I had extremely low expectations about bikepacking the White Rim Road in Canyonlands National Park, in fact I had pretty low expectations about Canyonlands in general. I do a lot of reading about National Parks and I’ve never seen an image from Canyonlands that has captivated my attention. As for the bikepacking aspect, I had this notion that the White Rim is route that everyone’s already done, and I tend to gravitate more towards originality and blazing my own trail. Fortunately, my expectations were so far from reality and our trip through Canyonlands is one I will remember for a lifetime.
When we arrived in Moab on Friday afternoon it was a breezy, but pleasant 65 degrees and sunny. After picking up some firewood we drove out of town, and headed west on Highway 313 toward the park. We had roughly two hours before sunset and decided we might as well head straight to Horsethief Campground to set up camp and get our bikes ready for the 100 mile trip before us. Horsethief Campgroud is located ten miles north of the Island in the Sky Visitor Center, just outside of the park and happens to be one mile north of the northern corner of the White Rim Road route, so it serves as a perfect staging area for those driving in from out of town. While I was disappointed that we wouldn’t get to officially check out the park that day I knew we had a lot of gear to get ready and would need to start early the next morning in order to make it 72 miles to our designated campsite on the White Rim Road before dark.
The further we drove away from Moab the darker the skies got. A cold front was coming in and it was coming in fast. By the time we arrived at the turn off for the campground the skies were black and the wind was howling. Tumbleweeds flew across the road in front of us as it started sprinkling. We had no cell service at this point, but I knew from checking the weather earlier that there was a chance of rain for the next four hours. Neither Ryan or I were thrilled about setting up our tent and bikepacking gear in rain and 25 mph wind so we decided to drive into the park and check it out – hoping the weather would pass. Our first stop was the Shafer Canyon Overlook where I excitedly ran out of the car to take in the views, Moab and the rest of civilization felt millions of miles away. I got my first glimpse of the Shafer Canyon switchbacks and told Ryan that this ride might be a little more intimidating than I had anticipated. I watched as an SUV slowly navigated a few switchbacks working its way carefully down the steep descent and silently reminded myself that my descending abilities had come a long way. After snapping a few pictures we quickly hoped back in the car to get out of the cold wind.
We continued deeper into the park and stopped again at Grand View Point. While the Shafer Canyon Overlook had gotten me excited the scene before me at Grand View Point blew my mind. It’s hard to describe the view, but it was vast and rugged and made me feel very very small. As we walked around the overlook trail we traced the White Rim Road some 1,000 feet below us, which traversed another layer of the canyon overlooking the Green and Colorado Rivers below. Even from high above on the Island in the Sky mesa we each mentally noted a few pucker worthy sections, where the road was right up against the canyon’s edge. Soon enough the earlier drizzle turned into steady cold rain and we ran back to the car. As we drove back to the campground the rain was coming down sideways and was looking more and more like a ‘wintery mix’ – the thermometer in the car read 32 degrees and we decided to head back to Moab and get a hotel for one last night in a warm bed before starting our bikepacking adventure.
The next morning we woke up early and bundled up in several layers of clothing and drove back to a trailhead just before Horsethief Campground to park the car and head out on our fully loaded bikes. Neither of us packed much gear since we planned for one night on the trail and had to carry all of our water. Our goal for the first day was to make it Potato Bottom Campground, where we had a permit to camp, which was 72 miles from our starting location. Around 8:30 AM we set out and had roughly seven miles of pavement until we got to the Shafer Trail turn off that we had seen the day before. It was generally downhill which made the miles go by quickly, but it certainly didn’t help warm me up – despite the fact that I was wearing my ski gloves and shoe covers (they are like a wet suit for your feet that you wear over your shoes)! Three guys from Colorado rode passed us on their bikes while we were taking a picture by the park entrance, but other than that we had the road to ourselves.
As soon as we started descending the Shafer Trail Switchbacks I became aware of the remoteness and expansiveness of the canyons we were entering. With each switchback I was overwhelmed with new views and was having a hard time focusing on riding my bike and making sure I didn’t drift over the edge or gain too much speed. I wanted to look down at the rivers below and up at the canyon walls or out at the pinnacles and spires jutting up from the canyon floor. The grade was between 12 – 15% and I decided it would be more enjoyable for me to walk some of the steep sections and look around instead of getting scared because of the extreme amount of exposure. We watched as the three riders from Colorado sped down the trail, eventually turning into three small dots that disappeared in the distance.
Once the grade mellowed out we jumped back on our bikes only to break a few minutes later to start shedding layers. We were finally out of the shade from the canyon walls and getting warmed by the desert sun. The next ten miles were relatively flat with short climbs and descents. We pedaled beneath sandstone walls and different monuments and mesas appeared with each twist and turn we took, we even got a few glimpses of the Colorado River further below. The road conditions varied from loose dirt, to sandy washes and sandstone rock formations. There was nothing technical, but lots of small ledges to ride up and over – enough to make my handlebar roll buzz against my tire each time I rolled off of one.
I carefully watched my GPS and our pace as we slowly meandered our way along the white rim. Three and half hours after we left the car we had only traveled twenty-five miles. With short winter days I knew we’d have to pick up the pace in order to have a relaxing evening at camp before sunset. While I knew our pace was slow because of all the pictures we were taking, I also knew my legs weren’t feeling responsive and my inner dialogue quickly became negative – I doubted myself and my ability. The self doubt and negativity started to impact me and I finally spoke up the next time I got on Ryan’s wheel. “Ryan, I have to tell you something,” I said, “I’m already feeling pretty tired, I don’t know if I can make it to camp before dark.” Fortunately, we’ve never been on a bike ride together where we are both having off days at the same time. This was no different. Ryan took my comments in stride and asked a few questions to make sure I was staying on top of my water and calories and suggested we take a break a few miles up the road to eat lunch. The truth was I was skimping on my calories, because I started foolishly worrying that I hadn’t packed enough food. My heavy backpack was also bothering me, so when we stopped for lunch I laid down on a nice rock bench to stretch out my back and shoulders.
I felt better right after telling Ryan that I was worried about my pace, it was as if saying it out loud gave me permission to stop beating myself up and enjoy the rest of the day. Unfortunately, the next twenty miles were a long gradual uphill slog. Luckily the epic views never let up so it was easy to keep my mind off of my fatigue. Despite the gradual uphill we did pick up the pace and were getting back on track to making it to camp. We ran into the guys from Colorado at the intersection of the White Crack Trail. They were waiting for their support vehicle and were running out of water. We stopped to talk and all admitted that the riding was slower going than any of us had thought. Since I had plotted out the route on Strava beforehand I also incorrectly announced that we had already completed most of the climbing for day one. Little did I know my Strava projections were off by over 1,000 feet and we had a gnarly one mile climb ahead of us. We eventually got to that climb up to Murphy Hogback, here the road turned into extremely loose dirt with large rocks and the grade exceeded 30% in some sections with little space between you and tumultuous fall over the edge into the canyon below. We resorted to pushing our bikes uphill – which seriously slowed us down. The conditions on the descent were the same, so I unfortunately had to walk down the other side as well. Reaching Potato Bottom before dark was no longer in reach so we decided we’d ride to Candlestick Campground – which was only ten miles further versus the twenty-one to Potato Bottom.
During the last ten miles golden hour started to set in and the canyon walls lit up with hues of orange, red, and brown. It was an incredible sight. We got passed by a few more energetic riders and supporters who happened to be camping at Candlestick. When we arrived there they graciously welcomed us and shared their warm food and booze with us, which was awesome since Ryan forgot his flask back in the car. As we stood in the middle of nowhere, under a star filled sky, surrounded by an assortment of bikes and camping gear with a handful of strangers – I was reminded why I love this community so much.
I had difficulty falling asleep that night because the air was so cold, but my core temperature was still high from all of the riding. Despite my restlessness it was an incredibly quiet night. In addition to being in an extremely remote location, riding the White Rim Road requires a permit so the number of people, bikes and vehicles out there are quite limited. It was also hard not to notice the complete lack of wildlife, I didn’t hear a single howling coyote or hooting owl the entire night.
When we woke up the next morning there was ice all around the tent and the temperature on our GPS read 26 degrees. We quickly tore down camp and got back on our bikes to finish the ride. Shortening day one meant we had 38 miles ahead of us – with a fair amount of climbing. The road eventually meets the Green River and travels beside it for several miles before intersecting with Mineral Bottom Road, which climbs out of the canyons. The first eleven miles to Potato Bottom were downhill and easy riding. At Hardscrabble we encountered a one mile climb that was reminiscent of Murphy – the grades were over 20% but this time we were riding through sand. I felt like a football player pushing a sled and came close to face planting a few times as I tried to keep my footing. After another steep descent it was flat riding along the river and through sandy washes for the final eight miles on the White Rim Road. In a few places the sand was too deep to ride through on a fully loaded bike so it was on and off the bikes as we made our way out of Canyonlands.
As we came upon the intersection of the White Rim Road and Mineral Bottom Road a show unfolded in the sky before us. Base jumpers were lining up on the cliffs at the top of the Canyon and one by one jumping down to where we stood below. This provided some entertainment for us as we had a quick bite to eat before starting the arduous climb ahead of us. Mineral Bottom Road, like the Shafer Trail is a tight network of switchbacks climbing back up toward the Island in the Sky. There are no guardrails and the exposure and drops offs are no joke. The road climbs almost 1,000 feet in 1.5 miles. I decided to get a head start on Ryan while he watched the base jumpers and started steadily making my way out of the canyon. The first half of the climb was manageable but as I began navigating the short switchbacks near the top the amount of traffic increased as base jumpers shuttled back and forth and the exposure started bother me. My legs were also cooked from the previous day so I surrendered to walking my bike up the last section of the climb.
The final thirteen miles to the car were a slight uphill and cut through a sprawling prairie. It didn’t take long for it to become hard to imagine there was a colossal canyon just a few hundred feet away. The canyons became hidden in flat plateau that stretched out as far as the eye could see. The scenery changed less frequently here making it hard to think about anything other than my aching legs and the fact that my backpack was becoming the bane of my existence – it was quite literally a pain in the neck. At this point we were both ready for the ride to be over, when faced with these circumstances Ryan tends to speed up and try to finish the ride as quickly as possible – trying to ‘get it over with’. I on the other hand evaluate everything causing me pain and angst and dial my effort to whatever will be the most tolerable for the duration of the activity. These vastly different approaches caused Ryan to drift further and further ahead as I slothfully made my way back to the car. I didn’t think it would have been possible for us to travel slower than we had on day one, but it seemed with each passing mile my pace slowed. Finally, Ryan suggested strapping my backpack on to his, when I protested he said “This will help me because it will help you go faster!” Soon enough we made it back to the car, took our time to unload our gear and enjoyed celebratory cokes!