Bikepacking The Canyonlands

By Chris Shane


Extreme solitude, fortressed by sandstone buttes and pastel red cliffs, of Utah’s Canyonlands have called to me for some time. On a bike, the White Rim Trail circumnavigates one hundred miles of million-year-old canyons carved by the mighty Green River. The bikepacking loop offers up a relentless mix of hardpack gravel, loose fine sand, chunky class four hills and descents, and long periods of (bumpy) exposed sandstone. 

Late February afforded our group of three the perfect daytime temperatures and with the sun still relatively low in the sky, an ethereal, almost never-ending late winter light. Last winter our plans to do this loop were thwarted by several snowstorms, making it impassable by bike. This year, we discovered much better conditions.

Planning for a two day ride and picking our backcountry site just over 50 miles from our starting point, we found the perfect balance of forward progress with stops for photos and filming for a YouTube episode.

This just might be the best bikepacking loop in the world. Starting with a breathtaking 1,000 foot descent into the canyon, we encountered a unique landscape so evidently shaped by the elements of nature. As commercial jets constantly flew overhead the stark contrast of the world above, shaped by human beings, came into focus

Along the White Rim, every campsite is unique and worthy in its own right. Though the most desirable sites sell out minutes after release, our site was more than adequate. Offering us an unobstructed view of several mountain ranges and a nearly full moon. Despite the moderate temps during the day, the mercury dropped to 17 degrees at night. This called for a Nalgene bottle full of hot water tucked into our sleeping bags as we turned in for the night, sending us into a peaceful and well earned rest.

The second day continued to provide beauty and adversity through challenging climbs and prolonged sections of rough exposed sandstone along the cliff rim. Eventually we found ourselves staring up at the famous Shaffer Trail, a staggering 1,000 ft switchback climb that winds its way up the canyon. Although we were physically at the limit as we pedaled our loaded bikes up the climb, we stared in awe at the road carved out of a sheer cliff. Marveling at engineering feats while suffering seems to aid in passing the time.

As we climbed out of Canyonlands, I experienced a familiar yet bittersweet feeling - happy to be nearing the end of the adventure and completing our objective - yet looking down at the canyon, already missing the simple nature of life below. Steadfast forward progress, water, food, shelter, good company, and nothing more needed.  

Back on fresh pavement, pedaling steadily on main roads as cars whizzed by, I thought back to a moment at the end of our first day. Just a few miles from our campsite as the sun dipped near the horizon, after several burly climbs and a full day of sun on our wintered New England skin, we found ourselves barrelling down a beautiful stretch of gravel with the magnificent La Salle mountains perfectly in view. It’s scenes like these that remind me of why I ride bikes and prioritize adventure when I can - these are memories that will last a lifetime, earned by pedaling under my own power.

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