Solitude and Unridden Trails in Canyon Country

Escaping into canyon country along the Arizona-Utah border

The mercury climbed into the 90s and 100s today across the Southwest, signaling a clear and abrupt conclusion to the spring bikepacking season. It’s now time to seek out higher ground, cooler temperatures and the shade of pines and firs. But the past few months have been ideal for bikepacking in the stunning yet hostile deserts across the region, and adventurers have done just that, returning inspiring dispatches: Canyonlands’ White Rim, the Grand Loop of the Colorado-Utah borderlands, Kokopelli Trail, the Arizona Trail, the Black Canyon Trail, the wilds of central Nevada, the old mining towns of southern Arizona, and the list goes on. The early season opportunities are endless in the Southwest.

Striking out on any bikepacking trip, though, invariably requires a bit of planning, some map work, packing up gear and food and intentional consideration of goals and expectations. The latter is, however, often overlooked as most bikepackers have at the forefront of their thoughts a good route, appropriate gear and enough food. But vague goals and murky expectations of what one will experience on trail can be a recipe for frustration and disappointment, emotions that most of us seek to leave far behind when bikepacking.

There’s no canyon country like Utah’s canyon country.
There’s no canyon country like Utah’s canyon country.

On a recent escape into the rugged canyon country along the Arizona-Utah border, I found myself stopped in the shade of a sandstone outcrop staring into a slot canyon some 2,000 feet below. I had spent the afternoon picking my way along marginally rideable and largely forgotten trail. Washed-out descents and bike-on-the-back climbs came seemingly around every turn. But in between those had been absolutely stellar slickrock and cliff-edge riding like none I had ever experienced. As I snacked on dried coconut and nut butter, my eyes tried to trace the white line of the trail down the precipitous and boulder-filled slope below.

The snaking trail aimed straight into the deep shadow of that canyon. Excited to get into the shady confines between those towering sandstone walls, I picked up my bike and started hiking down the chundery rut of a trail. On most days, hiking downhill could get under my skin. But on that afternoon, I didn’t give it a second thought.

My preparation before leaving home had been relatively hasty–I had to squeeze in the trip before the heat of summer hit. I was able to find a bit of information about the trails I planned to follow; they are old pack trails that were scratched through the rough country in the 1910s and 1920s. They still see occasional use, but the 30-mile-long route sounded like it was in rough shape, and I’d have to take some dirt roads to close the loop. My goal for the trip was simple: have a renewing solo experience in the backcountry. I didn’t want to spend the entirety of my days moving–I wanted to have time to enjoy the solitude, the surroundings, the stark canyons and the gentle evenings.

Hike down into the canyon, hike back out, pedal for 10 minutes, then repeat.
Hike down into the canyon, hike back out, pedal for 10 minutes, then repeat.

A usual, I created a track of the route for my GPS in Topofusion, and in the process, I examined the jagged profile of the route: repeated deep canyon crossings, a 2,000-foot descent in just a mile, slot canyons and most likely endless sand and loose rock along the way. On most days, I’d dive into a 50-mile ride with just a small pack. For this route, I was guessing that there could be as much as 15 miles of hike-a-bike along the way. Two days sounded more reasonable, but recalling the desire to slow down and relish the experience, I stretched it and planned on being out there for three days. With no resupply options, 2.5 days worth of food got stuffed into my bags, and I marked the few reliable springs on the topo maps I printed.

On the first evening, I stretched out in a soft pocket of sand at the crest of a narrow pass of sorts between two slot canyons draining in opposite directions. The red glow of the setting sun was retreating toward the clifftop above. My arms and back were achy from lifting my loaded bike over boulders and pushing it down rocky streambeds. But it had been a fantastic afternoon. I’d covered 9 miles in 4 hours, making ample stops to admire the ever-changing rock formations and to chase lizards. I’d filled up on water amid a raucous chorus of tree frogs, hadn’t detected a single sign of recent human travel, and the scenery was some of the most stunning I’ve seen anywhere.

On many past trips, I’ve found myself frustrated at seemingly unending bike pushing and carrying. The unexpected hike-a-bikes were always the worst, causing me to stomp out the first few steps while cursing under my breath. But my expectations of what’s often involved when riding a loaded bike on backcountry trails have slowly adapted to reality. Yes, the joys of being on a bike are what make us cyclists, but the reality is that loaded bikes sometimes get pushed, carried and schlepped around if we venture off dirt roads and well-groomed trails. And part of the preparation for such trips needs to involve a quick look at topographic maps to get an idea of what terrain is going to likely force you off the bike and into hike-a-bike mode. Knowing this in advance can prevent unrideable terrain from becoming a source of frustration.

Backcountry dinner at its finest: sweet potatoes, smoked salmon and cheese.
Backcountry dinner at its finest: sweet potatoes, smoked salmon and cheese.

More rocky streambeds, short sections of rideable trail lined with encroaching prickly pear paddles, endless mats of wildflowers and a sinuous maze of canyons were the themes for day two. Late in the afternoon, I slid my bike off my back upon reaching the top of a climb over recent rockfall debris. In front of me was Surprise Valley, a long, green basin surrounded by orange sandstone cliffs and domes. The trail dropped into the valley and descended out of sight. I excitedly remounted, dropped the saddle and launched downhill, my wide tires floating over the sandy singletrack. In a matter of minutes, I snuck through the slot canyon exit of the basin and popped out into a second lush valley, complete with a weathered picnic table perched on the bank above a small stream–a perfect spot to stop for the night. I left my bike behind after cooking up dinner on my little alcohol stove and scrambled up one of the domes to watch the sun set. Complete silence–save for the calling of distant tree frogs–surrounded me as the sky faded from orange to purple to grey.

On the third and final morning, I was already rolling as the sun crested over the slickrock domes above. The trail miraculously became a bit more well-traveled thanks to cattle having been herded into the grazing land below. Traversing rocky surfaces between deep canyons, I followed the endless line of cairns. Delightfully technical riding was a treat after a day and a half of rubbly trail. Relieved of most of my food and water, my bike popped up tight switchbacks, and the short hiking sections seemed almost effortless. And each time I got back on my bike for long sections of rideable trail, I was absolutely elated. What better way to wrap up a trip than with a big grin from riding that exceeded all expectations?