Some of the trail books would suggest that you can book campsites 6 months in advance, but this is false. It can be done exactly 4 months to the day you plan to arrive. This is a very popular trail, and with only 20 campsites along the trail’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. Next time we will be up at midnight to make our reservations.
Several different types of back-country permits exist: day-use, overnight, 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 visitor center or ranger station the day before, or day of your trip. I would not recommend doing this trail in a day, as there is far too much amazing scenery to appreciate in one continuous 11-hour drive. We reserved our overnight permit with our campsites since the permit is required to be able to camp. 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 http://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 4WD with low-range. Aside from a few notable obstacles, the trail is easy to navigate, 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. On our second night, a windy thunderstorm moved in. For hours, the truck and roof top tent shook, while sheets of rain approached 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 provides a bailout option 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. 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. As we plodded along the gorgeous desert landscape, there were times when we didn't see another humans for more than an hour. I was so relaxed, that returning to Moab after completing the trail nearly put 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. 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.
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