Canyonlands: Purple canyons and cliff-clinging Shafer Trail Leave a comment

July 12, 2023

Terracotta sand and rock stubbled with green. Terraced buttes of mauve and lavender. Blue mountains with snowy, sawtoothed peaks. A vast sky and stomach-dropping abyss. Canyonlands National Park in southeastern Utah offers awe-inspiring western vistas, beauty, and adventure and was my favorite among the Utah parks we visited on our spring RV trip.

Island in the Sky

We took two days to see Canyonlands. On the first day, pictured in this post, we explored the park’s Island in the Sky district, stopping at overlooks and making a thrilling plunge into a canyon via Shafer Trail drive.

The views are epic at Canyonlands.

And a little terrifying. From the visitor center overlook, we gazed across the gulf to a red dirt road clinging to a skinny ledge 1,500 feet high. No guardrails. Was this a hiking trail? No, it’s a road. For vehicles. For people to drive actual vehicles on. My husband turned to me and said, “Let’s do it.”

Shafer Trail road

“No way,” I replied. “Nope. Uh-uh.” I repeated that nope all morning and through our picnic lunch before relenting because…we were there. And the road was there. And every day do something that scares you, right?

But first we spent the morning driving the main road, stopping at overlooks, and hiking short trails to admire the incredible scenery.

Seeing those snowy peaks in the distance, floating above the high-desert landscape, enhances your sense of Canyonlands’ vast scale.

Water created this unique desert landscape, ironically. Two rivers, the Colorado and the Green, are still carving deeply into canyons. In addition, summer rainstorms create erosive, temporary streams that course over mesas and buttes, sculpting soft sandstone into terraces, towers…


…and eventually, over millennia, this.

In early May, purple wildflowers were in bloom, color-coordinating with lavender canyons in the distance. I think this is milkvetch.

More canyon views

It’s hard to convey the scale of such vistas.

Even in a desert, a few trees manage to cling to rock, weathered into bent and picturesque form.

The twisted trunks of old broken trees are piled, at one overlook, into a boundary-defining fence.

Canyons within canyons

Hikers on a cliff-edge trail

Shafer Trail

By midafternoon we’d looped back to the visitor center and the access point for Shafer Trail, the dirt road that clings to canyon walls as it snakes its way down 1,500 feet of guardrail-less exposure.

We were driving a big Ford F-150 pickup with 4-wheel drive, but we did see one or two “regular” cars on the narrow drive. And one bicyclist puffing his way up.

“The Shafer Trail…is an iconic road that descends 1,500 feet (457 m) through a colorful, massive sandstone cliff. Its function has changed through the years; from a route made by Native Americans to access resources on the mesa top, to a trail for sheep herders moving flocks to better foraging in winter time, and then a road for trucks moving loads of uranium from the backcountry to market. Today, the Shafer Trail is a challenging, unpaved backcountry road for recreational users seeking the experience of a lifetime.”

As we eased our way through the first several switchbacks on the descent, I sat tensely, taking few photos as I stole glances over the abyss a couple feet from the passenger window.

Canyon and river far below

But when we reached the inner canyon, I no longer felt we might fall off a crumbling cliff and could relax.

Fremont mahonia in buttery bloom

We saw a sign for Musselman Arch and walked out to see it. No, this is not the bottom of the canyon but a plateau.

Musselman Arch is technically not an arch but a natural bridge of stone. A skinny 6-foot width over a drop of 300 feet hasn’t stopped people from walking across this eroded slab. Some have even bicycled across it, I read. We simply marveled at it from a distance.

Toadstool-shaped pillars stand watch.

We didn’t go all the way to the canyon floor because the afternoon was growing late.

On the drive back up to the rim, I felt comfortable with the road and took lots of photos and video.

The scenery was right out of a Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoon.

This shows how narrow the road is, and yes, it’s two-way. When another vehicle appears, you must squeeze to one side so you can pass.

Crumbled rock and still-standing hoodoos

A closer view

Here are 3 videos I took on the drive back up. Enjoy!

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Near the top, here comes another car.

What a drive! I’m glad I said yes. It remains one of the most memorable parts of our trip.

Canyonlands would beckon again another day, when we’d visit the Needles district, a 100-mile drive from Island in the Sky.

Up next: Hiking and off-roading in the Needles at Canyonlands. For a look back at Capitol Reef National Park’s petroglyphs, orchards, and pie, click here.

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