If you can’t remember the last time you saw the Milky Way stretching across the night sky, then Canyonlands is calling. Pull up one of those online dark sky maps. In the middle of a big dark blob in the American West — or, more specifically, Utah — is Canyonlands National Park. Go there.
After years of cycling the mostly smooth roads of the Mid-Atlantic — hello, sinuous Skyline Drive threading through Shenandoah National Park — I wanted a wilderness cycling adventure. What could be more adventurous than four days pedaling among the iconic canyons and arches of Canyonlands White Rim Trail in southern Utah, sharing dinner at the end of a dusty day, and then watching the stars come out over our tents? Fast forward a few months, I and some biking friends — six of us total — were in Moab, Utah, meeting up with five other cyclists in the Escape Adventures parking lot on a mid-September morning.
“I can teach my guides anything: wilderness first aid, off road driving, food prep, but most of all they need to have a good attitude and good morals,” Escape Adventure’s General Manager, Merrick Golz, told me. “The group’s attitude reflects the guide’s attitude.”
Good attitude and morals? Well then, meet our head guide, Roy. Long brown hair, light beard, 30 years old. By the end of the first day, I started thinking of him as the God of Moab. It fits. He wanders in the desert wilderness with an easy and forgiving manner. Seems to know everything and everyone; miraculously turns humdrum ingredients into delicious meals. Later, he would even save somebody on the trail (a newbie in a stuck truck).
Stuffing ourselves into the passenger van, bikes and a few e-bikes stacked above on the roof rack, National Park passes ready, we zoomed out of Moab and soon entered the wilderness.
For decades, the slick rock and trails surrounding Moab, Utah, have sucked in mountain bikers and adventurers from all over the world. Among the many highlights is White Rim Trail’s nearly 100 squiggly miles tracing the canyons. Escape Adventures, guiding trips since 1992, has one of five National Park Service permits for White Rim. Along with the other four outfitters, Escape can put in bids for time slots and choice campgrounds before release to the public.
We piled out at the trailhead, making final adjustments to our bikes. A seasoned and fit roadie, I was full of confidence. Although the least experienced mountain biker of our group by far, I figured the novice level, White Rim, wouldn’t be too tough.
My learning curve began immediately, and it was steep. Literally. Under the dazzling morning sun, a few minutes of easy riding along the canyon edge — look at those views! — and our group approached Shafer Road, the canyon drop in. Woah. That is quite a drop. And it’s covered in rocks and gravel with hairpin turns descending down farther than I can see.
My more experienced friends, whooping excitedly, shot down the slope while I rode my brakes, trying to keep my weight back, skidding through the corners on my rented Santa Cruz Tall Boy. “C’mon, boy, stay upright,” I muttered to myself.
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Throughout the day I soaked up words of wisdom from Roy and his disciple and co-tour leader, Gavin. “Trust the bike,” they said. And they were right. The holes and rocks and ledges that screeched “Danger, danger!” if I were on a road bike? They were barely there as my Tall Boy rolled over with its fat tires and plush suspension. Each little accomplishment added to my burgeoning confidence. I still lacked the guts to keep up with others on the scarier downhills, but I was starting to clean some of the climbs with a joyous yelp and some generous cheers from my friends and other riders on the trail.
Our first night, we relaxed around the fire (a camp light with a red filter) after dining on salmon, asparagus and “Roy’s Potatoes,” the guides cleaning up by the truck, stars popping out. “Yep,” I thought. “This is exactly what I hoped for.”
The next day brought more ups and downs with periodic stops to check out geologic marvels such as slot canyons and narrow rock bridges. One of these was Black Crack, a deep fissure in the sandstone disappearing into unsettling darkness. We nervously hopped over the crack, then walked to the cliff edge looking several hundred feet down into the Green River where a few rafts on their own adventure oh-so-slowly drifted by. Soon after the crack, we could see the truck ahead with Gavin setting out lunch and chairs for us. Our Ford 250 Diesel, modified with 37-inch tires, was our floating lifeline carrying tents, gear, food and precious water. We refilled our bottles, smeared on more sunscreen, and rode off for more.
A few hours later, we approached the most intimidating single ascent of the trip — “Murphy’s Climb” where our campground for the night, Murphy’s Hogback, awaited at the top. A 16% ascent straight up a rock- and ledge-strewn pitch — “chundery” in mountain bike terms — the climb also features several hundred feet of free fall to the canyon floor below for anybody veering too far left. It was hopeless for me and turned into a long walk pushing my bike. I was soon joined on my hike by all of the other riders except Roy and one of my friends, Jeff, an experienced mountain rider using an e-bike for the trip. Fortunately, our reward for that brutal climb was also the best campsite of our trip, with colorful canyon views stretching into forever. Sun below the horizon, a hard day of riding behind us, stomachs full, we lay on the warm rocks and passed the binoculars around, watching the Milky Way spread across the sky and spotting four of Jupiter’s moons.
The next day I bled. It was the kind of steep and rocky pitch where a growing group of riders would gather at the top to watch and cheer on everyone’s attempts. I waited at the bottom, watching other riders mostly resort to walking. Finally, I plunged in. Dropping close to my handlebars, I pedaled hard, bumping up through the first section and approach the crux, a hard left up and over a series of ledges. “Best line is right side,” Roy had recommended.
“Keep up the speed,” I tell myself. “Good, good, got this, uh-oh, soft dirt, yes?, no, oh no, going down!” And down I went, my right knee taking all my weight on a rock edge. Angry and a little embarrassed, I ignored the new wound, got back on Tall Boy and plowed the rest of the way up to the summit. Blood running down my leg, this was the moment my friend Joe, an emergency room doctor back home at a D.C. hospital, had been waiting for. Med kit in hand, he went into action, washing and treating my wounds. He seemed disappointed when he pronounced that I wouldn’t need stitches.
A bright white bandage contrasting with the light brown grit over the rest of me, I rejoined our group. As the trail dropped further, we started catching glimpses of the Green River through the bank-side tamarisk and cottonwood. It’s some of the first green we’ve seen and after a few more tough climbs that only Jeff with his e-bike can make, we end the day at Potato Bottom campsite along the river.
A little melancholy on our final evening, millions of years of canyon walls soaring above us, the 11 of us trade stories about previous bike trips, trips to be taken, life and so on. I join Joe, Paul and Jeff for a final starlit walk near the river, savoring the evening breezes. Our last day featured a 1.5-mile switchbacked climb out of the canyon up Mineral Bottom Road as a final challenge. As we summited, Gavin was setting out one final lunch.
“You’ll be ready for this trip by the end of the trip,” Roy told us back at the beginning. He meant that our bodies would get used to sleeping outside and biking the bumpy trail for hours after a few days. But I think it also meant that after this trip we’d just want more. Canyonlands would be calling and I’d be back.
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