The Utah desert is no place to be unprepared or make a wrong turn. Which is exactly what I did. And in the worst time of year, the very height of summer, where temperatures soared above 110-degrees. This is how it happened.
We decided to take a week-long road trip to visit some family in Salt Lake City. It was a full-day’s drive from Denver through Wyoming. We made the obligatory stop at Little America for fuel and our ice cream cone. We toured around SLC as we had only ever seen the airport before. We saw the Temple, celebrated the Fourth of July, and my wife had her first In-and-Out burger. All with the pup in tow.
We had decided on the way home to visit Moab, Arches National Park, and Canyonlands National Park. The drive from SLC was long, but not because of the distance, but because of the pointless road closures and holiday traffic. And it was hot. We got into Moab and checked into the LaQuinta. The hotel is dog friendly and has a small park with a dog run on the property. The Blu Pig BBQ restaurant is right next door and made for a satisfying meal after the long day. More importantly is has a nice, cool bar with live music and cold beer.
Waking up early, we got to Arches first thing in the morning. The line to get in was long and everyone B-lined it straight to the most iconic locations for those sunrise photographs and hikes before the heat set in. We did get a few short hikes in before we decided to head over to Canyon Lands. The turn to Canyon Lands has an interesting, albeit deserted and weird, dinosaur park called Moab Giants. We attribute the lack of people to the heat. We did get a nice sandwich at the shop and some cold drinks. But I was hoping for some diesel fuel, to which there are no pumps here.
Canyon Lands experienced in this heat is like nothing I have felt before. The only thing close is Death Valley, which is a very different kind of heat. Canyon Lands is dusty, with unsteady ground, and massive drop offs. Here are plenty of ways to get hurt. Death Valley is just a huge, flat, furnace. Only the heat will kill you there because, well it has killed everything else already.
We made the stop at the visitor center, which is a must, if only for your safety. We drove around a few of the over looks and hiked to Upheaval Dome, one of the shorter and more popular hikes. Because hiking to the top of a volcano in 115-degree heat in the middle of the day is a brilliant idea. We hit the highlights, got our pictures, and decided to head out. There was an arch on the map called Mesas Arch that I thought we could find on the way out. But I misread the map, by a long shot. The turn-off I took was road 142. It is just east of the main road. It starts off simply enough; a flat road overlooking the Colorado River some 2,000 feet below. What I did not know is this was Shafer Trail, with the legendary switchbacks. A road I am told has humbled many people and should not be taken lightly. Once you are on it, you are committed. There is no turning around, no stopping, no way out but down. Once I figured this out I was actually thrilled. My wife, on the other hand, was not.
Most people know their spouses pretty well and can predict how they will react to most situations. I think I am pretty good at this. Except on this day I was really really wrong. She had a full on, heart thumping, tears falling, get out of the car and walk to a divorce lawyer, panic attack. I have never seen someone react this way, especially her. It is understandable. We were in a vehicle perfectly capable of handling this road, a 2017 Chevy Colorado Z71 Duramax. But as someone who does not like heights, cliffs, or not being in control, this road was way too much to bear.
The solution was to hide essentially. Seat laid back, blanket over her head, a good XM station and me driving as smoothly and gently as possible. Which is to say, saying ”bump”, “hang on”, and “sorry” every 10 seconds or so.
If you want to drive Shafer Trail here is what you need to know. Shafer Trail is not a road to take for granted. With the right vehicle, being prepared for a long, hot day, and off-road experience it is well worth it. The views are unforgettable. So, bring your camera too. If only for a record of how you died.
First is to check in at the visitor’s center. Ask the road conditions and get a permit (we did not do this). They want to know if you are going down there. Have plenty of drinking water and extra for your radiator just in case. Bring food, and your safety equipment. And you absolutely must have a high clearance four-wheel drive vehicle. We ran across two people on this trail who did not, one of whom had a cheap rental car and just thought this was a back way into the park. I am also pretty sure he was drunk, he certainly smelled it. I am certain we saved this couple’s life when we said turn back. Finally, this road requires a commitment of time. So, don’t leave your dog in the hotel room when you make the choice to do this. You end up paying extra fees at the hotel.