By Tom Diegel – While it’s easy to think about far-flung places like Europe for bike tours or time-intensive big trips like the Great Divide for bikepacking adventures, it’s good to keep in mind that there are fantastic paved and dirt road combos near Salt Lake City, Utah that offer up fantastic tours for quick weekends or three-day outings. From the West Desert in the spring and the fall to the higher altitude (and therefore cooler) Wasatch Plateau and the Uintas there are lots of options. And thus it was in the heat of the summer that we cooked up a super-scenic yet simply-local tour through the Western Uintas last year that’s perfect for the new generation of gravel bikes.
Mirror Lake Highway and Wolf Creek pass are both well know to local cyclists as fantastic road climbs, but what’s lesser known is that they can be easily connected by a well-maintained gravel road “through” Soapstone Basin (I’ll get to that later) and once over Wolf Creek, the adventures can just keep going.
Our weekend tour started in Kamas and had the familiar spin up the first few miles of the Mirror Lake Highway. However, about where the winter gate is and the pavement starts to pitch upward, we took the right onto the Soapstone Basin road. I had sorta thought that a road going through a thing called a “basin” would be fairly flat, but it turns out that Soapstone is a pretty healthy climb up and out of the Provo river canyon to a pass between it and the South Fork Provo, where the Wolf Creek highway is. The gravel road climb and descent was the first good test of our tire choice: doing a paved/dirt road combo is always a little tricky to plan for in terms of tires in that there's going to be a compromise. Either you are humming along somewhat annoyingly for many miles on pavement with the knobbies that you brought to march through the gravel, or you're spinning out, sinking in, or flatting with too-skinny or too-slick tires on the gravel but blissfully zipping along on the roads. With the new generation of “gravel bikes” this is less of an issue, but still, as Burke Swindlehurst points out in his description of his epic Crusher in the Tushar, at some point your tire/bike choice will feel wrong, and you just gotta be okay with that.
In this case we anticipated that we'd be on gravel for about 25-30 miles and on pavement for 85-100 miles, so we opted for pretty road-friendly tires.
A ways up the Soapstone Basin climb suddenly we saw a couple of cyclists coming at us, which was pretty surprising: we weren't on the roads, and we weren't on singletrack, and those are the two venues that Utah riders ride! But again, Gravel Bikes are changing that, and these two were a couple of 60ish guys on Gravelers doing a smaller, but similarly-proportioned day ride (Kamas-Wolf Creek-Soapstone-Mirror Lake-Kamas) and they were so stoked; “We have always been roadies but we realized how many gravel roads are in Utah and these things open up a whole new world!” Until, that is, they saw us with our light overnight gear, and realized that the ability to do weekends or more on both surfaces opened up an even-bigger world of covering that many more wild miles. It's not often that a coupla roadies on expensive carbon bikes are obviously envious of a couple of old steel bikes, but these guys were, and as we parted ways we realized that those guys would be buying the gear to take their bikes on overnights by the end of the summer.
The riding over the Soapstone pass was great; the Uintas seem to be characterized by a wide band of aspens and pines that goes up to about 8500 feet, and then it transitions to nice open meadows. If you head for the cooler hills over the weekends and are on gravel roads, you’ll undoubtedly see a fair number of internal combustion-propelled Utahns camping, and for our tour over a hot weekend, a lot of folks had escaped to the Uintas for a weekend of “camping”. As an example, we passed one guy who was just sitting out in front of his RV in a lawn chair in the full midday sun by himself, in front of a fire-less fire, listening to classic rock turned up loud enough to drown out the generator that was cranking out the power to turn up his stereo, and staring at us as we chugged by him up the hill. There’s no doubt the both he and I had exactly the same thought as we looked at each other: “I could never, ever do that!”
After cresting the “basin” (pass) we did a bit of a descent down to the highway, where we turned left and climbed the last couple of familiar road miles to Wolf Creek Pass. Many folks from Salt Lake and Park City get to the 10,000 foot pass and turn about, since the ride from PC, Kamas, or Francis to the pass is a healthy ride round trip itself. But on a weekend adventure we were able to carry on, and the 10 mile descent down the backside is equally great and took us into the agricultural community of Tabiona and the Duschene river valley. Though it’s close to our home, this area was new territory to us, and we realized that the terrain out there was more akin to southern Utah than the more-lush west side of the Uintas. That desert-type scenery is great, but it also meant that we needed to go another 30 miles to get to decent camping. But the day’s moderate distance meant that was fine at that point, as it was swift and nice pedaling.
The only mild annoyance of this loop was a few miles on Highway 40. This major conduit from Summit County to points east is a bit busy, but it has a pretty wide shoulder and the buzz of traffic only lasts for a few miles before the quiet conduit of the Currant Creek valley turns off to the north, complete with a “watch for bicycles” sign right at the start. Currant Creek is headed by a dam, so there's almost always water in it, and after traversing the arid desert we found ourselves a great, dispersed, creekside campsite shaded by willows and cottonwoods. The soak in the cool creek was a welcome relief from the 70-odd mile day.
On Sunday morning we had a nice spin up the paved Currant Creek road, which was traffic-free aside from the occasional campers heading back out to get to church. Soon enough – as we anticipated – the road turned to gravel and we started a long grind up to another 10,000 foot pass that had some steep sections, but of course that resulted in more great views of the high Uintas in the distance.
We anticipated more gravel for the 5000 foot plunge down to Heber City, but were surprised to find – just a mile or so below the pass – the surface of Forest Road 083 turned to butter-smooth pavement than snaked its way down a sublime descent through the aspens, now with the views encompassing the Wasatch Back and the Timpanogos massif. We rolled into Heber City with well-warmed brakes and turned right on highway 40, where we realized that the highway had a huge traffic jam due to a constriction to one lane. Doing a not-very-good-job of keeping the smug look off our faces, we spun past hundreds of virtually-parked cars to our turn onto Highway 32 that goes up and over the small pass above Jordanelle reservoir and back to the familiar roads between Francis and Kamas, for another manageable 65 mile day.
Getting out of town on an impromptu weekend adventure? Check. Great, new riding terrain? Check. Riding our bikes all day for 2 days? Check. Nice riverside camping? Check. Starting only an hour from the Salt Lake Valley? check. Another awesome bike tour! Check!
This would be a lonnggg day ride for the strong, but a much more approachable one day gravel-pavement combo is the Kamas/Soapstone/Wolf Creek/Francis loop at 44 miles. Another longer day ride would be go to south/west from Wolf Creek pass on the gravel FR 054 to that great FR 083 paved descent.