Bikepacking the White Rim Road, Canyonlands National Park
Last month, my brother and I met up in the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park. My brother is more of a biker than a hiker, and as such our goal was to bike the White Rim Road that runs throughout the district and loop back to our starting point, a mountain bike ride totaling 103 miles.
We’d brainstormed a few ways to tackle the trip, from trying it in one very long day to taking things very easy over many days. Eventually, we settled on 2 nights…We'd be carrying our gear and camping along the way. Due to my inability to make it out of town before dawn the day of the trip, we started a bit behind schedule. I didn't arrive in Canyonlands until mid-afternoon, and as such it was a race against the light. We shook hands and immediately finalized loading our bikes, tanked up on water, and hit the road. Turning onto Shafer Trail, we were quickly chilled as we descended over 1000 feet in just a few miles, testing our brakes and our ability to stay on the road – the amazing view off to the side trying to lead your wheels toward a sheer drop at every glance. With us and the sun both descending, light faded quickly and the La Sal Mountains to the east faded from view. The rest of the day’s (or night’s) ride would be by headlamp, and we rode on past countless sheer drops off to our side, our headlamps unable to illuminate the bottom of the canyons when we tried to see where the black depths might lead. The moon rose. We continued on side by side, focused on the beams of light in front of us as the night progressed. We arrived late at our campsite – setting up the tent a quick dinner was had and we found ourselves soon asleep under a star-filled sky in the Utah backcountry.
It’s always an odd sensation arriving somewhere in the dark, then waking up the next day to have the sun reveal the true lay of the land – almost like flying from one side of the country to the other. A shock to the senses. There’s not much to say about day 2 except that we basically got on our bikes and rode for 9 hours. Eventually, we arrived at our campsite on the Green River as the sun was setting, both tired and out of water. The river didn’t look particularly appetizing, but thirst always wins. We filtered water, the water welcome but just above freezing, so cold it hurt your hands to hold your water bottle and it hurt your teeth to drink. But drink we did.
Day 3 we awoke to temps in the 20’s, our water mostly frozen. This close to the river, the sun remained hidden behind the canyon walls and likely wouldn’t illuminate our campsite until late into the morning. We were gone before that happened, back on the road, riding and walking our bikes through sand, eventually finding ourselves outside the park boundary. At an intersection, we turned right and ascended up and up switchbacks, our ride now on the final leg. Eventually we made it, and began the ride along the now straight gravel road, then the paved park entry road back to our vehicles. A tailwind turned to a headwind, hill after hill was ascended, the visitor center always somehow one more hill ahead. However, after battling the hills and wind the ride did end, and luckily I’d stashed a few gallons of water back in the truck to quench my thirst. Handshakes were again exchanged; a few celebratory pictures taken. Long drives ahead, I headed north on Highway 191, my brother turned right, each with victory in hand.
Gear Selection & Considerations:
This was my first time bikepacking, and overall, I found that my lightweight backpacking gear transitioned over to the task very well. I left my ULA Circuit at home, and replaced it with an REI Flash 22. This was a mistake in some respects, as the Flash 22 is so large that it tempted me to carry too much gear on my back, and even packing it full of my lightest things, after a day of riding my back was pretty sore the next day. Luckily, ibuprofen came to the rescue as I was nearly unable to ride. Next time, I’ll pack more on the bike and as little as possible on my back.
Still, the Flash 22 was definitely not large enough to carry all my gear and water, so I put as much weight as possible in 2 bags from Revelate Designs: The Pika Seat Bag and the Sweetroll Handlebar Bag. (Medium) I was tempted to go with the Viscacha, which is the larger version of the Pika seat bag, but I was worried about clearance between the bag and the back tire. As it turned out, even with the Pika, I was getting interference between the bag and the rear wheel on the big bumps as the back suspension came close to bottoming out, unless the seat bag was adjusted perfectly. The problem was that after an hour of riding or so the adjustment would seem to shift and again you could hear the sound of the tire contacting the bag again. Perhaps more experience with the bag could alleviate this problem. You could go with a hardtail bike on a trip like this, but we both agreed by the end of the trip that full suspension is the way to go. The road isn’t always nice and smooth by any means, and you’ll be able to go faster over the bumps with a full suspension bike, and do so more comfortably.
I wore Pearl Izumi X-ALP Seek MTB Shoes, a helmet and gloves. Definitely go with a full-fingered glove, all the shifting and braking will start to eat away at your fingertips if you go with fingerless gloves as I did.
I also took a repair kit in a Topeak Aero Wedge bag that I strapped to the frame of my bike, a pump I threw in the Flash 22, and other than that and the bike itself my normal backpacking gear worked fine.
Best Time to Go: Spring and fall are your best bet to avoid the heat and the cold.
Getting There: Drive to the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park outside of Moab, Utah via Highway 313. You’ll need to pay $10 at the kiosk (or visitor center if the kiosk is unmanned) to enter. You can park at the Shafer Canyon Overlook just past the visitor center on your left, as the park asks that you don’t park at the visitor center itself due to limited parking spaces. If you’re riding White Rim clockwise as we did, ride back the way you came for just over 1.5 miles and take a right on Shafer Canyon Road to start your trip! Alternatively, you could ride counterclockwise from here, or if you have two cars you could shuttle out the road ride from the Mineral Bottom Road Switchbacks (You can park at the top) back to the visitor center area. We rode the entire loop, and it’s great to say we did…But it sure felt like a long, never-ending ride back to our cars after we climbed the Mineral Bottom Road Switchbacks.
Information: Obtain a permit well in advance of your trip at: https://canypermits.nps.gov/index.cfm
The physicality of mountain biking over 100 miles and water are probably the biggest obstacles. We packed over 24 hours of water to start the trip and then resupplied at our campsite along the Green River the 2nd evening. The Green River here is really silty, we filtered via a .1 micron filter and a carbon element, then hit it with a Steripen Adventurer Opti for good measure as well. I thought we might find water before the Green River in potholes, etc. but there was no water to be found. Technically, it’s a not a hard ride, although some sandy and steep sections may need to be walked. Physically it’s a challenge simply due to the weight of carrying gear and the distance. Keep an eye out for 4-wheel drive vehicles you'll likely encounter on the road.
Maps: You can find a pretty good map of Island in the Sky and the White Rim Road along with some additional info for free Here. We took Trails Illustrated 310.
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