Western Wildlands Route + Detours: Utah

I have to admit –  riding through most of Montana and Idaho, I rarely felt 100%. The random stomach bug I had really took its toll on me, draining a lot my energy for over two weeks. Rolling into Utah, my most anticipated US state, I was finally feeling strong. 

Sagebrush lands in Northern Utah

It was late September and I was in a bit of a race against the colder weather at the higher elevations that could possibly bring snow. Northern Utah was largely flanked by private land, making wild camping very difficult. I was still in the realm of the sagebrush – landscapes wide open and expansive.

The Western Wildlands Route briefly ducked into a section of Wyoming in Evanston, full of strip malls and fast food chains. The majority of the towns I passed through in Montana and Idaho were for the most part absent of these features.  I won’t say I was too good for these familiar creature comforts, though, as I headed directly for McDonalds and devoured a large fries and chicken nuggets!

Of course, I was approached by more friendly locals. One man spoke to me outside of McDonalds about bikepacking. He was planning his first trip and looking for advice. Outside of the Wal-Mart (yes, for shame) I met another lady who expressed her support for me and eagerly handed over her daughter’s contact when I mentioned i was headed to Moab. And on the way out of town, a man pulled up in a pickup, where I was briefly stopped on the side of the road. He had coolers full of ice cold water in the back of his truck and said I could take what I wanted. We chatted for a little while about the places I had been and I eventually learned that he was a widower. He seemed eager to continue the conversation with me and I sensed that this man was perhaps a bit lonely and enjoyed the company. I knew that I had miles to cover and I carried his slight look of disappointment with me when I eventually said goodbye and pedalled away.

By the time I had reached Park City, I felt like I was in a bit of a slump. The riding just wasn’t nearly as interesting as I was travelling through a much more densely populated area. I knew the best was yet to come, though, and I needed to be patient. 

I spent a few days with an inspiring French cycling family in Park City, who were my Warm Showers hosts. This couple had taken their kids, both under eight years old on various bicycle touring and backpacking trips around the world. The kids were very proud of the fact, asking me if I was a biker like them.

 “We don’t want to travel in a fucking RV,” my host said, which was clearly the preferred mode of travel for many in this part of the world. 

I left Park City with a new plan. I would deviate from the Wild West Route as there was rain in the forecast for the next few days. Not wanting to be stuck in impassible mud, I made the decision to detour onto pavement towards Strawberry Reservoir. 

I decided to head to Midway, Utah, because there was a Warm Showers host there. That turned out to be an excellent decision. I had an amazing few days hanging out with the hilarious, creative, wacky and kind Steve and Noelle and their daughter Quinn. Steve is a pretty successful Youtuber with a very interesting documentary type channel called “The Talking Fly.” Another interesting fact – these guys were a family of ex-Mormons. I was in Utah, the motherland of Mormonism. This definitely gave me some interesting insight into the religion and its stronghold on the state. 

On my planned departure date, the weather was still a bit nasty with strong wind and intermittent rain. But in the interest of time, I needed to keep moving. Again, I was a bit sad to leave this fantastic group of people behind. 

I climbed most of the day towards Strawberry Reservoir along an unpleasant and busy highway. I was relieved when I finally turned off onto a quiet gravel road, bitter and soaked in a mess of water and asphalt grime.  I found a place to camp near some RVs. The next morning, I woke up again to a very frosty tent and bike. I waited for the sun to come up and thaw me out before leaving. In the biting fall wind, I continued climbing, surrounded by barren brown hills flecked with golden aspen. I had a fantastic view of the rich blue reservoir.

Strawberry Reservoir, northern Utah

On the descent to Soldier Summit, I rode high along a ridge with an ocean of colour below.

From Soldier Summit, the Western Wildlands route traversed the Wasatch Plateau along the high Skyline Drive. But due to expected cold temperatures, questionable weather and a general feeling of fatigue, I opted to beeline it for the desert.  At this point, the quickest way was along more highway towards the community of Castle Dale, where I would hit dirt again. 

Arriving in Soldier Summit, I was exhausted and didn’t like the prospect of looking for somewhere to camp near the highway. I thought that I would risk slight embarrassment by enquiring at the gas station (that’s all there was in Soldier Summit) to see if I could camp somewhere. To my delight, the very friendly lady said yes, I could camp behind the gas station. After, she warned me the temperature was going to dip into the ‘teens overnight (about -10C). 

Camping behind Soldier Summit gas station (grey tent in the back)

I ate breakfast in the gas station on a frigid morning and reluctantly turned left onto the highway in the opposite direction of Skyline Drive. I definitely wouldn’t recommend that cyclists take this route – I just wanted to get to a lower elevation quickly. 

sunrise at camp ground in Huntington, UT

I had originally planned to ride on pavement all the way to Castle Dale, but a lady in a local bakery in Huntington told me about a dirt road shortcut. 

I was thrilled to leave the busier roads behind as I entered the silence and vastness of the desert.

From there, I headed east towards Moab, using a combination of dirt roads that would lead to the Plateau Passage Bikepacking Route. I would rejoin the main Western Wildlands Route near Bryce Canyon. In Utah, the Western Wildlands Route mainly follows Utah’s high plateaus and I was keen to get into the low desert and famous red rock scenery. 

When the colourful waves of rock began to rise out of the scrublands, I felt like I was moving through a dream. I was buzzing all over, suddenly finding it surreal to really be where I was. I had wanted to ride through the Utah desert forever and I had finally made it here. I stopped many times to take photos and attempt to absorb it all. 

I turned off onto the Cottonwood Wash road – a rough and sandy jeep track, where I only saw one vehicle all day. There was a mix of riding and pushing to get my bike across old riverbeds clogged with deep sand. I camped near the San Rafael Swell that night, completely alone under a star-filled sky. 

I woke up to very cracked and swollen lips – the sun was wrecking havoc on me throughout the trip and now it was at its worst. In discomfort, I continued along a sandy trail following a power line track towards Green River. Hitting the pavement and passing through the town was a bit of shock. I went from the silence of the desert to a busy touristy circus. I didn’t linger, bought my necessary food supplies and continued on. 

Sandy roads approaching Moab

As I got closer to Moab, the colour of the surrounding rock formations deepened to that famous burning red. I headed towards a wide open area where various RVs were parked. It was funny, but I selfishly admit that I maybe became inclined to camp near RVs because it often led to interesting conversations  and almost always food. That night’s encounter was no different. 

I was walking my bike near a group of about three RVs camped together in a clearing, with a collection of motorbikes and e-bikes. A large Grateful Dead flag was strapped to one of the awnings, flapping in the wind. One of the guys invited me over for beer and food. I was soon introduced to the “FOG” crew – the “Fucking Old Guys” as they called themselves. This group of three friends gathered every year to hang out and play in the desert around Moab. They were great to hang out with. There was a couple there – “Bubba” and his wife, whose name I forget. They had lived in Alaska for 15 years. She now worked for the State Park in Moab and “Bubba” floated around in the RV in between jobs. When they spoke, the word “fuck” and its variations often took the place of a comma in a sentence (“I was like ‘fuck’…and the fucking guy…” etc.). Old folk tunes and modern alt country greats like Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell played from a speaker. They spoiled me with huge amounts of food and we had some great conversation over a roaring fire late into the night. 

The FOG (“Fucking Old Guys”) camp

In the morning, The FOG crew fed me an enormous blueberry pancake breakfast and I leisurely made my way into Moab around noon. Getting to Moab felt like a big milestone for me – the very name evoked images of the iconic red rock scenery. Unfortunately, I was under time constraints to get to the Mexican border and I didn’t take the time to ride any of the Slickrock MTB trails that the town is famous for. I went to a bike shop and had sealant put into my tubes to safeguard me from the thorns of the Arizona desert in the future. I stayed for a night with a Warm Showers host and headed to Canyonlands National Park the next morning. From there, I started a section of the Plateau Passage Route along Lockhart Basin Road. 

Canyonlands National Park – though it looks quite and peaceful in the photo, there were many ATVs on this section of the road

Thanks to the random driver offering to take this photo…

Wild rock formations, Canyonlands

The dirt road leading out of Moab into Canyonlands were spectacular, but full of ripping side-by-sides. I continually had to keep an eye out for the four wheelers whipping past to ensure I wouldn’t be run over. I climbed to a pass and started a rough and rocky descent, which involved a bit of walking. Eventually, the traffic disappeared and I maybe saw one ATV over the next hour.

A faded out sign saying “Lockhart Basin” pointed left towards a sandy river bed. I confirmed with the GPS track that this was indeed my turn off. It took me awhile to figure out exactly which way to go. This was supposed to be an ATV/jeep trail, but all I could see was a corridor of sand. 

Lockhart Basin “Road”

I decided to trust the GPS track and started to push through the deep sand. I followed some motorbike tracks, which continued steeply uphill over a pile of rocks. The route was essentially following some kind of old drainage path cut into the cliff walls. I ended up having to push, drag and carry my bike uphill. It seemed impossible that a jeep could ever have made it through here. 

After a genuinely difficult uphill struggle, I reached the top and finally, a distinct trail. The view across Canyonlands was magnificent and I was completely alone. I didn’t even make it 60km that day, but I was too exhausted to push on. I didn’t care – I ended up at one of the best camp spots of the entire trip.

The red canyons all around burned bright in the fading light. The shadows took on imitations of life in their shifting shapes. 

The rest of the Lockhart Basin ride was challenging and it seemed like i was pushing just as much as I was riding, but the scenery was spectacular. It was absolutely worth it.

Rough going on Lockhart Basin

 

I questioned, though, if the rest of the Plateau Passage section would be this difficult. I had hoped that I was up to the task. 

I met a few mountain bikers trail marking along Lockhart Basin for a Moab ultra running race. I met their support truck at the end of the trail and was given cold water and watermelon. The following morning, I detoured to the friendly Needles Outpost store to resupply before reaching Monticello. I climbed 1400m on mostly quiet and beautiful paved roads towards the Abajo Mountains, rich with fall colours. I had now left the heat of the Moab area behind as I headed towards the higher elevations. 

Abajo Mountains near Monticello

A high speed descent brought me into Monticello, where I decided to treat myself to a stay at an RV park with showers and laundry. The next morning, I jumped on the Plateau Passage route again, leaving the town uphill on a snaking dirt road. At one point, the GPS track veered right and appeared to cut straight into bush, with no visible trail of any kind. I walked around for a while, looking for something passable, only coming across a super rough, loose and rocky ATV trail that didn’t appear to be rideable. Eventually, frustrated, I decided to head back to town to find another way around. 

Disheartened, I decided to splurge on a pricey lunch at a new Thai restaurant in town. There, I met Arlo, a twenty something Pacific Crest Trail through hiker, currently living and working in Monticello. It was great to come across a like minded traveller, something that I don’t always find easy outside of my traveling life. I try to savour these meetings while on the road. He offered me a place to stay with him and his mom, Stacey for the night. He said he wanted to return the favour of being a “trail angel” because so many had done the same for him on his epic hike. His mom, Stacey was a very kind woman who had a very rough go at life. Still, with very little, she was very keen to feed me and make me feel comfortable. Yet again, another mishap led me to a random encounter with wonderful people. This is really what travel is all about. 

I re-attempted my exit out of Monticello, first riding a short stint of highway before hitting the dirt. Soon,  I was cruising uphill along a smooth unpaved surface, surrounded by Ponderosa pine. The idyll soon came to an end when I followed the GPS track onto the rougher Camp Jackson trail. What followed was a few hours of very tough pushing up steep and loose rock to a 2900m pass. If was without a doubt the toughest section of my trip and and I felt like I was a bit in over my head. Still, I was surrounded by autumn in all its vibrant glory.

I descended along some smoother double track painted gold by the aspen.

The rest of the day I climbed up and down along sandy roads through the pines, only seeing a few cars. I pulled off the road and into the trees to camp as the temperature began to plunge.

 All night I had dreams of waking up to a tent buried in snow and was relieved when I opened up my tent zipper and only saw the bare forest floor. It was a frigid and windy day, though, not going above 5 degrees Celsius . The route continued along a a dramatic cliff edge, from where I could see rose coloured buttes and mesas swelling above a carpet of vegetation. It was spectacular.

High ridge riding on Plateau Passage Route near Bear’s Ears National Monument

Once again, I only saw a few vehicles, some of them stopping to ask me if I needed anything. I also saw one lone black bear that immediately scrambled up a tree when it saw me.

When I started the long descent towards Hite, the temperature warmed and the pine disappeared, making way for scrub brush and open desert. The road colour changed from beige sand to crimson red. 

Back in the low desert heading towards Hite

The scenery approaching Hite was totally surreal. Wild, bizarre and undulating rock formations set to the backdrop of the silver Henry Mountains. It was all laid out like a calculated art installation by a master sculptor. I almost wanted to cry I thought it was so beautiful. 

From Hite, the plateau passage followed the paved road before making a rough and difficult crossing over the Henry Mountains. With the very cold temperatures and my then current level of fatigue, I decided to take a slightly easier route.

Colorado River bridge near Hite

View of the Henry Mountains

I followed the main road to Ticaboo, which turned out to be a tough day in itself with many short, steep climbs. At this point, I was feeling very, very tired. So tired that I ended up spending $100 USD at the remote Ticaboo Lodge because I didn’t even have the energy to camp. It turned out to worth every penny, because by the next morning, I had recovered and felt like I was soaring.

I joined the relatively famous Burr Trail Road just south of Ticaboo. Another magnificent ride set to a landscape that look like someone’s computer-generated fantasy. It would have been interesting to have a geologist with me, because It was difficult to understand how the shifting Earth could possibly have created such art. It was landscapes like this that especially ignited my wanderlust. When I pass through a place unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, it makes me want to keep exploring, to experience more of the unfamiliar.. 

Scenery along the Burr Trail

After scaling the wild Burr Trail switchbacks, the beige coloured cliffs changed to red again and more scrub lands appeared. 

Burr Trail switchbacks

I stopped in the tiny community of Boulder, home to the famous Hell’s Backbone Grill. Supposedly this was one of the first restaurants in the USA to have all of their menu sourced directly from the farm where it was located. I ended up having an Elk Sandwich for lunch – it was expensive and delicious, but I honestly could have eaten 3 of them. Luckily it was my second lunch. 

I ended up taking Scenic Byway 12 to Escalante, which was apparently voted #2 on the list for the most scenic drives in the world. Spectacular, it was, but I think it would better experienced in a vehicle, with the combination of traffic and knife edge descents. 

Back in Midway, Steve and Noelle told me to contact them when I was heading to Escalante, because they had a daughter living there in a yurt. They said that I could camp with her on Noelle’s mother’s property. Unfortunately, she had already left when I arrived, but my hosts arranged something even better. Noelle’s mother Joett owned a bed and breakfast in town and she set me up with a luxury room (jacuzzi included!) for the night. I couldn’t believe the generosity. 

The next day I cycled to Bryce Canyon, something I had been looking forward to the entire trip. I was now finished my big Moab loop detour and was back on the main Western Wildlands Route, heading South towards Arizona and Mexico. 

I stopped in the tacky Bryce Canyon City to get a few supplies. Outside of a grocery store, a guy got out of his car to talk to me. He said he had just cycled the Pacific Coast route and wanted to help me out, because of how much he appreciated people helping him on the road. He gave me a few bottles of beer and Clif bars – what a treat! Really, the generosity was never-ending in this country.

I picked up a bowl of “Soup-er Meal” ramen, my new favourite, salty post-ride snack. After wolfing it down, I headed to Sunset Point campground by the canyon, literally grabbing the last spot. I met a really nice couple from Tucson who offered me to stay at their site for free, but the ultra strict park warden wouldn’t have it. 

I headed over for sunset. It was another absolutely awe-inspiring sight. I realize this description is probably starting to sound like a cliche – but in this part of the world it was one world class view after another.  So many hoodoos, awash with bright pink. 

Bryce Canyon at sunset

Limber Pine – an ultra resilient tree growing out of the rocks in Bryce Canyon

It dropped to -7C that night. I hadn’t planned to get up for the sunrise view, but then I realized sunrise wasn’t until after 7am, an hour past my usual waking time. So, I experienced yet another incredible view. The dawn light created softer and more understated tones along the rock.

Bryce at sunrise

 Leaving this majestic place behind, the route followed a backroad out of the park, only opened to administrative personnel and cyclists. What followed was more pine, some scrub brush and rolling hills with no traffic. Above the treed canopy, the odd red rock formation poked out. In the Western Wildlands Route guide, there is a note saying that the final 40 miles were the “fastest of the segment.” Hitting some nasty, mushy gravel and wash board, I wondered what kind of shitty roads I must have avoided further north. 

Eventually, I hit pavement and descended through many miles of private land. I ended up camping about 10km from Kanab just off of the main highway. I took a side road and pushed my bike behind some houses far enough until I hit a sliver of public land beside on ATV trail. I could hear families playing with their children into the night –  If they saw me, I wonder what they thought of this stranger camping in somewhat close proximity. 

“Wild” Camping a few hundred metres from the highway near Kanab, UT

I took my time in Kanab, the last town before Arizona. I enjoyed a breakfast bagel and coffee at a local cafe, sending email updates to family and friends. When I headed back to my bike, a woman greeted me with a $10 bill. 

“I saw you in Boulder, but I was too shy then to talk to you. I think what you are doing is amazing. Could I please buy you breakfast?” 

I said thank you, giving her a big hug, trying to hold back tears. 

5 thoughts on “Western Wildlands Route + Detours: Utah

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