Biking White Rim Trail is exhilaratingly tough and worth every minute
Contrasts and adventure await those who mountain bike the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park in eastern Utah. Just two hours from Grand Junction, riders can leisurely meander the length of the trail’s more than 80 miles, stopping at side attractions that offer awe-inspiring views and a break from pedaling.
The contrasts are endless. Roller coaster-like downhill rushes are countered by tedious muscle-burning hill climbs. Warm temperatures and vivid blue skies during the day transition into cooler, glorious star-filled nights. And barren, sun-baked red dirt and rock are dotted by pink cactus flowers in bloom.
Those longing for solitude and inner reflection can fall back and ride alone on long desolate stretches. The rhythmic breathing, birds soaring overhead, snow-capped peaks in the distance, and canyons and monuments make for a visual therapy and mental healing. At the end of the day, you can embrace the camaraderie of the group gathered at camp.
I first biked the White Rim Trail two years ago, excited by each day’s challenge and unsure of what the next day would hold. I came away with an appreciation for the outdoor experience and its spiritual calm. I was invited to ride again this past spring and didn’t hesitate to sign up.
There were 14 in our group of mountain bikers this year. One rider had more than 30 White Rim biking trips under his belt and others up to a dozen. The oldest in the group was 69, the youngest 27.
What drew me to the White Rim was the chance to experience again the rugged beauty and the challenge of successfully negotiating areas that previously defeated me.
Our group of friends met at the Island in the Sky Visitor Center parking lot and loaded two support vehicles with gear, water and coolers of food and drink to last four days and three nights.
The journey began under warm, sunny skies and the descent of the 5.3-mile Shafer Trail. It’s steep and fast, with switchbacks and breathtaking scenery at each curve. We stopped for lunch near Musselman Arch where visitors can walk across the thin, 80 foot-long wonder. It’s not for those with a fear of heights.
We arrived at the Airport Tower Campground after an 18.8-mile first day ride. Meals were divvied up — a couple of riders were responsible for the lunches, while others were responsible for evening meals. A delicious dinner of chicken fajitas preceded a hike to the White Rim edge as the sun set, and as I gazed at the depth of the layers and monuments in the canyon below, I realized a larger force than I, was at work there.
Day two, the longest ride of the four-day adventure, began shortly after sunrise. I don’t care how padded your biking shorts are, getting back into the saddle the second day takes effort. Thankfully, there were numerous photo opportunities along the way and stops to reapply sunscreen.
At our lunch stop around the 40-mile mark, we sought shade under the few trees at the White Crack Campground to escape the 95-degree heat. Our campsite that night was atop Murphy’s Hogback, accessed by a steep climb that had riders pushing their bikes.
The third day — bottoms somewhat accustomed to the bicycle seat or perhaps a dull numbness had set in — began with a downhill adventure under brilliant blue skies. At noon, 55 miles into the journey, we stopped at Black Crack, a 1/4-mile geological wonder. The small crack along the white rock surface of the earth offered a cool breeze rising from the depths.
At Wilhite Trail, we ate lunch and several of us practiced team building as we traversed the depths of a slot canyon, exploring twists, turns and drop-offs. We discovered the importance of working as a group, knowing that alone, technical areas in the small canyon were impassable, but as a team, quite possible.
Our final night was spent at Potato Bottom Campground. The relentless heat had dwindled our ice supply, and one of the support trucks traveled into Moab earlier in the day for more ice and cold drinks.
The fourth and last morning dawned cooler and cloudy. On our bikes by 9 a.m., the shortest day mile-wise, proved to be the most challenging with lengthy climbs, followed by a stretch of fine sand that swallowed bicycle tires like quicksand. A magnificent ride along the Green River took us to the base of Mineral Bottom Road, which in August 2010, had been washed out by torrential rains. Efforts to restore the stretch were completed in March 2011.
The slow and trudging 1.5 mile uphill trek out of the canyon brought our trip’s accumulated mileage to 82.3 miles, and a cold drink and incredible view greeted us at the top, along with celebratory toasts, high-fives and laughter among the weary and dirty riders.
Would I ride it again?
In a heartbeat.