If you love a good, rugged driving experience, Utah’s Shafer Canyon Road and Potash Road are for you. You’ll get far from the tourist crowds and deep into awe-inspiring landscape, including Canyonlands National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park. See where Thelma and Louise took their final joyride. Tackle steep switchbacks. Get an up-close point of view on the Colorado River. Here’s how to explore Shafer Canyon Road and Potash Road.
Time: 2 hours
Direction: Either way (most people start in Canyonlands and end in Moab)
Where Is Shafer Canyon Road?
The start of this famous road is near the Canyonlands National Park visitor center. Start out with the thrilling Shafer Canyon switchbacks down, down and down. Below the canyon rim, take Potash Road to Moab. You’ll circle under Dead Horse Point, go along the Colorado River and pass by the potash evaporation ponds, after which the road is paved until Moab.
Do I Need a 4WD Vehicle for Shafer Canyon Road and Potash Road?
Even the National Park Service highly recommends that, yes, you do want a 4 wheel drive, high-clearance vehicle to tackle both roads, particularly because 17 miles of it is unpaved. Truth be told, most AWD SUVs will be fine as the road is well maintained. Keep in mind that Potash Road is particularly rough, along worn slickrock. It’s a good idea to rent a vehicle so that your own car doesn’t undergo the rough and tumble of the route. You’ll find numerous 4WD vehicles for rent in Moab.
What Are the Shafer Canyon and Potash Roads Like?
Find the start of Shafer Canyon Road 1 mile north of the Canyonlands Visitor Center on Island in the Sky Road. Take a right. Drive along the relatively smooth and well-maintained road, pulling over occasionally to let oncoming traffic pass. You’ll drive just below the rim for the first 2.5 miles. Viewpoints allow vistas of Shafer Canyon Road, the White Rim Road, Potash Road and Dead Horse Point State Park.
Drive under Shafer Canyon Overlook and start the descent along the Shafer Canyon switchbacks (cars driving uphill have the right of way). At the bottom of the canyon, the road flattens out. Look up – you just drove that, a seemingly unsurmountable cliff!
Now, turn left onto Potash Road (straight is the White Rim Road, for which you need a permit). You’ll drive down through a canyon and then follow alongside the Colorado River. Pass by Dead Horse Point (where the final scenes of Thelma & Louise were filmed), then away from the Colorado River and toward the Potash evaporation ponds.
Note: If you have a permit and wanted to take a short jaunt on the White Rim Road, you could drive it a short way to Musselman Arch, a natural bridge on the edge of a yawning ravine. The arch is 3.3 miles from the junction of Potash Road and Shafer Canyon Road.
Back on Potash Road, the potassium evaporation ponds are a surreal site – what looks like a strangely shaped, multicolored lake rises out of nowhere. The Intrepid Potash Company produces potassium chloride here, which gives the ponds their natural reddish color. The water is treated with dyes to help speed along the absorption of sunlight. It’s an interesting place to visit to learn more about the process.
After the evaporation ponds, you’ll be on paved road again, which you’ll follow along the river all the way to Moab. If you’d like to stretch your legs, consider the 2.5-mile roundtrip Corona Arch hike. Just before the Corona, you’ll see the Bowtie Arch, which looks like a large hole in the rock – and makes for well-framed photography. Look for the side trail to Pinto Arch, too.
In the same area, you can visit Longbow Arch. Look for two signs for Spider Trail and Dinosaur Tracks after Wall Street. Take the short dirt road up the hill and park. Hike from here up the rock and on the riverbed, and through some sandy sections, following the green signs. You’ll see dinosaur tracks and ancient petroglyphs along the way. The arch is at the 1-mile mark.
Take a Petroglyph Tour
While you’re in the area around Island in the Sky and Moab, sign up for a rock art auto tour. You’ll have the chance to see many fine examples of Native American petroglyphs (scratched or engraved on rock) and pictographs (painted or drawn on rock).
Take a Side Trip on Long Canyon Road
A detour off Potash Road just after the Jug Handle Arch, this fantastic gravel route is worth the extra time. You’ll climb uphill on hairpin bends to Pucker Pass. The best moment is when you drive right beneath a massive boulder that has collapsed from the cliff face. Return the 4.3 miles to Potash Road to continue on to Moab. Or, when you get to Pucker Pass, you can continue on a mesa that leads to Dead Horse Point State Park.
Explore Canyonlands National Park Island in the Sky District
While you’re in the area doing the Shafer Canyon drive, stick around to explore the Island in the Sky district. A few of the area highlight include:
Grand Overlook: Probably the best view in Island in the Sky. You can see Monument Basin, carved out by the Colorado River.
Buck Canyon Overlook: Stand at the edge of the mesa and see if you can find White Rim Road in the distance.
Green River Overlook: From here, you can see over the Soda Spring Basin of Canyonlands, formed by the Green River.
Mesa Arch: Worth a stop for the photo alone, the Mesa Arch is one of the most iconic landmarks in Canyonlands National Park. Walk on a short, graded gravel and dirt trail to the arch – sunrise is the most beautiful time to visit.