One morning this past October, I steered my Toyota Tundra into a convoy of nine other vehicles, all intent on finding solitude in Utah’s canyon country. The irony made me chuckle as I glanced at my side-view mirror and saw the train of candy-colored Jeeps and Toyotas behind me snaking along the dirt road that climbs to Hurrah Pass, not far from Moab. But rough, remote trails make solo travel risky, and I knew I’d need my companions’ help to negotiate the 50-plus-mile Lockhart Basin course.
This four-wheel-drive route has a lot in common with the better-known White Rim Road, which winds through Canyonlands National Park and is deservedly in demand with mountain bikers, Jeepers, and trail runners (many of whom spend two to five days completing the 100-mile loop). Twice, I’ve pedaled the White Rim and ogled the vast canyons and sculpted pinnacles that have earned it backcountry bucket-list status. The White Rim’s popularity, though, has made camping and day-use permits increasingly difficult to score. Lockhart Basin delivers comparable scenery—and offers the kind of isolation that no longer exists on Canyonlands’ most famous circuit.
Both routes hug the same section of the Colorado River: Part of the White Rim path meanders atop a mesa on the Colorado’s west bank, while Lockhart Basin sits across the water on the east side. In fact, this zone was originally included within Canyonlands’ proposed boundaries but was ultimately trimmed from the bill that President Lyndon B. Johnson signed in 1964 to establish Utah’s third national park.
Now, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oversees Lockhart Basin’s swath of chiseled red sandstone, where no permits are required for you to camp, drive, bike, or run. But the road does include a few technical sections that demand more driving skill than anything I’d encountered along the White Rim or the other intermediate thoroughfares I’d tackled. So for my two-night Lockhart Basin journey, I joined a Coyote Adventure Safari group guided by John Marshall, an expert overlander who promised to help my husband, Ben, and me pilot our pickup through this scarcely visited corner of canyon country. We—and our 20 new best friends—would have it all to ourselves.
Cresting the hill at Hurrah Pass, I decided this must be the most appropriately named feature in the American West. An immense panorama of fingery canyons spread out below me in a view that seemed cosmically big, as if I were peering out of a spaceship instead of an old pickup truck. So yes, I cheered—and so did my cohorts, who issued a chorus of oohs and aahs into the walkie-talkies we all carried.
“Pretty soon, you’re going to feel like you’re the only person on the planet,” Marshall said as our caravan started down the far side of the pass, which felt like the tipping point between Moab and its outback.
Just to our left, a wall of crimson sandstone soared to neck-craning heights. On the right, the road ended in a plunging cliff that reminded Ben to keep his eyes on the dirt beyond our hood. As the passenger, I was free to gaze westward into Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky district and its vast honeycomb of rock. The enormity of the landscape made the minutia of life feel insignificant.
At lunchtime, we parked for a picnic at what Marshall called the “catacomb”: a tall, rounded butte whose base is riddled with caves. My shoes kicked up dust from earth that almost never sees rain, and the cool air felt strangely heavy as I wriggled through holes, which was both fun and a little creepy.
Back on the road, we soon came to a signpost draped with rubber chickens and other daffy mementos left by previous adventurers. The road to Chicken Corners veered to the right, but our route into Lockhart Basin continued left—into a twisted canyon that appeared to offer no passage at all. The walls narrowed to just 20 feet in some places, and the ground heaved with rock ledges and toothy boulders.
Ben’s worried look reflected how I felt. If we’d been traveling alone, we would’ve turned around in defeat rather than press on into a seemingly impassable jumble of sandstone. For John Marshall, however, this is where the real fun begins.
A former aerospace engineer, Marshall moved from California to Moab 17 years ago and applied his knowledge of physics to off-road driving. He launched his first tour company, named Coyote Land Tours, became a wilderness EMT with Grand County’s search and rescue team, and soon ranked among the nation’s most respected off-road drivers. Carmakers now hire him to design 4×4 courses and lead outrageous adventures (most recently, he drove from Vancouver, British Columbia, to the Arctic Ocean for Mazda). Marshall also schools members of the U.S. Army Special Forces and is one of just five Master Trainers certified by the International 4-Wheel Drive Trainers’ Association. He assured us that if we followed his instructions, we would make it through the difficult terrain.
He was right. Sometimes he used his walkie-talkie to issue step-by-step driving advice. On tougher sections, he hopped out of his Jeep to direct us through the rocks. His trained eye evaluated our ground clearance and turn radius, and his tips made impossible-seeming situations possible. (We learned, for example, that vehicles’ traction-control systems take several seconds to kick in, so when our tires spun out on sandy rocks, Marshall urged us to stay on the accelerator until the truck’s computer corrected for the slip and rolled the tire up the rock.) With meticulous wheel placement and an assist from Marshall’s winch at the steepest, loosest spot, we emerged onto a plateau where the route smoothed out significantly.
Marshall had been wrong about feeling alone. As luck would have it, a stream of trail runners competing in the Moab 240 Endurance Run cruised their way through Lockhart Basin that very same day. “I never see anyone out here,” Marshall protested after we’d set up camp on a promontory with a 360-degree view. I was too exhausted from four-wheeling to mourn the lack of solitude. The scenery was worth the slog, and so were the barbecued pork ribs Marshall had wrapped in foil and placed underneath each vehicle’s hood so that our engines would slow-cook our dinners during our daylong drive. I don’t believe that anyone who was in Moab’s restaurants that evening enjoyed a finer meal.
The next morning, I watched the rising sun spotlight the surrounding cliffs then climbed into our cab to continue the drive south. With the trip’s technical crux behind us, Ben and I were able to devote more attention to the stunning backdrop.
Along the White Rim Road, the sculpted rock displays come in an impressive range of colors, from oxblood to mustard to flax (the namesake white layer actually has a tinge of gray). Here, sultry reds dominate. If the White Rim is milk chocolate, Lockhart Basin is 70 percent cacao, dark and intense. Its hues may be monochromatic, but its shapes are just as varied as the ones across the river: We passed jagged mittens, eroded spires that looked like stacked stones, and wrinkled, elephant-hide cliff faces that were so tall they made our three-ton truck and camper seem as small as a flea crawling across the desert’s crust.
When the hard blue sky softened into the pinks of evening, we noticed a cluster of knifelike rocks on the horizon: It was the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park and a harbinger of our trip’s conclusion. Tomorrow, our dirt road would end just east of the park boundary, where we’d follow pavement back to Moab. But I wasn’t quite ready to shower away Lockhart’s red dirt.
Cutting the engine on a west-facing rock ledge Marshall had chosen for camp, I unpacked my folding chair instead of charging into the evening’s chores. Feathery clouds blanketed plum-colored mesas that dissolved in the dying light. With plenty of ice still in the cooler, I fantasized about pulling a reverse Thelma & Louise. “Let’s stop going!” I said to Ben, only half joking.