Chapter #128: Moab, Utah - The Shafer Trail - August 31, 2009

The settling ponds at Potash, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

The Best View of Moab? Take Potash Road to Canyonlands, on the Shafer Trail

Where the pavement ends in Potash, Utah, so too does the Potash Road (Utah Route 279). There, a gravel and dirt road continues up and around the potash settling ponds. Beginning at that point, a hodgepodge of county, federal and social names prevail along various segments of the road. The two most popular names associated with the upper reaches of that track are, “South Fork Road” and the “Shafer Trail”. Before proposing our candidate for the official road name, we shall describe both its dangers and its beauty.
Hoodoos along the lower Shafer Trail, Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com) 
Starting at the Intrepid Potash, LLC settling ponds in Shafer Basin, the road takes a meandering course, up-slope past hoodoos, towers and buttes. As we drove the track, it roughly paralleled the flow of the Colorado River. As we climbed, the river descended until there was a 2000-foot difference in elevation between the river and our location atop the sandstone canyon rim. Along this section, are the best views of the Colorado River Gorge.
Desert pothole, along the Shafer Trail, Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com) 
Prior to reaching the high point above the gorge, we came upon a large, shallow pothole. Dependent for their existence on rainfall and local runoff, wet and dry potholes dot the Canyonlands landscape. After a summer shower, they shine like so many silver coins in the sunlight. Each pool of retained water has its own unique life-cycle. Some support ancient aquatic life forms, while others are drinking water sources for wild horses or other mammals. In any given pool, a wide variety of insects and other organisms might sustain themselves through their entire life-cycle. Although our selected pothole was within yards of the main track, no wheel marks had disturbed or desecrated its pristine beauty.
The Other visits the desert pothole near Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com) 
Near the highest point along the Colorado River Gorge, Thelma & Louise met their fate in the 1991 movie by the same name. For us, a close approach to the unmarked and unguarded canyon rim made our heart skip a beat.
Having previously stood at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, we knew its depth to be about one mile. There, the scene is one of grandeur. Although at least fifty-three individuals fell to their death there over the past eighty years, most landed on various ledges, not more than five hundred feet below their point of departure. Although the Colorado Gorge is only two-fifths as deep, there are no intermediate ledges or outcroppings to break one’s fall. Unless it has wings, whatever goes over the edge here will not stop until it strikes the surface of the Colorado River. As we stood close to the rim here, our predominant feeling was one of queasiness.
The launching point for Thelma & Louise, in the 1991 movie of the same name - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com) 
Mistaking our truck’s accelerator for the brake pedal at his spot would set in motion a slow motion disaster. After going over the edge, brakes and steering would no longer matter. The mass of our body and the pickup truck surrounding it would feel weightless for the ten seconds it took to reach the bottom. There, the freefall would end abruptly at the surface of the Colorado River. Since water is quite unyielding when impacted at high speeds, it might as well be solid concrete. Knowing that such was the fate of characters Thelma & Louise, we stepped carefully back from our closest vantage point, about eight feet from the brink. After a deep breath or two, we were ready to go back to the truck and motor slowly up the trail.
To our way of thinking, the best natural light in the desert appears near sunup or sundown. Having taken our time along the way, we took our final look back towards the river at almost 7:00 PM. Looking forward and upward, we noted a small wooden sign, which marked our entrance into Canyonlands National Park.


Watch the Video, "Mudflaps & Helicopters"


Forward - Seeking the best view of Moab, Thelma & Louise take flight at the Colorado River Gorge, Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com) 
Moab Utah - Best View
Shifting our Nissan Titan V-8 into four-wheel drive, we traveled up a long, otherwise undisturbed valley. Where that valley abruptly ended, the road began an equally long upward traverse of a talus slope. After that climb, we looked up at what seemed to be a sheer cliff. Hidden from our view in the fading light, was a famous set of switchbacks. Ascending the trail slowly was the prudent thing to do. Just beyond the top of the switchbacks is a mesa top, still within Canyonlands National Park.
The Colorado River Gorge near Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com) 
During various excursions in Canyonlands, we had experienced a phenomenon that is alien to urban drivers. Often, we had perceived that a particular road would next turn in one direction, only to find it turn the other way. While climbing this set of switchbacks, we often could not determine if the road went on at all. In the failing light of dusk, the steep canyon wall hid all the switchbacks above and below us. As we continued our ascent, we wonder if the spirit of the Ancients might be riding along with us, having a good laugh about the optical illusions of the trail.
After viewing unique pillars of stone and other rock tableau, we crested the Mesa top, and then paused to look back from whence we came. Many miles to the east, the alpenglow crept up the sides of the La Sal Mountains. Day turned to night in the canyon below. Near our junction with State Route 313, we stopped at the Canyonlands self-pay box and did our part to support maintenance and upkeep of this unique road.
A look back down the Shafer Trail, near Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com) 
The stretch of road we just described starts as Potash, by the Colorado River and ends on the mesa top in Canyonlands. On many maps, including our 2005 Edition of the Delorme Utah Atlas & Gazetteer it appears as “South Fork Road”. Recently, Google Maps began showing both "South Fork Road" and the more common, "Shafer Trail" along this section of road. According to our research, “South Fork Road” is a social-road name, not used by any official agency in the area. When we questioned several Moab local residents, each said that the road has always been the “Shafer Trail”. On most locally produced maps, there is no other name associated with the road,  the road.
Switchbacks on the Shafer Trail, Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com) 
The track has its origin in Shafer Basin, adjacent to the potash settling ponds. Just below its mesa-top crest, stands Shafer Campground. Before extensive grading allowed its use as a haul-road for uranium ore in the late 1940s, a local rancher named Shafer used the trail each year to herd cattle from what we now call Shafer Basin to the mesa top and back again. In the interest of public safety and standardization among mapmakers, the road from the Cane Creek Potash Plant, up to Canyonlands National Park, should bear the name of its originators, and his brother Frank Shafer. Since the track is as much a trail as it is a road, henceforth its name should be, “The Shafer Trail”.
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