White Rim in a Wagon


Broadcaster, formerly "ashergrey"
May 5, 2012
The White Rim in a wagon: yes, it can be done; no, you shouldn't try it.


Those were my thoughts upon completing a winter circuit of the White Rim Road in a lightly modified 1994 Subaru Legacy Touring Wagon during early December of 2013.

The trip was proof enough that a street car could handle the road even in less-than-ideal conditions, with proper preparation and a driver stupid enough to attempt it.

Hi Mom
by ashergrey, on Flickr

That being said, I wouldn't recommend it.


A little history: the first time I remember seeing the Colorado River was on a boyhood trip with my father and brother. We stopped along the river near Hite following a visit to Natural Bridges National Monument. As we bathed in the muddy brown water, I remember my dad telling me about the confluence, a mystical place upstream in the great gorges where the green and red rivers joined into one.

Most photos you'll ever see of the confluence come from the Colorado side in the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park. The angle of this viewpoint is, in my opinion, rather uninspiring. Terrain from the opposing side of the river in the Maze makes it nearly impossible to see the actual confluence from there.

But what about from the north?

In the fall of 2013 I became aware of a possible route to a viewpoint of confluence from the north, via an old mining road that once spurred off the White Rim Road. Information about this route online is scant. The National Park Service does not promote this route on their published literature for Island in the Sky.

I wanted to see it, and photograph it, for myself.

But as was the case with most all of my 2013 outings, the weather did not cooperate. The week before I departed for Canyonlands, a winter storm dumped wet snow across the region. I grew increasingly nervous that the White Rim Road would be made impassable or would be closed. In fact, the NPS closed the Shafer switchbacks just days before I intended to drive down them.

Snowy Shafer
by ashergrey, on Flickr


This left me very nervous as to what I'd find on the far side of my 100+ mile route, assuming I could make it all the way around to the Mineral Bottom switchbacks.

Skies across northern Utah were mostly clear as I set out early the morning of November 30th. That all changed as I crested Soldier Summit on US-6. The overcast hit like a wall. The sun disappeared behind a thick fog.


A quick stop in Moab for fuel and I embarked on the route proper. As Shafer was closed, I had to take the longer dirt access in on the Potash Road.

A married couple on mountain bikes stopped to watch me ascend the hill just east of the potash evaporation ponds. They'd heard the rumble of the boxer engine and wanted to see whether or not I'd get stuck. Both cheered and pumped their fists at me as I crested the rise. Buoyed by their enthusiasm, I stopped for a chat. They confessed to owning a Forester and praised my chutzpah for taking the Subaru onto rough terrain. They asked how far I intended to go.

"Oh, the whole way 'round. I have a reservation tonight at White Crack."

Their faces fell and they glanced at each other with that knowing, half-lidded look that couples who've spent years together have a way of using. It seemed obvious that while they saw novelty in my taking the Subaru off the asphalt, they thought me a bit foolhardy.

"On the White Rim? Do you think you'll make it?"

"I'm not sure," I said, shrugging from the driver's seat. "I've got extra fuel, a full-size spare and a hi-lift. I'll go as far as I can. Worse comes to worse, I have extra food and water and I'll hike out if I get stuck."

They wished me luck and we parted ways at a giant mud pit.


A couple of SUVs sat at the Colorado River overlook as I passed. They would be the last traffic I'd encounter on the entire trip around the White Rim. Soon after, I entered the park proper.



I made the obligatory stop at Musselman Arch...



…and then the daylight started to falter. Rough conditions meant slow-going.

The Washer Woman looks quite a bit different from below.

Blue Juniper
by ashergrey, on Flickr

With no moon or stars the night's dark turned inky, making it difficult to judge the road much beyond the reach of the headlights. The crests of little hills turn into really worrisome obstacles when you can't see the horizon beyond them. In some cases, this made it seem like you might be driving off the side of a cliff.


All of the ups-and-downs in the dark had me feeling a bit motion sick by the time I arrived at White Crack. After a little dinner I rolled out the bed in the back of the wagon and went to sleep.

[PARSEHTML]<iframe src="http://www.mappingsupport.com/p/gmap4.php?q=https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/3847512/GPS/Potash_to_White_Crack.kml&t=t4" frameborder="0" marginheight="0" scrolling="no" width="800" height="800"></iframe><br><br>[/PARSEHTML]Sunday morning dawned cold and gray. Light flakes of snow slipped out of sagging clouds that obscured the towering plateau to the north. This was to be my hiking day, but conditions appeared so miserable that I considered bagging the exploration. Being caught in a snowstorm this far out seemed a legitimate threat.

I walked out to the rim near White Crack and looked into the Lower Basin area. It wasn't encouraging. Storms were sweeping up from the south.

Winter Storm over White Crack
by ashergrey, on Flickr

I consumed a breakfast consisting of a peanut butter and honey sandwich, grit my teeth and decided to go for it.


The walk down from White Crack impresses upon a person the dangerous lives sheepherders, cattlemen and uranium miners once lived on these lands. Erosion is in the process of wiping out the path these people used to step below the White Rim.

However, the old road grade is in remarkably good shape once down off the slope. There are sections where one could still easily drive a Jeep today.


There were obvious signs of recent use on this trail, which surprised me given it seems little known and little documented online. Most of the foot tracks petered out after a mile or so, leaving me to believe that many people who walk down the White Crack route do so out of idle curiosity, not to reach any particular destination.

More than half-century-old litter from the mining days still sits right along the road grade.


The walking is pretty easy by hiking standards, as it's mostly level. The views are outstanding, though probably more so without the solid gray overcast I encountered.

As time ticked by, I set a turnaround time in my head: 2 p.m. That would give me enough time to make it back to the car by nightfall. I didn't want to be below the White Rim in the December cold after sundown.

Gray Over the Green
by ashergrey, on Flickr

The unfortunate part of this route is its circuitous design. It has to continually head around drainages, adding mileage to what would otherwise be a relatively short jaunt. That means I didn't make it to the old miner's camp until about 1:45 p.m.

Room With a View
by ashergrey, on Flickr


A rusting miner's oven.


Modern potsherds in the making.


Detail on one of the remaining bed frames.

After poking around the camp a little while, I spotted this bleaching bighorn skeleton a little way down on a ledge. I couldn't tell if it had died near this spot, or if the carcass had been washed down from up above.

by ashergrey, on Flickr

The jawbone remained but it seemed somewhat telling that the top half of the skull with the horns was missing. I figure it was either carted off by a scavenger, left where the animal had died or looted by another hiker.


My turnaround time had come and gone by the time I huffed it up to the brushy flat above the miner's camp, looking for the old airfield. I couldn't see it from the ground but my GPS track shows I walked right across it.

From this point I was only about two miles from the confluence overlook, mostly easy walking from what I could see. However, that meant four miles roundtrip before even starting back to the camp at White Crack. The light would be failing by the time I reached the overlook and it was pretty terrible gray light anyway. Had I carried down my backpacking gear I could have set camp here and struck out in the morning, but all that stuff was back in the car.

I made a phone call to my mother via Globalstar sat phone from Skycall Satellite (highly recommended) to inform her of my plan to head back.


Dark fell just as I reached the foot of the long climb back up to White Crack. I later learned my parents were watching my track from the DeLorme unit, trying to figure out how I was going to scale what appeared to be a sheer cliff on the Google map.

Total distance walked for the day was around 15 miles. An out-and-back to the confluence would come in around 20 miles, which makes for a real push in the shortened winter days.

It was frustrating to miss my goal of seeing the confluence from the north but I've confirmed that the route does go. At some point in the future I'd like to return. I believe it's also possible to come up from the river at the mining camp, meaning one could do the confluence overlook from a Stillwater trip and cut the hiking mileage about in half.

[PARSEHTML]<iframe src="http://www.mappingsupport.com/p/gmap4.php?q=https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/3847512/GPS/Mining_Camp.kml&t=t4" frameborder="0" marginheight="0" scrolling="no" width="800" height="800"></iframe><br><br>[/PARSEHTML]Monday started just as gray as had Sunday. I packed up the car and set out to what I figured would be the biggest obstacle of the trip — Murphy Hogback. Before I could even reach that dreaded hill though I had to run the wagon up some muddy ascents.

On one, the hill climbed to a flat then made a 90-degree turn to the left. The car made the climb to the midway point, navigated the turn but then bogged down right at the top of the hill. I backed down to the turn and prepared to make a run at it, only to have the wheels spin in the mud.

A little cursing and praying along with some successful positioning of the tires allowed the wagon to successfully make the climb.

When Murphy finally came into view, my gut sank. Pictures don't do that hill justice. It's steep and narrow. The surface was slicked with mud. Here I was alone, with just this car and no form of support.

What was I thinking?

I called my parents again, mostly to psych myself up for the drive. They could tell just by the fact that I'd called that I was nervous.

I walked the slope to make sure there were no hidden surprises then gathered my courage and made a run at it.


The Green came into view from the top, where I checked in on the sat phone to report my successful ascent.

Lonely Road
by ashergrey, on Flickr

Then came the descent. Without a low range, I practically had to stand on the brakes.


After returning from this trip, I learned one of the front brake caliper pistons had seized. I'm not surprised.

After Murphy Hogback, the White Rim Road gradually drops toward river level.

Tuxedo Bottom
by ashergrey, on Flickr

In some places you feel like you could jump off the cliff right into the river.

Rio Verde
by ashergrey, on Flickr

I stopped at the Holeman slot but it was full of water and I didn't really feel like getting stuck in a stinking pothole so I opted not to drop down into it.


Walking along the rim I could see locations where bars for handholds had once stood. They'd been sawed off at the base, leaving the portion driven into the rock to rust. I wondered how much time had past since their removal.

The next section of the drive proved my favorite, as the road ran along ledges that at times overhung the river.

Siren Song of the Stillwater
by ashergrey, on Flickr

The wagon proved sure-footed up and over Hardscrabble Hill, which was in some ways more nerve-wracking than the Hogback. I was really grateful not to encounter any traffic on this portion. It must be a nightmare when mountain bikers and vehicles are both using it during the busier months.

Clouds finally started to break north of Hardscrabble around the mouth of Taylor Canyon.

Taylor Canyon wide.jpg

Some deep sections of sand and mud were all that was left between me and Mineral Bottom. I'd modified the wagon specifically for these conditions by adding a switch that engaged a duty solenoid in the transmission.

This, in turn, locked up the clutch packs responsible for the variable power split between the front and rear axles. The ghetto "locking" center differential took the lag out of the Subaru AWD system, lessening the chances of becoming bogged down in soft stuff.


That mod really proved its worth up on top of the Mineral Bottom switchbacks. The snow from the week prior had still not melted off entirely, making the dirt road back to SR-313 an absolute mess. The entire length of it can usually be cruised comfortably at 50 mph.

I had to run it at near that speed it a mixture of slush and mud, at the very limit of control. At one point the car started to fishtail and I careened about 200 yards counter-steering from side to side to avoid running off the road.

by ashergrey, on Flickr

Elated to be back on pavement, I stepped out to air up the tires. Slop kept falling off the underside of the car.


As I had the hood popped to run the compressor, a rather odd fellow stopped to offer his "help". He told me how he was working for an oil company and had been sent out of Colorado to a drill site up on the mesa. Problem was, he couldn't find it.

He had no concept of where he was, as evidenced by the awed look he gave when I explained he was very near to both a national park and a state park. He asked what the "big mountains" he'd seen from Moab were.

I spread out a paper map to give him a sense of his location but he still didn't seem to grasp it.

Then he started taking note of my car. He asked questions about the GoPro mounted on the rack. I saw him eyeing the iPad I'd used to remotely control the camera, along with two DSLRs and other gear in the front seat.

And he wouldn't leave. I stopped airing the tires because I didn't want to turn my back to him. Still he didn't take the hint. I started feeling really nervous and wished for the first time in my solo travels that I'd had a firearm.

Not that I wanted to shoot the guy, mind you. But I would have liked him to have seen that I was prepared to defend myself.

Shafer Canyon
by ashergrey, on Flickr

He did leave at last, much to my relief. Under breaking skies I headed into the park to see if sundown would offer any decent light.

Shafer-Potash-White Rim
by ashergrey, on Flickr

The High Road
by ashergrey, on Flickr

Distant Buttes
by ashergrey, on Flickr

I can't stand the zoo that is sunrise at Mesa Arch but it was pretty much deserted for sunset.

Repose in Relief
by ashergrey, on Flickr

Peering down into that expanse from above after having driven through it changes one's perspective. Looking at Washer Woman, I tried to remember how inaccessible the high plateau had seemed from along the White Rim.

The White Rim
by ashergrey, on Flickr

Back at the car in the deepening dark, I emptied my supplemental fuel into the tank for the drive back to Moab.


Along the way, a raging campfire over toward Dead Horse lit up the dark like a candle. The oil camp. As if to prove my supposition correct, one of their work trucks fell in behind the wagon. Its bright headlights lit up the thick fog layer that had formed after sundown between the mesa top and lowlands.

Feeling both road and trail weary, I grabbed a motel room for the night. While in the grocery store I bumped into the oil field worker again. I mentioned to him I'd seen their camp. He confided that he didn't dare drive through the fog layer. His decision to wait out the night at the Motel 6 seemed a wise one to me, especially since I was staying in a different motel.

[PARSEHTML]<iframe src="http://www.mappingsupport.com/p/gmap4.php?q=https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/3847512/GPS/White_Rim_2.kml&t=t4" frameborder="0" marginheight="0" scrolling="no" width="800" height="800"></iframe><br><br>[/PARSEHTML]That brief glimpse of winter glory I'd seen from Mesa Arch the evening prior vanished by Tuesday morning. Skies had grayed over again. A front was forecast to sweep down from the north and a cold wind testified to its approach.

My original plan for the trip was to continue south to Cedar Mesa and spend the rest of the week hiking there. Instead, I decided to just enter Arches and wait out the day in order to see if the conditions would improve.


I had to park next to this guy for effect.

The park staff were not pleased with my decision to go into the Fiery Furnace, since I'd not been in before and had never been on one of their little ranger walks.

"I'm an experienced backcountry hiker," I explained.

The guy handling the permit book scoffed.

"You don't know how many 'experienced hikers' we've had to rescue after they got lost."

"I'm sure it's a lot. But really, I'll be fine."

In the end, they granted the permit in protest.


Dropping into the furnace was actually nice because it cut the wind. With no set agenda I wandered at whim, ending up back at Surprise Arch. Nearby, I found a little cove and spent some time shooting self portraits.



By afternoon it grew apparent that the weather would not improve.


I'd already checked out of the motel and didn't really feel like spending money to sit another night in Moab.

Golden Arches
by ashergrey, on Flickr

On my way out of the park I stopped by Balanced Rock to shoot some low-light stuff with the 6D.

Golden Spike
by ashergrey, on Flickr

Coyotes yipped and howled in the dark as I waited for a car to come along for this shot.

Arches Scenic Drive
by ashergrey, on Flickr

I made it back to 191 at about 7 p.m. and decided to start the drive home. Cedar Mesa would have to wait until February.

The cold front hit around Green River, where strong crosswinds ripped across I-70. I spent most of the ride up to Price behind a semi truck trying to draft in his wake. Then came one of the ugliest white-knuckle drives I've experienced going up and over Soldier Summit. The whole stretch was covered with wind-blown snow to the point you couldn't make out the lanes or the edges of the road.

But even as I crested that frightening drive I could only think to myself, at least it's not Murphy Hogback. In a wagon.

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A few weeks back we hiked below White Crack too. The objective was to find a route to the river, more than the confluence view. Also, as you concluded, that makes for a 20 mile day.

by kullaberg631, on Flickr

by kullaberg631, on Flickr
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Did you take the trail all the way to the river from below the mining camp? I could see it across the way.
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Wow Dave! You have got some serious cahones. I felt tense just reading this report as you tried going over the big hills, even though I already knew you made it out okay. I know you say you wouldn't recommend it in a wagon, but now that you've made it safely once would you do it again?
It was bone-jarring enough on street car suspension that I'd prefer to do it in something a little more suited to the conditions. A low range transmission would make a big difference. So I guess that's a maybe.
Wonderful trip and write-up, Dave! I used to own a couple of Subarus and loved off-roading them in places too rough for most grocery-getter SUVs. :D Loved the photos and video.
Did you take the trail all the way to the river from below the mining camp? I could see it across the way.

Yes and no. We went down the little drop pictured above, moved around another corner and saw a clear path to a cute beach, maybe 10 min further. With confirmation of the route going without difficulties we strarted the long slog back.

Incredible pics you took, btw.
Yes and no. We went down the little drop pictured above, moved around another corner and saw a clear path to a cute beach, maybe 10 min further. With confirmation of the route going without difficulties we strarted the long slog back.

Incredible pics you took, btw.

Thanks, I wish I'd had the nicer skies you had. I probably would have made my goal under those conditions.

Knowing that the route up from the river goes only furthers my desire to do the confluence overlook as part of a Stillwater Canyon float trip.
Wow, gorgeous images! Now I must do the same in a Forester :) Thanks so much for sharing! Loved the video. And a car hack to top it off.
Wow, gorgeous images! Now I must do the same in a Forester :) Thanks so much for sharing! Loved the video. And a car hack to top it off.

As a word of caution I'll add that the wagon has been lifted on Outback struts/springs (and sits higher than a stock Outback) as well as oversized tires. It has skid plates front and rear and even then I had to drag the undercarriage over some rocks on the WRR.
I was looking at the historic topo maps for that area and there are no signs at all of any cut jeep track, camps or airstrip near that area. I am sort of surprised because lots of old topo maps show all kinds of things which have long been gone.
I don't see the old road grade coming down from White Crack on Google Earth. Where is it relative to the campground?
I was looking at the historic topo maps for that area and there are no signs at all of any cut jeep track, camps or airstrip near that area. I am sort of surprised because lots of old topo maps show all kinds of things which have long been gone.

Hence my surprise at learning this route existed.

Miners widened White Crack specifically for the purpose of getting their equipment down into the Lower Basins. The mining camp actually included a cabin but from what I understand it burned down, probably in the 90s. There are a bunch of pipes rusting away at the site, leading me to believe it was abandoned in a state of incompletion. There's also much less detritus here than at a location like the Hey Joe mine up river on the Green.

I'm just assuming here, but the location of the camp leads me to believe it was a useful point for getting supplies/ore back and forth from the river to the prospects. Having air, ground and river transport meeting at one location would have proved useful. I know most of the adits within Canyonlands have been blasted closed or gated. It would be interesting to know more about the history of this spot.

I don't see the old road grade coming down from White Crack on Google Earth. Where is it relative to the campground?

It's there, but you have to look really close. Before departing I was able to follow about 70% of the track visually. It becomes fairly indistinct toward the southern end.

Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 10.54.43 PM.png

Here you can see the road grade running along the foot of the cliffs (from top to bottom of the image, roughly 1/3 the way in from the left edge of the frame).

Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 10.55.38 PM.png

The road grade can be difficult to spot from the air since it follows natural contours. But look close and you'll see it.

Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 10.56.22 PM.png

The old airstrip jumps out from the aerial view but is not evident to the eye on the ground. The sandy stripe just north of the airstrip leads down to the miner's camp.
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I've also made the KML file of my GPS track available in the resources section if anyone would like to download it and research the route themselves.
Man... you're crazy. That is one gutsy time of year to do this in such an unconventional vehicle. Oh, and solo! But at least you weren't running into a lot of traffic going the wrong way in the skinny spots. Great photos and excellent work on the video.
It is interesting that around the airstrip one can see several visible vehicle tracks all over that area. So at one time or another it looks pretty well established. Which is even odder that I don't see any sign of it on the historic topo maps where just about every beer can is labeled.
It is interesting that around the airstrip one can see several visible vehicle tracks all over that area. So at one time or another it looks pretty well established.

That's part of the mystery that originally lured me to it. Now that I've actually visited, I'd love to talk to a park historian or someone with good knowledge of the mining activities there.

Man... you're crazy. That is one gutsy time of year to do this in such an unconventional vehicle. Oh, and solo! But at least you weren't running into a lot of traffic going the wrong way in the skinny spots.

In some places, it would have been cool to have had people witness the wagon making it around… but that's just my pride speaking. I was immensely grateful to not deal with any traffic.

You can see in the video that a rockfall very nearly blocked the road on the far (Green River) side. The week after I finished this trip, the NPS actually closed the White Rim road because it had indeed been completely blocked by rocks. It would have challenged my nerves and fuel reserves to have had to turn around and do the whole thing in reverse.
You don't need anyone to witness that accomplishment! I have mountain biked the White Rim and own a Subaru as I read your story I white knuckled the phone! You rock! Solo in a Subie...my new hero. :)

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