By Tom Diegel — This June was a harsh early reminder that Utah is a HOT place in the summer! And while bicycling is a good hot weather activity since we enjoy the convection associated with our speeds, realistically it’s weather that allows for short rides. But we still want adventure rides! Long days in the saddle, and overnight/multi-day bikepack trips, especially as our summer fitness comes around. So what to do? Sun Valley singletrack and Teton area gravel grinders are nice, but at 4.5 hours away those are a bit painful for weekend forays. So, what’s an ambitious Utah adventure cyclist to do locally? Go high!
When you are in Salt Lake Valley it’s easy to look up towards the Wasatch for the alluring mountains and the associated lower temperatures, and indeed we are blessed with a lot of good singletrack that is both high and shady. But it’s pretty challenging to find a good combination of bikepack-able trails or roads, available water, and decent campsites in our steep local Wasatch. However, doing a bit of a drive beyond the Wasatch gets one quickly into the land of endless gravel roads, little traffic, a surprising amount of water, great campsites, and blessedly cooler temperatures at 9,000 to 11,000 feet.
Uintas – the forgotten stepchild of local mountains, the Uintas are probably best known to cyclists for a couple of great road rides up the Mirror Lake Highway and Highway 35 up to Wolf Creek pass. But a keen eye will spot a few gravel roads heading off from each of those, and those represent plenty of opportunity for adventure. The Soapstone Basin road is a gravel connection between those two highways via a nice climb and descent, and has spurs going off it to the east and west that get you into even-more remote high elevation gravel roads. Another good Uinta access option is the road that climbs up out of Heber City (Center street) past Timber Lakes up over 4000 feet into the Uintas, and after the summit it connects to the west side of the Wolf Creek pass on highway 35 via Mill Hollow road, to the east side of Wolf Creek Pass via the West Fork of the Duchesne road, and to Highway 40 via Currant Creek Road, which in turn provides an easy connection past Daniels Summit and Strawberry Reservoir into the 9000+ foot terrain between Highway 40 and Highway 6.
Many of us have ridden or raced up the Chalk Creek Road out of Coalville as an out and back on the pavement, but what is lesser known is that off the end of the pavement it turns to nice dirt/gravel and connects over to the northwest side of the Uintas, where the North Slope Scenic Byway road traverses the whole north slope of the Uintas around the cool 9000 foot level and crosses many permanent streams with great adjacent camp sites en route to Flaming Gorge reservoir.
Manti Skyline – If the Uintas are the forgotten stepchild, the Manti Skyline is the never-known third cousin. We see it off to the west as we drive down to Moab, but as more of a plateau than a mountain range it doesn’t really get the respect it probably deserves since it’s not as craggy and dramatic as its neighbors Mt. Nebo, Timpanogos, and Cascade Ridge, but it hides a cycling jewel: Skyline Drive. Discreetly leaving highway 6 about two-thirds on the way between Spanish Fork and Soldier Summit, Skyline Drive climbs and then winds and undulates for 27 miles to the intersection with Highway 31 (the paved road that connects Fairview/highway 89 with Huntington and Price), follows that paved road for 10 miles, then peels off it and goes 55 more miles all the way to I-70, and spends most of its time between 9,500 and 11,000 feet, where even on a 100 degree day in the valleys it’s only in the mid-70’s at those elevations.
If you can figure out a point to point trip that’s great, but there are also lower elevation parallel roads that connect Scofield reservoir and Joe’s Valley Reservoir on the east side to enable nice loops. Even though these are lower elevation roads they are still mostly over 7000 feet, and due to the Central Utah Project, there are reservoirs seemingly everywhere both down low and up on Skyline Drive that were built to supply farmers in the valleys on both sides of the plateau, so camping and refreshing swim options are plentiful. Note that the southern section of the Skyline Drive provides more enjoyable riding, but it is a bit rockier and therefore slower than the relatively well-graded graded gravel road of the northern section, and despite the fact that it’s called a “plateau”, the whole thing has many 500+ foot climbs and descents that will test your legs and lungs at over 10,000 feet.
The up-and-coming Western Wildlands route that is a farther-west – and ruggeder – version of the Great Divide route utilizes some of these roads as it winds through Utah, and south of I-70 it continues up into the equally-high and cool Aquarius Plateau and the Bryce area, which are also great mid-summer zones but are a bit more of a drive for an adventurous weekend of riding.
It doesn’t take too much map-reading to identify plenty of 50-100 mile loops in that Uinta-to-Highway 6-to-Skyline Drive that can be done over a weekend, and being only a 1-2 hour drive from the Salt Lake Valley, it’s easy to leave from home Saturday morning and get in a nice weekend of bikepacking in to recharge the batteries and get in some nice adventurous riding without cooking yourself in the Utah heat!