Bikepacking Canyonlands’ White Rim Trail

By Cole Taylor – Last fall I discovered the world of bikepacking, the blissful union of my two favorite activities. I was inspired to ride the White Rim from browsing bikepacking.com, where there is a page that was helpful in planning. I called up two of my mountain biking friends and asked them about doing it over spring break, at the end of March. Thankfully, one of them said yes.

 

On the White Rim Trail. Photo by Cole Taylor

Neither Louis nor I had ever done any bikepacking before. One month before the trip we didn’t have any bikepacking gear of any kind. I was also able to find an article on bikepacking.com about making frame bags. In a stroke of luck, my mom had some lengths of Cordura nylon she’d been saving in a closet for several years. We sewed frame bags for both of our mountain bikes. I was using the Giant Trance I had just purchased in January, and Louis was on his GT Verb. I managed to fit my stove, mess kit, stakes, 16 ounces of water, multi tool, and some of my trail food in my frame bag. Additionally, Louis and I both bought bikepacking seat bags. This was where I put my pad, jacket, clothes, and food. Three liters of water fit comfortably in my backpack.

We knew we needed a practice run before the real deal. After contacting city officials I confirmed that it is okay to camp out in Eagle Mountain, Utah (just try to avoid private property). For anyone wanting to go on a weekend bikepacking trip or try it out for the first time, this is a great place to do so. We found that the gear we brought worked just fine and we had everything we needed. We felt prepared to take on the White Rim.

Day One: Shafer Road to Airport

19 Miles

We made the long drive down to Canyonlands and pulled off at the intersection of Highway 313 and Shafer Road, which takes you over the edge of the mesa and out to the Rim. After eating lunch, Louis and I were itching to get started. It felt a little surreal that we were actually doing this. Before long, we were cruising down the road’s smooth, steep switchbacks. The cliff edge of the upper mesa rose on either side of us like the majestic walls of some ancient city, framing the distant horizon, on which we could see Dead Horse Point and the canyon through which the Colorado flows. The ride down this section was definitely the biggest emotional high of the entire trip for me. With the road winding into the distance below us, we flew down the switchbacks and felt the breathtaking thrill of the wild, beautiful expanse of nature that extended endlessly ahead.

The ride on this day was easy, thanks to the massive elevation drop, and we reached Airport campground in less than two hours. There were some people at our campsite with a broken down jeep, waiting for another party to return from Moab with parts. They, like many other groups we encountered, had mountain bikes along with their vehicles. Save for two crazies we met who were doing the whole road in one day, no one beside us was doing it self-supported. This is because the only place to filter water is at Potato Bottom, from the Green River. We weren't completely on our own, however- we had someone camping up in the main part of the park who agreed to hike down and meet us on the second day with water. Other than that, we carried or filtered everything we needed.

Louis and I spent the rest of the day practicing our bunnyhops and walking around, and then we built a tent out of a tarp using our bikes as supports. We cooked dehydrated dinner on portable stoves (no campfires allowed) and then went to sleep. Well, Louis went to sleep. My side of the tent kept coming loose due to the gusts of wind that night, and I struggled to relax enough to fall asleep. Somehow I snatched a few hours before the next morning, which was good because Day 2 was going to be long and tiring.

Day Two: Airport to Potato Bottom

47 Miles

We knew this day was going to be a beast of a ride, with considerable elevation gain and many miles of road to cover. I would have liked to space our campsites more evenly, but we only got on the reservation system four months prior when almost everything was taken. We rose before sunrise, ate, and got on our way. At a predetermined time, we met our water supplier at the intersection with Gooseberry Trail. After that, the road followed the edge of the mesa (the white slickrock here gives White Rim road its name) as it squiggled in and out over the vast, breathtaking surrounding landscape.

The biggest thing that impressed me about the desert was the overwhelming silence. When we stopped for breaks, we would sit on the dusty soil and hold our breath. Nothing. No breeze. No airplanes. Just the faint static in your ears that you hear in the total absence of sound. Every once in a while, the scuttling of a lizard’s feet, movement of a blade of grass, or sound of a bird’s wings from 200 feet away would catch our attention. There was one spot where a particular cliff formation made it so you could shout and hear the echo of your voice for 10-15 seconds. It was incredibly therapeutic to spend three days without the constant buzz of suburban life playing in the background.

There were a couple climbs on this day that were pretty difficult. The last of these had 500 feet of elevation gain culminating in a loose, exposed patch of road Louis and I affectionately named the Filthy Beast. We had quickly discovered on this trip that climbing with a fully loaded bike is a lot harder than climbing normally. Shortly before reaching the base, we met a pair of cyclists who were doing the whole route in one day. We talked and climbed the road together, and I learned that their names were Jeff and Walter and that they had driven all the way from Kansas to ride the Rim. Meetings like this are one of my favorite parts about mountain biking — you may be from different parts of the country but you always have something in common. After the four of us reached the summit, we saw that road started to descend gradually toward Potato Bottom, the site of our next camp. By mile 43, Louis and I were utterly exhausted. When we finally rolled into the campsite, we gratefully flopped onto the ground, took our shoes off, and felt the cool sand between our toes. Before sleeping, we filtered water from the Green River. The bank was eroded and crumbly, turning a simple filtering run into a long, sketchy ordeal. Once we had what we needed, we went back to camp and retired to our sleeping bags. It would be a good, long night of rest after a hard day.

…Or, it would have been, if I hadn’t heard a tiny scuttling of feet on the tarp next to my head. A tiny mouse had decided to hang out in our camp while we were trying to sleep. He was cute, and he stopped bothering me after the first time, but poor Louis said that after I went to sleep the mouse climbed over him seventeen times (seventeen! Yes, he was counting) before he decided to relocate and sleep on the boulder that was our kitchen. After that he finally went to sleep. Guess we were even after my sleepless night on the previous day.

Day Three: Potato Bottom to Mineral Road/Hwy 313 Junction

26 Miles

We packed up faster and started earlier this morning than on the first and set out as soon as we could, eager to finish and get back to the car (non-dehydrated food! That alone was enough to motivate us). The road went up and over a low plateau, then followed the river as it wound in a wide, lazy arc. We passed the sign that marked the end of White Rim Road and the beginning of 13-mile Mineral Road, and not long after, came to the switchbacks that take you up onto the very top of the Island in the Sky mesa. After clearing the switchbacks, there was not much to note about Mineral Road except that it is incredibly flat, smooth, and boring. If I did White Rim again, I’d definitely cover this road first to get it out of the way. Our trip came to an unexpectedly early end (but one that we appreciated) when we spotted a van in the distance, driving toward us. I had already pledged that despite how much I despised the piece of hell that was Mineral Road, I would bike all the way to the end. Louis, I said, could hitch a ride if he wanted — we had already been offered at least one — but I wanted to stick it out so I could say I completed the entire ride, all 92 miles of it. However, it’s hard to stick to that philosophy when your friend pulls up in the van six miles away from the end of the road, you’ve just eaten your last granola bar, the sun is shining overhead, and the road ahead seems to climb slowly on forever. We decided to put our bikes in the van and enjoy some non-dehydrated food while we drove the last six miles. We felt satisfied enough with what we had done.

All things considered, our first try at bikepacking went really smoothly. We didn’t run into any major mechanical failures (the biggest scare was when Louis’s leaky brakes started smoking on the way down Shafer Road), the weather was ideal, the pit toilets at every campsite were stocked, and the mileage was not too difficult. I would recommend White Rim to anyone interested in bikepacking. If I were to do it again, I’d like to make a few changes. First, I’d do it the other way around, starting on Mineral Road and ending on Shafer. Second, I’d want to drop water at the Gooseberry intersection to avoid relying on someone for water. Third, I’d split up camps more evenly so we cover more miles on the first day and fewer on the second. If you do this route, definitely do what we did and plan it in the spring or late fall so you avoid the crippling heat during the middle of the summer. Other than that, White Rim was a blast. Now I just have to research where I’m going to bikepack next.

Cole Taylor works and volunteers at the SLC Bicycle Collective and loves the Utah cycling community.

Mineral Road on the White Rim Trail. Photo by Cole Taylor
Louis and I with all of our gear just before leaving. Photo by Liz Taylor
Cole Taylor overlooking a canyon on day 2 on the White Rim Trail. Photo by Louis Lozier
Sunset facing east from Airport camp ground on the White Rim Trail. Photo by Cole Taylor
Our janky tarp tent- we gave up and slept under the stars the second night. Photo by Cole Taylor
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