The Shafer Trail is a breathtaking road that connects the top of the Island in the Sky mesa to the Colorado River bottom below.
Reviews from its travelers range from tame to scary, and that’s partly because the condition of the four-wheel-drive route can vary with the seasons and weather conditions. It can be prone to wash out in sections during a flash flood, and its narrowness is due to the very little real estate that is carved out of its cliff sides.
Loopy switchbacks are what keeps the grade from being straight down, as the mesa drops hundreds of feet from top to bottom.
In the 1890s, Moab pioneer brothers Frank M. And John S. Shafer developed the route from what had been a Native American pathway connecting what is now Canyonlands National Park to the river below. The Shafers, who moved to the Moab area in 1878, were desiring access for their livestock from the mesa to the river.
The trail was sometimes called The Neck Trail, because it ended on a neck of land on Island in the Sky. “From 1914 to 1915 John and Frank Shafer improved the trail so they could herd livestock between Island in the Sky and the White Rim,” wrote Steve Allen in his book, “Utah’s Canyon Country Place Names.” By 1917, it was being called the Shafer Trail, wrote Allen.
The spelling of the route has varied between Shafer and Schafer, and in fact, the National Park Service sign at the bottom of the serpentine bears the spelling of Schafer. But the progeny of the Shafer brothers, who still live in Moab, all go by the spelling of Shafer.
As the livestock industry waned in this area and mining and drilling efforts ramped up, the road saw further improvements. In 1952, Moab old-timer Nick Murphy helped to arrange financing for the work to expand the cattle trail into a passable Jeep and mining road. Murphy owned a D9 Caterpillar, and he worked with Nate Knight, who cut the switchbacks with his own Army surplus D7 Caterpillar, which could navigate tighter spots than the D9 could manage. His brother-in-law Norm Hettman assisted with the blasting and mechanical work, according to early accounts in The Times-Independent.
The initial version of the road was very narrow. Some of the switchbacks were so tight that trucks would have to back up one section and go forward on the next as the turns were too tight to navigate in one turn. Decades earlier, horses had to maneuver in the same way to pack loads down the route.
Thompson Springs resident Sissy Knight Frearson, who was seven years old at the time of the big road project, lived in a tent with her family near The Neck while her father Nate worked on the road. Her uncle, Lee Stocks, worked briefly on the trail when Hettman was called away to weld back together a broken drilling platform at the bottom of the trail.
In The Times-Independent’s April 24, 2020 interview of Lee Stocks, he recalled working at the MGM oil rig that was located near the Colorado River in the vicinity of the current potash plant. (The potash operation was built in the early 1960s.)
The Sept. 18. 1952 edition of The Times-Independent (see Historic Page on B4) noted that three tons of powder had been used on just the first two-thirds of the road.
“The Shafer name originated from the Shafer Trail Road Group, composed of oil and uranium men, who invested in labor and machinery to better access the area,” according to the newspaper. “This is one of the finest examples that could be found of a need causing men to tackle the ‘impossible,’” the story observed.
Later that year, The Times-Independent on Dec. 4, 1952 reported on the first jeep that traveled the entire new Shafer Trail, going from the Dead Horse Point area to the valley below. “Just below Dead Horse Point, the Jeep required a blast of dynamite and a bulldozer to clear some 1,000 tons of boulders that were blocking a narrow point — directly below the mesa’s lookout point.
The story reported that Nick Murphy, Jack Turner, Rud Merz, Dick and Bob Mohler and Lawrence Migllaccia were among the brave Jeep occupants. “Nate Knight and Norm Hettman were working on the trail farther down and used their equipment and skill to clear the path.
Later, the men scoured the cliffs with Geiger counters in search of uranium, which is why the trail even exists today,” read the story.
The combined work of these historic visionaries is what has helped establish the now-famous Shafer Trail, enjoyed now mostly by tourists in four-wheel-drive vehicles and on mountain bikes.
If a person accesses the route from the Potash Road (Highway 279), they might find the bumpiest parts at the bottom of the trail, as it contours the curves of the Colorado River. The road divides past the potash evaporative ponds with one way going onto the long White Rim Road, and the other route going westerly to Shafer Trail and connecting upward with the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands, not far from Dead Horse Point State Park on top of the mesa.
Shafer Trail itself is about 20 miles long, and has been described as a moderately trafficked point-to-point trail that is rated as moderate in terms of its four-wheel-drive difficulty. But the conditions are subject to change, depending on ice and snow in the winter, and floods during southeastern Utah’s summer monsoon season. The road can develop severe washboards, and there are places where sandstone ledges and boulders can pose small challenges.
Its condition right now is quite good on the sections within and maintained by Canyonlands National Park. But the section of dirt road managed by the Bureau of Land Management that continues beyond the blacktop of Highway 279 near the Intrepid company’s potash plant is terribly rough.
From a historic perspective, author Allen quoted Margeurite Lathrop, who said in 1940, “The trail was a series of switchbacks zig-zagging downward and climbing up and looping down again, vanishing on ledges of sandstone too slick to hold tracks. The trail dipped in V’s where the horses had to back up to make a turn. The onslaught of winter had worn parts of the trail into notches against the cliff; here packs were unloaded and carried to the wider section of the trail. The animals snorting, eyes wild with fright, ears twitching, were led along the brink of the ravines.”
Allen noted that in 1952 the Atomic Energy Commission helped to improve the road as the uranium boom roared into being, thereby enabling large oar trucks to navigate the route.
Even now, the road is feared by many. A caution on the website dangerousroads.org says thus: “It requires extreme caution at the best of times for vehicles and mountain bikes, but especially so in inclement weather and at night. This road has humbled many egos. It’s not for sissies and shouldn’t be attempted by novice drivers. This is a great trail for someone who is looking for an off-road experience, but who doesn’t have access to a highly modified rock crawler. Virtually any four-wheel drive vehicle will succeed in navigating this well-maintained road,” the website admonished.
On the website alltrails.com, visitor Jen Boyer said, “Super cool off-road trail. We rented a Jeep and had no problems. It was pretty secluded and we had the canyon to ourselves until we started on the switchbacks up to Canyonlands. You really get perspective on how big these canyons are. Lots of easy side roads for views break off it. Not for the faint of heart with the ledges, but easy enough for this first-time Jeep driver. We did it in the morning, east to west so the sun was illuminating the rock in front of us. Took about two hours with stops.”
Visitor David Downing made this comparison as to one’s chosen mode of transportation: “Easy trail when driving, difficult when biking. Amazing views as you look up at the national park from the bottom or into the valley from the top.”
Writer’s note: On my recent visit, driving from bottom to top, I passed a Tesla being driven by California visitors, who managed to navigate the switchbacks going down. But instead of taking the potash route going back, which would have been shorter, they elected to drive their electric sedan back up the switchbacks to the Island in the Sky and back to Moab via Highway 313. Also see the Historic Page on B4 from Sept. 8, 1952.