“How far have we gone?” Colleen asks.
I cut off a big hunk of salami and set it on the red boulder. The sun just went over the top, and started its afternoon slide.
I look at the creased map printout. “Oh, looks like about 17 miles.”
“That’s it? Jesus. Are we going to make it?”
“Yeah, I think we’ll be okay.” I rip the seasoned meats with my front teeth. We’re on the 97-mile White Rim trail in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park at the end of January. It’s sweater weather, sunny, and we have the loop to ourselves. Right now, I don’t really care if we get to the camp I had in mind. Spending an extra day out here wouldn’t be terrible.
The White Rim is a classic backcountry Moab ride. From spring to fall, the trail is jammed with bikes and 4x4s, and camping permits have to be booked way in advance. Since there aren’t any water pumps along the route, most people organize a huge group expedition with support SUVs. Or riders top off the Camelbaks, and bang out the miles in one huge day.
Both of those styles are fine, but there’s an overlooked third option that involves a lot less planning than the first, and way less suffering than the second. The necessities are some light bikepacking gear, a weekend, and a way to treat water from the Green River.
We’re on the 97-mile White Rim trail in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park at the end of January. It’s sweater weather, sunny, and we have the loop to ourselves. Right now, I don’t really care if we get to the camp I had in mind. Spending an extra day out here wouldn’t be terrible.
A few hours after the salami stop, we are a little over 35 miles in and we’ve picked up the pace by taking less pictures (which is tough to do, since the White Rim probably has more views per mile than any dirt road route in the U.S.). Definitely not going to make it to the river tonight. I squeeze the water bladder in my frame bag. Probably still enough left to cook dinner though.
I stop to wait for Colleen and check the map again. Ten miles to Murphy’s Hogback. The Hogback, I like the sounds of that. Sleeping on a piggy’s back. Colleen’s tires are crunching up the road slowly. She hasn’t been on the bike much this winter, and she’s feeling it a little.
“Hey, Murphy’s Pigside campground is about a couple hours up. Think we can make it there?” I ask.
“Yeah, sure. I think so,” she says. She unclips a foot and sighs.
As the sun is close to setting, we start the climb up the the top of the Hogback. It gets steep, I’m off the bike, stiff shoes digging into the loose dusty road. She might not enjoy this.
I hit the top right as the sun paints low-angle golden light across the dick-rock spires in the Needles, the spaghetti like tangle of canyons in the Maze, and the high rock walls of the Island is the Sky. That climb was way worth it. I unpack the tent while Colleen rolls into camp.
“Wow that hill was a bitch,” she says, her face matching the red rocks. “Oh, but this is sweet.”
“It’s pretty ideal.” I rock smash the last tent stake into the hard ground, and unscrew the top of the flask of bad whiskey (cheapest fifth in a glass bottle). The sun drops behind a mesa, and then everything fades from gold to purple.
Need to know ahead of time
Route: Splitting the loop into two 50-mile chunks makes a perfect weekend trip, and since the terrain and route finding aren’t very challenging, the loop is a perfect introduction to bikepacking.
Water: The Green River is accessible 65 miles into the loop (going clockwise). Bring a UV filter or chemical treatment- silt from the river will clog a pump filter.
Terrain: The White Rim Road is easy riding on a mountain bike with rack-less bikepacking gear. A hardtail 29er is the best choice, but a touring rig with fat tires could handle the route under an extra studly rider.
Permits: $30 per night, per site from nps.gov. Book pretty far ahead of time. Or go in the off-season and exercise your right to experience your public land without asking for permission. I won’t confirm which option we chose.
Editor’s note: This review originally appeared in Issue #34 of Bicycle Times. To make sure you never miss an issue, order a subscription.