Its 4:00 am the day before Christmas Eve. This might sound early, but for a snow plow driver it's more like sleeping in for 3 hours. As I quickly donned some snow boots and my Carhartt coat to head out into the cold, I could tell my wife was more bummed than usual about the alarm clock having gone off because this time she actually had to get up. Two months of planning had led up to this moment, and it was time to book our adventure on the White Rim Road.
Some of the trail books would suggest that you can book campsites six months in advance, but this is false. It can be (and SHOULD be) done exactly 4 months to the day you plan to arrive. This is a very popular trail, and with only 20 campsites along it's 100 miles, it fills up very quick... Case in point: We had a plan B in place to run the route in the opposite direction if the 2 sites we wanted were already reserved. When my wife logged in to make our reservation at 0400 hours, our first choice sites were already taken and as she moved on to plan B, (more like plan D) we reserved the last two available on the route for those dates... At 4:00 am. When I say that next time we will be up at midnight to make our reservations, it is no stretch of the truth.
Several different types of back-country permits exist including Day-use, Over-night, River and Special-use permits. If you intend to drive or ride the White rim in one day, a day-use permit can be acquired at the visitors center or ranger station the day before, or day of your trip... I would not recommend doing this trail in a day however, as there is far too much amazing scenery to appreciate in one continuous 10-12 hour drive. Though an over-night permit can be had at the visitors center and ranger station as well, we reserved ours with our campsites 4 months prior as it is required to be able to camp. And just to be clear, camping in non-designated areas is strictly prohibited. Make sure to read all the regulations and requirements for the type of permit you need. Back-country permit and campsite reservations can be made at canypermits.nps.gov
The trail can be done in either direction: Clockwise or counter-clockwise. I can't say for sure if I would prefer one direction over the other, but we started in Mineral Bottom (counter-clockwise, plan B) and camped in 2 different spots along the route to make sure we saw as much as we could. Strictly speaking, this is a moderate 4wd trail that can be done in a stock, high-clearance 4 wheel drive with low-range. Aside from a few notable obstacles the trail is easily navigated, though I would urge caution for full-size and/or long wheelbase vehicles. An experienced driver who won't get too "twitchy" on a steep, narrow shelf-road is a plus too. Passing isn't possible in areas like the Murphy Hogback, but for the most part, you can see far enough up or down the more dangerous sections before taking your turn.
Another small concern that we read about and actually experienced while on the trail, are trail closures... Leave yourself plenty of time to get in or out. A windy thunderstorm moved in on our second night that tossed the truck and roof top tent around for hours, while blowing a sheet of rain sideways like the nozzles in a car-wash. Getting any sleep was laughable. Storms can be violent in the desert, and the next morning we heard from a passer-by that the Shafer switchbacks had been closed earlier that morning due to muddy conditions. The nice thing about driving the trail counter-clockwise is that Potash Rd exits just before the switchbacks where closures are common, so it gives you a bit of a bail out if you're close to the exit point. We lucked out, and were able to finish the trail via Shafer as it had re-opened before we arrived. If it rains, you may have to take out a second mortgage to get the red mud off your rig when you return home.
ATVs, UTVs and OHVs are not permitted, and motorcycles must be licensed and highway-legal. I'm sure some will find this annoying, but I couldn't have been happier as it added almost complete serenity to the outstanding backdrop Canyonlands National Park provides in spades. There were times when we didn't see another human being for more than an hour, as we plodded along the gorgeous desert landscape. I was so relaxed in fact, that returning to Moab after completing the trail, nearly left me on the verge of an anxiety attack... I admit to being a bit of a recluse, and there was an event going on in town.
This was a definite "bucket-list" item for my wife and I, as we continue to seek adventure further from our home at the base of the Rocky Mountains. This is one of the coolest adventures we have had in a vehicle and we will return to do it again, at some point. With all our back-country adventures, we strive to Tread Lightly and Leave No Trace. Our National Parks are certainly no exception, so please keep it clean, be safe and remember extra camera batteries.
~Scott J Hunt