White Rim Trail in One Day, Part 1

The White Rim Trail is what is considered today as a Jeep trail. More often than Jeeping, this road is mountain biked. It is a Utah classic. As a loop it entails 101 miles of riding, circumnavigating the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park.

The Bright Glow of Mineral Bottom

I had not yet ridden on the White Rim Trail and my brakes were already glowing. Blue. That was a place to mark some kind of accomplishment in my life, there at the lower terminus of Mineral Bottom’s nasty switchbacks. The count of switchbacks was 5. With a straight-shot over somewhat washed out road I had lost 1100 feet in elevation over just 1.5 miles. A rise-over-run looks like this: 1:8, elevation to distance. However, examining grade, the math yields nearly 14%. That’s pretty steep.

With that descent mathematically quantified and undeniably evident by the color of my brake rotors, I gazed up at what had taken 5 minutes to descend. The road vanished into the wall of rocks, both loose and fixed. But it was there. It had been built in 1950 for uranium prospectors. That did not work out for them. Now the road is used recreationally. To heat up brake rotors.

White Rim Road
White Rim Trail near Mineral Bottom – the trail here is usually smooth and sandy, making for quick miles on a fat bike.

The last time I had stood in that location, at the 3-way intersection of Mineral Road (Horsethief Trail), the road to Mineral Bottom boat launch on the Green River, and White Rim Trail had been 4 years and one month prior. I was in a big group of riders. We had been fully supported with 2 vehicles over 2 nights. We ate like kings and never lacked for any need.

Requiem for a Permit

It was 10:53 AM and I was hopelessly behind schedule. As I hummed down the dirt road next to the Green River and its tamarisks, I reflected on how the morning had gone and how I would never repeat the grievous error of permit oversight.

My day had started at 4:00 AM. Even for me, an early riser, that was basically zero-dark-thirty… I opened my eyes, close to the highway leading into Moab, Utah. Staring into the dark mesh of the tent thinking about the reason I was committing to ride the White Rim Trail in a day I lost the thought as it was unfounded. There was no reason for riding the White Rim. There was also no reason to do it alone in one day.

With my early motivation calculated I hopped in the car and took off for Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky District where I would discover that I needed a permit for bike use, even for one day. This, in my hasty planning, was a serious oversight. With at least a 4 hour set-back, I laid down as comfortably as possible in the back of my car and tried to get some more sleep. I dreamed something, but it did not stay with me.

The Visitor’s Center opened at 8:00 AM and I was there, in line by myself to get my permit to ride the trail, by myself. I had a conversation with the ranger who was helping me out. I let him know my plan and to come looking for me if he saw my car still parked out there the following morning.

Here you see the first 3 switchbacks of Mineral Bottom. The road here is in good shape. The rowdy part is yet further down the slope.

To Mineral Bottom and Beyond!

I left the car parked at the Shafer Road Overlook at 8:53 AM. The next 45 minutes I would drift past the head of Shafer Road and down the pavement of Island in the Sky Road. From my car it was 9.78 miles of pavement, from which I could not disembark quickly enough. Mineral Road took off west-southwest from the highway. It was graded dirt and for my fat tires, a relent to the awfulness of pavement.

Mineral Road, a.k.a., Horsethief Trail, is a gentle grade downhill toward Mineral Bottom’s ridiculous switchbacks. It rolls here and there. Because of its negative grade from the highway, it is much nicer to ride from the highway than finish the ride by having to pedal up it. It was in that same reasoning that I found 3 boy scouts strewn about the road, sleeping. Their bikes were asleep too. They were fine but too tired to make it back to the highway as they were traveling the opposite direction of my well planned route. Someone would be along to collect them with a van or a truck.

The Laden Bike on the entry to White Rim Trail. There would be 70 miles ahead from that point. This very capable machine never hesitated to carry me the whole way, even with nearly 30 pounds of food and water.

At 1:45 hours in the saddle and mile 22.30 I arrived at the edge of the earth. I rode out onto the first switchback of Mineral Bottom and looked down from the cliff. The road below was visible in its entirety. It was all below my toes. My eyes trailed the old mine road all the way to the split, the point at which I would finally be on the White Rim Trail.

Decision Point

With a pause, I calculated the odds of completing the next 80 miles of mountain biking. They were low. Confidence among my peers was low. Except for my wife, no one really expected to see me alive again. By riding down those switchbacks I was essentially committing to completing the trail… or else.

I examined my riding preparations for this event. The decision to make the journey had occurred over the span of 14 seconds on the couch upon awakening from a nap only 8 days before. With some 80 miles of riding over the previous 80 days and no reservations of riding more, I was optimistic about putting in another 80 miles over the next 8 hours.

My pack(s) and bottles had 11 liters of water left and 2 pounds of food. So, with no concern for consequences of any kind I committed to the rest of the trail and to putting future me through the wringer.

I knew I would not see this again so I snagged a picture of it. The map is available on the parks website. It is very useful for making sure you are on target.

For historical accuracy, let’s discuss “the wringer,” just really quick. A wringer is an old tool for pressing water out of clothing. There are two drums, that when cranked by hand, feed the wet clothing between them. Then, the still damp clothing was hung out to dry on a clothesline. These processes were usually preceded by the washing process which usually involved rubbing wet, soapy clothes up and down the “washboard.” At some point in the day, future me would also suffer the wrath of the washboard.

The White Rim Trail Begins

From the direction I was headed, counter-clockwise on this loop, the White Rim Trail starts out as a red dirt road. Pedaling was easy. The sandy trail was smooth. It went on like that for miles along the edge of the Green River. The Green River was aptly named, probably by the same fellow who named the local hardware store “Hardware Store.”

“Hank, What do ya think of that there river?”

“Sure is green.”

It was an existence of pedaling and coasting. More pedaling. More coasting. And along I went, pedaling to whatever my fate would be out there, under the desert sun of one of the most iconic landscapes in the world.

(continued.. please visit angrybikemechanic.com in the near future)

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