Time for a little bikepacking trip was due this past weekend. I drew up some plans for a big 360-mile loop in western Colorado and eastern Utah. Coincidentally, this loop overlapped the 360-mile Grand Loop, but the two shared only a few dozen miles. Caroline and I got up on a frosty morning last Thursday and were riding by sunrise, our bikes loaded with warm clothes and sleeping bags, plenty of food and water, and hers with some snazzy new Revelate bags. Just a few hours in, I was in new territory, and she hadn't ridden any of the planned route.
We rode deep into the Delores Triangle and were treated to a unique view of country with which I was very familiar, but from the other side of the Colorado River. After a long descent to river level, we turned and began slogging back up the same mesa a drainage over from where we had down, the consequence of private property issues Mike C has previously documented.
The wide, sandy road turned into a narrow, rough road, then a rocky two track, and eventually we turned off that and plummeted down a steep ATV track into the adjacent canyon. Snow and mud in places slowed progress, but not at all like the 6-8 miles of nearly continuous snow we hiked through from sunset until close to midnight. The full moon illuminated the route, but it did little to keep our feet warm.
We eventually topped out at well over 7000' and began descending, only to find an abandoned cabin just off the trail. It was, to say the least, a bit grungy inside, and the mouse droppings scattered about indicated that we'd probably be sharing the place with some hopefully friendly critters. I fired up the stove and cooked up some food as Caroline layered on all her clothes and immediately crawled into her sleeping bag. Food warmed us up, but as we ate, surprisingly large wood rat scurried down the wood stove chimney and past Caroline. She yelped as our furry friend quickly disappeared. It reappeared in the corner under the bed, and another one made some noise below the floor. Hmm. I wondered if we could call a truce and give them some food as long as they promised to not steal any other food or any of our gear.
I decided that there would probably be no getting along with the rodents, we reluctantly packed up and left the dry cabin behind. But not more than 10 minutes down the trail, we found a soft, sandy piece of level ground at the outside of a switchback, nestled at the base of a cliff. I pitched the shelter and we were asleep within minutes, free from having to worry about sharing with any critters.
In the morning, the following morning, I crawled out of the tent and gazed in amazement at where I stood. Tan sandstone monoliths towered above a steep canyon carved into deep red shale and sandstone, with the snow-covered peaks of the La Sal Mountains standing above.
The descent was steep, rocky, and loose, but we were out of the snow. A few miles later, we filled our empty water bladders and feasted on cheese and crackers at a gas station. And we waffled at length about what to do next. The snow slowed us down by many hours, and completing our loop in our allotted 4 days would require good conditions for the rest of the way. The La Sals had a continuous blanket of snow, and our route was supposed to follow the north end of the Paradox Trail around the shoulder at above 8000'. Once a year, I make a good decision to avoid making the stupid, overly adventurous choice, and we opted instead to ride pavement back to our starting point. 80 miles and one spectacular 40-mile-long canyon later, we found ourselves back in the car.
We decide to drive southwest the next morning to do a 2-day ride of the White Rim, starting mid-day, stopping for the night after a short distance, and then getting an early start for a long day on Sunday.
The washed out Mineral Bottom Road switchbacks are somewhat easily crossed with a bike, but a loaded bike makes the portage a bit tougher. The route was also much sandier, rutted, and washed out than it was on previous rides there. The storms really took their toll on the trail this summer!
Strong winds battered the area all afternoon, and as soon as we crawled into the tent, a sharp gust snapped one of my apparently insufficiently strong home-made poles. Nuts. I was proud of those, but they're now only to be trusted good in calm conditions or sheltered locations. Back to the drawing board on that design.
Early in the morning (barely past evening!), rain moved in, and we got up to try to put as many miles in as we could before things got muddy. I wished we had ridden more in the evening, but at the same time, it was nice to not have to ride with the lights for a change. I'm used to getting up at obscene hours to ride, but Caroline's body isn't, so she was dragging, battling an upset stomach and heavy eyelids. The rain quit and the sky began to clear, and the bright full moon illuminated the cliffs all around us. I rode around in awe, but Caroline was stuck in her battle with the sleep monster. While walking up a short climb, I convinced her to stop and take a quick nap. Even five minutes of shuteye can make a huge difference in both your frame of mind and ability to keep the peepers open. She unpacked her sleeping bag and crawled inside, falling asleep as soon as her eyes shut. I wandered around taking photos, entertained a raven (or perhaps being entertained by the raven), and then curled up against a rock and caught quick nap myself.
The full moon disappeared below the distant cliffs when I woke up, my butt cold from the ground. Caroline sat up with a smile as the world around us was suddenly bathed in a reddish-gold glow. She clearly felt much better, and back on the bike, her pace probably doubled. A rainbow and wind-sculpted storm clouds to the south warned that we probably wouldn't be enjoying clear skies all day.
Heading generally south, the wind was in our face most of the time, but the sun kept us comfortably warm. We stopped frequently to take in the views and eat, since the route is often just a little too sandy or rough to eat while pedaling. Crappy pre-packaged pastries, granola bars, chocolate muffins, and old (I mean REALLY old) energy bars were on the menu for the morning.
As we rounded the southern end of the loop, we began to parallel the Colorado River and were rewarded with a strong tailwind for some stretches. Our pace at least doubled, and there were grins abound.
A few hours later, we found ourselves at the bottom of the one big climb on the loop, and beyond that, we only had 8 miles of pavement to finish things off. Wind gusts were getting stronger, and a squalls with occasional claps of thunder blew through, briefly wetting us down before moving aside so that the sun could force us to pull off our rain gear. Another beautiful rainbow, diving all the way down to the depths of the canyon, seemed like an appropriate reward for reaching the top of the final switchback.
Shortly after, I rounded a bend to find a park ranger standing in front of his truck looking sternly at me. I stopped and greeted him, and he asked where we had been. I explained our route, and he asked if we had seen anyone. The gate at the bottom of the climb had been closed, so I was thinking we were in trouble for riding on the closed road. But then I notice that he had a Utah State Parks emblem on his jacket. He explained that they were in the second day of a manhunt for someone who had shot a park ranger at the Poison Spider trailhead. A second ranger emerged from the bushes and said that they had been called down from Duchesne to assist. We showed them our IDs, wished them the best, and continued on (24 hours later, they still haven't found the suspect). They were the first people we had seen since passing a couple cowboys just a few minutes into the ride.
The tailwind blew us north quickly, but not quickly enough to keep us ahead of the approaching black clouds that were producing thick shafts of rain where we had been earlier in the day. Within a mile of the car, a series of powerful wind gusts suddenly pummeled us with painful snowflakes and ice pellets as we struggled to stay on the road. Conditions went from pleasant to absolute blizzard in a matter of seconds, but getting up at 2 am paid off, and the car was loaded and we were enjoying the snow from behind glass within minutes.
As always, I learned a lot on this trip. Caroline probably learned a lot more, and somehow, she never punched me in the gut despite the variety of, uh, challenges we faced. We still managed ~270 miles, and my knees held up fine, so I'm pleased. Now it's time to start planning the next adventure and make some redesigned poles for the shelter. I also procured a sewing machine, so I need to figure out how that thing works.