Canyonlands: A 4×4 Tour Up The Shafer Trail & White Rim Road

Last Updated on: 7th February 2024, 10:47 pm

Most people will visit Canyonlands National Park’s Island in the Sky district via a smooth, paved road from central Moab. But if you have the right vehicle, driving up the many switchbacks of the Shafer Trail is an unforgettable way to get there. About halfway up the mesa, meanwhile, is the scenic White Rim Road, though getting an advanced permit is a must.

For either road, you’ll need to rent a high-clearance 4×4. But if you don’t have one, or are unable to obtain a permit for White Rim Road, you can also take a tour.

That’s what I did, and the following guide describes the journey I took with NAVTEC Expeditions along Potash Road, part of White Rim Road and up the Shafer Trail.

But even if you’re still undecided, keep reading, as we’ll also be covering tips on how to go about this journey if you choose to do things on your own.

For more information on reaching Moab and the best places to stay, be sure to check the end of the article.

White Rim Road Shafer Trail 4x4 Tour

Potash Road

Whether you’re visiting White Rim Road and the Shafer Trail independently or with a tour, you’re either going to start or finish your journey with Potash Road. Coming from Moab, the first half of Potash Road is paved, and this segment is also known as Utah State Highway 279.

White Rim Road Shafer Trail 4x4 Tour

And it’s here that you’l encounter a huge collection of ancient petroglyphs. The site is officially known as ‘Utah State Highway 279 Rock Art.’

While you will encounter adequate parking spaces, you’ll have to be careful to mind traffic and not block the road while admiring the art.

White Rim Road Shafer Trail 4x4 Tour

Many of the carvings are believed to date back to the Archaic period, which lasted from 6,000-1,000 BC. More recently, the Fremont people, who inhabited these lands from around 450-1300 AD, likely left additional petroglyphs.

White Rim Road Shafer Trail 4x4 Tour
White Rim Road Shafer Trail 4x4 Tour

Many of the carvings are considerably high off the ground, but our guide explained that the ground level used to be much higher before the current road was built. 

But if you’re doing further travels throughout the Southwest, you’ll observe that many other carvings have been left inexplicably high, even with the absence of roads.

White Rim Road Shafer Trail 4x4 Tour

Moving on, the paved road continued but the surrounding scenery grew more open. 

Having already been to the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park, I was familiar with the views from the top. But from here, one can see what the mesa looks like from the bottom.

White Rim Road Shafer Trail 4x4 Tour
White Rim Road Shafer Trail 4x4 Tour

Next, we drove past an industrial area owned by Intrepid Potash, Inc. On our left were enormous pools of water. But as everything was behind a fence, it was difficult to get a clear view.

These pools function as evaporation mines for potash, which is comprised of potassium chloride that was originally deposited by ancient seas.

Once the water evaporates, the salt is then gathered by giant scrapers, and the potassium chloride is later turned into plant fertilizer.

Later on, we’d reach a slightly higher area where we’d stop to take in the views from a distance. Unfortunately, from this spot (and likely at this time of day), the vibrant colors these pools are famous for were hardly visible.

They’re best viewed from atop the mesa in the afternoon lighting, and as far as I can tell, the only place from which to see them from above is Dead Horse Point State Park.

The colorful pools as seen from Dead Horse Point State Park

Past the pools, the paved road ends, and from here Potash Road is especially rough and rocky. 

This land is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. And while they do occasionally maintain the road, I certainly wouldn’t want to attempt this journey in anything other than a high-clearance 4×4.

White Rim Road Shafer Trail 4x4 Tour
White Rim Road Shafer Trail 4x4 Tour

Before long, we made another stop to admire the views of the Colorado River from the Gooseneck Overlook. It could be considered a more ‘zoomed-in’ version of the view you get from the Dead Horse Point Overlook.

You can even walk atop a rocky outcrop comprised of multiple levels, but there’s nothing to protect you from slipping.

White Rim Road Shafer Trail 4x4 Tour

As mentioned, these lands were once submerged underneath ancient seas. And our guide demonstrated this by pouring water over a dry rock, revealing various small marine fossils that have been embedded within.

Moving on, we officially entered the boundaries of Canyonlands National Park. But there aren’t any entrance stations at this level of the mesa, so you’re unlikely to have to pay for a park pass if you’re simply taking a 4×4 tour on this day.

White Rim Road Shafer Trail 4x4 Tour

White Rim Road

In between the top of the mesa and the Colorado River is what’s known as the White Rim Sandstone level. And there’s even a long road which loops around it, appropriately known as the White Rim Road.

Constructed in the 1950s during the uranium mining boom. the entirety of the White Rim Road stretches out to 100 miles and forms a massive loop. But whether you do the whole loop or just a small segment, a special permit is a must (more below).

As this was just a half-day tour, we only went as far as a landmark known as Musselman Arch. Unlike most of the arches at nearby Arches National Park, you don’t have to look up to find this one.

Rather, the Musselman Arch is a narrow strip of rock that’s at the same level as the ground, but with sheer drops on either side of it!

It could more accurately be described as a land bridge, and it stretches out to about 187 feet long and six feet wide.

White Rim Road Shafer Trail 4x4 Tour
White Rim Road Shafer Trail 4x4 Tour

The arch is wide and sturdy enough to be walked across. But needless to say, don’t even consider it if you have a fear of heights! In one section, you can even observe a long crack through the rock.

White Rim Road Shafer Trail 4x4 Tour
White Rim Road Shafer Trail 4x4 Tour

We then returned the way we came via the scenic White Rim Road. The views from the road itself are breathtaking, and I’d definitely like to experience more of the road upon a future visit to Moab. 

But how does one go about it?

White Rim Road Shafer Trail 4x4 Tour

Touring White Rim Road Independently

At around 100 miles (160 km) in total, driving the entire White Rim Road loop would take two or three days and would also require camping in remote parts of the park. As mentioned above, everyone driving down any segment of White Rim Road independently needs a permit, and there are actually two types.

BACKCOUNTRY PERMITS: Backcountry Permits are necessary if you want to do any camping along White Rim Road (you will also need a separate reservation for a specific camping site). But having a Backcountry Permit also allows driving access on the day of your reservation – even if you don’t actually end up camping.

Considering how Backcountry Permits can be secured much further in advance than Day Use Permits, it would be wise to aim for a Backcountry Permit, even if you only plan on seeing part of the loop on a single day.

Depending on exactly which month you’ll be visiting, permits will become available from 4-6 months in advance of your trip. While you can also technically reserve a permit just a few days in advance, they sell out quickly. Therefore, it would be wise to handle everything as early as possible.

Learn more bout Backcountry Permits here.

Overlooking White Rim Road from Island in the Sky

DAY USE PERMITS: As the name suggests, Day Use Permits only allow you to access White Rim Road with your vehicle in the daytime. And only 50 vehicles can obtain Day Use Permits per day.

Half of these permits are sold online, with reservations only going on sale from 8:00 AM the day before your trip. The other half, meanwhile, can only be purchased in person at a Canyonlands Visitor Center.

Learn more here.

Obviously, you’ll need to take proper precautions for being out on a rough road in the wilderness. Aside from having the proper vehicle, you’ll need to know how to change a tire, while also making sure to have enough food and water in case you get stuck, etc.

For a thorough overview of what it’s like to drive White Rim Road independently and how to prepare, Earth Trekkers has some excellent articles on the subject.

If you’d still like to see more of White Rim Road but aren’t sure about going on your own, consider a full-day tour like this one.

White Rim Road Shafer Trail 4x4 Tour
White Rim Road Shafer Trail 4x4 Tour

The Shafer Trail

Next, it was time to head up the Shafer Trail. Known for its numerous switchbacks, the road leads directly to the top of the mesa. In addition to its steep and sharp turns, the road is unpaved, so having a 4×4 is an absolute must. 

Officially, the road is maintained by the park. But as with any unpaved road, conditions can vary greatly depending on how long ago the road was graded, not to mention recent weather. 

White Rim Road Shafer Trail 4x4 Tour
White Rim Road Shafer Trail 4x4 Tour
White Rim Road Shafer Trail 4x4 Tour

The Schafer Trail was originally built in 1917 by John and Sog Shafer for herding cattle to and from the mesa top. 

In its early days, it was a lot narrower than it is now, being only wide enough for one cow at a time. Needless to say, some cows did occasionally fall off the edge. 

White Rim Road Shafer Trail 4x4 Tour

Thanks to the thriving uranium industry in the 1950s, the road was widened around the same time that White Rim Road was built. As such, it’s now open to two-way traffic. So regardless of whether you’re driving up or down, you’ll have to be mindful of cars coming from the opposite direction.

White Rim Road Shafer Trail 4x4 Tour

Our driver and guide had driven this route countless times, so he casually sped through it, completely unfazed by the sharp turns and occasional rocks. 

It was thrilling to experience as a passenger, while we were also able to stop and enjoy the views from outside the car.

White Rim Road Shafer Trail 4x4 Tour
White Rim Road Shafer Trail 4x4 Tour

If you’ll be driving the Shafer Trail on your own, it’s said to be a lot scarier coming down! Not only would the descent be terribly hard on your brakes, but you’d be looking straight down into the depths of the canyon throughout the entire journey.

As such, most people prefer driving up, while you can get back down via the regular paved road that connects the Island in the Sky with Moab. 

White Rim Road Shafer Trail 4x4 Tour

Coming Down

But in our case, with a 4×4 and an experienced guide, we didn’t go the usual way down. Instead, we exited via an offroad trail called Long Canyon, the entrance to which is located not far from Dead Horse Point State Park.

This was the bumpiest road yet of all those we experienced that day. And due to the rough ride, I was hardly able to capture the experience.

White Rim Road Shafer Trail 4x4 Tour

I did, at least, manage to capture one of the road signs that’s been entirely marked by bullet holes! Supposedly, these signs are occasionally used for target practice.

And once at the bottom, we drove past another arch that few visitors to Moab are aware of. Jug Handle Arch can easily be seen from the road, though there’s said to be a hiking trail in the vicinity as well.

Additional Info

As mentioned above, I took this tour to Potash Road, White Rim Road and the Shafer Trail, and had a great experience. We were picked up from our hotel in Moab at 8:00 and returned around 12:00. It made for a nice morning excursion before heading on to Salt Lake City.

If you’re looking for an even more extensive tour of the White Rim, this tour is also an option. It also includes Potash Road and the Shafer Trail, but at 9 hours in total, it takes you much farther along the White Rim Road.

Considering how Moab serves as the base for two National Parks, one State Park and plenty of other nearby attractions, you’ll likely be spending at least several nights here.

Moab is one of the most touristy towns you’ll encounter in the Southwest, so there’s no shortage of accommodation options to choose from.

I stayed at a centrally-located motel called the The Virginian Inn Moab Downtown. Overall, I had a comfortable stay and consider it a good value.

The most peculiar thing about this motel is that the receptionists are located in the Philippines! There is someone on-call 24 hours, and you can start chatting with them via a video conferencing machine as soon as you enter the lobby. It felt rather strange at first, but the system actually worked out pretty well.

Other highly-rated accommodations for a similar price range include the Expedition Lodge, the Bowen Motel and the Rustic Inn.

Despite how popular it’s become, Moab remains relatively difficult to reach due to its geographical isolation.

The nearest major airport would be Salt Lake City, which is around four hours away. While Moab does have its own small airport, it apparently only has direct connections with Salt Lake City or Denver.

It’s also possible to take an Amtrak train from Salt Lake City to the nearby town of Green River, Utah. In any case, you’ll need to rent a car to get to Moab and explore the nearby parks.

For those doing a longer trip across Utah, Moab is about 2.5 hours from Capitol Reef National Park. If you’re coming from the Monument Valley area, Moab is about 2 hours and 15 minutes from the town of Mexican Hat.

Moab is also just about two hours from Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

At the time of writing, Canyonlands National Park costs $30 per vehicle to enter (learn more here).

If you’re visiting from abroad, note that in contrast to many other countries, US parks typically charge per vehicle rather than per person. However, if you’re traveling by bicycle instead, they’ll charge you for an individual pass which costs $15, while those on motorcycles will be charged $25.

Note that for the tour described above, even though we entered the park boundaries, we weren’t asked by a ranger to show a park pass. But if you’re going to go deeper into the park, you will pass the entrance station at which you’ll need to show your ticket.

Considering how many National Parks and National Monuments there are to see in the Southwest alone, the best option for most will be to buy an ‘America the Beautiful’ Annual National Parks Pass.

These cost $80 for the year. In most cases, you’re already saving money by just visiting four National Parks/Monuments anywhere in the country within a full year.

What’s more, is that only one person in your vehicle needs to have the pass. Additionally, seniors can buy the pass for just $20. So if you have someone over 62 in your party, just have them get the annual pass and everyone else will be set.

As for where to get the pass, you can purchase it in person at most National Parks or Monuments. But you can also order it in advance online.

Scroll to Top