Chris Roams

Travel, Adventures, and Photography

Third Time's the Charm

It turned into a beautiful day in Moab. The sun came out for most of the day and the temps got up into the 70′s (which is just about perfect when you’re cocooned in body armor and straddling an engine, I would hate to be here in the summer). I spent the day riding around on the trails west of town with varying degrees of success, more on that in a bit.

Moab lies in a long north to south valley at about 4,000 feet above sea level with sharp cliffs on both sides. The Colorado River comes down from the northeast and cuts across the valley just north of town on its way to join with the Green River in Canyonlands to the southwest. Where the Colorado breaches the 1,000 foot high cliff wall to the west of town it has carved out a twisting canyon with nearly vertical walls. Utah Route 279, Potash Road, follows the bottom of this canyon on the northwest bank of the river. Besides the canyon of the Colorado River, Potash Road also twists through a cross-section of Moab’s history.

High up on the cliffs a few miles inside the canyon is a square stone slab, much lighter in color than the red rocks that surround it. On the rough surface of the slab some of the early residents of this area have left their footprints frozen in the rock: dinosaurs. This slab and other similar pieces scattered throughout the talus were buried a long time ago, only to reappear when wind and water cut deep into the sides of the mesa.

Some more recent inhabitants have also left marks on the canyons. Native rock art, sometimes carved into the rock and sometimes painted on, appear at various spots along the canyon walls. Often the art is higher than can be reached from the ground, and crude holes in the cliffs below the art, as if to support scaffolding, offers some clue as to how they may have been created.

Various legendary off-road trails twist their way from Potash Road up any weaknesses they can find in the cliffs to reach the top of the mesas to the north and west. The Poison Spider Trail climbs up to Poison Spider Mesa which is directly at the top of the cliff face overlooking the town while Long Canyon and the Shafer Trail start deeper in the canyon and climb up towards the Island in the Sky, a section of Canyonlands National Park and a full 2,000 feet above Moab. The Shafer Trail was created in the early 1900′s as a cattle trail to move herds between summer and winter grazing grounds and cattle can still be found grazing along some of these trails today.

Deep in the canyon is the potash plant that the road is named after. Potassium salts deposited here as an ancient inland sea dried up are dug up and shipped out via the rail line that parallels the road. Huge evaporation ponds stretch across one of the intermediate plateaus on the side of the mesa just below Dead Horse Point State Park and Canyonlands National Park.

Moab grew as a uranium mining boomtown in the 1950′s and where Potash Road meets the main highway is one of the biggest uranium mines in the area. A layer of high quality uranium ore lies under the area and the deep valley that the town lies in as well as the canyon carved out by the Colorado offer easier access to this underground layer. The owner of this particular mine has gone bankrupt leaving an enormous pile of still slightly radioactive mine tailings sitting within the floodplain of the Colorado, the Department of Energy is currently working to bury the tailings far away from the river. Some of the old cattle trails, including the Shafer Trail, were repurposed to support other uranium mining operations in the area.

Today the town’s economy is supported primarily by tourism. The cliff faces that were once painted by natives are now frequented by rock climbers and the former cattle trails and mine roads are playgrounds for mountain bikers and off-road vehicles. Today I was one of those off-road vehicles.

After breakfast and the obligatory stops at the petroglyphs and dinosaur tracks I started off the morning with an attempt on the Poison Spider Trail that I knew was doomed to failure before I even started (Poison Spider is renowned as a tough trail). After climbing switchbacks about halfway up the mesa I ran into the first of a series of ledges that would be difficult on a dirt-bike and impossible on a heavy dual-sport with mostly-street tires loaded down with camping gear.

After a hasty retreat from Poison Spider I entered Long Canyon which I was hoping to take all the way to the top of Island in the Sky. The trail twisted up the mesa with some great views of the La Sal mountains in the distance with the lower section of the trail in the canyon below. Just as I was about to reach the top of the mesa I found one section of horribly washed-out trail with unavoidable gullies that Jeep drivers had filled with rocks so they could gain traction. Piles of rocks may be good for Jeeps but they are a killer on a bike so another hasty retreat was beaten. I knew I was getting near the top of the trail but I didn’t realize until later that around the corner beyond the ledge was the top of the mesa. If I had known I would have carried the gear over the ledge and ridden the bike up without the extra weight. As it was I wound up adding a new dent to one of the side cases just trying to turn around on the narrow trail.

For the third attempt I followed Potash Road past the plant, past the evaporation ponds, past the grazing cattle, and into Canyonlands National Park where it meets up with the White Rim Road and the Shafer Trail. After riding along a not-quite-dry wash and a long switch-backing climb up the face of the mesa I finally achieved the top of the Island in the Sky. The highlight of the day was the view from high above the Colorado where the trail skirts the edge of the cliff opposite a point called the Goose Neck.

The forecast is still calling for snow and rain tomorrow morning so I’ve returned to Moab to check in to civilization and get some work done.
Rock Art - galleryDinosaur Tracks - galleryLong Canyon - galleryLong Canyon - galleryLong Canyon - galleryPotash Train - galleryColorado River - gallery