Monday, October 17, 2016

Moab Canyonlands - September 2016: Part 1

Southern Utah - September 2016
Spectacular Switchbacks, a Secret (Camp) Site, and Hidden Splendor

September 16 - 22, 2016

Part 1 of 4:
Moab, Corona Arch, Potash Road, and Shafer Trail

I'd been stuck in town for too long since my last camping trip. What with the extraordinary heat of July and projects around the house, I'd just not had the chance to get out. I had received a notice that the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), was having a Roundup in the wilds of Utah, near The Hidden Splendor Mine, in mid September. The event, which included guided day hikes, sounded interesting. This gave me a goal to get my new solar panel charging system operational [an upcoming post] and come up with a working design for an awning for the camper based upon a cheap tarp, a couple telescoping tent poles, and rope.

Click on any photo to see larger versions - highly recommended!

Thursday, September 15th

I hit the road about 9am. The rig was packed, I had gas, and all preparations made. I traveled NW on US-550 toward the Four Corners area. All along the highway the Chamisa was in full bloom, and I would notice that this was the case for most of my journey. My goal for tonight was one of the BLM campgrounds outside Moab, UT. I stopped in Bloomfield at Blake's for a green chile cheeseburger - yummy.

Wow. US-64 between Bloomfield and Farmington was even more unpleasant than the last time, and that trip had included road construction. This awful stretch, with its now smooth surface, is clogged with traffic and tacky commercial enterprises. The speed limit is low and the scenery might be pleasant as the highway follows the San Juan River, but you can hardly enjoy it as you have to keep constant attention on the wandering cars and trucks trying to share your space. I knew there was a bypass on county roads, but I didn't know where it was and my navigation app didn't offer one. I swore I'd figure that out before the next time I had to go through here, such as next week. (Stay tuned, as the route will be revealed later.)

From Shiprock I cut north on US-491. I got gas at the Ute casino, cut through Cortez, Colorado, and kept on the highway to Monticello, UT. From there I headed north up US-191 to Moab. There was construction along here and I ended up in a slow caravan around the one-lane road. I finally reached Moab and its bumper-to-bumper traffic, then through.

By the way, if you are visiting this area for the first time, I recommend you stop at the interagency Visitor Center in Moab, 25 E. Center St., just east of US-191. Or at the very least visit their website. They can give you maps, brochures, and advice to help you navigate and find a legal place to camp in this heavily visited area.

I crossed the Colorado River and looked for the left turn to Potash Road. I was crossing my fingers that there was space as camping anywhere within many miles of Moab is restricted to official campgrounds and camping areas. I knew the sites upstream along the river were extremely popular and would most likely be filled this late in the afternoon. September is prime time to be outdoors in Utah. I cannot remember now who I'd met in my travels who had recommended the Williams Bottom Campground along Potash Road. They mentioned how very nice it was, so that was my goal.

William's Bottom Campground

I didn't look at my map, but was relying on my flawed memory to find the spot so drove on by looking for the William's Bottom sign. I did notice a campground and see there appeared to be a vacant spot or two, so was encouraged there would be space when I arrived at my destination. When I reached Gold Bar river access I knew enough to know I'd gone too far, so checked my map and drove back upstream. Once I turned into the campground I saw the sign announcing Williams Bottom. The first several sites were full of large vehicles, ATV trailers, and a blaring radio. I drove on. This small BLM camping area that parallels the main road. Down near the end I found a quiet, comfortable site that I could fit myself into.

My campsite at William's Bottom on Potash Road, Moab.

The campground is narrow, nestled up against tall, perpendicular rock among a few cottonwoods and salt cedar. This rock face provides shade during the afternoon, so even if you are too late to find one of the camp sites nestled in the trees, you can still be out of the hot sun. One downside is that all the sites are very close to the busy Potash Road - the heavy trucks are not so bad, but the jacked-up diesel pickup trucks and the very noisy and flamboyant ATVs are an assault to the ears. You cannot see (or access) the river from the campground due to the heavy riverside growth of scrub and willows, but the rock cliffs on the other side can be admired. Turns out there is a campground on the other side, too, which is accessed via a road south from Moab.

View looking across the "bottom" to the cliff face on the other side of the river.

After setting up and paying my reasonable fee, I wandered a bit taking pictures. I met David and Peggy the next site down with their pop-up camping trailer, and Harley, their dog. These folks turned out to be very congenial. They live in Gunnison, CO, and have been coming to Utah to camp for years and years. They were full of stories and history and tips for places to see and camp. We looked at maps together and I gleaned ideas for this trip and future explorations. Hooray for good neighbors.

That evening, as darkness fell, the full moon rose above the dome shaped cliffs across the river. I took lots of photos and one or two came out passibly. After the ATV folks retired to their camp, the road quieted down and I spent a peaceful night.

That night the full moon rose above the canyon walls across the Colorado River from my campsite.


Corona Arch

My goal this morning was to make the short hike to Corona Arch. There were already quite a few cars in the parking lot across from the Gold Bar, so I knew I'd have company. It's about 3 miles to the arch and back, and the scenery is spectacular the whole way.

View of the trailhead parking area. Gold Bar Recreation Area and Campground are along the Colorado.

The trail crosses the rail line that runs to the potash plant. I had to photograph the extensive excavation.

I paused to look back along the trail about quarter of a mile in.

Most of the hike is simple and easy. There are a couple tricky sections, neither is too difficult, but you should be cautioned: one has you scrambling up a steep slope - there is a braided cable to grab hold on and toe holds chiseled into the rock face; the other is a short steel ladder bolted to a rock cleft.

An early look at the arches. Once you've clicked on the photo to enlarge it, you should be able to see hikers scrambling up the slope that slants down from the left - this is where the cable is anchored to help you climb.

You walk past Bowtie Arch before you get to Corona Arch.

I was advised that mid-morning was a good time to photograph the arch and at first thought that was not good advice, as the side toward me was in shadow. I was to find that one walks under, then behind the arch to get sunny photos with an interesting background. (Disclaimer: I did Photoshop out a few of the tourists standing under the arch in awe.)

Though the arch is in shadow from this angle, I love how the underside is lit by reflection off the rocks.

Perspective from the sunny side with interesting background scenery, too.

At this turn of the trail previous visitors have created a field of small cairns.

After returning to my truck I decided it was time for lunch. I drove across the road to the Gold Bar Recreation Area. I inadvertently drove in the entrance to the campground, not the picnic/day-use area. This turned out to be a lucky break. Reading the BLM brochures, Gold Bar is billed as an RV campground and as such, didn't appeal to me on the face of that. However, the reality has a different face - yes, the sites are pretty much just spaces along the edge of a large parking area, but next to each is a picnic table and fire ring. If you're lucky you might get one of the sites on the river side which have tables that are shielded from the other sites by thick vegetation. I didn't verify, but it looks like it would be possible to walk a short ways to the river, too, from each site. These sites would not be ideal in the heat of the summer as there would be no shade for your camper, but in the cooler months this wouldn't be an issue.

I drove around to the other parking lot and had my lunch at one of the covered picnic tables. I had a nice conversation with a couple of cyclists who were doing a day ride down the canyon.

Potash Road - Shafer Trail

After lunch I drove farther on Potash Road with the intent to ascend Shafer Trail up into Canyonlands Island in the Sky. This route was recommended to me by David and Peggy as very scenic and interesting. They also recommended driving down Long Canyon Road, but this would have to wait for another trip due to time constraints.

Potash Road runs between the Colorado River and the steep canyon walls. It passes Jug Handle Arch and the turn-off to Long Canyon, but I kept driving. The road remains paved until you reach the Intrepid Potash plant. This area is private property, so remain on the marked road. There is a boat launch area about a mile past the depot. Camping is not allowed here.

View of the Colorado from the boat ramp. Flow is from the distance then down to the right.

As the road climbs away from the river, it passes through these rock formations.

View across the potash ponds toward Moab and the La Sal Mountains.

The road climbs steeply though interesting, rugged territory, then skirts the potash evaporation ponds. It drops down into and across a basin before climbing again. When you've come up "on top" of the terrace, about 4 miles past the big evaporation pond, just past the cattle guard, pull over or even take the side road, for great views into the canyon with the Colorado River below. I took lots of photos, but only included one as none truly capture the feeling of standing on the edge, looking out over the canyon. You have to experience this for yourself!

I'm standing at the edge of the precipice looking upstream.

After I took the photo above, I turned around and admired this rocky cliff. That wide section in the middle almost looks like about a dozen Easter Island style heads squeezed together side-by-side.

As you continue along Potash Road, which could also be called Shafer Trail anywhere along here, you turn west and with a last glimpse of the river, drive up a wash. Along here you enter Canyonlands National Park. If you continue up to Island in the Sky you come out beyond the entrance station and you may have to pay the fee as you exit the park (if you do not have a pass.)

The road 'T's into the White Rim Road. Turn right to ascend; left to follow the rim road, though know you are supposed to have a permit for overnight use of one of the park service campgrounds. (I believe you can obtain permits at the interagency visitor center in Moab, but from what I understand, most of the White Rim permits reach quota weeks, or months, prior to any date, so last minute excursions may not be accommodated.)

Looking down at the lower section of switchbacks on Shafer Trail.

The road clings to the cliff as it climbs.

From on top, if you look carefully you can see the junction of Potash Road and White Rim Road.

The road to the top, now labled Shafer Canyon Road, follows a long canyon toward a tall face, then ascends via spectacular, sinuous, skinny, steep switchbacks. Lots of fun and great views. When I reached the top I turned left. I wanted to ask at the visitor center just who had cut that amazing road into the cliff side. The gentleman at the info desk said the rancher Shafer established the trail for cattle, but later it was made into a road to aid uranium exploration.

For your information:
BLM map of Shafer Trail
BLM webpage for Shafer Trail and Long Canyon Road

On the Highway

From the visitor center I drove north out of the park, then followed UT-313 back to US-191 to west I-70. The speed limit on the freeway was 80mph! I got gas in Green River, then drove on.

The story continues in Part 2: Hidden Splendor, San Rafael Swell, and Cathedral Valley.


  1. Oh Wow! The switchbacks were most spectacular! And I remember the hike to Corona Arch. I stayed on the flat rock before the cliff scramble, and just enjoyed the scenery, while the photographer in the party went on ahead to get a good shot.

  2. You could have made it up the scramble, Claudie, no problem. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Replies
    1. Thanks for stopping by. I'm glad you enjoyed viewing the photos.


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