Driving along the Colorado River on a road trip to the parks of the West is quite a complicated task. In various cases it can be seen from above or from afar, but it is difficult to find one easy way to go that gives us the thrill of whizzing with our car following the course of the most famous river in the West. Well, around Moab in Utah there are three scenic roads that allow you to do it: the most famous is the UT-128 (known as the Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway), but there are also there Kane Creek Road and UT-279, also known as Potash-Lower Colorado River Scenic Byway.
In this article I would like to tell you about the Potash Road and all the excursions that can be made by leaving the car on the side of the road or making short detours. I will not limit myself to describing only the first, agile asphalted stretch of about 27 km that runs along the river, but I will also talk about remaining 29 km of dirt road, which go into the most remote red rock territories and lead straight inside Dead Horse Point State Park and then Island in the Sky (the district of Canyonlands), climbing the sides of the canyon along lo Shafer Trail: a journey not for everyone, but absolutely spectacular.
- How to reach it
- From Moab
- da Canyonlands
- Route map (loop)
- The paved road
- Portal Overlook Trail e Wall Street
- Longbow Arch
- Corona Arch e Bowtie Arch
- Jug Handle Arch e Long Canyon Road
- Potash Boat Ramp
- The dirt road
- Potash Evaporation Ponds
- Thelma & Louise Point
- South Fork Shafer Canyon
- White Rim Road verso il Musselman Arch
- Shafer Trail
- Island in the Sky (Canyonlands)
- Map of attractions
- Which car to rent?
- Where to sleep?
How to reach it
First of all, a couple of clarifications on the type of itinerary you are going to take. Technically it is a loop on Moab, but only a few decide to do it all, because the kilometers to be covered are many and most of them take place on a dirt road that in some places can be complicated for those who do not have a bit of off-road driving experience.
Coming from Moab, you will find the entrance to Potash Road by turning off US-191 approximately 2.5km north of the Colorado River bridge towards Arches. Here is the exact spot on Google Maps. From this point the asphalted road lasts for 26 km, up to Potash Boat Ramp, after which the path begins on the dirt road that will take you to Canyonlands.
- If you are going to do it only the paved road, you will have to go back on the same route as soon as you reach the Potash Boat Ramp. I am 52 km in total.
- If you want to do instead all the loop, continue on the dirt road to Island in the Sky following the itinerary indicated below and return to Moab via UT-313 and US-191. I am 107 km in total, including 29 on a dirt road. In this case you will have to pay entry to Canyonlands park (the parks card is accepted).
If you are on Island in the Sky and want to reach Moab via the Potash Road, just 280 meters after the park entrance (1.5 km before the Visitor Center) you will have to turn left. This is the precise point indicated on Google Maps. From here begins the Shafer Canyon Road, the most complicated stretch of road because it is the one that will take you to the bottom of the canyon at the intersection with Potash Road.
In general, however, I do not recommend doing the loop in this sense because the descent on the hairpin bends is more impressive and potentially dangerous than the climb.
Route map (loop)
This below on the map is the Potash Road loop. If you only want to do the paved road from Moab, you will have to go back when you reach the Potash Boat Ramp.
The paved road
Let's start our on the road from Moab. We turn onto UT-279 following the green sign indicating Potash. After about 3 km we will notice the road finally joins the Colorado River, and this is where the on the road attractions begin.
Portal Overlook Trail e Wall Street
After 6.4 km, on your right you will see a tree-lined area at the foot of a red rock cavity: it is the Jaycee Park Campground, a very pleasant little green space overlooking the Colorado and the rocks of Moab.
From here you will see the sign for Portal Overlook Trail, a little known path that leads up to the top of the cliff, where there is an observation point over the entire valley of Moab. After a long walk in the woods along the road, you begin to climb the hairpin bends and proceed on steep sandstone slabs without protection. The total distance (round trip) is about 5 km: it can be a decent option to reach it, but only if you have a lot of time available. Let's say that much more beautiful trails await you!
Shortly after Jaycee Park, you will realize that it looms over the road a very high smooth sandstone wall, call Wall Street This wall represents a real challenge for rock climbers, so much so that it is difficult to drive by without seeing someone attempting the feat, especially during the summer.
Who said the best rock arches are all in Arches? The Moab area is full of these natural wonders, and along Potash Road there are at least 3 worthy of note. The first, but not the best, is the Longbow Arch. Below, here's how to get there.
Shortly after Wall Street, you will see two signs indicating Spider Trail e Dinosaur Tracks: follow the very short dirt road that climbs the hill and leave the car in the parking lot. Behind the bathroom starts the path towards Longbow Arch, which climbs up the rock and then unfolds on a river bed (drained, of course!), With rock and sand passages that will slow you down a bit. I point out that after a while it is also necessary to help yourself with an iron support for a complicated passage.
The path is not well marked and - as you will most likely do it alone - to orient yourself you will have to follow the green signs, when available. Along the way you will also see some dinosaur footprints (coordinates) and of the ancient petroglyphs (coordinates). After about 1.7 km and 135 meters in altitude you will find the arch. Then go back to the car on the same path.
Corona Arch e Bowtie Arch
After the detour to Longbow Arch, the road follows a wide bend in Colorado. 6,5 km from the Spider Trail car park is the entrance to the path that leads to two arches that are far more scenic than the Longbow Arch: Corona Arch e Bowtie Arch. Leave your car in the parking lot on the right and start the trail, but not before taking a look at the directions and advice printed on the sign near the trailhead.
This path is well marked, very fun and not too strenuous. It is necessary to overcome the tracks of a freight train, right where they enter straight into a canyon (take a picture, such a thing is not so easy to see!). Subsequently, it will be necessary to help yourself with a ladder and a rope to overcome some slightly more difficult points on the rock. The most exciting moment though is when you are at the majestic Corona Arch, which is actually halfway between the natural bridge and the natural arch, remaining half attached to the rock.
Just before the Corona Arch, on the same path you will also see the Bowtie Arch, mostly a large hole in the rock. It can be a lot of fun trying to get as low as possible to take the perfect photo of the sky cut out of the hole. Halfway between the arch and the car park there is also a secondary path that leads to the Pinto Arch. It is also very beautiful, but it is located higher than the main path, and requires a few steps on the smooth rock.
Jug Handle Arch e Long Canyon Road
After the Corona Arch car park, the road begins to run alongside the train tracks which, as we will see, arrive at the company's potash processing area. Intrepid Potash (hence the name of the street, in fact). After 5.6 km you will see the Jug Handle Arch, well signposted to the right on one side of the road. Immediately after the arch, there is the intersection with the Long Canyon Road.
This amazing dirt road it is unknown to most people but, if you have time and above all a 4 × 4 (or at least a car with a raised body), it is really worth taking it. Long Canyon Road is largely exposed over an unprotected ravine, and climbs uphill on switchbacks to the Pucker Pass, from which you can enjoy incredible views of the canyon and the whole area.
The dirt road is in good condition and the road is wide enough to allow a car to pass in the opposite direction, but if you are not used to this type of driving I advise you to be very careful. The whole way into the canyon is wonderful, but the most thrilling moment is when you are forced to go under a huge collapsed boulder from the rocky wall.
It is not a loop, so you will have to travel 7km in the opposite direction if you want to return to Potash Road. In any case it is useful to say that, when you get to the top of the canyon (Pucker Pass), the road continues on a mesa that leads right to the Dead Horse Point State Park. If you are in the mood for adventures, and would like to reach the state park from an alternative route to the traditional one, with the map below you know how to do it.
Potash Boat Ramp
The end point of the paved part of the Potash Road is there Potash Boat Ramp, a slipway used for tourist boat tours in Colorado. The area (under the protection of the National Park Service) is equipped with a bathroom and picnic tables shaded by trees. Before heading back to Moab or continuing to Canyonlands, you can also just park your car and approach the Colorado shore to enjoy a beautiful view of the rocky ridges that are reflected in the water.
The dirt road
From the ramp on the Colorado begins un on the road completamente different. As I said before, for reasons of time and safety not everyone will be able to do it: the road is in fact long, bumpy and, in the last part of the on the road, also not trivial when driving. However, I do not struggle to tell you that what I am about to describe is the most exciting part of Potash Road, because it is from here on that you enter the wildest part: first at the bottom of Dead Horse Point State Park and then in the heart of the Shafer Canyon di Canyonlands.
Potash Evaporation Ponds
About 5 km after the ramp, you will find yourself in front of a surreal spectacle: the potassium evaporation tanks. This multicolored geometrically shaped lake appears out of nowhere behind a protective net, immersed in the rocky landscape of Utah: the sight of these pools creates an absurd sense of estrangement. How can this be explained water coloring? As mentioned, the company Intrepid Potash produces potassium chloride, which usually naturally gives a reddish color to evaporation ponds. Here the water is treated with gods dyes (mostly dark blue, but not only) to accelerate the absorption of sunlight. In this way the water evaporates faster and ensures a faster harvest of saline residues, ready for treatment.
The aesthetic result is a bit strange, and not everyone looks favorably on the operation: apparently, however, the dyes used by Intrepid Potash are monitored carefully so that their use is compliant with environmental guidelines. Listen to me! Don't get too close to ponds - potash is toxic.
Thelma & Louise Point
Let's leave behind the colorful toxic tanks of the Intrepid Potash and continue our on the road for another 5 km, to reach what is the most cinematic spot on Potash Road. If you have been to the Dead Horse Point State Park, from the top of the panoramic terrace you will have seen below you (and envied) the cars driving on a road at the base of the canyon. Well, those cars are driving right there Potash Road, roughly at the point immortalized by the final scene of the film Thelma & Louise.
The two protagonists throw themselves into the Colorado River with their car not from the Grand Canyon (as the script would have you believe) but from here, an excellent and unprecedented panoramic point on the bend of the river and on the whole surrounding area. From the indicated point it is also possible to get a little closer to the ravine by car, leaving the main road: you can get here and here.
From Thelma & Louise Point, the rocky ridge on the river that made Dead Horse Point State Park famous is not clear. To find yourself right in front of this point you will have to continue on Potash Road for another 2.6 km. At this precise point is the Gooseneck Overlook: set the coordinates on your navigator so as not to risk losing it.
South Fork Shafer Canyon
After the Gooseneck Overlook you need to be a little careful: the road no longer follows the river but begins to descend. At the South Fork Shafer Canyon you go for a short distance on the bottom of a river: the road is very different from the previous one because you drive between the slopes of the canyon and not on the mesa in an open panorama on the plateau. The driving experience is just as fun but there can also be slightly more complex parts, with holes and passages on rock.
White Rim Road verso il Musselman Arch
After about 4 km of driving at the bottom of the river, you will return to a much larger scenario: you are finally at the bottom of the river Shafer Canyon real. You are practically at the foot of the plateau of Island in the Sky, and those who are looking out at the Shafer Canyon Overlook at that time Canyonlands perhaps they will see you as a distant dot. Shortly after, well indicated, you will in fact find a crossroads that will indicate the confluence with the Shafer Canyon Road, the road that will allow you to go up to the top, where the main road of the park is located.
Be careful! At the fork you will have to go right following for the Visitor Center, otherwise you will enter the White Rim Road, a road that goes somewhere else. The only reason to walk a short piece of it is the Musselman Arch, a rocky bridge suspended on the edge of a ravine, on which it is also possible to climb to measure one's courage. Around there are also some rock formations that may resemble those of Goblin Valley. This arch bridge is located in 5.4 km from the crossroads between Potash Road and Shafer Canyon Road.
Unlike Shafer Canyon Road, White Rim Road continues to follow the course of Colorado. Be careful, as there are spots where the road is exposed on the precipice, but the advantage is that you can reach other vantage points that allow you to see Dead Horse Point State Park from the west. At this link, the coordinates for a beautiful viewpoint on the Colorado River.
Let's go back to the crossroads. Hence the Shafer Canyon Road, also called Shafer Trail, begins to rise gradually, offering its exceptional views over the whole valley. Things get serious after about 2-3 km of dirt road, when the steep hairpin bends climbing the western side of the canyon, climbing up to the top. This certainly is the most challenging part of the whole scenic route from Moab to Canyonlands. I advise everyone to go uphill (therefore coming from Moab), which is less impressive and difficult than the descent coming from Canyonlands.
After the hairpin bends, once you have reached a sufficient height, you continue to skirt the edge of the canyon for about 3 km (see photo above), when you then reach the Island in the Sky Road: during the last part of the climb, when you find an open space wide enough, stop to enjoy the view of the canyon, because you will be more and more open-mouthed as you go up.
This final stretch of road (from the bottom of the canyon to the park road), like those after the South Fork of Shafer Canyon, is the most obvious reason why it would be better to have a 4 × 4.
Island in the Sky (Canyonlands)
And so your road trip on Potash Road and Shafer Canyon Road is over. Now the comfortable paved roads and the views of Island in the Sky, the easiest district of Canyonlands to visit. As anticipated, if you want to get an idea of where you were until recently, reach the Shafer Canyon Overlook and the Shafer Trail Overlook, which will show you the part of the road on the hairpin bends.
Map of attractions
Which car to rent?
I am obviously referring only to the dirt road part: if you have the possibility, drive a 4 × 4, because it will allow you a better road holding in the most bumpy points of the road. However, if you have hired a SUV or a car with sufficient ground clearance, you can still venture up Potash Road e Shafer Trail, but with due caution and remembering that the insurance included in the rental does not cover damage on dirt roads. Avoid taking the second part of this scenic route if you have a car of a lower category than those indicated.
Car rental tips
Below you will find a video that gives you an idea of the whole journey.
Where to sleep?
Whether you do the whole loop, or you just do the piece on a paved road with some paths, the best choice for the overnight stay is always Moab. Below you will find some targeted tips for an overnight stay in the city.
Tips for staying overnight in Moab