One in a series of occasional stories marking the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary.
CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK — The sign along Highway 6 south from Salt Lake City is small, but it will make you do a double-take: “Skyline Dr. Next Right/Starvation Rd. Second Right.’’
An ample range of experiences.
This is a harsh land you are heading to, Southern Utah, extreme and extremely beautiful. And no place captures this better than Canyonlands.
There are several spell-binding regions in the park. To the southeast, an area known as the Needles is famous for rugged backpacking; in the southwestern part of the park, the Maze is stark and remote and perhaps best visited in 4X4 Jeeps. At the north is the more accessible Island in the Sky, and a terrific way to feel its elemental forces and absorb its views is by mountain bike.
One road equal parts brutal and beautiful here is White Rim. It hugs, in a 100-mile loop, the tops of canyons, where the white sandstone edges contrast surrounding deep red rocks. Think of Canyonlands as a massive wedding cake, with Island in the Sky the top tier, a plateau with White Rim Road the middle tier, and the Colorado and Green rivers coursing through — and still creating — the bottom. On one side of rocky, spine-rattling White Rim Road, jagged walls majestically tower; on the other, a sheer drop of 500 feet.
There are no trees, a few wildflowers, a handful of primitive campsites, and nothing else for 100 miles, save for those head-swiveling 360-degree vistas. Some hardy bicyclists take three or four days and ride the entire loop, with support from area expedition companies. But you can do a truncated out-and-back trip in the better part of a day.
Start at dawn from on high — Island in the Sky (you’ll need to grab a free permit for the road and pay park fees the day before at the visitors’ center; bike rental from Moab Cyclery or Chile Peppers in Moab). As you pedal from a parking spot on Shafer Trail at Island in the Sky, the magenta, tan, black, and ochre rock wall physically corrals you on one side and the precipice psychologically corrals you on the other, with the reddening glow of morning beyond.
To reach White Rim below, you’ll need to negotiate a stretch known as Shafer Switchbacks, which have been built into a canyon wall. With a half-dozen hairpin turns dropping you 1,200 feet, this is a ride that’ll whip you from exhilaration to terror and back. As you barrel down, hugging the walls, your eyes are fixed on the gullies, bumps, and large rocks that threaten (at least to your bouncing brain) to cartwheel you against the wall or over the edge. Any let-up on the brakes has the same effect as flooring a V-8 four-barrel engine, with gravity grabbing the bike and hurtling you down the road.
Yeah, this is outrageous fun, in a suborbital-reentry sort of way.
By the time the road begins to flatten, your hands are cramping from needing to ride so far over the handlebars and squeezing the brakes. Your stomach is stuck somewhere between turns four and five.
White Rim Road is packed with curves and smaller hills. Unless you are an expert mountain biker, expect to get off the saddle and walk your bike up a hill or two.
Several signposts point the cyclist to especially terrific views. Don’t miss the Gooseneck Overlook, where the Colorado River doubles back upon itself below and the majestic Dead Horse Point State Park looms above.
About two miles past Gooseneck is the Colorado River Overlook. Spend an hour or so hopping along a series of balanced rocks and across fissures that plummet hundreds of feet. The ribbon of green that sheathes the muddy Colorado below contrasts with the stony reds and browns saturating the rest of the landscape. A sense of the primordial pulsates.
A scant quarter mile past the overlook is Musselman Arch, which connects one edge of canyon to another. Intrepid folks walk across the 80-foot span, at widths as narrow as 4 feet.
Musselman is a good turn-around point, at about eight miles from your parking spot. The ride back, of course, means a whole different experience on Shafer’s Switchbacks: climbing. The road was initially defined by John Shafer, a cattle rancher, in the early 1900s and widened by miners in the 1950s after uranium was discovered along the plateau (the mines have long been shuttered). In any iteration, the defining quality is its steepness. Here is the place you pat yourself on the back for bringing so much water.
Here, too, is a good place to spot the black-tailed jackrabbit, as quick as a scatback and with ears the size of mizzen sails.
If the thought of climbing the switchbacks lacks appeal, there is an alternative. Tag-A-Long Expeditions , based in nearby Moab, offers a shuttle service, dropping you and your bike off via bus before the switchbacks and picking you up via jet boat on the Colorado River. To reach the pickup spot, you’ll need to pedal eight miles past Musselman Arch to Lathrop Canyon Road, near a stunning rock formation known as Airport Tower.
The 3.6-mile road leads you to the river at the bottom of the canyon, but not before forcing you to slog through expanses of deep sand.
The 24-mile excursion up the Colorado River on the jet boat, however, is pure wind-in-your face joy. Southern Utah a harsh land? Not when you’re zipping through the canyons cooled by the breeze and that four-pack of Moab Brewery’s Rocket Bike Amber you stashed in the boat’s cooler.