San Juan Huts Tour: A Bike Adventure and a Life Adventure

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By Cimarron Chacon, Gazz Smith, Jamon Whitehead — 

The Concept: Start in Silverton Colorado and ride to Moab Utah off road via the San Juan and La Sal Mountains. Why not? 

The Problem: It’s over 215 miles, and over 30,000 accumulated vertical feet. 

The Solution: Huts! That is, you ride from hut-to-hut, with each hut spaced 30-40 miles from the other.

The Illusion: They carry all your stuff and it magically appears at each hut, with each hut being a quaint cabin in the woods, with soft pillows and meals prepared for you.

The Harsh Reality: They supply warm beer (sometimes coldish), a cabinet stocked with food, a bunk, and a nasty sleeping bag. You have to carry all your clothes and personal stuff, which even in the minimal, turns out to be either a big pack, or an array of novel frame bags on the bike. Either way, you are carrying about 20 pounds of stuff. You feel it, especially on climbs that end at over 12,000 feet. The hut is, well, a 20X20 foot shed. No running water. No electricity. No cell phone contact. You shit in a 20 foot tall composting toilet. Each day you drag your sorry ass out of bed, eat about three breakfasts, climb up to the composting toilet, pack your stuff, and then make it to the next hut.

On top of the world on the San Juan Huts Tour. At 12,300 ft the air is thin at Rollin Pass.

The Harsher Reality: It’s hard. It’s really hard. We had the idea this would be like connecting Park City singletrack sections. It’s not. There are no signs. It never lets up. You MUST learn how to read maps or get really lost. Getting lost in the dark at 11,000 feet after 10 hours really sucks. Being on the bike 5-13 hours a day was hard. Finding the hut was hard. Making food was hard. Sleeping, or trying to sleep, was hard. Wearing the same damn socks shorts and shirt for 7 days was hard. Getting up at 5:30 am to beat the desert heat was hard. Bathing, that was almost impossible.

The Reasoning: It was awesome. It was transcending. It was life changing. It pushed limits and created bonds for life. You are on your bike for 7 days, with no outside contact, in the wilderness, on your own. It was pure bliss!

How it all went down:

The idea to take on a 7 day hut trip emerged in early January of 2014. The Huts hold 8 people. But that sounded crowded, so we settled on a group of 6. Cimarron and Bryce are husband and wife. Kim, Gazz, and Jamon had all been good friends with Cim and Bryce for years. Jamon and Sean are brothers, but had never met Kim or Gazz before the trip. None of the group had met Sean before the trip. Everyone in the group had being looking for the opportunity to take on this adventure.

After crunching schedules we found a date to take the trip in late June. We hoped that the snow would be melted at the high altitudes at this time, but that we would avoid the heavy summer rain season. Once you put down a deposit, San Juan Huts sends a Biker Bible, along with detailed route descriptions and a GPX file – but no map. Instead they give you a list of BLM and FS maps you can purchase that have the roads and trails shown. The San Juan Hut route offers several options to get to the each of the huts. Some alternatives are for wet weather passage, others are to add more single track into the adventure. The traditional Day 1 route begins at the Durango Mountain Resort and is 18 miles on a forest road with a 3725 foot total ascent. The alternative singletrack trail begins at Little Molas Pass and you ride the famous Colorado Trail above the timberline to a high point of 12, 600 feet at Rolling Pass and is 20 miles. The group was feeling strong and had been training hard for this trip since January. Option 2 was chosen. This one decision set the stage for the adventure to come.

Sunday, June 29:

With half the group traveling from Salt Lake City and half coming from St George our group of 6 met in Grand Junction where a shuttle to Silverton was arranged with friends. Silverton is known as a bit of a wintertime backcountry ski Mecca, and mostly attracts the red neck/ ATV crowd in the summer time. Our ragtag group was a bit out of place, but this was the closer and cheaper option to start our trip than Durango Mountain.

As we unloaded at the hotel in Silverton we slowly came to the realization that when those two cars pulled away there was only one way back to Moab – by bike. Before we were fully checked in Jamon scurried across the street to the liquor store festooned with a 50 point elk rack mounted to the front wall and acquired 12 beers. This aided the unpacking and settling in process. This was the first time we had all sat down and actually talked about the week ahead and who had brought what. Among the things that were missing, we somehow decided Cards Against Humanity was part of the “must have” list. The six of us set to work using 3 x5 cards to make our own game cards to pack in with us.

About the time we were good and comfortable (which at 9000″ is not very) it was time for dinner. Cheese, beans, tortillas and tequila sounded pretty damn good and a Mexican joint at 9000 feet that also boasted world famous margaritas sounded extra good. We made our way through town and saw the highest Harley shop in the world…that was Silverton.

Monday, June 30:

Let’s preface the day with the idea that long travel days, beers and high altitude do not always make for the best morning decisions. It was HIGHLY recommended to us that we get a shuttle from Silverton to our start at Little Molas Pass, but that would have meant getting up at 5:30 am. Knowing we were unprepared and unable to awake that early, we opted to sleep in and begin the adventure by bike in Silverton. After a quick Breakfast we started a 7 mile road climb at 9:30 am.

We climbed, straight up a mountain road. It was steep. Once we found the Colorado Trail and single track we enjoyed about 30 minutes of fun riding, then we were climbing again. Up steep, pitted rocky trail we went. We took turns pushing bikes and taking breaks. A single mile took an hour… 1 to 2 miles per hour was our speed. Altitude, thirst and exhaustion we setting in by mid-day and we still had a long way to go. We refilled our bottles with the snow pack run-off hoping there was not much to contaminate it at the top of the world. Cimarron began to have signs of altitude sickness and slowed the group. Jamon and Sean rode ahead and then thought they were lost and panicked as the landscape turned from high alpine to tundra.

Finally the group came together at the top of Rollin pass around 4:00 in the afternoon. A quick assessment of pace and time revealed we would not finish by dark. It was decided that Jamon and Sean would forge ahead to set up the Hut and make dinner and Bryce and Gazz would stay with Kim and Cimarron. Sean passed around altitude pills and we post-holed a zig zag trail across the melting snowpack to the ridge. It was beautiful.

The San Juan Huts had 8 bunks, with pads and sleeping bags. But don’t forget your bag liner.

Getting off the snow pack was an adventure; big drifts meant skiing off the top then running out with bike in hand. Bryce did this 3 times to get the girls bikes down. The trail was heading downhill. Giddy with excitement we naively thought the hardest part was over only to discover we had to head straight back up again. This time it was up a trail of huge boulders. Riding was not even an option here. We took turns handing bikes up. It was hard. Eventually the daylight turned to dusk and Gazz decided he would ride on ahead to catch Jamon and Sean. They got to the junction of the road just before dark and realized there was no way the group coming up in the dark would know where to turn. They build a huge arrow out of rocks and twigs hoping this would lead the way. Jamon glimpsed the hut at 8:45 PM. He and Sean got a fire started and began cooking and drinking beer.

Meanwhile back on the trail Kim, Bryce and Cimarron found dusk turning to dark and the temperatures dipping. A quick assessment of gear meant they had enough warm clothes to keep going forward or even spend the night on the mountain. The only problem is they only had 2 lights between the three of them. Staying in a tight group they attempted to ride down the twisty single track in the pitch dark. After a couple of near crashes Bryce rode on ahead and Kim and Cim got off their bikes yet again and walked.

The arrow saved the day for the stragglers, as they surely would have turned the opposite way. A quick ride down a fire road and they hear a familiar voice. Gazz had gone back out looking for them, and they all rolled up to the hut at 11, 500 feet together at 10:45 pm. It was a very long 13-hour day, and the longest 27 mile mountain bike ride-ever.

Tuesday, July 1:

The group woke late with lots to do – fill bladders, prep bikes, eat, eat and eat more. Pancakes come to mind, with pineapple and syrup. Hut departure wasn’t until 11:45. We had 29 miles ahead of us and 3722 feet of climbing. (We unanimously decided against the optional single track for Day 2.) The route was fantastic, a gravel road descent. Down and down we went until the junction with Highway 145. There was a brief discussion about bailing — at least Cimarron and Bryce. What if she could not handle the altitude again? The idea was abandoned and all 6 began the first climb of the day toward Black Mesa.

The day was beautiful, sunny and warm. The group sighted a river. A bath it was not, but it would take some of the stink away. Gazz got naked and laid right in. The rest of the group were not so brave, but everyone enjoyed the break to splash around in the water.

This night was much better, with the main group arriving at the hut around 6:45. Cimarron arrived slightly behind as she took it easy on the last big climb over 10,000 ft.

The Huts were stocked with exactly what you need to ride from Hut to Hut each day.

The hut was stocked with Oskar Blues beer and there was an amazing view and sunset…and then stars.

Wednesday, July 2:

Today the group was feeling great and up for an early departure at 7:15 am. The route was gravel all day and would include a big descent of 3500 feet to bring us to the Valley below at a comfortable 8000 foot elevation – we just had to get off the mountain first. It seemed pretty straightforward, head north 7 miles then turn. But the actuality of multiple T’s and Y’s was not that simple. We took a wrong turn and went in the wrong way for almost 3 miles until we hit a dead end. Jamon and Bryce took turns carrying Cim’s pack so she could breathe and climb back up to the top. This is not easy when you already have your own pack to carry. But the guys got inventive.

Day 3 of the San Juan Huts Tour. Down from the mountains, we could ride fast through the meadow.

We finally got back on track and headed down some of the most technical double track of the trip. Down meant more air to breathe and Cim’s pace picked up and she could carry her own pack once again. Our bikes carried us fast through the aspen groves for the next 7 miles. The next highlight of the day was another 10 miles or so down the road. It was a giant warm water reservoir – time for another bath. Chamois were changed for shorts and towels and snacks dug out of the bags and we headed for the shore. Most of the group jumped in and swam only to discover the lake was a bit nasty. We are all afraid we would get swimmers itch. Yuck.

It was now very hot and we were all low on water, but none was available at the Lake facilities. The group would press on and figure out how to share what we all had left. Arrival time at the Hut was close to 3:00 PM. With hot sun and lots of time and energy left we began doing what any respectful mountain bike group does – drinking beer to excess. We played beer can bowling, did a lot of Porch’in while listening to retro punk on Jamon’s iPod and hung outside until the Gnats began to attack.

Hut number 3 of the San Juan Huts Tour. The porch became our gathering place and refuge from the sun.

With the missed turn we pedaled a good 43 miles on Day 3. Bryce slept on the porch in the wind.

Thursday, July 3:

By the 4th day memories are now of food, quirky habits, and imagination. Pedaling 34 miles in the day was just secondary. We had become orienteering pros. Dual map readers and my trusty 20 dollar cycle computer checked our mileage. No worries.

Hung over as bejesus, Sean’s French toast tasted like heaven. By now we were getting up at first light and out the door for a 6:45 am departure. It was gonna be a hot, flat day, with very little climbing. The “Apocalypse” store we were promised had supplies was out of business, but at least there was cell service.

This abandoned old car became the inspiration for our favorite Hut story – “The Mole People.”

Next stop, Uranium country, which offered our first views of the LaSalle Mountains near Moab and diminishing views of Lizard Head Peak in the San Juans. The Hut was perched on the edge of amazing canyons of red rock. Arrival on this day was pre-noon. The beer was warm, and thus began the story of the Mole people. Mole people dungeon and Mole People car were all just a few of the things you make up after pedaling for 4 days straight. Bryce’s favorite meal was Chicken Noodle Soup with Green Chiles. He slept on the porch again that night.

Friday, July 4th:

Packing for heat meant fruit, and there was plenty in the Hut panties. Departure was at 6:30. A few words about the days 33-mile pedal include: rolling terrain, slot canyon views, red sand, goat heads, chucky rocks and impossible decent. Ya, we should have taken the other option. If you ever take this trip take the option on the road. Billed as “Single Track” and called Catch-Em-up –Trail” we were lured to this choice by misleading website images and unwarranted warnings about taking the highway road option. We found ourselves at the edge of Paradox valley looking at the steepest, unrideable decent imaginable. It may have been a trail once, but heavy rains and erosion had created a steep boulder field. Teaming up two, by two we slowly picked our way down this impossible descent. Our only solace in the mid-morning heat was seeing the River below. This was also a disappointment, with toxic water warning signs the River was not swimmable. We pressed on. It was crazy hot.

The hut was in an odd place, and the most miserable we had been in, with no working windows or ventilation. It was almost like they were trying to encourage us to give up and rent a room at the B & B. But there was a store in town so we called for ice and ice cream. This meant cold Budweiser and PBR for the 4th of July. We made the best party we could out of the situation. When in doubt, have a toga party.

After looking at the map we made plans for Cimarron’s evac. It was decided it was too risky for her to climb back over 10000 feet and possibly have a worse case of altitude sickness.

Saturday, July 5th:

A 6:45 departure was scheduled for those pedaling to get in front of the sun. Cimarron hung back at the Hut waiting for her 9 am ride into Moab. In the first 90 minutes of the day we climbed, 2K of Vert. It was hella steep. The rest of the climb was gradual, but were in Red Neck land – red neck camping and another reservoir you could not swim in. There was no more sage as we climbed back to the pinyons, then up to the evergreens. The evening was crazy with clouds, rain, and lightning – we were in Middle Earth. This was the coolest hut yet and it was stocked with good beer. We enjoyed lots of New Belgium brews around the fire. The night got a little crazy with Sean burning Jamon’s favorite yellow button up shirt with the sleeves cut off. There may have also been some peeing out the window. What the hell, we were almost done.

Sunday, July 6th:

Today was a 7 am depart with a steep high climb to Burro pass. Today was the Whole Enchilada. It was a long descent to Moab in the heat. We need sunscreen. We ran out of water at LPS, and Bryce almost bailed down road. We finished at the Porcupine Trail head on the banks of the Colorado River at 2 pm. It was hot. But it was the best parking spot ever, with water, beer and chips and loved ones all waiting. We celebrate the accomplishment by playing the river. Kim’s stayed in Moab with her family and we said goodbye. The rest of us got a shuttle from Desert Rat Tours to Grand Junction. Then we all went home.

“We finished!”

Final Thoughts:

During this trip we created our own little micro-community of six stragglers and bonded. The difficulty of the trip either brought you together, or could rip you apart. In our case, we became a sandy, smelly, sometimes loud, traveling family/circus.

Nuts and Bolts
  • Web Site: http://sanjuanhuts.com/
  • When to go: Mid June to Late September
  • Trip Length: 6 Nights, 7 Days
  • Total Distance About 230 miles (traditional route is 215)
  • Cost: $895.00 Per Person
  • What’s provided: Huts, Sleeping Bags, Crazy Creek Chairs, Great Variety of Food, Custom Maps, Custom GPS Tracks, Turn by Turn Directions, Backup Support.
  • What is not provided: Lodging before and after the trip, shuttles back to a vehicle, bikes, packing equipment.
  • Start: Silverton, Colorado (The traditional start is at Durango Mountain Resort)
  • End: Moab, Utah
  • Temperature range (ballpark) 50’s to 70’s in San Juans and 90’s in Paradox. It can be much warmer in July and August. Be prepared.
  • Water availability – The Huts are well stocked with water and food. Make sure to carry enough on the trail and bring a filter.
  • Cautions: Be prepared for extremes. Be prepared for goat heads (in certain areas and later in the season). Be prepared for mud in certain seasons. Be prepared with water and filter (although you may not need the filter on the trail) for the hotter temperatures. Be prepared with food and water on Day 1. Once we got to the first hut, we had everything we needed.
  • If you are going to take an alternative route (there are alternatives each day), you need to bring a little extra with you for the day.
  • Information: Once you sign up for the route, the San Juan Huts will provide information on how to best navigate your trip.
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