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.

Day 3, Soapstone to Washington Lake

Morning light shone through the pine tree limbs in a warm orange tone. It was chilly. The temperature had dropped to 43 degrees by early morning and I was grateful to have a warmer sleeping bag. I laid there and tried to drift back off to sleep. It worked.

After a bit I got up and made coffee and breakfast, wrapped up camp and headed out by 8:30. Honestly, wasn’t thinking that breaking camp would take so long. But when you’re solo and all the gear has to get on the bike it takes more planning, arranging and time. Then you attach all that crap to your steed. Securing the load is part of the packing ordeal. Unlike backpacking, this is an extra effort.

I headed up the mirror lake highway early enough that traffic was still light, for a Sunday. It was still cool outside until the sunlight hit me. The road I was looking for was off to the left about 3 miles up canyon. It was called Spring Canyon. Aptly named and gorgeous, it is lightly trafficked and dispersed camping is here and there on primitive spots.

Climbing and climbing, the trail wouldn’t relent for 1600 vertical feet. The dirt road was rocky, loose, and dusty. It made for great riding, even with the gear. It was rowdy enough that it kept most vehicles out on the highway. For a laden fat bike it was easy work. My mind is still kinda blown, looking back and thinking there was no way that this guy with his fat tires was gonna clear the incline that looked like a rocky river bed. Surprised, I rode to the top of it. Not sure I understand the physics of how that all happened but it did.

From there it was all 4×4 road; I meandered through the forest seeing lakes and spur roads all over. I noted that this would be a great spot to explore by bike with good times to be had. It was beautiful. Haystack mountain was the backdrop for the entire area. So everything looked like it had to be amazing.

I found a few campers. But because of the nature of this road it was more like normal, with high clearance trucks and jeeps, and tents! Tents, friends. No tin shelters. It was great! And quiet. And soon the road became a graded thoroughfare with the appearance of more RVs. I was way past the point of disappointment in our society.

I was really close to finding my wife and hopefully some yummy snacks. I was approaching Washington lake, an upstream neighbor to Trial Lake. Lots of people. After the two days with relatively few people around I felt like I had shown up at a mall.

Filtering water out of Trial Lake and then taking a swim in the same I was ready for some relaxation. The car had been left with a hammock. I turned on the radio and laid in the hammock for hours. The radio was a hand radio. I was waiting for my wife’s sweet voice to come over the air and let me know where she was.

She radioed in at two miles away. She was surprised to hear my voice come back. I swung gently in the hammock, in the cool mid-day air of the mighty mountains of the Uintas. It was a good day.

Fat Bike Packing Day 2 of 3 (cont)

Dry spigots. No water whatsoever. I had half a liter of water remaining from the last stop. And there hadn’t been much water to draw on between that point and Wolf Creek Pass. There was a family hanging out at the campground. They had children all about. The shade was cool. They were on their way out and kindly asked if I needed some water. I said I would love some. 1.5 liters later I was a bit less concerned about my situation and impending search for water. I could wait for water until I got to Soapstone Basin where I would be able to fill at the RV station.

I enjoyed my oatmeal for lunch with some coffee, to help speed my muscles’ absorption of the nutrients. I repacked my bags and made some modifications that I will use down the road to stabilize my bags.

These ideas proved to be gold. I lowered the front bag framework so it would hold the bag out of the way for my GPS unit so I could navigate without taking my hands from the bars. The saddle bag was creeping lower and lower and my rear tire would assault it from below. I made use of a cord to tether the rear of the bag to my saddle, drawing it tighter and hence up. This worked quite well. After one hour and twenty minutes at Wolf Creek it was 1:20 PM and time to move along. The clouds had moved in.

To Soapstone Basin:

Soapstone Basin is kind of activity hub along the Mirror Lake Highway. There’s a big pullout with an outhouse, standard Forest Service issue. Across the way is a scenic nature trail for those who want to get out of their car but retain great fear of being far from the road. A side road leads away from the highway and presents the RV sanitary station with sewage service and fresh water service. Further up the road are summer cabins, Forest Service cabins, the main area Guard Station, and the road continues up over the mountain to a pass also called Soapstone.

The road over the pass is steep in places. In order to avoid cutting down the mileage and riding really steep roads again I opted for a route that took me further out of the way but skirted the most significant climbing to the pass. The route would start right down the way from the Wolf Creek Campground where the spigots were dry.

This was a fantastic plan. I assumed since it was all Forest Service roads I’d have a clear shot to my destination. I did. As I headed out from the Wolf Creek Campground I took the highway east that lead toward Hanna. It was about a minute of pavement travel and then to dirt again as I turned onto FR174. I climbed and climbed. After two minutes of climbing I was on the descent. For miles and miles I rolled effortlessly through the undulations of the alpine hills.

Then the ATV in their million variety appeared on the road. It was like a super-highway of ATV, RV, side-by-side, motorcycles, and all the other funny, petroleum driven toys that folks never hesitate to haul into the backcountry. Every few minutes I was dusted entirely by the passing by of one of these powered vehicles.

About every twenty minutes or so I would pass a veritable village of RV’s. All corralled like the olden days when pioneers would circle their wagons for the night. Then, it was a survival thing. Today, not so much. They’ve brought the comforts of home to the backcountry in order to “get away”. That’s a little unbelievable. I was happy to zoom by quietly on my fat bike. The end of their kind is near. Petroleum based fuel prices will halt even the most stalwart redneck.

So, the climbing. I hit one decent climb that took about thirty minutes. On that climb traffic was so bad that I had to stop several times to let the myriad vehicles make their snail-paced way up and down the track. Ridiculous wasn’t the appropriate word. The only words for it are all offensive.

Then I crested the climb and came to a sandy quarry where four-wheelers were playing on mounds that had become something of a four-wheeler stunt park. The quarry was clearly used as the source for the road bed I had been riding. Moving past this point the road was literally all downhill, for nearly 11 miles. It was like a ski day.

I let the momentum take me along with it. My two wheels and gear coasted along some of the most scenic backcountry I’d ever seen in the Uintahs. It was breathtaking. There were alpine meadows, conifers as far as the eye could see, and this one dirt road cut across the southern part of it unobtrusively. The sky was blue with the occasional large cloud. The cloudy shade was nice. The altitude made the heat of the sun so much more radioactive, and it could be felt.

All the camps I passed were roughly all the same: RV’s everywhere and hordes of ATV’s outside. Except maybe a couple of them. One in particular had horses and one of the horses was eating grass untethered. That seemed to be a possible problem. I rolled right on by with no possible problems of my own.

I found one camp that had been vacated and if I’d had the water I would have camped there. But I didn’t. I was still on borrowed water. So I stopped there as if it were a gas station and ate some smoked oysters. The smoked oysters were probably the single best addition to my excursion’s meal plan.

While I was sitting there like a bump on a log, that lone, untethered horse ran by… followed by its owner on another horse. They didn’t come back. And I didn’t run into them when I headed that same direction. That horse was long gone. My fat bike was just hanging out, not running away from me, eating nothing but a little chain lube.

Department Store Bikes (part 2)

Ok.. In this post I want to discuss how a bike is built properly. I’m going to keep it as simple as I can so it can be a short post, hoping to not further bore you with my ranting.

derailleur bolt barely threaded into derailleur hanger

Here’s a classic move, components installed half-ass and adjusted to work in a half-ass position. In this picture you see that the derailleur bolt is only a couple threads installed into the derailleur hanger, or where it mounts to the frame of the bicycle. I wish I had pictures now to show what the results of this kind of installation looked like. Anyhow, poor shifting is the least of your concerns. Once the derailleur becomes detached it can dangle from the chain and end up in the spokes of your spinning wheel, bringing the wheel to an immediate stop.

If you’re not ready for the rear wheel to abruptly stop spinning then you’ll have to compensate for the bikes abrupt deceleration by flying over the bars in one of many different crash scenarios.

Check all your bolts. All the time.

In this next example, we have a new bike from Walmart discount stores. On top of it being new it is a full suspension bike. This typically means that the rear assembly of the frame is bolted together housed in bearings and shims. If even one of these bolts isn’t properly fastened and seated to torque the bike could spontaneously self-destruct:

Proper assembly of bikes is critical to your safety. Don’t underestimate the value of a well built bike and a well assembled bike. If you’re going to get a department store bike then at least pay a local bike shop to snoop through it and make it safer to ride. Note: “safer” not “safe”.