Desert Rider - Bike Magic

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Desert Rider

I’ve seen Everest, the Grand Canyon, The Sahara and much more. Nothing touches the White Rim Trail. Photos cannot come close to conveying what it is like to be there. To be part of a vast desert packed with detail.

This is the desert we all know from the Road Runner cartoons. Balanced blocks and deep canyons are everyday things here. The rocks are red and the Coyotes clutch ACME catalogues and plan devious traps.

Finding Moab

Like many others we “discovered” Moab driving west after the Vail Mountain Bike World Championships

Our first ride was “The Slick Rock Trail” the legendary 12.5 mile loop that follows a line of painted dots over fossilised sand dunes. The ride is all on a single piece of sandstone. You marvel at the grip as you ride up and down slopes steeper than you’ve ever ridden before. Traversing steep slopes is effortless. Until you try to pedal and find your self grinding the up hill pedal. New riding surface new problem.

With a bit of practice there were only two bits that I couldn’t ride. Doug enjoyed showing surprise that I couldn’t ride all of it.

The town of Moab is a funny place. It use to be a boom town, with money pouring in for mineral extraction. It was the mineral extraction and prospecting that has opened up the area to bikes. Tracks were bulldozed out into the desert to give access to miners and geologists. The fragile desert environment has not been able to reclaimed these tracks. Many were cleared over 50 years ago. Now Moab is coming to terms with its new role as a tourist centre and the peculiar problems of MTB tourism. The visitor centre toilets have a notice banning people from bathing in them. It also lists the 15 places in town you can pay for a shower.

Our next ride was the Porcupine Rim (30 miles). The full loop starts with a 2,000 ft climb up sand flats road, this was as hard work as anything we did in Moab, the surface being soft and energy sapping. The ride proper starts at two water tanks. The only drinking water you will find on any of Moab’s day rides.

Here the ride picks up in interest with sections of slick rock and rock steps. After another 1,000 ft. of climbing the trail levelled off. We stopped for a drink and a power bar (yes in America you can afford to snack on them). As we got up to go an American voice said “you’ll want to look over here before you go.” How can you not notice you are at the top of a 1,500 ft. cliff?

Oh my god, it’s hooge

Castle valley stretched out in front of us. A plain ringed with cliffs. Castle Rock stands roughly central stretching up to the same level as the rim where we stood. “Thanks I’m glad we didn’t miss that”

The descent gets gradually steeper and more technical until the Jeep track peters at the top of Jack Ass Canyon. From here you can see the Colorado river about 2,000 ft. below you. The steep canyon walls seem to offer little hope of a way down.

The single track contours round just below the Rim of Jack Ass Canyon. As the Canyon deepens towards the Colorado the exposure of the trail increases. As you turn the corner to join the main Canyon and the Colorado the shelf you’ve been riding on tilts. This Provides a huge ramp down to the road at the bottom of the canyon. A fluke of geology that occurs on three Moab rides. The most famous is the Portal Trail a narrow single track with a 500 ft. drop on one side that has already claimed a life.

Arches National Park is definitely worth a visit. We rode in via the Court House Wash trail. If I went back I wouldn’t bother trying to ride in off road. Admit defeat, have a day on tarmac and enjoy the great scenery.

The best day ride we did was Hurrah Pass to The Amasa Back (32 miles). A trip that is only possible by bike. Too long to walk and powered vehicles can’t be carried up the portage. It is rated as physically “Gonzo Abusive.” Between us we carried and drank 9 litres of water and still got back to camp thirsty.

The Hurrah Pass is easy an out and back ride but very spectacular. It is possibly the Worlds best novice mountain bike ride. From the top a straight forward descent leads to a rather sandy track through Jackson Hole. From Jackson Hole the Amasa Back looms a head of you as a sheer cliff. A path leads up towards the cliffs, with little faith we followed it. The path turns into a narrow side Canyon hidden from below. You carry your bike up the zig zags at the back of this Canyon.

The Amasa back is a spectacular sheet of slick rock studded with trees and boulders. We rode out to the end for a great view of the Colorado. The heat reflected from the rock was intense. Roaming around off trail was a little scary. The vastness adding to our feeling of vulnerability.

We had time for one more quick whiz round the Slick Rock trail (the other way) before we had to move on. We wanted to be In Yosemite before all the climbs were covered in snow. We were bitten by the desert bug. We wanted to go come back and head off into the desert for a few days. We wanted to ride the White Rim trail.

Riding The Rim

A month later, we were back in Boulder. We decided we had time to go back to Moab and do the White Rim Trail. We phoned The Ranger Station In Canyonlands National Park and managed to get a camp site bookings. We couldn’t persuade Dominic who were staying with to join us. However Doug his neighbour, colleague and fellow biker was on for the trip. As we were incurring a mileage charge on our rental car we decided to take Doug’s Wagoneer. You’ve probably never heard of a Wagoneer That’s because there isn’t enough fuel in Europe to run one.

We sped along “I 70” at a massive 60 mph. The Wagoneer’s 330 cu inch (5.4 litre) V8 engine working flay out in top gear (3 rd!). We were further slowed by unnervingly frequent stops to refill the 20 gallon fuel tank.

Due to thinking we knew when the clocks would change when we didn’t, we arrived at Canyonlands National Park Ranger Station an hour after it opened. We handed over our $25 group camping fee (great value if there are 15 of you planning to spend to spend five nights on the trail, less good value if you’re on your own). We attended the compulsory orientation lecture. This consists of the ranger telling you not to ride off trail or remove rocks from the park. I can’t imagine that mountain bikers steal many rocks from National Parks.

The point about sticking to the trail is an important one. The whole desert, except the rock, is covered with a macrobiotic crust. Invisible in places this crust is the basis of all desert life. It is easily damaged so, except on the slick rock, you must stick to trails.

We then drove to the top of the Horse Thief Trail, an incredible set of switch backs that take you down to the Green River. These switch backs were bulldozed out by Art Woods. He worked on his own, supplied by truck every three days. Just after his supply wagon left he rolled his bulldozer, pinning his arm against the slick rock. His only way out was obvious, but hard to carry out. He applied a tourniquet and cut off his arm. His actions saved his life and he carried on working in the desert into his seventies.

After the switch backs the trail parallels the Green River giving easy riding and great views. The first real up hill cuts out a meander on the river. It also demonstrated one of the main dangers we were to face on this ride.

Doug had recently purchased a pair of Onza clipless pedals. After his first ride, fed up with numerous accidental releases, he’d taken them back to the shop and complained. Their response, in the true spirit of the back room mechanic was revenge. With the hardest rubbers fitted to the pedals and the release tension cranked to the limit Doug was now truly at one with his bike.

Having failed to ride the hill I looked back down the trail. Sue was pushing her bike. Determined as ever Doug cranked past Sue. At a crucial moment Doug’s rear z-max lost grip. The same, unfortunately, could not be said for Doug’s pedals. He toppled side ways. Fortunately Sue broke his fall?! Eventually we managed to free Doug from the wreckage without removing his shoes.

Our scheduled stop for water was at “Queen Anne Bottom,” for amusement we added an ‘s’. Queen Anne’s Bottom is not a pleasant place. It’s a smelly muddy river bank. The water in the Green River, the only supply for about 30 miles in any direction, was an attractive brown colour. Not a thin weedy peaty stain, more like hot chocolate yum, yum. We collected about 20 litres of water and loaded this onto our already heavily laden bikes.
Queen Ann Bottom does have one attraction. While we were down by the river I was convinced I could hear another group of people talking near by. We shut up to listen. Yes, we could definitely hear voices. “Hello” I yelled. “Hello” came the reply, strange. “Is this just an echo?” I asked….. “Is this just an echo?” was the reply. This echo is not a vague muffled ringing. It’s more like a digital effect. Not only can you understand what’s being said but it also reproduces regional accents!

As the sun set the colours became even more incredible. The final stretch was to the Murphy Hog. The climb was sufficiently steep and loose to allow Doug another head long dive attached to his bike. “Gosh I must get some pedals like that”.

We arrived at our camp site in darkness. We pitched the tent with rocks, as we had no drill to make holes for the pegs. To control the impact of visitors on the desert environment camping is only allowed on designated sites. Each site is also provided with a its own solar powered Karzi.

A group from an adjacent site wandered for a chat and a spot of star gazing. A veteran of the Rim stayed and chatted for a while, offering us food, beer and drugs. We were happy to accept the beer and food. Chatting to him we got an idea of how important this trip is to some people. “Yeah, this is my sixth time doing the Rim, I’ve averaged about once a year. The guy I’m with he’s mad on it he does it 5 or 6 times a year.” We spent the rest of the evening trying to separate water from mud and bacteria. In the end we left most of it to settle over night.

Keen not to end up riding in the dark again we were up early for breakfast and pumping more water through the filter.

The White Crack is on a side spur. It is the “power point” of the rim, an incredible view point.

As we walked out along the white sands stone we passed some pools of water. These were left from the rain about a week before. Like a scene from a documentary the pools were teaming with life. All desperate to get on with the processes of eating, fighting and reproducing before evaporation condemned them back to a dormant existence amongst the dust.

Then we looked out from the pools to the vastness of the desert. There are canyons every where you look. Canyons within canyons, within canyons. If you look carefully you can see arches and rock towers. The landscape is incredibly complex. To takes in just in one small part of the view takes a long time and yet it extends in every direction.

At last we admitted we had to move on as it was nearly lunch time and we had hardly covered any distance. We didn’t take any water from the pools. It seemed cruel and we were already carrying as much as we wanted to. In retrospect this was not a great decision.

We arrived at Airport towers in the light. This was our next camp site. Unfortunately we still had a 10 mile round trip to get water. We were worried by how much height we lost descending Lathrop Canyon to the Colorado. Unlike the Green river the Colorado is green, not brown. It also had the added attraction of detergent foam on the surface. At moments like this you don’t want to remember that there is a Uranium reprocessing plant up stream, but we did.

The ascent of Lathrop Canyon was easier than we had expected. True to form it was dark when we got back to the camp site. A pleasant evening was spent pumping more water. Doug and I tried a little of our new water before going to bed. Worryingly the after taste was so bad that we had difficulty getting to sleep.

Another early start brought detergent flavoured porridge and coffee. Sue decided that the water was undrinkable. While we were packing up a ranger arrived to check our permit. Sue managed to scrounge some water from him. Doug and I joked that this might effect our independent status. Sue took this seriously and rode the next 18 miles on half a bike bottle of Green River water!

The next section of the trail is more popular as it is the closest to Moab. Muscle man arch is a big crowd puller. Not only is it spectacular but you can walk across it. It is, however, illegal to ride your bike over it.

The air was crystal clear giving great views across to the snow capped La Sal mountains. We enjoyed the final steep climb up Shafer switch backs. A quick dash along the tarmac, including a sprint at the end, and we were at the visitor centre. Here revelled in the luxury of the 8 litres of clear clean fresh water that we bought.

This left us with a fairly level 22 miles back to the “Wagoneer”. The first 9 miles on tarmac were easy. However the last 13 miles were murder. What 3 days ago had hard mud studded with rocks was now loose and nearly unridable. We had been sand bagged. In the interest of the comfort of motorists, good riding terrain is scraped off with a grader. Yet another way that the world looks after cars to the detriment of cyclists.

We rounded off our trip with a huge feed in Moab. Then we roared off into the night, consuming fuel at rate that would embarrass an articulated lorry.

We had done it. Ridden off into the desert, on our own and come back. We had seen the vastness and our selves in relation to it. This had been more than just a bike ride.

Side boxes and Information

What is The White Rim:

The White Rim is a hard band of white sand stone. Because it is hard it has resisted erosion better than the soft rocks below it. As a result of this many of the canyons have a layer of white sand stone round the edge. Hence the White Rim.

It is illegal to mountain bike in American National parks. The White Rim Trail is a happy exception. It is classified as a road so you can ride or drive on it.
The White Rim Trail is 100 mile loop. 9 miles are on tarmac, the rest is on jeep tracks. The riding surface is mainly hard packed sediments, with a few sections of rock and loose sand. The trail is 99.9 % ridable.

Ways Round The Rim

There are 3 main ways of doing the rim.

The most popular is to get together with a group of friends. Throw tents, food and most importantly water, into the 4WD drive that any group of Americans will own between them. People take it in turns to drive the 4WD. Pride is taken in being in better equipped than any one else you meet. Coolers of beers and barbecues are standard. Work shop bike stands and arm chairs add cred.

The next most popular option is to go light and hack round in a day. Perfectly feasible for the very fit carrying plenty of water. The down side is that for the visitor you don’t get long to look at the view.

A few poor misguided fools will set off with panniers, iodine tablets and a huge number of water bottles. We fell into this category.

Next time I do the White Rim Trail I’ll go with a vehicle. I enjoyed the challenge of what we did: but next time it I want more time. There is lots of exploring that could be done, on foot and by bike. Because of the flexibility of going with a vehicle this a trip that can be enjoyed by the whole family. Mum and Dad can rest in the Jeep while the kids shoot off ahead.

Jeeps can be hired in Moab and many other town. One of the group should be experienced with 4WD. If it rains sections of the trail can be very hard to drive. Another option is to go on an organised trip. Outfitters in Moab can provide anything from shuttle buses through to combination ride and raft trips. Grand County Travel Council, 805 N. Main St., Moab, Utah 84532, Tel. (801) 258-8825 can provide a list of outfitters.

When to go

Moab is to hot in the summer and to cold in the winter for serious biking. Clearly this makes spring and autumn the best times to visit. Our visit was in Autumn (late October) which is less popular than spring.

Other Attractions

Moab and the surrounding area have lots to offer. On the Colorado you can raft through Cataract Canyon. . ou can drift down the Green river for a few days in a Canadian canoe. The area also has plenty of climbing ranging from huge crack lines to short bolt routes.

Particularly attractive is the idea of a two week spring trip. Combining a week biking round Moab and a week skiing. Utah is reputed to have the best powder in America.

Also within driving range are seven National Parks including Zion and The Grand Canyon. It would also be possible to visit Colorado’s top MTB spots in the same trip: Aspen, Vail, Crested Butte and Durango to name a few. Autumn would be the best time for this as the high trails will be free of snow.

Getting There

The nearest major airport is Salt Lake City. Return air fares are £450 or less depending on the season. The transatlantic luggage allowance is usually two pieces of luggage each weighing up to 72 lb. A boxed bike counts as one piece of luggage.
Once you’re in America its probably best to hire a car, although bikes can be taken on coaches subject to space.

There are two routes to cheap car hire. Either book before leaving Britain or rent an older car from one of the many specialists. We rented a Cherokee Jeep for a month for $540 (£360) including collision damage waiver insurance. It had done 175,000 miles and we incurred a small charge per mile over 2,000. Collision damage waiver insurance is important, check it covers all the states you will be visiting. Hiring from people like Budget on arrival can work out expensive. About $70 (£46) a day including insurance.

Where to Stay

Moab has loads of motels costing from about $40 (£26) dollars a room.

Most people camp. Up market is the Slick Rock Camp Site. About $12 (£8) per night per pitch. You get access to showers, toilets and swimming pool. There a few National Forest Service camp sites. These cost about $3 (£2) for a pitch per night. You get a picnic table and Earth closet toilet. No water is provided.

Most cyclists staying round Moab camp wild. This is legal. However shitting in the woods has recently been out lawed. This has to be seen as a good thing with the large numbers of people camping wild. If a group of you plan to spend a while camping in the same spot you can hire a port-a-loo, delivery and emptying included. The other option is to hang on until you get into town in the morning.

Trail Information

Latitude 40° publish 2 great trail maps to the Moab area. They cover the whole White Rim Trail and all the other rides mentioned in this article. On the back they have trail profiles and route descriptions.

We also bought a copy of “Above and Beyond Slick Rock” by Todd Campbell, published by Moab Outabouts P.O. Box 314 Moab, Utah 84532. This book is a tremendous tribute the area. It contains maps and trail description for 40 rides. It also has a mass of historical and back ground information on the area. The standard of photographs, all black and white, is exceptional.


Any mountain bike will get you round the White Rim Trail. No bike, no problem rent one in Moab. If you’re going to carry all your own gear then panniers are the best bet. Thanks to Outdoor Shop in Milton Keynes for doing ours at a great price-our only sponsorship.


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