Shafer Trail/Potash Road To Island In The Sky

On our arrival to the city of Moab we made a couple of quick stops to fill up on gas and some supplies and went to find a place to camp outside the city limits so as to steer clear of crowds and traffic…this is Moab after all. Our first attempt, called Camp Sunset, was suggested to us by the site. Heading out Highway 279 which essentially parallels the Colorado River much of the way we eventually came to the spot right about where Potash Road merges with the highway. The last several hundred yards to the specific spot were on a relatively rough and rocky “road.” When we arrived we found the spot was at the exposed, windy edge of a couple of hundred foot cliff that dropped off towards the river itself. A couple of newer Tacomas were already there and so, after we took a break to stretch our legs and say “hi” to the pair of dogs and their humans already set up in their camp spots we decided to leave them in peace and headed off to find another, less crowded, less windy spot nearby.

A few minutes later we found a nice, secluded, protected spot and thought about setting up a base camp for an extended stay. Annoyingly it was alternating between drizzle and outright rain and those are just not conducive conditions to set up camp unless it is an emergency and it was not. We had just passed a sign letting us know that Canyonlands National Park was just about 10 miles away via Potash Road which is essentially the old Shafer Trail and decided to go exploring and possibly just suck it up and pay for camping in the park if any existed and was vacant.

The Shafer Trail was originally a cattle trail created around 1917 by John Sog Shafer as a path to get his and his brother’s cattle up to the mesa top for the summer grazing season near the present day Island In The Sky portion of Canyonlands National Park. He built his trail following the path of an existing game trail and so it uses more than a few switchbacks as it winds its way up the steep hillside towards the mesa top. In the winter time it is too cold, exposed and snowy up on the mesa for cattle and so that is when they would winter them down in what is now called the Shafer Basin, which Willow and I were in the process of heading through. In the early 1950 during the cold war uranium mining boom the ore mined in this area needed a way to get up to the mesa and then out to processing plants and the Shafer Trail was seen as the most direct route and would be easier to upgrade to ore truck standards than to have to start from scratch. The Shafer Trail Road Project was started in August 1952 and a mere two months later was completed. Small portions of the road from 65 years ago can still sometimes be seen peeking through the dirt, clay and rocks that have slowly taken over the route.

As usual this is an area that AT&T thinks does not exist and so, not having planned this latest adventure we were somewhat blind to our route and surroundings.

Map track showing Our Route Into Canyonlands National Park
Our Route Into Canyonlands National Park

The area had a serious need of more specific and clear route signage but there was an abundance of “Hey This Is Private Property and You Better Not Even Think Of Trespassing Here” signs from the Potash Company. Several times we saw a full-size pickup belonging to the Company playing Hide & Seek and shadowing us while popping in and out of sight as we took the route that curved around and right next to the salt ponds that extensively cover the area.

Map Of Many Of The Salt Ponds In The Area
Map Of Our Route Near Many Of The Salt Ponds In The Area

Once past all the manufactured ponds we maneuvered around several narrow, sharp turns with a rock wall on one side and a cliff on the other and played “who has the right of way” with several people in rented Jeeps who we’re guessing drive in the same brain-dead manner when on pavement and in their own vehicles. We also came across a few nice, older FJ80 Land Cruisers from NAVTEC Expeditions carrying paying passengers on sightseeing tours who did understand how right-of-way rules work. Plus, they obviously want to provide a substantially nicer and more comfortable ride to their paying human customers than I need to for Willow and so, when they saw us approaching in their rear view mirrors, they dutifully pulled to the side and let us pass thank you very much.

Rock Wall To The Right, Sheer Cliff Down To The Colorado River On The Left
Rock Wall To The Right, Sheer Cliff Down To The Colorado River On The Left

The trail eventually opened up and we were presented with stunning vistas of the mighty Colorado River as it wound its way around striated sandstone bluffs at the edge of its path. Very much like what you would see at Horseshoe Bend.

Very Similar But Not Horseshoe Bend
Very Similar But Not Horseshoe Bend
Willow close to the edge of a cliff on the Shafer Trail, THe Colorado River below
Don’t Get Too Close To The Edge Please

We had been told that this area is essentially the spot where they filmed the final scenes from the 1991 movie Thelma & Louise. In fact much of the movie was filmed in this general area.

Panorama of Tacoma near the edge of the cliff

All of about 1 mile from the picture above we crossed a cattle guard at the unassuming “back” entrance to the National Park, about where the red marker is on the map towards the top of this post.

small sign next to a cattle guard announcing the entrance to Canyonlands National Park
Quite Minimal For An Entrance To A National Park

About 1.5 miles past the entrance sign the road we were on met up with the White Rim Road and turned into Shafer Canyon Road for the remaining 6 miles or so to the Island In The Sky Visitor Center.

As we made our way out of the relatively flat valley and began heading up the narrow switchbacks in the drizzle we pulled over to the side of the road for a moment and took a look back at the line of the road that we had recently passed trailing back out into the distance.

Been There, Done That

As we made our way through the switchbacks ever higher up the mountainside the weather soon devolved and at around 5300′ light snow flurries began which decreased our visibility markedly. Fun fun.

Luckily the traffic going the other way was minimal and we only had to make room as we went two-wide a couple of times along the narrow and literally “die if you screw up and go over the edge” road.

We eventually and safely made it up to the top where we came out alongside Island In The Sky Road a.k.a Grand View Point Road in the continuing snowfall.

We chose to turn towards the Visitor Center so we could get some more detailed information on the park as well as one of those standard white oval stickers we had started putting on our camper shell to mark our progress during this adventure.

As we pulled away from the visitor center it was a little after 4pm and we still had no place planned to set up camp for our upcoming extended stay in the area. AT&T was still sucking in that area and so we decided to drive the 30+ miles back towards Moab so that we could get back online and figure out our options. On the way out of the area we stopped to take a picture in the light falling snow alongside a proper National Park entrance sign just, you know, because.

A proper National Park Entrance Sign
Now That Is A National Park Entrance Sign

If you find yourself in the area this was a relatively easy route if you are driving a high-clearance 4×4 vehicle. With a few tricky parts and numerous stunning vistas along the way this route is definitely worth the extra effort and makes you work, just a bit, as you satisfy your adventuresome spirit. We highly recommend this scenic back way into Canyonlands National Park.

Once we got to an area where AT&T stopped sucking we looked up some options and decided on a spot about 20 miles out of Moab to the east in Castle Valley. That spot was to become our base of operations for the next week as we explored the area and the next post we make will tell you all about it.

Safe Travels fellow adventurers.

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