a longer hike out to Grandview Point. Below us the White Rim Road caught our attention; a hundred-mile long, four-wheel drive track that follows the canyon rims of both the Green and Colorado Rivers. We decided we would drive that before leaving the area. It was a great day and as nighttime fell we sipped whiskey around our fire pit and watched the stars from our quiet camp.
The next day rain moved in and John and Lorie moved out. They were heading for their home in Washington State. Sonia and I spent the next two rainy days in Moab doing laundry, grocery shopping, getting long overdue haircuts and other business while waiting for the rains to stop. We lounged in camp, watching movies, watching sunsets, watching jack rabbits scurry through camp.
After two days the rain cleared out and the blue skies returned. We immediately went to Arches National Park. The park costs $25 to enter, but as usual, we paid nothing with my senior pass. Arches doesn’t have the massive canyons of Canyonlands National Park, but it has spectacular, surreal rock formations and, of course, lots of rock arches. We took short hikes to many; Double Arch, Sandy Arch, Skyline Arch, Delicate Arch.
But, the park was crowded and when we arrived at The Devil’s Garden, the highlight of the park, it was mobbed. So, we turned off onto the Salt Valley Road, a gravel track into the back country, and hiked the mile and a half to Tower Arch far out in a lonely canyon. That was well worth the effort. The canyons were empty of people and the arch a gigantic circle of rock set amidst pinnacles of red and white sandstone towers hundreds of feet tall.
We decided to return to Arches early the following morning to beat the crowds and hike through the rock gardens of The Devil’s Garden. The next morning we returned to Arches and drove directly to The Devil’s Garden just as a series of thunderstorms moved in. We waited in our truck for them to pass, eating our lunch and reading hiking guides. Finally, around noon, the rains stopped and we hiked into The Devil’s Garden. It was still crowded, but magnificent after the recent rains.
We went as far as Landscape Arch, an easy mile and a half walk, stopping at Pine Arch and Tunnel Arch along the way. The Devil’s Garden is the gem of the park. Rock gardens, towers, fins of sandstone and of course, arches.
I continued on past Landscape Arch, taking the unimproved trail up a slick rock face for a half mile or so while Sonia relaxed below. Again, the place is amazing with views far off to the Colorado River and La Sal Mountains. The lingering rain clouds just made it more magnificent.
Although the gigantic rock towers, walls and arches are the obvious sights; even close-up the land was beautiful. Rock walls covered in multi-colored lichens, strange patterns formed on the rock walls from eons of erosion, intricate designs created by the passing floodwater over the red sand, a cactus glistening in the late afternoon sun. Everywhere we looked, near or far, it was a wonder.
As we left The Devil’s Garden we considered taking the back way out of the park on the Salt Valley Road, but park rangers warned us the rains had turned it into impassable quick sand, so we just drove back out on the main paved road. That turned out to be a good decision as we stopped at Courthouse Rocks, now glistening in the recent rains. Small streams rippled through the slick rock ravines and dripped from the massive red rock towers there. We watched it all in silence, even whispering to each other when we did speak it was such a magnificent sight.
We returned to camp, sobered by the spectacular sights we’d seen, and were greeted by an equally spectacular sunset. But tomorrow we’d see more. I had signed up for a free permit to drive along parts of the White Rim Road through Canyonlands National Park; a rough, four-wheel drive track that follows the rim of the Colorado and Green River canyons far in the outback of Canyonlands National Park. We turned in early, resting up for tomorrow’s adventure.
The next morning broke clear and bright, the air scrubbed by the recent rains, and we could see for over a hundred miles in every direction. A perfect day for driving the White Rim Road.
The White Rim Road; it’s a hundred-mile long, rough four-wheel drive route deep into Canyonlands and skirting along the cliffside edges of the Green and Colorado Rivers. Only four-wheel drive vehicles, mountain bikes and motorcycles allowed – no all-terrain vehicles, dune buggies or other off-road vehicles permitted. A permit is required to drive it, but the permit is free and available online; however, you still need to pay the $28/vehicle entry fee into the national park. Driving the entire loop takes three days or more and there are primitive campsites along the way, but you have to bring all your water, food shelter, and a self-contained toilet system of some kind. All waste, including human waste, must be packed out.
Most of the route is serious four-wheel drive country, but the dramatic beginning at the Moab entrance to Canyonlands National Park that drops precipitously into Schaefer Canyon can be done by less robust vehicles. We even saw a guy in an old Ford Taurus down there. But, after that, you need a high-clearance, four-wheel drive rig and lots of water, even just for the day.
The best way to drive the entire route is to rent a jeep in Moab. We considered driving the whole route in our one-ton Ram, four-wheel drive pickup truck. It would take at least three days, but we had all the equipment we needed; water jugs, a large tent, camp stove, a cooler for food, tow straps and emergency equipment. We could leave our fifth wheel trailer set up in the BLM campground, cheap storage at $7.50/night. But, the Ram is a large vehicle, twenty-one feet long, making it harder to maneuver in tight spots. Besides, we didn’t want damage it. And, if you got in trouble down there, it costs over $1,000 to be towed out of the canyon. We decided to do a day-trip instead.
So, we received our permit online and drove down the impressive, switchback route into Schiefer Canyon. At the bottom of the canyon the Potash Road connects to the White Rim Road and we could drive out to Moab that way. This is doable in a day, so loaded with water and a lunch we set off into the canyons.
The descent isn’t as hairy as it looks, although the pucker-factor gets high in places. The road into the canyon is well graded with turnouts to let uphill traffic pass. We really didn’t need four-wheel drive, but did use it in a few places just in case. A mountain biker whizzed by us, his brakes screeching as he leaned into the tight turns. When we finally reached the bottom it was magnificent. Sheer canyon walls surrounded us and the road leveled out and headed towards the Colorado River. Oddly out of place, there was a clean vault bathroom there surrounded by towering canyon walls, one of the more impressive back country loos I’ve seen.
We drove past the Potash Road turnoff to explore further down the White Rim Road. The road remained bumpy, but easily passable. We stopped at a turnout signed as “Goosenecks Overlook.” We walked a quarter mile out across the slick rock to a spectacular perch overlooking a grand horseshoe bend of the Colorado River far below, running red and muddy through its canyon walls.
Fascinated, we drove on to another turnout signed “Musselman’s Arch.” We walked across the slick rock and scrubby junipers to find another magnificent view of canyons, mesas and distant mountains, this time with a spectacular natural bridge of white rock immediately in front of us. Every turn of the road was revealing another fantastic sight.
After the arch the road gets rough, so we turned around to return to the Potash Road intersection and the way out to Moab. Along the way we stopped at more impressive overlooks, took more short hikes, ate lunch on a rock overlooking the red, muddy Colorado flowing lazily through canyons of red, white and green rock far below.
We turned onto the Potash Road thinking the rough stuff was over. Hardly! Almost immediately we entered a washed-out ravine of bare rock and deep sand. For the first time I shifted into low-range, four-wheel drive, now actually needing it. The road stayed rough for the next thirteen miles as we bucked and jerked along in low gear. But the route was outrageously beautiful.
We stopped again at a canyon rim over the gooseneck section of the Colorado River, this time much lower and closer to it. We took short hikes into red rock canyons, scrambled up boulder-covered pinnacles, looked for big horn sheep in the high cliffs above us.
We had been grinding along through the canyons all day when we finally reached pavement at the potash factory nineteen miles outside of Moab. We set the truck back into two-wheel drive and relished the smooth pavement, but we still weren’t done.
We’d started from thousands of feet above and ended up along the shores of the Colorado River. As we drove along the red-colored river we stopped to hike up to ancient petroglyphs etched into the canyon walls and slabs of ancient sandstone with dinosaur tracks imbedded in them. We stopped simply to watch the river roll by.
As the sun began to set we reached Moab and stopped to eat at the Moab Brewery. It was too late and we were too tired to drive back to camp and cook. But what a day! I vowed to return someday, rent a jeep, and spend four or five days exploring the whole White Rim Road next time, maybe even this coming spring.
The next day we planned to explore Dead Horse State Park near the entrance to Canyonlands National Park, but the morning broke cold, wet and spitting snow. We fired up our generator and cozied up in our trailer; reading, writing and waiting for the weather to break. By noon the snow stopped although the overcast remained.
Along with Canyonlands and Arches National Parks, Dead Horse Point State Park is a must see for anyone traveling through Moab. It adjoins Canyonlands National Park and has spectacular views into The Goosenecks area of the Colorado River along with miles of mountain biking trails. Dead Horse State Park costs $15 per car to enter, but if you ask, there’s a $5 discount for seniors (over 62). We checked out the campground for future reference; it was nice, $35/night for a shaded site with electrical power hookups, water and roomy bathrooms with flush toilets. But, we preferred our rustic BLM camp at Horsethief.
The highlight of the park is Dead Horse Point, a canyon rim view of the Colorado River and the distant mesas and mountains beyond. The morning’s snowstorms had passed, but the canyons were still misty with low clouds making them all the more dramatic.
We took short hikes along the west rim trail seeing into Schaefer Canyon and the White Rim Road we had taken yesterday. This was a perfect finish for our stay in Moab. Tomorrow we’d move on; south to The Needles, Natural Bridges and Monument Valley. We were sorry to leave, yet couldn’t wait to go and explore the remote canyons and lonely deserts of southeastern Utah. We emptied our waste tanks at the free dump at the Maverick gas station in south Moab and headed south on highway 191.