Moab, Utah and the surrounding National Parks have, in our opinion, some of the most beautiful landscapes this planet has to offer. The colors and shadows change by the hour and temperatures range from brisk to sweaty throughout the day. In addition to its beauty, Utah offers the ability to be remote and off the grid for as long as you desire.
Upon moving to Colorado from Virginia in 2018, our first order of business was of course to plan out a trip to Moab. Our style of “off-roading” is not the typical bombing over boulders and going mudding you might imagine. We consider our travel as “overlanding,” which we define as the preparation and journey as well as the destination of off-grid backcountry camping and sustainable use of public lands. Our 2017 Woolly Bear trailer lends itself well to that lifestyle.
The White Rim Trail of Canyonlands National Park offers breathtaking views and remote backcountry camping within the National Park property. Below we’ll discuss some trip planning tips and lessons learned from our four-day and three-night journey in March 2019.
Permits are required for use of the White Rim Trail whether you are day tripping or planning to spend a night or two. If you are planning to camp, the Trail offers 20 individual campsites, each with a privy. Camping is only allowed on these sites, within the campsite footprint to protect the fragile cryptobiotic soil and ecosystems of the desert. Reservations for back country camping permits are available four months to the day you plan to make your trip and can be reserved online. Permit fees are $30. Each campsite can have three units on it, which includes tow-behind trailers. In our case, the Woolly Bear counts as a unit in addition to our 2016 Toyota 4-Runner.
Review weather for the week you are traveling just prior to embarking. Weather varies greatly by season, so make sure you know to be prepared for rain or extreme heat or cold.
There will be nowhere to refuel your vehicle once you are on the trail. There is a Chevron gas station on the left of Route 191 before you get into town and there are several gas stations in Moab as well as a supermarket. We recommend topping off your fuel and bringing an extra fuel can.
From Route 191, turn left onto Route 313 to access the Island in the Sky Visitor Center and the entry point for Shafer Canyon Road. This road is often snowed and iced in until March. Call ahead of time that the road is in fact open! You’ll stop at the Ranger Station before getting to that point. Just outside the National Park are several fee-area BLM campgrounds. We recommend starting the Trail first thing in the morning, so if you arrive the afternoon before, it’s a good idea to stay a night at one of the campgrounds and be right near the Trailhead. You’ll need cash or check for the BLM campgrounds.
Depending on how fast you want to get through the Trail or stop and enjoy as many photo opportunities as possible, plan two to three nights and spread out your reservations at campsites along the way. During our trip we stayed at a Gooseberry site, Murphys Hogback site and a Potato Bottom site. There really isn’t a bad spot in the whole park but they are very spread out.
When you exit the west end of White Rim Road, you’ll be back on BLM land for a short bit before turning right onto Route 129 which takes you back to Route 313.
We all love to travel with our four-legged friends; however, dogs are not permitted on the Trail. Ours stayed home with a house sitter but there are placed for dog boarding within Moab if you want them closer to your destination.
Finally, before embarking on an overland trip, your trip planning should include some trailer maintenance. For the Woolly Bear, this included greasing the axles, checking the tires, charging up the battery, checking bolts on the roof rack and RTT connections to make sure nothing is loose, and re-stocking kitchen and cooking supplies and cooking fuel.
We traveled alone; however, sections of trail are very remote and can be seasonally dangerous. We recommend traveling with at least one other vehicle and have a communications system on board. We are licensed HAM radio operators and have a built-in radio in our vehicle. The Trail is so remote, that we could not even get radio signal in the canyon. It is a good idea to have a plan with someone on the outside so that if you don’t show up on schedule, a search party can come find you.
There is no water available the length of the trail. You should plan to bring more than you think you need. Particularly in the summer months.
We traveled in mid-March. There were huge temperature swings during the day. Plan to bundle up in mornings and evenings. It is also generally windy. Hats are necessary to shield your eyes, but we would recommend one that can cinch on to your head, so it doesn’t blow over the edge!
Despite being a dry desert, it does in fact rain, and you don’t always get much notice. Plan for severe weather by keeping a small footprint at camp, have your items tied down well, and have sturdy weatherproof shelter. Also have a back up plan for meals in case you can’t cook outside. The Woolly Bear kitchen is exposed so keep items tucked back in the cubbies, so nothing blows away.
Since the campsites are mostly on rock slabs, it may be difficult to get tent stakes or awning stakes into the ground. Sometimes we found rocks to put on guy lines but bring your own weights if you have the capability to do so.
Our CVT Mt. Ranier 3+ person tent on the Woolly Bear was comfortable and kept us dry and sheltered from the wind and rain. The winds died down at night and the air was so quiet.
The Trail can be completed by most stock 4×4 vehicles; however, 4×4 low range is required and we recommend having some recovery gear. While our 4Runner has a winch built-in, we would not have been able to use it for self-rescue since there’s basically no where to attach it to. Treds or MaxTrax are also good under tires which may become stuck. They also came in useful to level the Woolly Bear on uneven campsites.
In 2019, our Woolly Bear had stock tires. In the muddy areas, we had to use a shovel to dig out mud from the fenders and tires to get back traction and cut down on weight we were dragging. We have since upgraded to more robust and slightly larger tires which we air down to 20 psi for off-pavement travel.
Campfires are not permitted in the National Park. We purchased a propane fire pit and traveled with it in the open outside storage space of the Woolly Bear so we had something to sit around in the evening. The open storage space also accommodated two 5-gallon jerry cans of water in addition to the fire pit.
Overall, the Woolly Bear performed very well. We couldn’t drive as fast as other 4×4 vehicles with the trailer in tow, but we certainly had more time to enjoy the views. Often, the passenger would need to get out and spot the driver over rock steps, sharp turns and switchbacks, and other obstacles. The Woolly Bear, as a Mobile Human Habitat, generally goes where we go and affords the comfort of having everything you need and nothing you don’t.