“No language is adequate to convey a just idea of the strange and impressive scenery.” — John S. Newberry, expedition geologist for a U.S. Army reconnaissance unit led by Capt. John S. Macomb in 1859, upon discovering the landscape that is now Utah’s Canyonlands National Park.
I know now what John Newberry meant. Words fail to capture the Canyonlands, and its White Rim Trail outside Moab, Utah. At least they fail me - not an admission writers make easily. So after reading Newberry’s passage, I felt relieved to know I wasn't the first to suffer the indignity. My own visit certainly won’t be the last time a guest will admit that Moab’s magnificent surroundings defy description.
For avid mountain bikers, Moab, a four-hour cruise from Salt Lake City, is the funky hub of the fat-tire universe. Especially during spring, mountain bikes are the ubiquitous sign of a two-wheel culture fueled by visitors seeking relief from their snow-laden homes. Microbuses, SUVs and motor homes of every stripe, sporting roof racks and knobby-tired rigs, prowl the dusty streets. Life has changed dramatically in the southeast corner of Utah since the late 1950s and 1960s, when uranium prospectors found ample treasure in the Canyonlands. An old uranium mine overlooking the town has been converted to a tourist-trap restaurant. Its fluorescent mint green paint stands in stark contrast to the rust-colored red rock that rises behind the town. Mountain bikes have brought about a rebirth.
Downtown you can easily access a number of legendary routes, from the acrobatic Slickrock Trail to the scenic Gemini Bridges Trail to the heart-thumping Porcupine Rim. But those routes are essentially a quick fix for the single-day rider. Our group wanted something epic, a trip that would not only test our legs and lungs but also fire our imaginations. Our hosts, Eddie Morandi and Paula Martin, expatriates from Massachusetts who relocated in nearby Castle Valley, suggested the White Rim Trail.
A 102-mile stretch of teeth-chattering dirt road, the White Rim Trail circumnavigates the Island in the Sky District of the 257,000-acre Canyonlands National Park. The trail is not the most technical ride, though sections can test your willpower and fray your nerves. But for a chance to immerse yourself in a high-desert wilderness and its logic-defying landscapes, there are few better choices.
Our band numbers nine, eight riders and the indispensable Jake Burnett, who handles the driving chores. Jake helped us avoid one of two dilemmas that plague self-guided tours: drawing straws to see who will drive each day or having to eschew a support vehicle and lug gear in panniers or bike trailers. Neither is an attractive option, especially the latter on a multiday trip in the desert, where fresh water is crucial but burdensome. If you are wily, you’ll entice a friend who loves the outdoors but is a nonbiker to sign on with the promise of unequaled scenery. But be sure your friend is comfortable behind the wheel of a large vehicle on sketchy, and sometimes perilous, trails.
On Day 1, we head north out of Moab along US 191, turn south onto Utah Highway 313 and make a beeline to Mineral Bottom Road. There, we're greeted by a stiff, arid breeze that will accompany us for most of the next five days. The pace along the long open section of Mineral Point Road (also called Horsethief Trail) is crisp, and the topography is flat, but the trail surface has a corrugated washboard texture, prompting a word of thanks for our suspension forks. Scrub brush panoramas and distant rock formations provide a hint of vistas to come.
About 10 miles in, the trail drops away along a series of switchbacks. We spot a tour bus collecting clients as they surface from the canyon. As each ashen-faced rider crests the last hump, too exhausted to enjoy the accomplishment, anticipation grows. Any climb that takes so much effort promises to be a howl in the opposite direction. Eddie and Paula urge caution. The soft corners can easily grab a wheel, sending us over the handlebars. And that means enduring a long, long drop with a decidedly rocky landing. The rusting carcasses of a few unfortunate vehicles serve as a sobering reminder that the trail doesn’t suffer recklessness kindly.
“On your left!” shouts Laura Lavoie, my fearless sister-in-law, as she rifles past. I opt for the “pride goes before the fall” strategy and manage the descent with smooth, sweeping turns, feathering my brakes, scrubbing off speed. After we loop down the face of the Mineral Canyon, we head toward Labyrinth Camp, our trail hugging the banks of the Green River.
A quick side trip takes us through deep sand to the stunning buttes of Zeus and Moses. My brother Matt, an accomplished rock climber, suffers a brief Pavlovian reaction while staring at the sheer faces of the remarkable works of nature. The next day, we hike to Upheaval Dome, a geological mystery measuring 1,500 feet deep. It is more crater than dome. One theory maintains that slow-moving underground salt deposits pushed layers of sandstone upward to form the dome. A more recent, and arguably more popular, theory is that an ancient meteor created it.
The hike is a walking geology lesson. For Jake and Nancy Allemand, a rafting guide from Moab, it is the perfect opportunity to impart the environmental ethic that thrives here. They point out the different types of sandstone — Windgate and Chinle — compacted over millions of years, and then revealed through the grinding power of erosion. Smooth rock faces of the mesas and buttes tower more than 500 feet above us, with differing shades of red and rust that indicate where fresh slides have occurred. Older faces sport a dark, tarlike covering — desert varnish — the result of minerals bleeding from the rock and being baked by the sun. Huge slabs and boulders, remnants of previous slides, litter the valley floor. Other rock formations and ledges hang precariously over us and continue to defy the pull of gravity.
We walk through a dry riverbed, with its craggy walls, and Jake warns, “This is not the place you want to be caught in a flash flood.” We spy lizard, snake and cottontail prints. Jake identifies cottonwood trees and samples serviceberries, which Native Americans mashed together with lard and nuts. “The first PowerBar,” he says with a grin. That night, I drift off to sleep with a full belly and full realization that there is so much about this country I haven’t learned.
My lessons continue the next day, as we saddle up and pedal toward Murphy’s Camp. The climb up Hardscrabble Hill is a testament to desert Darwinism, as the stronger and more technically gifted riders break off from the front. My chest and thighs are on fire, my breathing labored. Again, my efforts are rewarded. I round the ridge and find the broad, expansive vistas beyond the Green River that begin to reveal the enormity of this country. “Think about it,” says my brother, Matt. “All of New England can fit inside Utah.”
If there is a constant challenge along the White Rim, it’s focusing on the trail under your wheels, not allowing the landscape to distract you. From our perch atop Hardscrabble, we drop into Potato Bottom along a rocky scar of a road. Two camping families at an overlook look on incredulously as we rumble past and fall out of sight. Picking up speed, we swing into the sharp, sandy turns, countersteering, and prep for the next switchback, all the while ignoring the fantastic view of Bighorn Mesa at our backs.
We explore Holeman Slot, a narrow, swirling canyon polished by water and wind, before speeding along drawn-out ribbons of open road to a final, grueling grunt up to Murphy’s Camp. The heat, and a long day in the saddle, takes its toll. As the sweat runs down my legs, it forms blood-red rivulets in the fine desert dust that coats everything — including our bodies and bikes.
Set on the edge of the White Rim, Murphy’s Camp commands attention. Views span the western horizon over Stillwater Canyon and the Orange Cliffs of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The next morning, a bright sun ignites the red rock and clay of the mesas across the valley in a blaze of copper light. Fresh coffee gently draws me from my tent. Not everyone enjoys such a subtle wake-up call. Jim Black, finishing the breakfast dishes, is fishing for stray utensils when a small mouse floats to the top of the pot. As Jim leaps back in a spray of dishwater, Jake laughs knowingly. “That happens all the time,” he says. Nancy, after asking if we dutifully added bleach to the rinse water, simply shrugs: “I wouldn’t worry about it.”
The departure from Murphy’s Camp is a hair-raising affair following a precipitous pitch carved into the hillside — 800 feet in little more than a mile. Like much of the trail, it’s loose and rocky, with deep ruts jiggling your brain and working your forearms into knots. I hug the inside line like a baby hugging its mother. Once on level ground, I look over my shoulder to see the old Suburban, dwarfed by the landscape, bouncing and swaying along the trail. Jake handles the truck like a champ.
For the next few miles the scenery and surrounding formations seem to change every few minutes, a different location presenting an entirely different perspective. Huge, solid boulders balance on layers of softer rock in apparent defiance of basic laws of physics. I push through the accumulated lactic acid in my legs as the group keeps a brisk pace. Eventually, we branch onto an access road for White Crack Camp, the southernmost point of the ride. We venture out to White Crack over huge slabs of solid sandstone (“petrified sand dunes,” says Eddie), careful to avoid the fragile cryptobiotic soil, a black, crunchy crust that is actually a living organism. The soil is dotted with scrub brush and beautiful bright red flowers called Indian Paintbrush.
As we head to the farthest point, Paula shimmies along a hard, smooth edge, her metal cycling cleats scraping the white rock. “You wouldn’t want to slip here,” she says nonchalantly. I follow — and notice immediately that any slip to the left would result in a one-way ticket to the rocks 300 feet below. Above me, Matt casually comments, “Sure does remind you of your own mortality, doesn’t it?”
At the tip of White Crack, I’m reminded of my own insignificance. Before us opens a breathtaking amphitheater unequaled anywhere [else? Are we still on the White Rim Trail? Essentially, yes. This is a short out-and-back off the trail] along the White Rim Trail. The drainage to the right — the Maze District — features sharp-edged canyons and serrated cliffs that run to the valley floor, which is colored in every imaginable shade of rust and brown, highlighted in dramatic relief by sunlight and shadows. To the east, the ravines are decidedly more rounded, as if shaped by a milder force. At our backs is the moonscape of White Crack, with Junction Butte in the distance. It is difficult to leave. Even the best photographs won’t do this setting justice, and I fear my memory won’t either.
Half an hour later, we again click in and pedal to Gooseberry Camp, beside the deep chasm of Gooseberry Canyon. We stop by Monument Basin and marvel at the wild rock formations — giant stacks of clay-colored plates, piled Dr. Suess–style, by the hundreds. At Gooseberry, we’re greeted by heavy gusts, bringing waves of sand and the occasional dirt devil. “Well, these formations aren’t just here as a result of water erosion,” says Eddie. “I bet winds like this had something to do with moving things around.”
By sunrise the sand has covered everything — clothes, bikes, tents, food. We clean as best we can and pack up one last time. The foreboding Shafer Canyon stands between us and the end of our trip. Our group sets out at a light pace to conserve energy, taking in the views of Washer Women Arch, Monster Tower and Airport Tower. After four days, the landscape is no less striking. At Musselman Arch, a sandstone bridge only six feet wide spanning an unnerving gorge, we watch as Eddie and Jim gingerly tiptoe across. With the wind a constant companion, no one else dares follow.
Ultimately, we roll into Shafer Canyon. The trail appears to head straight into the vertical walls and disappear. I recall the faces of those riders we passed the first day of our trek. As if weary legs and ridiculously steep grades weren’t enough of a handicap, the wind kicks up again. One minitwister literally turns Matt around and slams him to the ground. “It just isn’t fair,” I shout to the heavens.
Prayers unanswered, I resign myself to the long haul. I try to find the right gear and a good rhythm, and begin to inch my way up the hill, pedal stroke after mind-numbing pedal stroke. The heat and wind buffets us.
Forty minutes later, breathless and cramping, I’m atop Shafer Canyon Overlook, almost giddy with adrenaline and achievement. The wind is finally at our backs, and we spin triumphantly back to Mineral Bottom Road. I’m flying, the feeling indescribable.
Boston-based Brion O'Connor writes occasionally when he's not finding an excuse to get out on his mountain bike.
For camping reservations and general information, contact Canyonlands National Park, 2282 S. West Resource Blvd., Moab, UT 84532-3298; 435/719-2313; www.nps.gov/cany. For a free booklet on cycling adventures throughout Utah, contact Bicycle Utah, P.O. Box 738, Park City, UT 84060; 801/649-5806. For guided tours, contact Rim Tours, 1233 South Highway 191, Moab, UT 84532; 800/626-7335; www.rimtours.com; or Western Spirit Cycling, 478 Mill Creek Drive, Moab, UT 84532; 800/845-2453; www.westernspirit.com.