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Life on the Mountain

Riding the Rim

The White Rim Trail of Canyonlands National Park

Jun 6, 2013 - 12:47 PM
Riding the Rim

 Wedged between the Green and Colorado rivers, which converge at its southern tip, Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park is a wild and unfathomable sandstone monument, a massive plateau, hewn over millennia by inland seas and ancient waterways. Although wilderness in the truest sense — tangled and desolate, rock and desert, a prehistoric landscape — Island in the Sky contains a single streak of civilization, the White Rim Road, which loops for approximately 100 miles around the plateau’s rim, to the depths of its shadowy canyons and back again. The history of the road goes back to the 1950s, the Atomic Energy Commission and a frenzied search for uranium. Ultimately abandoning their extraction efforts, the former prospectors left a billy-goat trail, a twisting yet passable thoroughfare that now serves as Utah’s most legendary bike tour, the White Rim Trail. 

Bike touring, especially in the waterless wasteland of Canyonlands, requires ample preparation. For those riding over multiple days, bike panniers and B.O.B. trailers are nearly always replaced with a gas-guzzling gear mule. The only amenities available to you once on the trail are toilets, scattered across 20 campsites, and the road itself, which, being navigable for vehicles with good clearance, does allow for the helpful “sag wagon.” Whatever the size of the group, a tour on the White Rim means a mountain of supplies.

The typical load: three days worth of food and water (one gallon per person per day), beer (five cans of PBR per person per day), ice blocks and beefy coolers, extra bike parts, plenty of tools, music-makers, sun showers, Desert Solitaire, fleece pants and jacket, hiking shoes, tents, sleeping bags, pads, camping chairs, tables, clean socks, headlamps, garbage bags, a first-aid kit, and, finally, a truck bed to haul it all. The logistical requirements of this ride can be daunting, clearly. But plan accordingly and you’ll enjoy pulling into camp each afternoon, sweaty but confident that cold brews and clean socks await. 

For those less interested in washing dishes or remembering bike tubes, there are a handful of experienced outfitters just waiting for your reservation (see sidebar). In addition to having the support vehicle and supplies provided for, those on guided trips get the extra advantage of park/bike experts in-residence. Explains Laurel Hunter, marketing director of Western Spirit Bike Tours: “Our guides lead clients on side hikes; they talk about the natural environment, the prehistoric people, the ruins.” Nearly everything is taken care of, she adds, “so all you really have to do on our trips is ride your bike and set up your tent.” Ride the rim this way and your only worry will be running out memory on your camera.

The true length of the White Rim Trail depends on where you start: Mineral Road, for example, is a flat 13-mile stretch just north of Canyonlands that groups often drive instead of ride. Either way, the entire thing, for those motivated and strong enough to do so, can be polished off in a day. Most often, though, visitors take their sweet time and spend two to four days cruising the park, stopping often to marvel at offbeat spires and arches, staggering geologic features of all forms and textures. “The scenery is what really excites people,” says Maggie Wilson, co-owner of Magpie Adventures. “While the riding is fun, nothing compares to the desert surroundings.” In a landscape that challenges our human scale of things, with monolithic mesas and sheer cliffs around every corner, it’s hard to blaze blindly across this desert.

Technically, the White Rim Trail is a beginner ride, with a daily mileage that doesn’t need to exceed 25 miles. Dropping off the Island in the Sky plateau, down to the White Rim plateau, requires a switchback-laden descent. Ascending back up the same benches, on the final day, is the only truly demanding uphill. The road in between, as it meanders south (going clockwise) past Lathrop, Buck and Gooseberry Canyons, past Monument Basin and Junction Butte, is hardly technical and involves almost no climbing. At Murphy Hogback, a popular campsite for its cliff-side vistas, there’s a slight hill to the top, followed by a windy descent to begin the next morning. From there, the terrain is moderate, gradual, until the inevitable rise up and out. Still, the days can be long in Canyonlands, exposed, sun-drenched. Going in April and May is highly encouraged, if not warranted, as the midsummer heat can be brutal. The White Rim is nonetheless a ride for all levels; a trail gradual enough for novices yet with scenery so alluringly that even the most expert rider shouldn’t be bored.

At the end of day, whether you’ve been dragging or kicking butt, whether your trip is guided or organized independently, your group will find relief at camp. The White Rim is a comfortable tour, at its finest when enjoyed slowly, with good food and company. Moab, a biking mecca, is famous for its formidable, slickrock rides. So it’s saying something when the most epic of the area’s multi-day rides is fairly easy. The reason being: Island in the Sky is otherworldly. Throw in icy beverages and fish tacos with homemade guacamole, at a campsite perched below precipitous burnt cliffs, and you’re guaranteed an unforgettable time.


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