Short Tour; White Rim Trail, Canyonlands NP, UT

Christine took to bikepacking naturally Photo Jason

Christine Anderson came to me about a year ago and said, “I want to get into bikepacking so I can eventually do a tour in Canyonlands, UT.” Or something like that. I wasn’t really listening to the eventual goal she had in mind I was just thinking about her getting into bikepacking. It really is a perfect fit, Christine does just about everything you can imagine in the great outdoors, climbing, hiking, skiing, backpacking, kayaking, and the list goes on. Plus, she is a dedicated bike rider from commuting to racing.

Lauren, Amy, Kurstin, Christine, and Michaelyn – bound together by the White Rim Road Photo Jason
Josh and Jason – only the best SAG drivers you could hope for Photo Josh

Over the year Christine and I went on 6 overnight trips together all over Nevada, over the broadest range of terrain, through the wildest swings in temperatures, and everything else that comes with putting yourself out there for new experiences. Now Christine sends out an email, “Hey everybody, I want to plan a trip to the White Rim Trail next March. Anybody interested?” Heck yeah! I’m in!

Willow Springs Campground, Kurstin, Lauren, Michaelyn and Jason Photo Josh

We were a group of 5 riders, two I knew, two I was meeting through the planning stages for the first time. We also had two drivers, I was also meeting them for the first time. Only Christine, I had spent anytime with in the outdoors. The unknowns of your travel companions add to the adventure! Through consensus it was decided we would spend 4 days on the trail. Lauren and Christine planned all the logistics, permits, campsite reservations, how much water we would need, etc. This trip had more logistics than anything I have planned. This would be my first trip on a “destination route.”

This is why Canyonlands National Park is a destination for bikepacking, Amy and I all smiles Photo Christine

The White Rim Trail (Road) is in Canyonlands National Park outside of Moab, Utah. Reno to Moab is about 700 miles via US 50 and I-70. But the drive out is plenty distracting for the bikepacker as there is the highest concentration of public lands along this corridor. I am taking some poetic license with this statement but I am sure it is not far from fact considering Nevada’s statistics regarding public lands. I am particularly interested in the dirt roads east of Austin to Ely and the Nevada-Utah border. While I had to make tracks across the state on the way out, I hoped to spend some time exploring on my return.

The descent, secretly I was hoping this was the climb out.

I met my fellow packers at the Willow Springs Campground Monday afternoon. Moab is a hopping community of adventure seekers, desert rats, and the like. Every sort of overlanding vehicle is on parade. Once we were all together, Jason and Josh (or is it Josh and Jason?), twin brother drivers who volunteered to beat up their trucks on this rough trip. But not only did they bring their SAG wagons but they brought a lifetime of experience as river guides so I tried to soak up as many hacks as I could. There is an art to a supported group trip that I am not privy to. So much to learn! We also had Amy, a Reno Wheelman bike club member and school teacher. Lauren and Michaelyn work in engineering and interpreting for the deaf in our schools, respectively. They are Christine’s “climbing friends.” Now we are banded together by the White Rim Trail.

Lauren taking it all in Photo Jason

The next morning we caravanned out to the park, stopped in at the visitors center, found a place to park, and we were off! We dropped into the canyon at Shafer Canyon Road. The steep winding switchbacks were as ever impressive in real life. It is easy to see how this section of road gets closed to snow and ice hazards. After dropping almost a thousand feet we were on the White Rim Trail. This sedimentary rock shelf was once a seaside dune system. Canyonlands is a visual tour of geologic time carved by water and shaped by wind. I spent some time in the visitors center to read about what the colored rock bands represent but it still leaves a lot to your imagination.

Questioning Musselman Arch
Michaelyn and Lauren in their new home for the next four days Photo Amy

Our first night was in Airport Tower Campground. I could see it. Spaceport Towers Campground comes to mind too. Camping is permitted in designated spots only. Vault toilets are provided. At first all the rules and regulations see a bit much. But considering the concentration of visitors with the variety of values people hold the rules are doing their part to conserve the resource for future generations. I was in my new 1 person tent, The North Face Stormbreak, aka “the coffin”. I think the nickname is funny but for me the tent is adequate in size, freestanding, and packs down to a reasonable size and weight. I wanted to have a freestanding tent for this trip because I wasn’t sure what the surfaces we were camping on. I was cooking my meals on my own canister fuel stove while the group shared the community kitchen. Other than water for 4 days I was self-supported. I could have carried water for 4 days under these conditions if I was riding the Meriwether long-tail fat bike, but I was riding my Falconer B+. The first day’s riding conditions could have been covered on any bike, gravel, mountain, or fat.

If a saltier group of dirtbags there ever was, Jason is our Captain Photo Josh

On day 2 we woke to overcast, cooler temps, wind, and the threat of rain. Such is late winter/early spring in the southwest. On past trips to Gooseberry Mesa I have holed up in the tent for a day of rain and snow during this time of year. We broke camp, and got on trail for another 20 miles. The wind and overcast skies made for a tougher day’s ride. The low clouds cast a ghostly gloom through the canyons. The terrain had some challenging bits for mountain bike riders, a couple short punchy climbs/descents and lose deep sand. The day solidified that plus sized tires are the best choice for the terrain. Our day ended at the highly coveted White Crack campsite.

Even under grey skies, what a place to ride!

I can see why White Crack is such a desirable site. It is at the end a cherry-stem road giving you privacy. It is right on the rim overlooking The Maze. And you can pitch your tent in the dirt or sleep on the slick rock. But the views were really what set this site apart. With the short daily milage we really had time to spend in camp. So many trips I have made where you arrive in camp at dusk, set up for the night, and break camp in the early morning. We explored the rim, tried to imagine navigating The Maze, watched the storms move through, shared food and drink, and stories. Then slept through a wind rain, and hail storm. My new tent performed well, all was dry and warm in the tent.

The Falconer Custom B+ makes a great anchor when pitching on slick rock Photo Amy

Day 3 skies had cleared up. We had a great ride, 30 miles, with the most varied terrain of the trip. For some of my companions 3 consecutive days of riding for hours in the saddle was new. But they were rising to the challenge. The trail starts to head north at this point as we were now paralleling the Green River. We rode slick rock, sandy washes, climbed steep switch backs cut into sheer cliff faces, and rode through a section that we were nearly “tubed” in rock. After a huge investment of hike-a-bike we saw our campsite far below us, at least it was downhill to camp!

Our final campsite, Hardscrabble, was right on the Green River. The sandy site was perfect for perfect tent pitches. We were surrounded by canyon walls making for dramatic sun and moon sets and rises. It was our coldest night of the trip. There was a real mix of emotions before taking off on our final day. We had a big climb ahead of us, a sandy wash to ride through, we had 30+ miles to cover, and then we had the next part of our adventures to fulfill, we would scatter from Moab parting ways. We had this!

The dry sandy wash was a reminder if you were caught down here in a flood things would get serious fast. Riding through with plus sized tires was no problem. Then we came to the park boundary, no more rules, but still the same need for the rules. We passed the Green River boat launch, then we had the Mineral Bottom Trail switchbacks to climb. The best stats I have for this: 1.5 miles, 855′ of climbing, avg grade 9.6%, max grade 19.5%. Not bad if you enjoy climbing.

Riding out Horse Thief Trail was one of those infinite desert roads. I had jammed ahead and was tempted by the occasional side road. Was this a short-cut back the the Park visitor center? There are no short-cuts. I tried scanning the route possibilities with my Garmin maps and eventually found a cut-off that had to be more interesting than the paved road ahead. It may be easier to stay on the well graded dirt road and paved shoulder going into the Park but this should be worth it. This route had definitely seen less traffic but eventually brought me into the back of Cowboy Campground.

It was a few miles of paved road into the park. I had a smug grin on my face as watched cars of tourists wiz past. What a great trip! All that we saw, all that resisted our tires and bodies from going forward. The relief of getting to camp, to be off the bike, the discovery of how far you can travel in an hour, and hour after hour. I decided I would spend some money in the visitors center, buy some books on the area and make a donation to the Park. How else could I show my appreciation to our National Parks System?

Christine and Amy Photo Lauren

We regrouped at the Food Truck Food Court in Moab. I wanted to try something from every truck. But I could only try 3. Good times! David Wilson, of Nuclear Sunrise Stitchworks joined us. He was getting home from riding with Neil Beltchenko of Bikepacking.com. He had great beta on food, drink, and trails for our next visit to Moab. After dinner I got to visit the NukeSunrise headquarters to see where it all happens. Fabric, straps, and buckles pass through a few industrial machines to become bags to carry all we need for these trips. The stockpile contains bags ready to go, custom bags- made to order for your next adventure, future projects, and one-offs that may or may not get featured on the website. Seeing how a bag gets made inspires ideas for future custom bags and gives me an appreciation for the value of the product.

Josh and Christine Photo Josh

The next day I left Willow Springs before the sun came up. I had plans to ride in Ely before returning to Reno. I would miss Kyle Horvath as he was in Carson City while I was in Ely. I planned on riding out of Sacramento Pass to get a feel for bikepacking routes in the area. I was just north of Great Basin National Park. While I covered 20+ miles my ride was fenced in by snow drifts. But my mission was accomplished. Routes to follow.

Amy always in style Photo Jason

I drove through Ely with a provisioning stop at Rolberto’s. It will always be a stop. I was headed for Illipah Reservoir. It was a total, “I wonder what is here, let’s go look!” mission. Looking at maps for roads and routes off this signed exit looked promising. Rolling into the free campground at dusk, my first impression was, this place needs a little TLC.

Finding water on potential bikepacking routes east of Ely

The wind was howling. A late winter/early spring storm was upon us. The campground sites have a windbreak around each picnic table. I set up my bivy sac in the windbreak and went to sleep. I woke in the middle of the night to rain/snow mix. I figured riding wasn’t going to be very good so I packed up and hit the road. It was snowing across the state to Fallon. The highway was even getting plowed in some areas. What an end to a great trip!

Ride with Friends Photo Jason

4 thoughts on “Short Tour; White Rim Trail, Canyonlands NP, UT

  1. ffelix

    Nice! Glad you finally got to visit my neck of the woods. Let me know next time you get a permit, and I’ll give you some beta for fun things to see on the WR.

  2. One of my favorite places. I first discovered CNP back when my best friend from high school was the superintendent of Canyonlands, Arches, Zion, etc. I’ve done it with 4WD, bikepacking, and supported running. No matter how many times you go, you’ll never see it all.
    Looks like you guys had a great time, and good weather. You hit it at just the right time of year.
    Thanks for the post. Brought back great memories.

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