White Rim Road, also known as White Rim Trail, is a 100-mile unpaved high-clearance four-wheel-drive road located in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. It follows an exposed section of a cream-colored sandstone layer for much of its length. The eastern half of the road loops around and below Island in the Sky and within this vicinity, the Colorado River can be viewed in some spots. The western half roughly follows the Green River, which can be viewed in some areas. Over much of the drive, the road is situated far below the mesa tops of Canyonlands National Park and also above the valleys and rivers at the bottom. Views are vast and give glimpses into the labyrinth of canyons.
The journey features spectacular scenery and numerous geologic features. While I will touch on a few of these, readers may want to do further research online or read through one or more of the books in the Recommended Reading section near the end of this post. In addition, a National Park Service brochure that contains a map of the area described in this blog can be found here: Island in the Sky District Trails and Roads. This map is helpful to visualize the locations and road described here.
We spent six days (five nights) on the White Rim Road during March 2020. Taking the road in a clockwise direction, we started at its northeastern entrance located below Island in the Sky Visitor Center. Near the beginning of the White Rim Road, a sign gives the speed limit of 15 mph. Later we laughed at the speed limit a bit. We rarely exceeded 5 mph on the road owing to it's rough and sometimes steep nature.
The first day of travel was relatively easy compared to sections of road that we would encounter further on. Views included a beautiful gooseneck on the Colorado River and Washerwoman Arch and Monster Tower from below. While sightings of wildlife were limited, we did see a ram along one section of rock.
Our first night was spent in Gooseberry Camp, which lies between the road and red cliffs. Across the road, walking out to the rim gives views into Canyonlands and the La Sal Mountains in the distance. Rain fell on the night that we spent in Gooseberry Camp. While there, a group of four bicyclists came through and camped at the other site. Talking with one of them the following morning, their tent only held three people. One of the cyclists spent the night sleeping in the rain, under the limited shelter of a juniper.
Our second day took us only nine miles to White Crack camp, where we spent two nights. Before reaching White Crack, we passed one of the highlights of the drive - Monument Basin. A fascinating and beautiful area of rock pinnacles, towers, and canyons. Monument Basin is well worth a stop to simply enjoy the view.
White Crack is one of the best camping sites anywhere. Short walks from the camping area lead to vast and stunning views over several sections of Canyonlands National Park. On the eastern side, the La Sal Mountains can be seen in the background. Walking around the edge of the white sandstone, the Needles District can be seen in the distance toward the south. More beautiful canyons and mesas toward the west. The mesa of Island in the Sky is situated just to the north - White Crack is just below it.
Exploring the area around White Crack revealed some interesting rock formations.
Owing to rain the previous night, potholes in the rock at White Crack were filled with water when we arrived. Water in the potholes added a beautiful dimension to enjoyment of this remarkable location. With such stunning scenery at White Crack, we were happy to have two nights there. That gave us time to enjoy two sunsets and two sunrises. White Crack is one of those amazing spots that calls for enjoying your morning coffee out on the rim edge as the sun rises.
Leaving White Crack on the fourth day, we drove the 6.8 miles to Murphy Camp, having reservations at Murphy site C. Along the drive, one of the best exposed sections of the White Rim can be seen. We were treated to seeing a flock of approximately 60 pinon jays flying up from below this section of the White Rim.
Ascending the Murphy Hogback section of road to reach Murphy Camp is a reminder of the necessity for a high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle. While most of this stretch is steep but not too terribly bad, small sections include challenging rock steps.
Murphy Camp site C is positioned at an amazing point to overlook the valley and canyons below. It also gives an excellent view of the next section of road. Sunset was beautiful, even in the absence of clouds.
A steep but reasonably easy descent started our fifth day as we left Murphy Camp and traveled through the valley that we had observed from above. Our destination for the night was Taylor Camp, a distance of 32 miles which took a good part of the day. A major feature along this section of road is the Turk's Head which lies at a gooseneck bend in the Green River. The Green River can be viewed from several locations on this stretch of the road and many make nice spots for a lunch break.
The section of road denoted as Hardscrabble was the most challenging of the entire White Rim Road. It seemed to be a combination of everything difficult that this road had to offer. Very steep and narrow, loose, rock steps, and blind curves. This section had long stretches in which there was no place to turn around or pull out if another vehicle was encountered going the opposite direction. The road had been cut along unstable canyon walls so that on one side was canyon wall, rock, and scree, while the other was a shear drop.
A spur road takes off from the White Rim Road and into Taylor Canyon where Taylor Camp is located. The campsite is situated in a nice spot for viewing the canyon and the geologic features of Moses and Zeus. While Moses and Zeus are the more famous features of this location, I found that Taylor Canyon was more interesting.
From Taylor Camp, the remainder of the drive out was much less challenging. We headed directly to Moab for showers and a nice lunch.
While the descriptions provided above are brief and only touch upon the features encountered on the White Rim Road, there are infinite possibilities for viewing the incredible geology and for photography. We were fortunate to be able to spend six days on this journey. While some people recommend two to three days, I feel like it is better explored by taking more time. Slow travel allows one to be more immersed in what nature has to offer.
The White Rim Road is classified as a moderately difficult high-clearance four-wheel-drive road. Difficulties that drivers will encounter include: rock steps, deep sand, 20-degree inclines, ruts, mud (if it has rained recently), blind corners, narrow sections on steep and unstable mountainsides, and no place to backup or turn around for long distances. Some of the particularly dicey sections have the potential for fatalities if the driver makes an error, conditions are poor, or another vehicle is met that arrives from the opposite direction. Because of these reasons, it is highly recommended to travel the White Rim Road in a clockwise direction. Most people do traverse it clockwise and this direction was recommended to us by a National Park Service Ranger when we were in the trip planning stage.
For travel along the White Rim Road, a few practical tips will be helpful:
- Take more food and water than you would plan to use in the event that you get stuck. Bad weather or a breakdown can strand vehicles for days.
- Carry a spare tire and tire changing tools in the event of a flat.
- Cell reception is spotty at best. Do not expect cell service in most areas. We were able to get cell reception in some parts of the White Crack camping area.
- A high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle is required. A passenger car is highly unlikely to be able to travel the White Rim Road without getting stuck and without damage to the undercarriage.
- Check with the National Park Service rangers at Canyonlands National Park before attempting to drive the White Rim Road. Weather can make the road impassable.
- Know the regulations governing the White Rim Road, which can be found on the Canyonlands National Park website.
Permits and and Camping
Permits are required for both day use and overnight camping. Permits may be obtained from the National Park Service. Camping is allowed only in designated camping areas. The White Rim Road has limited camping. Ten camping areas have been designated along the road. Camping areas range from one to four sites with a total of 20 sites for the entire road. Because of the limited number of sites, they are reserved quickly once they released for reservation. Keep this in mind for planning and try to reserve sites early to have the greatest chance of being able to get them.
Campsites are situated so that different camping parties have plenty of space between them. Toilets are located at each camping area. During our visit, the restrooms were clean but no toilet paper was provided.
Canyonlands National Park Website
Canyonlands National Park website provides additional information on the White Rim Trail. The link is: Canyonlands National Park.
The following list of books were found to be good resources for the White Rim Road and/or the general area.
- Guide to Moab, UT Backroads & 4-Wheel-Drive Trails 3rd Edition by Charles Wells. This book provides descriptions of backroads in the Moab area and provides solid information and advice.
- The White Rim Trail: Mile by Mile by Rob Magley. A comprehensive description of the White Rim Road along its entire length. Contains detailed information of road condition and difficult areas. This was the most valuable resource that we had with us - incredibly helpful for anticipating road conditions.
- Photographing the Southwest Vol. 1 - Southern Utah (3rd Edition): A Guide to the Natural Landmarks of Southern Utah by Laurent Martrès. This is just one of several wonderful books on photography by this author. While it contains sparse information specifically for the White Rim Road, it gives a lot of very good information for photographing in the Moab area and other parts of Southern Utah. Highly recommended.
Information for Photographers
Because of the nature of the road and low travel speed, many stunning locations will be photographed during the daylight hours. While this timing is not optimal, good photos can still be obtained. Of course, these areas can also be shot at sunrise or sunset with sufficient planning. White Crack is a great location for sunrise and sunset photographs. Murphy, near site C, makes for a stunning sunset spot.
The nature of the landscape along the White Rim Road gives photographers enormous latitude for composition. It is advisable to take lenses ranging from ultra-wide to moderate telephoto.
About the Images
Photos included in this post were shot with a Leica CL digital camera. Lenses used were: Leica Super-Vario-Elmar-T 11-23mm f/3.5-4.5 ASPH, Leica APO-Vario-Elmar-T 55-135mm f/3.5-4.5 ASPH , and Voigtlander Ultron 35mm f/1.7 Aspherical.