Hiking Murphy Hogback vs Driving White Rim Road: A Blessing in Disguise?

The Murphy brothers built this trail and assisted in widening the Shafer Trail, both popular hikes in Canyonlands National Park
The Murphy brothers built this trail and assisted in widening the Shafer Trail, both popular hikes in Canyonlands National Park

Magellan was really excited about driving the White Rim Road, a rough, 100-mile, moderately difficult (huh?), four-wheel drive, two-to-three-day trip looping around and below Island in the Sky in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. Me, not so much, having read that “the steep, exposed sections of the Shafer Trail, Lathrop Canyon Road, Murphy Hogback, Hardscrabble Hill, and the Mineral Bottom switchbacks of the White Rim Road require extreme caution.” What if something happened to Magellan, like falling off a ledge and breaking an ankle, and I had to take the wheel?

My apprehension went up a level when I read this quote in the White Rim guidebook from explorer Captain John Macomb when he came upon this place in 1860:

I cannot conceive of a more worthless and impracticable region than the one we now found ourselves in.

Also, when Green River is high in springtime, sections of the road can flood—which is what happened when we were there—completing the loop was impossible.

So, instead of driving the small section that was open, we hiked Murphy Hogback, getting a close-up glimpse of White Rim but on foot. An 11.6 mile hike—with an elevation loss of 1,400 feet (you gain back 1,240 feet). In some spots, a 14% grade!

Hardscrabble Hill and Mineral Bottom: descriptive names indeed. Shafer, Lathrop and Murphy started out as cattle trails, named for stockmen—Murphy Hogback was the first.

It was a cool May morning when we set out on the old cattle trail, Magellan covering his hide with a puff jacket.

A century ago, the Murphy brothers didn’t have the luxury of down jackets.

Felix Murphy, the youngest child of one of the first Euro-American families to settle in Utah, arrived in Moab with his wife Mary Elizabeth in 1881. It was remote. Ten years after they settled, the entire county had only 541 people.

Their son John poked around and figured the area near the confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers would be good for cattle ranching. He and his younger brother Otho, who was only 16, became the first cattle ranchers in the area, forming the Murphy Brothers Land and Cattle Company in 1914.

Joined by their brothers Tom and Felix Jr., the Murphy’s contrived a cattle route down the sheer cliffs of Wingate sandstone and talus slopes of Chinle formation. It was Tom who spotted a narrow “white crack” in the white sandstone. They blasted a one-cow-wide trail through the white crack, opening up access to grazing areas in the south—a trail built in just eleven days to move their cattle to and from the Island in the Sky.

Their range extended from today’s Murphy Hogback down to the confluence of the rivers and back up to Monument Basin. Working hard, the cowboys grazed their cattle in the canyon in the summer, moving them down to the White Rim Road in winter.

Magellan and I knew this was going to be a long trail. So this cowpoke followed the wisdom of cattle herding on the range.

When moving the herd, keep in mind that cattle will naturally group and move together; movement of other cows triggers the next cows to move…A slow, consistent pace is best as this ensures safe movement, reducing the risks of injury and lameness, or of causing panic in the herd.

In three years the Murphy stockmen had increased their herd from 25-to-125 cattle, financed by a loan from a Moab bank.

Bad luck. Someone at the bank embezzled its funds and ran off. Loans were called. The Murphy’s had to sell their cattle.

Other ranchers moved onto the hardscrabble land. But by the early 1960s when the area was being considered for a national park, there were fewer cattle than the Murphy’s started out with.

Otho Murphy (1898-1981) was quite the guy. Living most of his life on the family’s homestead, he continued to run cattle, but his résumé also included being a farmer, surveyor, prospector, justice of the peace and county attorney (four terms! He sued the county, successfully, for offering him a $10 annual salary rather than the $1,000 per year his predecessor earned). He was also an accomplished artist, singer-songwriter and author of The Moab Story. And he hiked Murphy Hogback to celebrate his 80th birthday!

Not an easy feat for an elderly man. “Here the trail plunges 845 feet in just .95 miles down a cliff face to the basin floor and beginning of the loop. Tread carefully across loose rock and exposed ledges on this rugged descent,” reads a trail description. Utawesome!

The trail descends a steep rockslide, zigzagging down across boulders and a wooden bridge (the original one built by the Murphy’s has been replaced) that hugs the vertical walls.

We spurred on. “I’m getting tingly,” Magellan called back as we got closer and finally, White Rim Road!

Magellan was thrilled. Hikers stroll for a mile on the road; not a difficult stretch—on foot. We saw only one vehicle, operated by park staff. And even though it’s supposedly a popular trail, there were only nine other hikers.

Magellan’s Garmin showed 6:44 hours to complete the trail but only 4:47 hours of walking, so we must have stopped to take lots of pictures or catch our breath or contemplate what it would have been like to drive White Rim. Easier than the day’s hike?

In 1940, Otho married Blanche Graves. She died from a broken leg in June 1979, not from hiking, but from a traffic accident on scenic highway 128. Otho was driving and in reaching for a sandwich, caused the crash.

Maybe Magellan and I were safer on foot on the cow path than we would have been driving White Rim Road. Especially if I, for some unforeseen reason was forced to manoeuvre the switchbacks—worse if I reached for a handful of cheese puffs!

Magellan rated our Murphy Hogback hike a 4-4.5. “All my lust was fulfilled. I’d have given it a 5 out of 5 if there were more vehicles on the road to watch how they drove it,” he says.

But I’m afraid this may not be the end of the story.

“I bought a snatch recovery strap for the White Rim Road in 2017 and I intend to go back and get it dirty,”I overheard him tell a friend.

Navigation

Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, Australia. “Cattle Behaviour” Chapter 4. 

Copeland, Kathy & Craig. Hiking from here to WOW: Utah Canyon Country. Alabama: Wilderness Press, 2015. The reason why we had so many wonderful hiking adventures in Utah? This book.

Davis, Bill. “(Still) ‘Enough Rope’”: (A Reporter’s Moab Memories. 1978-1984) #4 Otho Murphy. Canyon Country Zephyr. September 30, 2020.

Earth Trekkers. How to Drive the White Rim Road. October 17, 2021.

“Cattle Raising in the Canyons, Canyonlands National Park/Utah.” James Shere Historic Preservation Team, Denver Service Center National Park Service, National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior, 1972.

Otto Murphy Sings “Moab Mellow Moon.”

Williams, David B. and Fagan, Damian. A Naturalist’s Guide to the White Rim Trail. Utah: Wingate Ink, 2007.

4 Responses

  1. Seeing the jacket the “Engineer” has on, begs the question, what was the temperature? Hearing about temperature extremes in desert country, in Utah , intrigues me, as the area is extremely high in my interest bank, for post Covid travels, too many John Wayne movies I am thinking. 🤔🤔🤔
    I can see where Cattle ranching might be a tad difficult in this arena, cacti is not a known feed for raising bovines of any breed,
    Not sure closing one’s eyes in a difficult driving situation is a suitable or preferred choice, if options are to be made I must say totally the opposite, eyes wide open to see where your going and to see what’s coming next. ( in my opinion of course).
    Nice story, can’t wait to see pictures of when that new strap gets put to work. 🤔🤔🤔🤔🤔🤔🤔
    Cheers,👍👍👍👍

    1. I didn’t record the temperature but a guide to the White Rim shows 47F in May for an average low temperature with an average high of 66F. You’re mile-high in elevation so it’s cool up there. There’s a lot of grass around, especially where the Murphy boys started out at the confluence of the Colorado and Green rivers.

  2. As someone who drove the White Rim, I would have much preferred the hike! Although beautiful and glad we did it, in hindsight probably one of the most nail biting experiences I have ever had. Fortunately we didn’t meet anyone on the trail coming from the opposite direction so we never had to figure out what that experience looked like, but we did see a few other people on the trail. I actually drove the first little bit, which wasn’t too bad, and thought I can do this. Then we went around a corner and Mark radioed back to Blair to tell me to close my eyes. Blair said he would but I was driving! Needless to say we went around the corner to see the trail just hugging the cliff and the canyon miles below; I quickly relinquished my driving duties!!

    1. I dedicate this blog to you!!! (And Otho). Unless forced to, I would not sit in the driver’s seat on this road. Hoping to never have the choice.

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