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Quick…name a national park in Utah.

Okay…now another.

And another.

My guess is that had you not already seen the title of this post, you might have guessed Zion, Bryce Canyon and Arches.

Who knows? You may have even thought of the more obscure Capitol Reef National Park before Canyonlands.

To be honest, that would be perfectly reasonable. Relatively few people even know about this hidden gem of a park, and fewer still have actually visited.

Well, my goal in this post is to psych up all of you adventure junkies out there to add Canyonlands to your travel “bucket list”. Give me a chance, and I think it’ll be easy to do.

First and foremost, Canyonlands is a mere 45 kilometers away from the gates of the more famous Arches National Park. And no kidding, Arches really is bad to the bone. I mean, Delicate Arch is iconic enough to be on Utah’s license plates, for God’s sake.

And of course, Arches happens to be right next to the town of Moab, Utah, that veritable Mecca of mountain biking (and a pretty badass place to hang out).

So hey…you already have plenty of reason to be in that part of the world already. Go ahead and hop in the car for the scenic half-hour drive over to Canyonlands.

Wait, what’s that you say? You don’t have a car, you’ve got a Land Rover? All the better. That’s because if you’ve got any truck or SUV with reasonably high ground clearance you’re in for a major adventure. That is, if you’re brave and crazy enough to attempt it.

Beginning of the Shafer Trail
Beginning of the Shafer Trail
Canyonlands Road of Death
Top of the Shafer Trail. It looked like no big deal from here.

The infamous Shafer Trail is an unpaved track that winds from the very rim of the canyon all the way down to the bottom, and then over to the outskirts of Moab. It is not for the faint of heart for at least two reasons.

First, never mind the almost stereotypically understated assessment of the ranger at the Visitor’s Center, who told us “we should be fine” with our 2WD Ford Expedition. This trail has some challenging sections right at the base of the canyon which involve some heads-up driving. At one spot in particular we would have nosed off of about a twelve foot mesa in the middle of the road had we not seen it in time and driven around it. There were at least two other places where we had to get out and eyeball our path before proceeding.

But all of that is really nothing compared to the second factor. The Shafer Trail is quite literally the USA’s equivalent of Bolivia’s legendary “Road Of Death”, and it’s every bit as harrowing.

The road with adventure.
Winding “road of death” in Canyonlands National Park…the Shafer Trail.

Seriously, we’re talking about 180 degree switchbacks hanging off the ledge of the canyon, complete with hairpin turns, starting from probably a mile high. Two way traffic on about a 20-foot wide track? Most definitely. Guard rails? Forgettaboutit.

As the “designated driver” I can tell you it was a white-knuckle job to navigate down the trail. And it tricks you at first, lulling you into laughing with your false sense of security. But once you’re suddenly hit with the realization of what’s up, there’s just no turning back. Attempting a three-point turn would be even more potentially terrifying than proceeding.

Weirdly, my crazy-ass family was calm, cool and collected the whole time. Their trust in me is clearly way, way overblown as the whole ride really was a perpetual matter of life and death. Even more bizarre, both my lovely wife and my then twelve-year-old daughter kept attempting to distract me. Just as I’d crawl into a hairpin at like five mph, testing the brakes, I’d hear, “Look dad, a bird!” or “Did you SEE how beautiful it is out there? Look. Seriously, Look. Did you take a look yet? Don’t miss this.”

No, I didn’t see a bird. Ain’t nobody got time for that. But yes, I did steal a glimpse of the scenery. Thank God for camcorders, though. Later that day I finally got to relax and take in the view.

Completely quiet and serene in the middle of nowhere.
In the middle of nowhere, completely quiet and serene.

Along with the breathtaking views, you’re rewarded with a great sense of satisfaction once the Death March to the valley below is complete. But not so fast. When you get to the bottom you really can’t breathe a sigh of relief because all of a sudden, not only does the trail get more challenging, you realize you’re in the middle of freaking NOWHERE.

Indeed, very, very few souls are brave enough to have at the Shafer Trail, so virtually NOBODY is down there with you. Or maybe we’re the only ones who survived. (Ha! Kidding.)

It’s absolutely gorgeous down there, though. The rock formations, the colors, the surreal silence of nearly pure isolation. It’s a rare opportunity when traveling with small children to get that far away from most everything.

Nevertheless, danger continues to loom. Soon, you motor along a mesa that features yet another significant canyon dropoff to the right. While you have way, way more room than when snaking down the cliff, it is kind of chilling to know that’s where they filmed the famous last scene of Thelma and Louise.

As the trail becomes the Potash Road (with associated industry going on) and draws near to Moab, it becomes more and more of a relatively “normal” unpaved desert trail.

Having survived the ride of our lives, we were able to reflect on at least two other factors that make Canyonlands National Park truly special.

The Mesa Arch with a 2000 foot sheer drop on either side.
The Mesa Arch features a harrowing sheer drop on either side.

First was the seriously cool Mesa Arch. Indeed, arch formations aren’t limited solely to their eponymous reserve thirty miles away. And this one at Canyonlands is particularly special because it’s about eight feet wide, there’s at least a 1000 foot sheer drop on either side of it and—get this—you can WALK across it and back.

Again, this is high adventure that’s not for the faint of heart. But it sure makes for a cool photo op (and video too, obviously).

Photographers love Mesa Arch, especially on clear mornings when the sunrise casts a red glow underneath the arch which is allegedly stunning. Unfortunately, with four younguns it’s nothing short of impossible for us to get there that early.

Second, the view of the canyons themselves will leave you wondering how on Earth this place hasn’t gotten the fame and recognition it deserves. The only reason I can think of is that perhaps (and this is actually debatable) it isn’t quite as awe inspiring as The Grand Canyon.

I’ll tell you though, if you don’t have the two of them side by side to compare in real time (which you obviously don’t) you might swear that Canyonlands is actually the more impressive of the two. Yes, it’s that terrific.

In the end, the verdict is clear. If you’re hitting the national parks in Utah you can’t miss Canyonlands, especially if you’re up for an adrenaline fix. I’ve really only scratched the surface in this post. All told there are dozens of other short hikes here and there in the park, which is reminiscent of Badlands NP in South Dakota in that you can drive around the whole thing in an afternoon.

HOW TO GET THERE:

I-70 is the nearest interstate to Moab, which will get you quite close to Arches and Canyonlands. You can also fly into Moab commercially, but that can get pricey.

WHERE TO STAY:

If you have an RV, this area is probably already on your “to do” list. If not, there are lots of cool and/or charming places to stay in Moab, somewhere for every budget.

HOW TO SAVE MONEY:

We did lots of picnicking, as we do whenever we drag the travel trailer out west. This is a great way to beat the tourist trap restaurants that abound.

Another great idea is to purchase an annual pass from the National Park Service. This $80 investment will pay for itself if you run the gauntlet of five national parks along I-15 and I-70 in Utah alone, and is good for an entire year.

WHAT TO SEE ON A LAYOVER / WHAT TO SEE IN ONE DAY:

Drive around the park, hike the short Mesa Arch trail and haul ass back to Moab on the Shafer Trail/Potash Road. Perfection in a bottle.

TIPS AND TRICKS:

Do not even enter the Shafer Trail unless you’re sure you have ample ground clearance and that you’re immune from totally freaking out over driving curvy roads at insane heights without guard rails.