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.

Fat Bike Packing – Day 2, Soapstone

Back out on the open road I descended on into Soapstone Basin by following the switchbacks down the mountain-side. The road was beleaguered by trucks hauling smaller off-road vehicles. The men driving these trucks were of size. They never move a muscle in order to move about.

This is how the Terminator won the battle against humanity.

Water. The spigots were an oasis in a country that shouldn’t have been devoid of water. There was a river nearby. This seriously shouldn’t have been the first water I’d seen in so long but I failed to trust the sources I did see because of the large populations seemingly living in such close proximity. This water was good. No nasty flavor, no hint of chlorine. Hell, it may have been free of Fluoride. Don’t tell anyone. It’s a good thing.

I drank a bunch. Topped off my reservoirs and headed immediately out to find a place to camp. I wasted an hour thinking I could find a place just there off the road. But in the end I paid $20 for a spot over a the Soapstone campground. At least, I thought, there should be running water there. I was wrong. There wasn’t a single spigot that worked. Turns out that the only running water at a campsite was the Lost Creek site, some 15 miles up the road.

So I grabbed a sweet site in the middle of the campground close to a toilet. It was open and spacious, like a comfortable house. I had room to walk around and contemplate my existence. After setting up camp I grabbed my extra bladder and headed for the sanitary station once more 1 mile back the way I came. I was able to bring back one more gallon of water.

I used it all before I left camp the following morning. Mostly drinking it.

I never really took stock before when backpacking how much I used water at camp, between drinking and cooking, one gallon per person per night seems to be about par for me. The next time I do this I’m simply going to bring an empty jug. And planning routes around water is such a legitimate thing. Which isn’t a thing I’ve ever spent much time thinking about! While backpacking in the true backcountry I just grab water where I find it. But it always seems more common. With bike packing, as this was my first experience touring altogether, water stops seem more dispersed and something to consider while planning routes and camps.

With all the consideration for water, the other main concern was food. I had definitely brought enough, with an emergency supply of bars and electrolyte powder as a luxury, just in case. But I didn’t have anything else. Night took its time getting to camp, descending slowly as I ate some more oysters and mashed potatoes. That felt like a dinner I’d repeat and recommend to others.
The camps adjacent to me were literally all trailer or camper oriented. I was there with a bike, empty car park, and a lone single man tent. My experience was so completely opposite of my fellow campers that it was nearly only laughable.

I built a nice fire out of some scrap wood I’d found around the area. While I didn’t mind the solitude a fire is about as useful as a cold fire pit when you’re not sharing it with someone. My fire-ring companion is my wife. We always enjoy them together. This time, I was alone and staring blankly into a fire that simply burned for warmth. There was no social gathering around this fire.

About 9:30 I stuffed the fire out and headed for the tent. I tied the bike to a tree so that the local children would have a hard time borrowing it for the night. There were a lot of children about. And I slept really well that night. It was quiet except for the one guy with his generator running into the night and early in the morning. Not sure what he needed all that electricity for. Probably his electric toothbrush.

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.

Fat Bike Packing Day 2 of 3

I looked at the clock, 7:23 AM. It was early enough. It was late enough. I hadn’t rested much, heart rate still somewhat elevated I felt better in motion than trying to lay there. This day would start off a little dry, water-wise. The last stop I made for water was far enough back down the road that I drank about half my stash. After making dinner and trying to re-hydrate I didn’t have a lot to ride with to the next water stop. It definitely meant I couldn’t make coffee or oatmeal. I reversed my lunch and breakfast meal plan, which mean’t I could cook oatmeal for lunch.

About 8:20 AM I was back on the road following the undulations of FR309. I would experience some of the highest points of my ride on that ridgeline, riding spans of road over 10,000 feet. I descended quickly to the road junction, the intersection that would become a road back to Heber through Lake Creek or the other direction that would take me further out. This was FR054. Once on this road I quickly found West Fork’s headwaters.

This was the spot where I would have liked to have been camped. There was running water. Either way, I hadn’t made it that far the night before. So I enjoyed a coffee and water break there. It was my personal creekside cafe; I had some snacks and hit the road again.

My break was possibly too enjoyable. I had a long way to go. From the ridge top I’d ridden moments before I could see the major peaks of the Uintah mountains that congregated around the Mirror Lake highway. They seemed so far away and I was trying to get within 10 miles of them that day. As I broke my rest and started back up 054 and on to 091 I could see a better view. I tried taking pictures but it was so far away. I couldn’t capture the grandeur of what I was trying to do that day.

Up onto Lightning Ridge I rode and finally enjoyed some quiet from the backcountry traffic that had pestered my route. The views were spectacular and I was in the highest country around. The pines had set in all around me and the scent of old pine sap and oxidizing pine needles filled my nostrils with nostalgic rumination of all the places I’d known with that lovely smell. The dirt road had become less traveled and less maintained. My bike was content. I was content. The experience was peaceful.

The bike I’d chosen for this trip was a Rocky Mountain Blizzard -30 fat bike. I’m not a believer that their sole use should be for winter. I ride it all the time in the summer. In fact, this is my only bike. I have a RockShox Bluto on there. And it’s pretty sweet. For this bike packing thing, it was perfect for carrying the load while maintaining some kind of smooth ride. The tires could deal with the rocks and ruts below while comfortably suspending my body and gear above the bike.

Needless to say, there were plenty of comments from the backcountry peanut gallery. The “backcountry”, as it were, was loaded with bow hunters and folks in side-by-sides, RV’s, campers, trucks, four-wheelers, etc. I was never quite alone. There were sections of my ride that I experienced highway level traffic, but not trucks and cars; atv’s of all sorts were buzzing like they had business to do. There were villages of campers, the RV type, not the tent type, everywhere.

I buzzed quietly by, the sound of my DT Swiss ratchet-drive the only signal of my passing through. The whir of my huge tires didn’t manifest since the road had become so dusty. My only emissions for the day would be some expelled gas from my gut. I was really the only small polluter out there.

Riding along the ridge I pitched down toward Wolf Creek Pass and Campground. This was where I had planned to make a water stop. Well, I made a stop, started cooking my lunch and nearly out of water headed for the spigot. Dry.

Fat Bike Packing day 1 of 3

Headed out from home in down town Heber, Utah, I was in the completely wrong hour of the day and I knew it. The sun was in its full strength for the day and it was near 90 degrees Fahrenheit. I knew the hours following the ride would be fitful and I was right. But that could mean anything from a minor headache from the heat to full blown heat exhaustion. Whatever awaited me at the terminus of the days’ ride would be acceptable. It was time to head out.

With everything packed and my shift done for work all I had to do then was kiss my wife goodbye and hit the road. I left her with all the maps of the areas I’d cover, which Forest Service roads I would be on and what timing to expect. At the end I would meet her in the high alpine area of the Mirror Lake Highway through the Uintah Mountains, a location approximately 60 miles from home. I would either find her or her car. We had radios for getting in touch once I was close enough to where she would be in the mountains on Sunday.

She watched me ride off in a romantic kind of way, sweet and exciting. “I’ll see you in a couple of days,” she said with a kiss. Or that’s how I remember it. Anyhow, it was me and the open road. Traffic on surface streets was light. I was on the most rural roads of our rural city. It was hot. After 7 miles the pavement ended. It was all dirt from that point. I took a photo of the bike all loaded down to mark the occasion.

I had lightly chosen my gear for this, based on the availability of Specialized’s bike packing bags and my experience in backpacking. The “Specialized Adventure Gear” suited me well, was up to the task, and looked good. However I would like a different choice of color than black… my lightest and most minimal gear was with me. I had a few things along I wouldn’t take again.

The view from my route

With water and repair gear I had 34 pounds added to me and the bike. My final post will be a gear review. For now, on with day one’s ride. I made the dirt road by 5:00 PM. That was an hour later than I had hoped. I was also hoping that the canyon I was going to be climbing would be sheltered from the sun. Disappointed as I found no shade. Fortunately the road had been recently graded and relieved of most serious ruts. Once the road pitches up it doesn’t relent. I had programed the route into my GPS which has this annoying yet informative feature that shows where you are on the elevation profile, in real time.

I realize the chart doesn’t do this climb justice, but the brute of the climb was over the last 8 miles climbing 3500feet with a bike that was 34 pounds heavier than normal. The benefit was knowing when to anticipate breaks in the climbing which would last for mere seconds. The last climb of the immense slog appeared to have no end, at no point could I estimate a break or relief, it just kept on climbing. And the hours were passing. I knew that there was no way for me to make Wolf Creek Pass that night. I had half an hour of daylight by the time I finished the climb.

With a heavy bike and tired legs I finally hit a plateau in the climb and the ridge line riding started. I needed to find a camp so I wouldn’t be setting up in the dark. The place I found was next to some drunk bow hunters. They went on into the night. “Remember that old time back at Stinky Springs?” and other nonsense that they reminisced sung across the gentle breeze of the cool mountain air.

My one man tent was a great shelter and pretty comfortable. I was a 15 mile bike ride from home. I had a nice phone call with my wife, something that surprised us both because of the seemingly remoteness of my location. We said good night and I turned in, sleepily hearing the nonsense that my drunk neighbors were rambling.

But sleep was fleeting. The exertion and heat had rewarded me with a moderate headache. It was the price for traveling when I did. It made it near impossible to sleep. My heart rate wouldn’t settle either. I promised myself that I would sleep in if it were possible but when morning came I couldn’t’ help but leave that camp. Adventure awaited me and I knew it.