Trans-America trail trip report: part 5 (Canyonlands)

April 05, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

Welcome back to my TAT trip report blog. This section is dedicated to the Canyonlands region of Utah, specifically the Moab side of the Green River (more on the other side and the balance of Utah is coming in the next post). 

It's hard to even know where to begin with this area as there are so many great things to do and see. To recap, and for those who have not seen the prior trip report blogs of the trip west from North Carolina, to get to this point on the Trans-America trail in a Jeep takes about 11 days driving. Motorcycles can compress that period significantly. Last blog stopped at Monticello Utah, after covering the Colorado mountain crossing from the Westcliffe area. 

Canyonlands is quite amazing in that it is a national and international epicenter for multiple activities, including mountain biking, off-roading, and photography. My blog is mainly focused on TAT practicalities and photography, so don't expect much in the way of specifics on popular Jeep trails (but I do include a lot of photos, both full spectrum and infrared). I've now visited the Moab area on four cross-USA trips, including my back and forth on the TAT in 2017; I've also been here a couple of other times on photography-only trips, so know the area fairly well now. Some of the pictures below are from other trips (noted) but I thought I'd include them to show some of the sites I did not specifically visit while on the TAT visits.

From Monticello, the TAT turns north and runs through some ranch land and past a mining operation before crossing the La Sal mountains. The La Sal crossing was the only part of the TAT that I have not done. I stayed in Needles on the trip west (see below) and then went straight into Moab to restock in the afternoon, and then headed straight to Island in the Sky for an evening photo shoot and camping. I'd assumed the La Sal section was really straightforward, and I had been to the north of the mountain before, so I viewed getting other places as higher priority. Later I heard from a trail friend that the section I skipped was, however, among the most technical on the whole TAT. Next time in Moab, it will be on my list of things to do.

For photographers, I would recommend a diversion from Monticello to the Needles for a couple of days. On the road into Needles, there are some pictographs on a canyon wall at Newspaper Rock (but for people who don't do this side trip, there are better pictographs later in Utah that you can park right beside). Once in to the national park, there's a nice campsite (below) but if you are going to stay there, you probably should reserve ahead. There are other camping options outside the park as well, including some informal backcountry options on BLM land (which is what I do).

There are great campsites in the National Park, at Elephant Hill. You can walk from here up behind the camp for great vistas of Elephant Hill and with lots of twisted juniper trees. There's also trails heading deeper into the park, so opportunities for day long photo trips. The Elephant Hill jeep trail is just 5 minutes from here, so that is also an option. I did not do that trail while here on the TAT as I was fully loaded for overland travel and didn't want my stuff jostled all over the place. 

Red rocks, red JeepRed rocks, red JeepMy first time into the backroads of Canyonlands with the new Jeep, 30 December 2016.

Above is actually Jeep 1.0, as I purchased it in autumn 2016. Quite the naked look compared to its current incarnation! It is really dark here at Needles and I saw more stars here than I'd ever seen before.

Below is where I now camp in the backcountry, a very cool informal camping spot back in the desert, outside park boundaries. 

Desert campDesert campOut on BLM lands near Needles District, this was one of my favorite camping spots on my trip across the US. From the TAT, this is about a 30 mile diversion and definitely this area is worth a couple of days exploration. Also the Elephant Hill jeep trail is here - each time I've been through this area, I've been fully loaded for overland travel and have been hesitant to have all my stuff tossed around the truck. One of these trips...

My favorite photography location here is the Colorado River overlook. From the park welcome center, air down in the parking lot and take the sand road from the rear of the lot. The trip there involves some short steeper bits, some driving over sandstone sections, and a couple of steps (where someone has added concrete at strategic spots to allow vehicles without high clearance to make it through). 

At the end of the trail, you have an incredible view down over the confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers, straight over to the White Rim and Island in the Sky, and south towards the Needles. The pictures below (visible light and infrared) are just a few of the possibilities; 

Desert (bleach)Desert (bleach)New Year's Eve day in the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park, 31 December 2016.

Next stop is Moab itself. Many TATists will spend a number of days here and it is a good place to hang out, though a bit expensive after getting used to midwest prices. If you want a hotel, reserve in advance - I've been here before when the only hotels available were way up in Green River.

From just north of Moab, the TAT runs up Gemini Bridge road to get up to Island in the Sky. There are some nice side trails off of the Gemini Bridge road that explore pretty canyons. Gemini Bridge itself is about a 5 minute walk from the parking lot and has some good angles back to the La Sal mountains, so has good photography potential (and it is not photographed often). 

At the top of Gemini Bridge road, the TAT jogs right on highway 313 and then heads left across the desert and out of the canyons quite quickly. There is a campsite to the right and also a small, more private site to the left (Cowboy), which I prefer. This is a perfect base for photography as it gives easy access to Dead Horse Point, Gemini Bridge, the Green River Overlook, Mesa Arch, and the Mineral Bottom overlook. There's also access to the Shafer Canyon Road, which has fabulous views down to the White Rim and off to the La Sal mountains, and which leads down to the White Rim Trail (more on that below). Some of the photography options up here are shown below.

Dead Horse Point - there is a $10 state park entrance fee (the best money one could ever spend on a shoot location!). From the parking lot, wander along the rim for a variety of perspectives and angles, and some of the most shot juniper trees in the world. 

Dawn at dead Horse PointDawn at dead Horse PointSunrise at Dead Horse Point, Canyonlands, Utah, 15 Oct 2015.

Summer storm (2)Summer storm (2)An approaching thunderstorm, looking down from Dead Horse Point over the Colorado River, 19 July 2017

In the photo above, can you see that tiny structure at the top of the cliff? That is a large viewing platform with quite a number of people standing on it!! The scale in Canyonlands takes some getting use to.

Gemini Bridge has nice vistas beyond the bridge.

Green River overlook is my favorite location up at Island in the Sky. From the parking lot, wander to the right along the rim. There are also good photo possibilities down a little farther, about a mile past the Willow Creek campground turn-off, right where the Upheaval Dome road comes up adjacent to the Canyon (park and wander down on the northern side of the rim). The photos below are from the Green River overlook. 

Canyonlands, Utah (16 Oct 2015)Canyonlands, Utah (16 Oct 2015)Sunset over Green River Canyon, Canyonlands National Park, 16th October, 2015. Green River sunset 01Green River sunset 01A brilliant sunset over the Green River canyon, Canyonlands National Park, Utah. On the Trans-America Trail, 10 June 2017.

The Shafer Canyon road offers a couple of good possibilities. First, you can drive down the road to where it is pasted up against the huge drop-off: as you go along, you come to a wide turnout spot that gives a perfect view down the valley (first photo below).


The second option is to shoot from just beyond the National Park welcome center, at the narrow isthmus above Shafer Canyon (park in the parking lot and wander down - the best location [2nd photo below] requires a step across a bit of a void so is not for those squeamish about heights). This location also offers an opportunity to shoot the Shafer Canyon road from above and, from the same place, to get some great vistas down the canyon (3rd and 4th photos, respectively). 

Blue hour in CanyonlandsBlue hour in CanyonlandsDusk on the Shafer Canyon rim road, Canyonlands National Park, Utah, 6th November 2015.



Mineral Bottom overlook. I've never seen any other photos from over here but it is great. You can walk right out to the tip of this enormous prow to set up landscapes and there are lots of great trees around. Drive out the Mineral Canyon road to just before it drops down to the Green River (this series of switchbacks is the final hill on the White Rim Trail) and wander obviously left to get to the best location.

Mesa Arch. This is one of the world's classic landscape photography locations, so expect an international spectacle when you are there as it is virtually almost always crowded in the morning, when the sunrise hits the wall and lights up the arch. It was my fourth trip to Canyonlands before I actually photographed Mesa Arch as there were always too many cars in the parking lot. Christmas 2016 I decided to give it a try and figured being December I should be okay an hour before dawn. Wrong! There were already at least 20 cars in the parking lot.

Next morning I got up insanely early and decided I wanted to go out in the dark and get the best tripod spot reserved. I arrived at the parking lot 2 hours before sunrise, hiked down in the dark (hint - it is really useful to do the walk down prior to your morning visit in the dark!) for 10 minutes, and had the place to myself for the next 45 minutes. It was incredible to be there, at night, alone, and just sitting back until dawn light started to appear. Highly recommended...

When I was there, most people were interested in getting a straight-on shot, getting a burst at sunrise. I thought the best light was well prior to sunrise, when the wall below started to reflect light and light up the arch itself. I also had looked at lots of photos and found a view from the side to be more pleasing that a straight-on shot. Being out so early I was able to set up the tripod exactly where I wanted and then kick back with my thermos of coffee, watching the other photographers roll in and jostle for spots later. I might only ever shoot this location once, but it is an experience that probably every serious photographer will want to have a crack at. If it is too crowded to handle, simply divert down to the Green River overlook or out to Grand View Point, both of which have fine sunrise potential. The second photo below was after most people had packed up and were heading back to the parking lot. (I used a 21mm lens for the photo below - a 16mm would be useful here)

Sunrise glow at Mesa ArchSunrise glow at Mesa ArchThe morning sun just about to come over the horizon, giving the Mesa Arch its characteristic morning glow, Canyonlands National Park, 30 December 2016. Shot with a Canon 1DX ii and Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 lens; shot with long 30 second exposure at very first light, f/18, and ISO 100. Processed with Adobe CC (Lightroom; Photoshop), Nik Collection Color Efex Pro. This is available for sale as a print with or without framing, or as a vibrant, frameless metal print.

Many people doing the TAT will also want to do the White Rim Trail while in Canyonlands. I made my access and campground reservations about 6 weeks in advance and planned on doing the loop (Shafer Canyon Road, down to the White Rim, around, and back up Mineral Canyon Road) over 3 days, taking lots of photography time and leaving time to explore some of the side canyons off the White Rim. When I arrived at Island in the Sky welcome center to pick up my permit, I was informed that the Green River side of the White Rim trail was flooded, where the road comes right down to the river shore. Plan B was to go out and back, which is what I started to do. 

The drive down Shafer Canyon Road is easy as it is wide and smooth relative to the prior sketchy TAT passages. The photo below shows the road from lower down on the switchbacks. I also have a very short video clip link that I've inserted here. 

Shafer Canyon clipJust a quick taster of the Shafer Canyon switchbacks. While the terrain is impressive and the road really imposing looking from above, it is wide and easy after the White Rim trail.

Shafer Canyon on the White Rim Trail, Canyonlands National Park, Utah, photo by Murray Rudd, Tendrel Images, 3648x5480.JPG

Once down to the intersection with the Potash road (the Shafer Trail), which comes up from just outside of Moab, you are on the White Rim. There's a couple of early photo opps of Colorado River overlooks and natural bridges. Incidentally, if you are a fan of the movie 'Thelma and Louise', take a diversion down the Shafer Trail to the Thelma and Louise cliff, where the final sequence was filmed. 

Next, there's a wonderful side track that leads down Lathrop Canyon, taking you on creekbeds, sand, and some steeper bits, down to the Colorado River. It was one of the highlights of the TAT for me (as a bonus I found a place with arrowheads lying around on the ground while wandering around near the river). Just above the river is a grove of cottonwood trees, which were great for infrared photos.


That afternoon I went to my allotted campsite at the Airport 'campground' (i.e., flat spot in the desert - a real letdown after all the fabulous camps over the past couple of weeks). It had a nice bluff near it - you could really see how rubbly the canyon is when you see it up close - but it was crazy windy. I couldn't set up camp due to the wind and blowing sand, and ended up having some beers while huddled behind the door of my truck, the only place outside where I could get any respite from the wind. Finally it go so stupid I decided to pack up, head back up Shafer Canyon Road, camp up at the Mineral Point Rd campsite, and then hit the road out of Moab the next day.

Are you currently planning for the TAT? Here's my recommendation on White Rim and how I would do it next time.

(1) I'd still spend several days poking around photo sites, either camping up at Island in the Sky or staying in a hotel in Moab.

(2) I'd drive the Gemini Bridge portion of the TAT on one of my local exploration days and probably spend time poking around in the side canyons of that road

(3) When it came time to leave Moab, I would head up Potash Road to intersect the Shafer Canyon Road and then do the diversion down Lathrop Canyon for a few hours, before heading up to Island in the Sky via the Shafer Canyon Road (you need a permit to do this) and connecting with 313.

(4) Once on 313 for about 10 miles, you reconnect with the TAT and it is easy gravel road driving to the town of Green River. 

(5) Gas up there, then head down the west side of Green River valley on the TAT. About an hour plus down there is one of the best campsites on the entire TAT (more about that in the next blog entry). Basically you can go from Moab to Trin Alcove Bend in a single day, allowing for a great side trip down Lathrop Canyon and doing the iconic Shafer Canyon switchbacks. 

The last couple of photos I've inserted below are of some other photo locations that are close to Moab in Arches National Park and up the highway that follows the Colorado River.

First, there is an easily accessible site for morning shoots at the Courthouse Towers. This is a quick trip out of Moab, so good if you don't want an even earlier start to get to Deadhorse Point or Island in the Sky. There's good photo opportunities in 3 directions (first 3 photos) from right beside the parking lot pullout area (not the first one on the left, but a little beyond on the right side). Second, Delicate Arch (4th photo) is up here - it is about a 45 minute walk in and, like Mesa Arch, gets crazy busy. When I was there in late-December 2016 there must have been 200 people out there. It was a major challenge to get a photo of the arch without someone running in or out of the picture, even as it was getting dark. 

Dawn at the Tower of BabelDawn at the Tower of BabelDawn light coloring up the already red desert in Arches National Park, 28 December 2016. Dawn overlooking ArchesDawn overlooking ArchesEarly morning in Arches National Park, Utah, 28 December 2016

The second side trip out of Moab that is good for photos is to take a day and head up the Colorado River on highway 128. There's a nice side trip up Castleton Valley Road (1st photo) and further opportunities all along the Colorado River. The road runs right by the river through some narrow sections, past the Fisher Tower, and if you follow this road all the way almost to I-70 you reach Cisco, a uranium mining ghost town with some cool old buildings and abandoned cars. 


That's it for this entry. Of course, given the diversity of things to do around Moab it would just as easy to go on at length about the offroad trails or the bike trails. It is an amazing place and one that I hope that I continue to get back to regularly even though I now live in Europe. While someone could easily go from Monticello to Green River in one day on the TAT, I can't imagine that anyone doing the TAT would actually want to do that. For me, I'd plan of 4-5 days minimum to spend in this area. 

Next up in the coming blog post will be most of the rest of Utah, starting with the departure from Moab and then covering a variety of terrain and photo opportunities on the west side of the Green River, through the Capitol Reef area, Buckhorn Wash, the western Utah desert, and up to and including the Bonneville Salt Flats. There's some epic driving and sites through this part of Utah. 

I started with Jeep 1.0 at the top of the blog, so figured I should end with v3.0 - taken on the White Rim trail later in March 2019. 

On the White RimOn the White RimThe White Rim Trail is a 2-3 circuit on a jeep trail in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. It follows along, and above the Green and Colorado Rivers, offering spectacular offroad driving and views, and gives photographers a whole different perspective on the landscapes that many of us have photographed many times from up top of Island in the Sky. March 18, 2019.


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