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White Rim Trail: Scenic Multi-Day Loop

By David Nelson - August 2nd, 2000

The 100-mile loop on the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park has become revered as one of the finest multi-day mountain bike rides in the world. The trail clings to the precipitous canyon walls on narrow shelf roads, following the Green and Colorado rivers in a loop through the national park.

The absolutely spectacular scenery along the trail can be enjoyed by cyclists of all abilities on a four-day supported tour.

Day One, from the visitor center to Hardscrabble Campground, drops 2,000 feet into the canyon on Mineral Road.

Careful pre-tour planning of equipment and food are mandatory. National Park Service personnel at the Island In The Sky Visitor Center can provide specific information on riding on The White Rim, or contact one of many Moab-based bike touring companies about guided tours.

Day Two
From the campsite at Hardscrabble, Day Two begins with a short steep climb followed by a fast rocky descent to Potato Bottom Basin. At the top of the climb is the Fort Bottom Trail to Fort Ruin; this wonderful side trip is a hike past an ancient Native American watch tower to a former hospice by the Green River.

Back on the White Rim, the trail stays close to the river through Beaver and Queen Anne bottoms before turning upward for the gradual ascent past Soda Springs Basin. Along this section, the trail sits frighteningly close to the edge of canyon walls that disappear hundreds of feet below. Best to keep your eyes on the trail.

The final few miles of the day get steeper and steeper on the approach to Murphy Hogback; once on top, the reward for the effort getting there is an unbelievable 360-degree view of the park.

The spectacular view from the campsite at Murphy Hogback makes breaking camp almost sorrowful. But probably the best Canyonlands panoramas on the White Rim Trail are just a few pedal turns down the road.

Day Three
Day Three on the White Rim of Canyonlands National Park is relatively easy pedaling; this 26-mile section loses about 600 feet overall. But with side trips and incredible scenery to take in, plan on spending most of the day getting to the next campsite at Airport Tower.

Of special interest along the way:

  • Vertigo Void -- crawl up to the edge and peak over.
  • White Crack -- the view from atop the massive chunks of rock is electrifying.
  • Lathrop Canyon -- after setting up camp at Airport Tower, ride down the canyon road and enjoy dusk on the Colorado River.

Day Four
The final day of touring on the White Rim Trail includes more incredible scenery and the challenge of pedaling out of the canyon on the Shafer Trail Road, the route back up to the starting point at The Island In The Sky.

From below, it's difficult to imagine that a road actually traverses such sheer canyon walls. But you'll be a believer after pedaling the numerous tight switchbacks and 20% grades to the top. The mesmerizing view looking back down to the White Rim, 1,200 feet below, is a fitting reward for meeting the challenge.

Before you assault the Shafer Trail, make sure to check out the massive rock bridge known as Musselman Arch and the view of the Colorado River from the Gooseneck Overlook.

Trip planner

Route location: The White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park, southwest of Moab.

Surface: Primarily gravel and bedrock canyon roads; some short sections of paved highway at the beginning and end of the loop.

Distance: Nearly 100 miles total.
Day 1: 31.2 miles
Day 2: 23.2 miles
Day 3: 26.6 miles
Day 4: 18.1 miles

Difficulty:
Day 1: Moderate. The descent into the canyon is steep, dropping 1,100 feet in about two miles. This route loses 2,000 feet overall.
Day 2: Moderate plus. The final few miles climb very steeply to Murphy Hogback, gaining 1,100 feet.
Day 3: Moderate. The trail gradually loses about 600 feet from Murphy Hogback to Airport Tower.
Day 4: Moderate to difficult. The climb out of the canyon on the Shafer Trail Road is exteremely steep, about a 20% grade.

Maps/permits: Latitude 40 degrees: Moab West Mountain Bike Map. A permit is required for the campgrounds on the White Rim Trail. Call (801) 259-4351 well in advance for information and reservations.

Riding the White Rim Trail: The trail is a 100-mile, 4-wheel-drive road that clings to the edge of canyon walls on a sandstone bench known as the White Rim, 1,000 feet above the Green and Colorado rivers, and 1,200 feet below the Island In The Sky, the start/finish location of this multi-day tour. The preferred seasons for a multi-day tour on the trail are either Spring or Fall; the summer months get ferociously hot. Whether you carry your gear or use a support vehicle (4-wheel-drive), careful planning of food, water, clothing and equipment is imperative.

Getting There: From Denver, travel west on I-70 into Utah and south on U.S. 191. Turn southwest on Utah 313 for about 22 miles to the visitor center.


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