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.

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 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.

Gravel Bike Problem Solving

So, with my carbon Specialized Crux I had to make some modifications to accommodate my 11-36 cassette. This was before the x-horizon derailleur platform was available from Sram just 3 summers ago. With a mid cage x0 rear derailleur I was able to use a 34/50t chainring combo as well.

The problem with the carbon Crux was that the rear derailleur cable stop was internal. The cable exited the frame just above the dropout and was designed to feed into the rear derailleur from the rear, because that’s how road rear ders work.

My conundrum was how to route the cable housing so that it didn’t look idiotic and still worked. I fished out an old thing called a “rollamajig” made by Avid (Sram) a long time ago. They aren’t made anymore…

And Nokon housing which was purchase by Jagwire and is pretty alright stuff for this application:

It works exceptionally well. And is now paired with a 36/52t chainring combo. It is a super-competitive gravel grinder.