Classic desert tour offers both pain and delight


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.)


typical trip might follow an itinerary similar to this: Depart down the
Shafer Trail Road around 9 a.m., with the objective of having lunch and
getting a group photo at Musselman Arch. A mid-morning stop at the
Gooseneck Overlook (Goosenecks of the Colorado River) breaks up the
ride. After lunch, it is a pretty moderate ride to make it to
Gooseberry camp by mid-afternoon.

should be riding by 9 a.m. on the second day, with the plan to have
lunch on top of the climb up Murphy Hogback. The afternoon ride is more
moderate, generally dropping downward to end up along the banks of the
Green River, camping at Potato Bottom or Hardscrabble Bottom. The third
day parallels the Green River, contouring upstream along its eastern
flank. Once the White Rim Road hits Mineral Bottom, the route turns
east on the Mineral Bottom Road and climbs steeply up a grand
switchback hewn out of the cliff face, rising about 1000 feet above the
banks of the Green River. At this point, the Mineral Bottom road
flattens and straightens out into a mellow dirt road easily traveled in
a passenger car. The scenery is not so dramatic on this portion of the
ride, so many riders choose to skip it and leave a car at the top of
the climb out of Mineral Bottom.

are the highlights of this classic tour? The scenery along the entire
White Rim Road is truly spectacular. Sandstone spires and arches rising
thousands of feet above the slowly moving river, framed by the
snowcapped peaks of the La Sal Mountain Range, provide a picturesque
backdrop to the first day’s ride. Pictures taken of people standing
atop Musselman Arch, a seemingly wafer-thin slab of rock, have a
magical appearance as if those in the photo were standing in mid-air.
The sheer cliffs of the roadside drops descending the Shafer Trail
Road, and ascending the Mineral Bottom Road, are heart-stopping,
particularly if you happen to be taking a corner a little too quickly.

trip is a personal reflection of the riders on it, and it should not be
without amenities. Those who plan ahead, train on their bike, prepare
great cuisine and bring the proper equipment will undoubtedly have a
great time. With a vehicle supporting the ride, the food and drink can
be downright indulgent. Ginger-wasabi ahi downed with sake or tacos de
pescado downed with Patron followed by late-night dance parties are not
unheard of, although the next morning’s ride generally has a more
somber tone.

the opposite side of the riding spectrum are the hard-core, one-day
tour riders. Their first hour of riding is predawn, their pedal cadence
is mechanical and almost robotic, and their water consumption gigantic.
Any stop is a luxury, and it is never a casual affair, as eyes are
always on the clock, if there is a hope to finish in the daylight
hours. These riders are in it to finish, and enjoyment of the scenery
falls in a distant second place to simply completing the ride.

camp you fall into is entirely up to you, depending on your threshold
of pain or your tolerance of pleasure. Either way, the trip is well
worth the effort, and definitely merits the title of a western
“classic,” a must-do for any accomplished mountain biker.

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