Offroading Canyonlands National Park, UT

We decided to skip Dinosaur National Monument this time around and head straight to Canyonlands.   Dino is operating under some restrictions due to the visitor center being closed, and the fact that it is off-season.   We’ll visit that park on another trip.   So our route took us down from Blue Mesa reservoir along Rt 50/285 to Montrose, and then northwest to Grand Junction CO, where we picked up I-70 to Utah.

As I’ve mentioned before, the drive along Rt 50 across Colorado is a fantastic and worthy roadtrip.   I-70 from Denver to Grand Junction is pretty good (for an Interstate highway) as well, but given the choice   I’d pick Rt 50 except in winter.   I can’t say the same for I-70 west of Grand Junction, because as soon as you cross into Utah it becomes a pretty featureless and dull road.   The compensation is that you’re out of the mountains and on the straightaways, and so you can go fast.

I upped the rig to 65 MPH just so I wouldn’t get blown away by cars and trucks going the legal limit of 75 MPH.     The increase in speed dings our fuel economy but we still got an overall 13.5 MPG for the segment, which isn’t bad for towing.   We could have gone the speed limit with no problem, but as a general rule I don’t tow that fast.   The trailer’s tires are rated for only 65 MPH and the fuel cost would have been high.   As another GL320/Airstream owner once told me, “The GL will tow at any speed you care to pay for.”

The entrance we used to Canyonlands National Park is just north of Moab UT.   The park is divided into four districts, each separately accessible: Islands In The Sky (where we are), Needles, The Maze, and Horseshoe Canyon.   The districts have completely different routes leading in, and this makes it virtually impossible to visit all of the districts in less than a week.  The distance from one entrance to another can be several hours.  We chose Islands In The Sky for its accessibility and features — it should be a good orientation to the park overall.  We’ll have to visit the other districts in future trips.

You have to come prepared to visit this place.  Visually, it is like a mashup of Bryce Canyon and Grand Canyon.   The views are stunning. But there is no lodging, no water, no fuel, and no services (restaurant, repair, or otherwise).   The only campground in this district is called Willow Flat and it has just 12 sites.   It fills every day this time of year.   It has no dump station or water either.  For just about anything, you have to drive 25-30 miles to Moab along a circuitous (paved) road, which means a minimum 45 minute trip one-way.


We arrived at 3 p.m., far too late to get a campsite in either Willow Flat or the nearby Dead Horse State Park (just outside the park boundary).   We ended up at a Bureau of Land Management campground called Horsethief, about 5 miles from the park.   No water, no dump, no hookups, but nice scenery and well-spaced dirt sites in the boonies ($12 per night).   Amazingly, my cell phone and Internet work just fine both here and at the Canyonlands visitor center, so I’m able to keep up on work and post the blog. That means we’ll stay at least two nights and perhaps three.

Our usual program when arriving at a national park is to drop the trailer and immediately hit the visitor center for orientation.   The rangers are always happy to meet someone who is going to stay a few days (rather than the usual, “We’ve got two hours — where are the good views?”) and they will provide insider tips on where to go.
With only a couple of hours of daylight left (after Emma finished browsing the visitor center for clues for her Junior Ranger program), we decided to drive down into the canyon on a four-wheel drive road called Shafer Trail.  Now, you might be thinking, “Hey, that’s a Mercedes — it doesn’t go off-road,” and I’ll admit I was thinking the same thing.  But Mercedes says that this SUV has parentage from their famed off-road beast the G-wagon.  The GL comes standard with all-wheel drive and an air suspension that can be lifted two inches at the touch of a button. (In the photo at left, you can see the suspension in the “raised” mode.)

I wouldn’t take it on major 4WD roads that require very high clearance because our hitch reinforcement would probably scrape, but the Shafer Trail looked like a good bet — and if it wasn’t, I was prepared to turn around or back up, and go home.

Well.   I was pretty busy trying to observe the incredible, occasionally terrifying, view while driving the car around steep hairpin turns over loose rocks … so I did not get any photos of us coming down the road.  However, you can get a good idea of what it is like to drive the Shafer Trail from videos taken by other visitors. The photo at above (click to enlarge) shows part of the descent we did.  The car did just fine, had no clearance problems, and handled as well or better than the Nissan Armada we used to do these sorts of things with.  So I’m amazed that Mercedes managed to engineer a car that can go 150 MPH all day on the Autobahn in comfort, tow a heavy Airstream with good fuel economy, and still be a capable rough-road vehicle too.

The trip down Shafer Trail takes a while.  We put the car in “Downhill Speed Regulation” mode, set the limit to 6 MPH, and it crept down the hairpins while I tried to avoid sharp rocks and major potholes. In about 40 minutes we were down to the Gooseneck hiking trail, parked the car, and hiked 0.3 miles to a stupendous overlook of the mighty Colorado River grinding its way through the sandstone canyon.

Yes, it was worth the trip.   I would have liked to have gone farther, but the setting sun dictated that we head back up.   I could not imagine driving the Shafer Trail in the dark.

At Gooseneck, the road we were on was part of the White Rim Trail, which is a backcountry 4WD adventure of over 100 miles.   It takes at least two days to traverse completely.  I am sure there are parts of that road I wouldn’t have taken our car on, but the rangers indicated that if we had time we could have gone at least to Musselman Arch.

Today we are going hiking. I have the Winter 2009 magazine 95% wrapped up, and my major task in the next few days is to review layouts and resolve last-minute problems before we go to press. This is work that can be done at any hour of the day, which means we can play in the sunshine and I can work in the early morning and at night. It makes for a long and peculiar day, but it works for me.  I see the kid is waking up now, and that means it is time for me to wrap up the morning’s work and start preparing for a day in Canyonlands.


  1. Mike Young says

    Just a suggestion for those landscape shots with extremes of bright and dark. HDR processing is pretty straightforward with software like Bracketeer ($30) or Photomatix ($79-119 depending upon version). As you know, Rich Charpentier shoots HDR almost exclusively. Yes, it helps to have a tripod for the multiple shots some of which are of long duration, but, as I learned from Rich, you can even do it handheld with reasonably good results because the software compensates for misalignment.

    Taking bracketed exposures with the Nikon is quite easy and you can set up the function button to jump directly to the bracket settings. Although my D300 can take 9 exposures 1EV apart, I find that for many situations 3 or 5 are sufficient to draw info out of the shadows and put life back into the bright areas. On the Aperture Priority setting and with the lens wide open or nearly so, you can take quite a fast sequence of shots that will minimize shake.

    Last week a friend with a Nikon D3 visited. I introduced him to HDR on our excursion up to Sedona. The D3 is astonishing for HDR. Yes, it’s full frame but the real benefit when shooting bracketed photos is that that camera will fire off 9 shots in less than a second!!! In fact, it can shoot about 11 frames a second. It has a huge buffer so that all the shots can be captured quickly and stored on the card leisurely.

  2. Marie Luhr says

    So glad to hear you didn’t take your eye off the road going down!! Gorgeous, gorgeous pictures!

  3. says

    These photos were taken with the Canon Powershot. The Nikon D90 I normally use has much better dynamic range (same image sensor as the D300). As you know, I never retouch or “post-process” my photos. I like HDR images as an artistic concept, but not for journalism.