Sprawled out in a vividly green meadow a full mile above the expansive slickrock canyon country that stretched all the way to the horizon, I relished the relatively cool afternoon air. I had set out on this bikepacking trip to cross the Colorado Plateau, linking disparate parts of the region that I knew well via unfamiliar, remote country following as much singletrack as possible. But the heat of these cloudless mid-June days had taken their toll on my body.
After poring over my stack of maps trying to find a way to get as high as I could, I had decided to climb to the start of a dotted black line, a singletrack that wound through the peaks of the island-like Abajo Mountains before plunging into the searing heat of Canyonlands National Park far below. Laying in shade at the edge of an aspen grove, I marveled at how many backcountry trails like this one I had ridden over the past couple weeks, distant from any sizeable towns, infrequently ridden and in absolutely amazing places. And it was on this trip that I realized how strongly I gravitate toward these trails and the backcountry riding experiences they afford, something difficult to experience on single-day rides.
I spent the first two weeks of this trip hopping eastward across the high plateaus of south-central Utah–the Markagunt, the Paunsagaunt, the Sevier, the Aquarius–before dropping down into the low, hot, desert below. My route largely followed a series of remote singletrack linked up by Dave Harris, a friend and fellow bikepacker, who envisioned a rugged mountain bike route across the entirety of Utah. Dave’s valiant efforts resulted in linking 500-plus miles of stellar riding across half the state utilizing trails such as the Virgin River Rim, Marathon, Grandview, Table Mountain, Great Western…the list goes on.
If any one of these trails was situated above some mountain-bike destination town, it would have a reputation known far and wide. It’d be the long trail to ride in that area. Shuttle services might pop up. Detailed topographic maps would be available in the local shops. Steep hike-a-bike sections would be rerouted to be made more rideable and sustainable. And photos of pro riders shredding the trail in their fluorescent garb would adorn the pages of all manner of mountain bike mags.
But instead, these trails remain quiet, their grandiose views taken in only by the ravens and jays that call these forests home. Days go by without any tires or boots crunching along the track. Vegetation grows out into the path without anyone minding. Trees fall and take weeks or months to be cleared.
And then a bikepacker comes along in search of a solitary experience in an inspirational landscape, and finds amazing riding on singletrack hidden deep in the backcountry. The bikepacker grins widely, in disbelief at the miles of rugged trail that so few other riders get to experience. Delightfully techy trail, endless descents, unrivaled expansive scenery, a sense of adventure that few cyclists will ever experience–these backcountry trails offer something unique and special. And it’s trails like these that are on the radar of and protected by the fewest advocates.
Back in that meadow on a saddle high in the Abajo Mountains, I pondered all this, but being weary from miles of riding and the warm afternoon sun, I was unable to articulate to myself just what was so special about these rugged trails. I hadn’t really spoken more than a few sentences to anyone else in the two weeks I had been out, and I wasn’t a particularly expectant conversational partner to myself. At that moment, I just knew that the days of bikepacking on these backcountry trails were generally the most rewarding days I could imagine on a bike. Eventually, I roused myself from the cool, damp grass and began the hours-long descent down toward the canyons that dissected the desert below. And quickly, I recognized that this trail down through Robertson Pasture was arguably the most amazing descent on the entire Colorado Plateau, even rivaling anything Moab has to offer. And at least for now, this landscape is preserved as part of Bears Ears National Monument.
After two more weeks of riding and exploring, Dave Harris’ original vision of a trail-rich bikepacking route across Utah was more or less complete, linking St. George to Moab and ultimately to Durango. Quiet dirt roads and 4×4 trails connect more remote singletrack in the La Sal Mountains, along the Uncompahgre Plateau and through the mighty San Juans. To me, this route represents bikepacking at its finest–spectacular backcountry landscapes and experiences, small-town resupply and hospitality options and miles of unforgettable, seldom-traveled singletrack riding where you least expect to find it.
Editor’s note: This route described in this article, called the Plateau Passage Route, will be published by Bikepacking Roots in April, 2017. Bikepacking Roots is a new non-profit route development, advocacy and conservation organization dedicated to serving the bikepacking community. Kurt Refsnider serves as the organization’s executive director.