Jefe Tackles Canyonland’s White Rim Trail

There is nothing like an early spring trek to Canyonlands National Park, Utah and its environs to drag you out of the winter doldrums. However, old-man Winter had one more hard punch in store for us and the thousands attending “Jeep Week” in Moab. Having been there several times in smaller four wheel drives—usually topless during a hot week in June—the second week of April seemed like a perfect time to savor the park’s Needles District by going into Chesler Park through Beef Basin and down Bobby’s Hole. It looked good on paper. This time, we would attempt some of the hard-core trails in a pair of prepared truck campers.

The participants were me, my wife, Jean Reynolds, my brother John Reynolds (aka: JR), and Krys Mleczko. John has a long history of hard-core rock crawling and rock racing having won the Top Truck Challenge and the first ever “King of the Hammers” race. He built a pair of world class rock buggies and still has a fabricating business catering to the rock racers. His mostly stock long-bed 1999 Ford six-speed diesel F-250 sports a palatial 9.5 Outfitter pop-up truck camper.

I’ve owned 13, four-wheel drive vehicles and been a long time rock-crawler having built several rigs over time, and have been a spotter, trip leader, and tail gunner (the guy with the on board welder that picks up the pieces and puts them back together) on many Jeep runs over the named trails in the Western U.S. My rig is a 2001 short-bed Generation II Dodge Ram Cummins with a lot of stuff and haul an ancient, wood-frame Lance 165s camper; the least tall, narrowest, and lightest self-contained truck camper of its time.

The hardcore Jeeps and tube buggies are gone and only a pair of trucks with campers are left. But the residual driving technique remains. As the trek progressed this would become crucial. The common thread with these trucks and campers is that they are older, so we have almost nothing to loose from the barrage of passing rocks, mud, and brush.

From our disparate homes in California, we traveled to and met in Salina, Utah on I-70 for a quick Mexican nosh and final planning meeting. John had a book about the White Rim Road (we call it trail) which mentioned the possibility of getting a permit for the trail, on the day, if you just show up at the National Park Headquarters and ask about cancellations. I told him this was a fairy tale, and that there was a very slim chance that we could acquire reservations on the day. The next day we would head right for the HQ to see if there were any cancellations. The restaurant had a dimly lit back dirt lot, and it was totally dark by this time, so we did the thing you do with a truck camper which is climb-in, hang-up the steps, pull-down the shades, and get some shut-eye.

Arriving at the Canyonlands National Park HQ the next day, we waltzed right up to the reservation desk and asked if there were any cancellations for the White Rim Trail. The Ranger on duty said, “Yes, I have a cancellation of two spots for Taylor Canyon Camp (near the west end of the White Rim Trail) for tomorrow night. (Taylor Canyon only has two spots for rigs.) Would you like them?” It was only a few seconds of cogitation when glancing at his computer screen the Ranger said, “Hold on! I just received a two-spot cancellation for Murphy Hogback, site C. Would you like to take it for tonight and Taylor Canyon tomorrow?” “We would,” I answered. The two rig caravan made a hasty retreat to the Shafer Trail Road to drop the tire pressure down to trail pressure. Mine was lowered to 32 pounds, which allows your tires to become part of the suspension, gives a modicum of flotation on sand; and become very sticky on rocks and the inevitable climbing of your personal piece of the Kaibab. Down the Shafer Trail we went seeing many day timers.

We stopped at the bottom for a quick lunch and the start of the White Rim Trail. If we had a choice, doing the White Rim to the Murphy Hogback is a bit much to do in one day, about 47 miles, especially since we didn’t start until after 12 noon, but we motored-on stopping at only the most interesting formations and views like Musselman Arch and a couple of Colorado River Overlooks.

There were many small 4WD vehicles, some with RTTs, and a lot of people on bicycles with their trace trucks carrying all their supplies and minuscule nylon tents. After the steep ascent to Murphy Hogback near sundown, we settled in on space C.

The wind began a slow accelerando to a gale force into the night, those isobars almost touching. I had a lot of empathy for all those young people in their tiny nylon tents knowing that they would remember their time on the White Rim forever because of its very adversity. I wonder how many wound up sitting upright all night in the pickups.

Next day, down the steep western side of Murphy’s for the long trek to Taylor Canyon Camp.

The only clearance woe here was a rock outcropping of which I had about an inch of clearance, according to my spotter, Brother John. No clearance issue last time as I was less tall. In a 2010 trip over the White Rim I had no 3-inch lift and 33-inch tires. Now, 35-inch tires and a 3-inch lift made the difference. If you are to wheel an off-road equipped, 10,000-pound hard-side truck camper, knowing your numbers mean everything when you are this close to the brink. We are both 86 inches wide with the mirrors in and jacks off, and John is 8 feet, 10 inches tall vs. mine at 10 feet, 4 inches tall. To get real picky, we probably lost 1/2 inch in height from sidewall flex by lowering the pressure to 32 pounds. As we got closer to the Taylor cutoff, the trail was recently graded and we could make better time past Candlestick and along the edge of Potato Bottom with nice views of the Green River directly below.

Arriving at Taylor Canyon Camp, with its two spaces for vehicles, we could see the monoliths of Zeus and Moses rock formations.

Few people ever get to see these formations. It rained in the night causing the roads to be slicker so we motored on with more caution than usual closing in on the narrows near Saddle Horse Bottom, which had also been recently graded, but for me, for the worse, filling in some runoff ditches that elevated my Lance Camper even closer to the rock overhangs. This is where our spotter technique took over. John and I use hand signals, using the thumb up/right/left pivot method, like a dial moving around the clock to show how far or how little to turn. What you never want to see is thumbs-down.

At one point, I was about an inch away from the rock overhang, and about 2 inches from the absolute edge of the road on the other side where one false move could easily send you disappearing into the Green River, straight down and 60 feet below with nary a bounce. There were a couple similar sections that got our attention. Of course, Brother John had a much easier time with his less tall rig. Remember, knowing your numbers means everything when you are this close to the brink. Climbing the steep and abrupt switchbacks from Mineral Bottom to the top of the mesa found us slogging through endless mud of Mineral Bottom Road and the long trip to S.R. 313. The county road grader was idling at the junction waiting for the mud to dry a little bit so he could grade the road of which we just made a mess.

Taking the short piece of pavement (still at low pressure) we took the Gemini Bridges Trail to highway 191.

Since this was getting toward “Jeep Week” around Moab, there was lots of traffic coming the other way, who upon seeing the pair of big, white Campersaurus Rex motoring in their direction on the narrow two-track, scrambled to get out of the way.

We moseyed on to Moab to buy some water jugs, since I lost all my water when the fresh water tank in my Lance sprung a leak at the drain valve.

Our objective was then to go to the south end of Canyonlands National Park to attempt a back door entrance to the Needles District via a long detour through scenic Beef Basin and down a rocky escarpment called Bobby’s Hole. I was reasonably sure we would have no side or overhead clearance woes. The plan was to exit over Elephant Hill, a famous landmark with many technical moves over sandstone. After stopping to clean the jet on John’s sooted ammonia absorption three-way fridge on his Outfitter, we eventually crossed the creek turning down Bridger Jack Road.

It was getting late in the day and the heavens were opening up with snow, sleet, and rain, making a mess of the recently graded road. We began to look for and found a suitable campsite in the rocks below Bridger Jack Mesa. It rained and hailed into the night; especially wearisome when you are trying to snooze inside a snare drum, I mean under an aluminum roof. Next morning I stepped out of the camper to quickly find myself mired in a pair of mud overshoes, size extra wide. Then began the ordeal in the mud (mud video 1, mud video 2, mud video 3).

The traction became worse as we gained elevation. My problem was the pair of traction devices known as torque biasing, gear driven, Torsen style True Trac LSD’s. These give power to the wheel with the most traction, not the least like clutch pack limited slips. However, if the axles detect no difference in traction from side-to-side they act more like a spool, pulling in unison. This was the predicament I found myself in. I wormed my way off the road several times, totally out of control with all wheels turning the same speed with no ability to steer or brake. To make it worse, my Cooper Discoverer AT-3’s with their mild tread was no mud tire. After getting to a high, flat spot off the road we pulled over to assess the situation.

I’ve never had to stop and wait for the mud to dry in my life. John went ahead to check out the road and reported back that it was getting much worse because of some super elevation at curves in the cut and fill roadway would draw him inexorably toward the abyss. He then stopped a mile ahead to let the mud dry. We kept in contact with our Motorola, 10-mile LOS radios. Hours passed until we could proceed. The road deteriorated from there as we gained more elevation and more mud with Cathedral Butte ever in sight. The snow line on the north side of our meandering road finally did us in when we were confronted with more than 2 feet of endless old snow on a narrow track with a 22 percent grade. By now the mud was a lot drier so we backtracked all the way back to the main entrance to the Needles District Office. We talked to the ranger in charge about entering through Elephant Hill, not Bobby’s Hole as originally permitted. She said, “Yes, you can as long as you camp at the permitted campsite. Alright! We scurried to the start of the Elephant and lowered our pressure even farther and started up the Jeep trail.

I’ve been over this several times, none in this century and none in a truck camper. I studied the rock outcroppings by watching all the YouTube videos. I knew that there would be times that I would need to lean my rig to one side a few degrees to allow passage. Having a pair of Smittybuilt All-Element Ramps has never entered my lexicon, but this trip would change that. They were extra thick to allow more elevation and came in a handsome nylon bag. I also had my 10 leveling blocks that I could stack, if needed. None needed.

We started up Elephant Hill and got to the first dogleg turn where, I being in the lead made the three-point turn for the next leg. Oh, oh. John was detained momentarily when a Ranger caught up to him to advise against doing this. After a short conversation, he said, “go ahead if you are narrower than 93 inches and it sounds like you have enough technique.” John then got out front and gave me the thumb up; right, or left. As you will see in the photos, I had finally crossed the Rubicon. End of the line for me. I did finally get to use the all element ramps to release the wall of the truck camper from the close embrace of the wall of the sandstone monolith.

Some things I learned: to pass the above overhang, the truck needs to be 7 foot, 6 inches or less directly above the driver’s door.

We then looked for new horizons to conquer. The Lockhart Road and subsequently Lockhart Basin looked kind of remote. After a long rough day on the Lockhart Road with a few washouts we finally turned around when the washouts became too numerous to continue.

The vistas were stunning, as was the solitude. Once away from the Canyonlands entrance we saw only one other vehicle. Our last camp:

All in all it was a great trip. We were looking for the edge; eager to smell the ozone, and we found it; over and over again.

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About Jefe4x4 3 Articles
When it comes to Extreme Truck Campers (XTC’s) and exploring off-road, few people know more than Jeffrey Reynolds. Known as Jefe 4×4 on the Internet forums, Jeff embarked on his first off-road adventure in 1965 and hasn’t looked back since. He’s owned over a dozen 4×4 vehicles of various makes and has traveled well over a million miles in them. In the 1990s he worked as a staff writer on the Jeep section of Off-Road.com then later wrote articles for 4x4Wire.com about the nuts-and-bolts of 4×4 drive-trains.

5 Comments

  1. Jefe! It’s great to see that you are still writing. This article is great! I lost track of you old friend. I need to figure out how to get in touch directly. It’s a been a long time and we need to catch up. I am still attempting to ooze over rocks like you showed me 22 years ago on the Rubicon, in the same Jeep.

  2. Wow Jefe, I hung on every word of your adventure! You have a great writing style that made me chuckle in places, such as trying to sleep inside of a snare drum, haha. We too have camped in hail and heavy rain while cozy inside our camper. At least our snoring is drowned out. Thanks for sharing this trip with the harrowing details.

  3. Jefe and his group….more guts than brains…..absolutely amazing that they made the White Rim Trail without disaster…the mud alone (which we have experienced) much less the tight spots…….WOW!!!!!!

    • Gary, Bro John and I have a lot of experience. We just like getting near the edge. Each of our ‘projects’ is well researched and plied against that experience. A lot of people have done the White Rim in truck campers. I even read of a guy in a Subaru doing the trail. It has no low range.

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