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)

Road2Recovery Ride – Blue Diamond Trails

Road2Recovery – February 2013

While I wasn’t an official sponsor nor was my shop an official sponsor of this event we were invited nonetheless to participate with this amazing group. Road2Recovery offers cycling as a way to repair emotions and cope with wounds in a practical and lively environment. It’s a little surreal when you arrive at the effective trailhead and see men and women on mountain bikes, most with some prosthetic limbs. Some of these limbs were modified to deal with the stresses of mountain biking.

Blue Diamond Trails - Road2Recovery

It was humbling, too. On days when you think, “Man it’s cold outside, I should stay here and rest and stay warm in the house,” this offers a new perspective. These wounded are out riding and enjoying the experience because they have the ability to still do it. Everyday is a treasure to them. Every moment they can ride is a blessing. I have full use of my body. Situations like this can make you feel like a real dirt bag.

The trip started as an invite that I thought I wasn’t going to get to be a part of. Then things changed and changed again and all of a sudden I was on the road with Zack and Kyle en route to St George, our first stop. We’d ride the Zen trail there and continue on to meet the group in Vegas on Monday morning. We arrived in Vegas on Sunday evening ready for a good time. As it would turn out we wouldn’t spend more than a couple of hours a day with the Road2Recovery group, just enough to do some fantastic desert riding with them.

Blue Diamond Trails - Road2Recovery

After breakfast on Monday morning we hit the road bound for Blue Diamond, a place I’d never heard of but a place where there are some 150 miles of mountain biking trails in an area known historically for Spanish mining. The Spaniards went off in all directions in search of glory, gold and God.  They found gold in what has become the tiny colony of a town, Blue Diamond, and started mining, looking for the gold. Just as many hard-rock camps in the west they needed ability to move massive amounts of rock and debris so they brought in mules. Those mules and their masters created the eerie old, inexplicable roads that now lace the desert countryside. Their work made way for the mountain bikers who’d be along centuries later to build trails and bring new life to this corner of the desert.

Blue Diamond, Nevada

Blue Diamond is a town at the center of all of this. They have their own zip and post office. There’s even a quirky little bike shop manned by a quirky and amiable mechanic. He’s the guy you want sitting around a campfire telling stories of the past. He’s the one that you need to ask about the trail system here

Surrounding Blue Diamond is that haven of trail systems that you only dream about. In the middle of winter when all the trails at home are covered by 9 feet of snow and daily skied across, you long for a ride and Las Vegas answers the innate call for a winter ride. Blue Diamond is desert country and is a place that is shrouded by near mythical history which doesn’t exclude Spanish prospectors. Redrock.org has a brief history of more modern times of this area.

Blue Diamond Trails - Road2Recovery

The trail is hard and soil filled with what seems to be river bed stones. They’re all rounded and give the dirt unmatched stability. There are sandy sections, like the section called Viagra… there are several small regions with different names: BFR (?), Badger, Red Canyon, and Cottonwood. There are probably others but I think you’ll get the idea when you get there.

Road2Recovery Group

Back to the riders: all had some new limitation to either mobility or confidence because of either emotional or physical injury. I wasn’t sure that my volunteering had much to offer because I usually add assistance when there are mechanical issues. But the second day came around and I started to understand why I was there.

Carlos had several C-vertebrae discs fused. His injury and recovery left him without confidence that he could ride like he used to. He stopped dead on a moderate climb and kicked himself for feeling so out of shape and limited. We encouraged him and told him that he had to keep on with the climb in order to overcome the weakness. The more he did this the stronger he’d become. I didn’t think much would come of it. I was wrong. It was all he needed.

At the end of the descent off the backside of that climb, he came up to Cole and me and thanked us for what we had done for him. I didn’t understand but then it hit me. I was volunteering to support this crew in a way I never had. They needed fellow humans to believe in them, tell them they could do it.

That was what this was about. Kind of a life lesson if you will. Most of my time I spend with athletes or recreational athletes who suffer pretty basic injuries. I may never know what war does to the mind. What I saw in those individuals, maimed emotionally more than physically, was sadness and activities in groups like that had power to begin the healing.

Johnny T

One more thing, I got to chase Johnny Tomac for a while on Monday. I’ve idolized that guy for a long time and met him briefly once before. I’d never been able to ride with him though. The only reason I could keep up was because there was a slower guy in front of him that day. I watched, really watched, and I could see that riding with company for him was like playing dominoes. He flicked rocks off the trail with either tire and manualed over rocks, large ones… and rollers. Generally, Johnny T is a legendary rider and in my eyes a living myth. I was stoked that he was part of our ride.

Blue Diamond Trails - Road2Recovery
Riding with Johnny Tomac in the middle of the pack

Moab – Trail Riding

A Little History on Moab
moab brand map
I had never ridden this trail, thought it would be a great idea

I have spent a great deal of time in Moab since the day. When I was younger and discovering the growing sport of mountain biking us two 14 year old boys took a trip to Southern Utah to discover the place. It wasn’t a busy place and it had been marked on the map as a mountain biking town, among mountain bikers… I was too young to know what was really going on. I road the Slick Rock Trail and then Amasa Back on that trip. Back then Slick Rock wasn’t the hit that is today. Amasa Back was just a jeep road.

How things have changed. Town is now a mecca and cannot be overlooked by any serious mountain biker. (As you define a serious mountain biker you will also find a serious spending habit on livable Mercedes vans and an affinity for cheap beer – a subject for future discussion). For me, it is reminiscent and nostalgic. I cannot leave the place behind because I have spent so much time here. The riding is all time, every time.

North 40 Mountain Bike Trail - Moab, Utah
From here the loop just gets exciting

The trails have grown and for those of you who don’t know, this means actual single track and not jeep roads and motorcycle routes. There are bike only trails! And it all started with the Sovereign Trail between Dalton Wells and Willow Springs roads. But out that way, there has always be someone else digging in the ground for treasure.

Moab has a long history as a mining town, which interests me for many reasons. Anyone can see this but most don’t appreciate what it is or what has been going on there. Check out this article in HCN, High Country News. This is why there are so many jeep roads and motorcycle routes. And that is how all this started. For some great history on the mining in the Moab area, Raye C. Ringholz wrote a comprehensive book on what happened called, Uranium Frenzy: Boom and Bust on the Colorado Plateau.

Trail Riding in the Moab

Moab mountain biking has a very specific feel and it’s a unique experience, which is why, I assume, the place has grown in use to unsustainable numbers of visitors. Be careful when you visit the place or you’ll be waiting in line wherever you go.

North 40 Mountain Bike Trail - Moab, Utah
The spectacular view from any point on the North 40 trail is simply stunning.

The actual riding is mostly technical. If trails were music, then Moab is mostly a Smashing Pumpkins album, specifically, Siamese Dream. Cherub Rock seems to make the cut… The trails are extremely rocky and have some pretty extreme maneuvers but that’s part of the uniqueness here. Your mind picks up something left by time and you never lose the thread, meaning you’ll always be back to ride another day.

My last visit was 1 and 1/2 years ago. I live 4 hours away. My excuses are many, kind of like why there’s dirty dishes in the sink. My last ride on the iconic Whole Enchilada was two years ago. One of the reasons, a very valid one, is that the town experiences way too many visitors these days. These are the days that Edward Abbey described in his prophetic prose about the region. If you don’t know about Ed Abbey, leave this page and go find out.

It wasn’t a place that was ever supposed to become a mecca for mountain biking. But let’s face it, mining towns always find a way to thrive. Look at the mining towns of the west, especially the hard rock mine towns of the Rocky Mountains, they became ski resorts!

I’ve started to stay north of town in my recent years of riding here. It’s easier for me to avoid town. Which I hate doing because I love town, or the ghost of it. Emotionally, it’s easier to spend as little time there as possible. I’ve counted on trails like the Brand network, Sovereign, and Dead Horse Point area to become my go-to tracks.

North 40 Trail
North 40 Mountain Bike Trail - Moab, Utah
The sun was setting and this was not a moment to let slip by

I discovered that someone had built a new one out on the Moab Brand network called North 40. This is a spectacular trail and offers the kind of riding that can only be found in the deserts of Utah, uniquely in the Arches and Canyonlands proximity.

The last 14 years Moab has been expanding its trail system. And it is gorgeous. The Brand Trails hadn’t always offered challenging rides but now things are different. This North 40 trail has flow and punchy climbs, it has technical moves that will kick you right off your bike, appropriately. Riding a fat bike made things less challenging and I enjoyed a good deal of continued momentum.

I remember a specific section where I was rallying through, little bits of desert dirt flying out from the sides of my huge tires, and I emerged from behind some rocks. There, on the trail, two people were listening and watching as my huge tires rolled into their memories. I charged past them on a mission to maintain rhythm, chased by a romantic dream of a desert I used to know.

The sun was setting, in more ways than one on that ride. I love Moab, I love the desert. The time in my life where the deserts here play a critical role in my well being is coming to an end. It’s a place to enjoy and defend and will always be special. I don’t cherish my new memories of the place the way I cherish the old ones. All my experiences are great but something about the old Moab holds on; it persists, it drowns out the voices of the present.

Maybe it’s just me, a lost rider still on a trail that has gone away. One day, though, forty or fifty years from now you’ll find me as a pile of bones on a rock over-looking a deep canyon, next to a burned-out fat bike.

Thunder Mountain Trail

The Thunder Mountain Trail is a bit out of the way, and it’s ok

I haven’t ridden this trail as much as I should have. I grew up in Utah skiing and riding bikes. It makes sense that I should know all the trails here. But last fall was the first time I’d ridden Thunder Mountain in the Bryce Canyon area.

Zach cruising up the Bryce Canyon bike path looking for a certain Thunder Mountain Trailhead

The trail parallels Red Canyon which one generally has to pass through if headed to Bryce Canyon from Interstate 15. The only other route is to come from Escalante, Utah. Anyhow, this ride is totally sweet and worth a mission send. That being noted, Zach and I packed up right quick after work and made the 4 hour drive south from the Wasatch mountains.

Traffic southbound I-15 was light as we zoomed through the darkness with our rigs fastened to the back of the trusty automobile. With only one stop for stretching we made camp in less than 4 hours. It was 31 degrees farenheit… the night got colder but we slept in the relative comfort of winter sleeping bags.

Trail starts out in the red dirt and pine trees, iconic terrain of this part of the world

Morning time brought seriously cold air and we slept until about 9AM with our warm hats covering our eyes so they wouldn’t turn into ice balls.. Morning also brought a warm fire, coffee, and a cowboy breakfast. After all morning routines handled, we were ready to ride and hit the road. After a quick ride up the Bryce Canyon bike trail to the top of Red Canyon, we took a right on a Forest Road and through an equestrian campsite. The Thunder Mountain trail starts at the end of this road but is somehow called Coyote Hollow, so heads up.

Previous Year, Riding through hoodoos with my wife and friends

The trail quickly becomes your favorite trail. Whoever dug it had a vision. While I believe that it was initially a horse trail, and it shows in places, it’s a fantastic bike trail also. Rounding every punchy climb with a ridgeline, the hoodoos and red valleys come into view against the deep blue hue of a U2-esque desert sky.

It’s too fun of a trail to miss, you have to ride it. Or not. I’m completely fine with no one but a few riding this place. It is after all largely out of the way. If you’re headed to a major bike mecca, forget about heading here. There’s no bike shop that I can find.. So you’re on your own.

The trail sweeps up and down ridge-lines for the first 4 miles or so. Each turn brilliantly formed, off-camber straight-aways, rocky non-sense, some loose dirts; all for your riding pleasure. And every time you look up you see this kind of crap:

Karen riding up the ridge; just beautiful views, forever

Last year I rode Thunder mountain for a birthday party with my wife and friends. Yes, my wife has that SE grin that all of us mountain bikers know is absolutely contagious.

Zach surrendering to a photo op

Zach and I made less time for pictures. You could literally spend the whole day getting the best action shots in your portfolio on Thunder Mountain if you weren’t interested in maintaining the thrilling flow of two wheels down this remarkable trail.

We broke riding at the mid-trail horse camp. It has a little vista there while you eat a well earned date roll. The only thing that would have been better would have been to camp there. Bike packing is a serious possibility, even though the trail is really, really short.

After the horse camp the trail climbs and descends flowing down ridge-lines and through hoodoos all over. The descending here gets a little more rowdy. We dropped tire pressure because we are just that cool. As the trail descends there are two sections of tight switchbacks. This is usually where you’ll see the best crashes.

Crystal descending, happier than any other moment in her life

As the trail winds around and through some drainages, there’s a short climb which leads to a 1.4 mile straight-away descent back to the Red Canyon highway and bike path. We let gravity guide us back, using our huge tires to make up for not using brakes. Oh yes, we rode this trail on 27.5+ and 26 Fat hardtails.

Mountain Biking Vernal

Got up this morning with one thing in mind, “I need to ride my bike.” With household approval to take off for the next 30 hours I packed up kissed my lady and again I was off to adventure, much like my bike packing adventure.

The drive from Heber to Vernal in Utah is only 2 hours and on the way out along US Highway 40 I can watch Utah change back into what it mostly is. Good fortune has allotted that I live in a tourist driven area where folks come to take advantage of a largely unmined landscape. By this I mean, none of this:

oil derricks
All along highway 40 you see these things on the horizon

Yes, Utah is a lot of oil and gas drilling. I guess there’s money in it. While it’s not east Texas, it seems like oil is the name of the game out here.

The drive out was dreary until the clouds started to break apart. Then for hours on end there were some cool opportunities for amazing contrast shots. The ground was lit, being reds and yellows, it contrasted heavily against the deep gray clouds of the northern skies.

Around sunset, the contrasts between earth and sky were amazing
What happens when you want the picture but the clouds keep the sun in

The Riding:

What leads someone to consider mountain biking Vernal, Utah, you ask? Well this:

While these aren’t all the trails, I covered a few of them and they are stellar

McCoy Flats has always been spoken of as the riding in the Vernal area. There are plenty of other fantastic places to ride; however, this is simply off the highway on the way into town arriving from the rest of Utah.

It’s some of the best desert riding single-track around. When you go to Moab, the rock is nearly stiflingly awesome and there’s usually a lot of double track as many of the existing trails are mine road remnants. After some time on it you’re ready for dirt again, single-track dirt. The trails at McCoy Flats are full spectrum: easy to technically challenging. There is dirt here, not so much sand. Talk about refreshing desert riding!

While all seems ride-able, there are few obstacles that trick the eye. I got temporarily hung up on some of these. But oh such great riding. My new favorite line is called “Fire Sale” which branches off of “Retail Sale”. Ride it from West to East. It takes up all the available real estate on two hills.

A few of these trails are directional. It makes for a nice consistency. You can’t ride up certain rock drops. Also, you won’t find yourself riding up a skid. All the trails are well marked and circumnavigate the parking area. This added convenience is nice for a pit stop, snacks, and refreshments.

This is why folks pack their bike and head to Vernal.