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Thursday, October 29,2009

Classic desert tour offers both pain and delight

By Conan Bliss
If I could recommend only one classic desert mountain bike “tour,” I would choose the White Rim loop. Located in the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park about an hour outside of Moab, Utah, the 100-plus-mile White Rim Road offers mountain bikers unparalleled vistas of the vast plateau sandwiched between two mighty western desert rivers, the Colorado and the Green. A large portion of the road follows a pale off-white sandstone bench, or rim, which contours high above both of the rivers, giving the route its name. On either end of the route, steep switchbacks climb up to the high plateau at the entrance to this portion of the park.

Given the length of the ride, most riders choose to make a three-day trip of it, with a four-wheel drive vehicle for support. This means that the riders can ride a reasonable 30 to 40 miles each day, carrying a few liters of water and some snack food. The vehicle carries all the tents and camping gear, food and water containers, and of course any libations that the riders should desire. Because the route follows a somewhat marginally maintained four-wheel drive road, a high clearance vehicle is a must, and usually an older pickup does the job well. Given the location of the desert ride, the ideal time to ride is in the spring or autumn months, with the summer being too hot and the winter being too harsh.

The National Park Service controls overnight visitor access to the White Rim through a permit process. They ensure that every group knows the route and camps at designated campsites, to keep visitor impact to a minimum. Group sizes are limited, and each separate group will be assigned a specific campsite to keep the experience as wild and intimate as possible for each visitor. The excellent management of the Park Service has kept the entire route free from the usual trappings of civilization. You can expect to find the campsites free of garbage and human waste and the area adjacent to the road to be untouched by human feet. It should be noted that the route is also traveled by enduro motorcycles and some Jeeps, so you can expect to see them out and about. All of the motorized users I have encountered have been extremely courteous to mountain bikers, slowing or stopping and yielding the right of way to the non-motorized users. The Park Service posts the speed limit on the entire route as 15 mph, which is usually as fast as anyone ever travels over this type of terrain, whether on the bike or in a vehicle.

A typical trip starts with everyone meeting at a campsite near the entrance to Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park the night before the ride begins. The most convenient campground is at the junction of the Mineral Bottom Road and Park Highway 313, a few miles north of the Park entrance. Most trips run in a clockwise direction, starting down Shafer Trail Road (Shafer Wash). The riders can get an earlier start than the vehicle, which runs a sort of “sweep” behind the riders should anyone have physical or mechanical difficulties. Lunch the first day should be at a pre-determined location, such as Musselman Arch, to make certain that the group stays reasonably close together. Usually the vehicle driver is responsible for keeping the lunch coolers accessible and getting lunch set up for the riders as they roll in. The afternoon follows the same routine as the morning, with the vehicle running sweep behind the riders, following them until everyone makes it to the first night’s campsite. The following two days usually follow a similar pattern, with riders rotating in for a morning or afternoon, driving the support vehicle. (Usually everyone wants to ride on the first day, and it is difficult to get a driver. By the third day, as the riders grow weary, there are usually a number of people willing to get off their bikes and drive.)

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The National Park Service of Canyonlands has instituted a reservation calendar to help organize White Rim use. http://bit.ly/NcD1tY