Biking Utah’s Canyonlands: The White Rim Trail

By Matthew Kadey

Biking on the White Rim trail in the Canyonlands of Utah - photos by Matthew Kadey
Biking on the White Rim trail in the Canyonlands of Utah – photos by Matthew Kadey

Mountain Bikers along the White Rim Trail split their attention between topsy-turvy paths and blushed rock formations with serious backcountry karma.

My ears are ringing with silence; the only relief coming from a raven’s caw, a collard lizard scampering to find shelter under a desert bush and the sound of my lungs taking in the untarnished air.

Mineral Bottom is the trip’s longest and final monster climb. After 1,000 feet of elevation gain out of this canyon, we emerge from the serpentine switchbacks, breathless and sunburnt, with a sense of pride that comes from conquering one of mountain biking’s crowning jewels.

Free Falling

Sandwiched between the meandering Colorado and Green rivers in southeastern Utah, the White Rim Trail loops 100 miles through a wilderness of mystifying rock formations in Canyonlands National Park Island in the Sky district.

Early on, the land around this Island in the Sky mesa was the abode of ranchers and grazing cattle. But, by the 1950s, a perceived need for uranium (in case America felt the urge to nuke the USSR to oblivion) led the Atomic Energy Commission to build this trail – really more of a craggy dirt road – to facilitate its extraction.

When the Cold War thawed and the national park came into existence, mining here went the way of the dodo leaving behind a path that is today one of the country’s premier multi-day mountain bike destinations. And it just happens to begin in a most spectacular way.

Everyone talks wildly about the early miles known as the Shafer switchbacks, and madly they should. Dropping me briskly 1,400 pedal-free feet and a geologic age or two from the Colorado Plateau, it’s a challenge to focus on the screamin’ zigzag plunge when all around is a panoramic scene of a red rock and the biting morning desert air is ripping over my cheeks like sandpaper.

Roaring down Murphy's Hogback in Utah's Canyonlands
Roaring down Murphy’s Hogback

Ten hair-raising minutes later, a group of twelve wide-eyed cyclists’ are deposited at the White Rim – a white, 280-million-year-old crusty sandstone layer for which the trail is named.

Dressed as if we were descending into the Siberian tundra, we strip off layers of big-ticket tech gear in anticipation of balmy times ahead, anticipation that has led me to drive 1,600 miles from Canada to the American Southwest for the privilege of joining Maggie Wilson and Mike Holmes, of Magpie Adventures for a four-day guided pedal through this grand high desert. With at least 100 completed loops, they know the route better than anyone.

Fat Tire Bliss

“Over there at Fossil Point is where they filmed the final scene of Thelma & Louise,” Mike with his trademark enthusiasm points out this quirky Hollywood factoid as we pour into Goosenecks Overlook.

It’s here I get my first glimpse of the fudge-painted Colorado River as it turns on itself transporting the landscape particle by particle. In the distance, separated by convoluted folds of sandstone is the adventure hub Moab and the snow-dusted La Sal Mountains. We’ve only come eight miles and I can see the other riders are already overcome by this mountain bike Shangri-la.

Maggie whips up our morning nosh at Airport Tower campground.
Maggie whips up our morning nosh at the Airport Tower campground.

Beneath a blue sky and a dazzling, tepid sun, we spend the afternoon undulating past juniper and cacti in this generally sere landscape until shadows begin to slink across the trail.

It’s apparent that the wide-open surroundings and fresh air is bringing out our juvenile sides as I gleefully race Tabi, my fellow Canuck travel companion, into the Airport Tower campground, startling a seldom-seen bighorn sheep into retreat.

In no time our tent city, named for the 1,400-foot monolith watching over us, is transformed into world-class cookery.

“We focus mostly on organic and locally grown foods,” Maggie informs us with her consistently sprightly disposition as she and Mike rustle up miso soup and grilled salmon – not exactly fare that you’d expect in one of the nation’s most isolated places.

Grunting up Hardscrabble as the Green River meanders below.
Grunting up Hardscrabble as the Green River meanders below.

Happily gourmandizing on Dutch oven apple crisp, we watch as the setting sun turns our environment into a fiery red mantle. With the crisp night air taking hold, we skitter to our tents to sleep the sleep of the dead.

A strong desert chill is the only thing keeping me from rolling out my sleeping bag under the arching Milky Way overhead.

Following a long day on the saddle, morning comes quickly, as the sky goes from dark to light. The easy start to the day, skirting past the overhung lips of Buck and Gooseberry canyons’ sheer, white-capped sandstone cliffs, is welcomed as my legs and lungs labor in this thin desert air.

I also find myself struggling not to stop every few tire rotations to photograph this majestic mural. Monument Basin with its towering ivory topped pinnacles alone takes a good chunk out of my memory card. But today’s highlight will not come on the bike.

Tent City

“We’re totally stoked to get this site,” said Mike during our pre-trip meeting in Moab. His enthusiasm is the result of securing the White Crack campground. Located on a bluff overlooking the park’s mysterious and beautiful Maze and Needles districts, this idyllic encampment is the White Rim’s most prized and most difficult to secure.

A relatively short day on the trail affords us plenty of opportunities to hike down the multi-tinged canyon along a dilapidated road built to access the confluence of the Colorado & Green Rivers. On the way, we tread lightly around a myriad of limpid ephemeral pools.

Doing a wheelie in front of Candlestick Tower
Doing a wheelie in front of Candlestick Tower

Throughout Canyonlands, sandstone basins collect rainwater and wind-blown sediment, forming itsy-bitsy ecosystems. Able to tolerate extreme environmental fluctuations, pothole organisms like brine shrimp are as tough as they come. We’ll need to be just as tenacious to take on Murphy’s Hogback.

Climbing the Hogback

Built by John and Otho Murphy in the early nineteen hundreds to move their cattle from the White Rim to the top of the Island in the Sky, Murphy’s Hogback is the trail’s most remorseless ascent, requiring a Herculean effort and the easiest gears possible just to get over the loose rocks perched on the steepest of inclines.

Around each curve, my eyes follow the pencil line of dirt winding up the hogback as I beg the mountain bike gods for forgiveness. My pulse races as if I was on my first date.

With lots of pushing and a bit of Hank Williams pumping out of Brian’s iPod, a climbing guide from Moab, we all eventually emerge at 5,200 feet with a panoramic view of Soda Springs Basin’s open expanse and the mammoth flushing Candlestick Tower rising from its basin floor.

Relentless Demeanor

Pre-dawn gloom at White Crack campground
Pre-dawn gloom at White Crack campground

There, between bites of sandwiches under the hot yellow orb, we reflect on the climb’s relentless demeanor, the stunning scenery, and the saneness of four riders zipping by in pursuit of conquering this vast path in a single day.

With three lung-busting climbs and perpetually distracting geology, Lou Warner’s six-hour, thirty-six-minute single-day lap record seems more like urban legend than the granddaddy of fitness triumphs.
Our four-day pace is agreeable, and with views like that of the Organ Rock formation reaching up along the shores of the Green River below, I have little doubt that I could ride here for weeks without getting homesick.

Need for Speed in the Canyonlands

Tummies full, we flash happy-as-shit grins at each other as we launch ourselves off Hogback’s backside along exposed, sheer edges at breakneck speeds. Bounced around like a pinball on my hard-tail, I’m a little green-eyed at those with full-suspension bikes as sensitive as racehorses.

Setting up camp in the final minutes of illumination at Canlestick campground
Setting up camp in the final minutes of illumination at Candlestick campground

As the track straightens out, Soda Springs Basin brings respite from the abrupt ups and downs, though I find myself occasionally airborne as I rattle off the slick rock bumps.

Steep but short-lived, Turks Pass affords us a high perch to follow the trail back across the outstretched, water-eroded shelf to Murphy’s Hogback with a feeling that we’re more than just observers in this giant land. Somehow we are part of it all.

Responsibility comes with the honor of mountain biking in one of the country’s great parks. Take for example, commercial outfitters like Magpie, who are subject to all-embracing inspections from park rangers to ensure there is little impact from bipedal adventurers.

We’re pleased as punch that Mike and Maggie have passed their equipment, services and environmental look-see so we can spend nights like this at Candlestick campground watching the satellites wink across a star-saturated sky, while Mike tells stories of past mountain bike outings gone awry.

His account of an exposed, snowy night among the Colorado peaks would be excellent fodder for a survivor-like paperback.
As a cloudless black sky gives way to displays of illumination on distant rock formations, early risers bear witness to the spectacle of the sun’s rays bringing warmth to the desert.

Navigating Holeman Slot Canyon
Navigating Holeman Slot Canyon

With a morning repast of French toast and strong coffee energizing our muscles and spirits, we quickly break down our final camp in eager anticipation of getting to one of the White Rim’s many stop-and-gawk distractions.

Playing in the Mud

Three bumpy kilometres (1.8 miles) from camp is Holeman slot canyon. Gleaming in the sun, this narrow canyon is the outcome of years of relentless wearing by flash floods.

Sliding down water-polished rock, we lower ourselves into deeply eroded notches as vertical cliffs above reduce the sky to a narrow ribbon of blue in a sea of red sandstone. Sections are so narrow that, despite being vertically challenged, I can touch both walls at the same time.

A final testament to the last desert storm is the clay-bottom pools that prevent our further descent and turn my cycling shoes into globules of mud. I spend a good 15 minutes picking the clay out of my cleats as I will need them to be fully functional if I expect to pedal over Hardscrabble Hill.

Up, Up and Away

Shifting into the lowest gears, we began the climb. Slow and steady. Through loose sand and overglazed rock, we tackle one switchback at a time. My leg muscles scream for relief as I emerge huffing and puffing at the 5,000-foot crest of Hardscrabble Hill to a cluster of cyclists resting their quivering legs and snapping photos of the verdant Green River below. I’m all over Maggie’s gastronomic dream trail-mix like a mountain lion on an unsuspecting deer.

The trail now follows the watercourse with its fertile forest of tamarisk. We spot old uranium mines close to the track as rafters let the Green River’s current guide them south.

The end is now in sight as we close in on one last challenge that is Mineral Bottom road. Just as the White Rim began with a big descent, so it must end with a hefty ascent.

Grunting upwards, I come to the conclusion that the White Rim is a reminder that a bicycle is a perfect machine for exploring Mother Nature’s most impressive creations. Diehard mountain bikers might think about overlooking this route for Moab’s steeper, gnarlier trails, but looking down wordlessly on this vast remote openness, I’m sure of one thing. I never want to leave.

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