“It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” – Sir Edmund Hillary
An epic adventure has equal parts pain, suffering, and elation. It is easy to classify an adventure of epic proportions. If the pain, suffering, and elation of an epic adventure are not enough of a clear indicator, the constant thoughts and smiles of said adventure many days and weeks after the fact solidify the experience. The White Rim Trial in Moab is one such ride that easily falls into this category. More than a week has gone by since we finished the ride, and I am still thinking about it.
The White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park is a 102 mile loop through some of the most rugged and remote areas of the United States. The trail, a glorified jeep road that follows the contoured cliffs near the Colorado and Green River, was first developed by the Federal Government in the 1950’s as a project to search for Uranium.
The ride, ridden clockwise by most, has roughly 7,500ft of total elevation gain. Most of the climbing is accomplished with three major climbs (Murphy’s Hogback, Hardscrabble Hill, and Mineral Bottom Switchbacks). The majority of people do the ride in three or four days with the help of a caravan and camping supplies. We planned to ride it in a single day, completely self-supported.
Canyonlands National Park and Arches National Park are two neighboring wilderness areas outside of Moab, Utah. I have been fascinated with National Parks since my first experience at Yellowstone a few years ago and relish the ability to experience the parks via bicycle.
I was first introduced to White Rim from a friend in 2013. We were both training for long distance mountain bike races that year and were in the need for long base miles. He invited me to do White Rim in a Day (WRIAD) with him. We completed the ride without incident and the experience stuck with me as one that I would love to repeat in the future.
Fast forward two years, my life has changed a bit – I am now a father of a beautiful little girl, my work responsibilities have increased, and life overall is more hectic. I am sure that everyone that is trying to juggle a family, work, and the love of their bike can relate. What has not changed is my passion of riding my bike. I have dreamed about heading back to Canyonlands and riding White Rim again ever since I finished the ride two years ago.
I reached out to two friends, Stephen Fitzgerald and Scott Britz, and proposed the White Rim adventure. I have had the pleasure of getting to know Stephen through his cycling project, Rodeo Labs, over the past year. He continually puts up jaw dropping stats on Strava and captures photos of his cycling adventures that would make Ansel Adams jealous – that is if Ansel Adams rode bikes and took selfies. Scott on the hand is a client of mine turned friend. He lives in Breckenridge so he is at the distinct disadvantage of not riding his biking regularly during the winter months – although I hear the skiing isn’t too bad during the winter.
The goal was to convince them to come along for the ride so that I could have some company and convince my wife I would be safe. Stephen jumped at the idea and relished the idea of completing the ride on his Trail Donkey while taking photos. Scott required a tad more convincing. He had ridden White Rim many times over the past few years, but never as single day effort. As the trip got closer, we added Chris Magnotta and my cousin Jim Mayo. I did not know Chris prior to the trip, but I knew if Stephen vouched for him and he was attempting to ride the White Rim on a Trail Donkey then he would be fine. Jim had his doubts, but as a previous Ironman finisher I knew that he had the endurance to handle the ride.
The plan was hatched; we would drive to Moab from Denver on Sunday morning in early March and return the following evening after our White Rim ride. I would pack up my Tacoma with Stephen, Chris, and Jim and Scott would meet us in Breckenridge and follow us out in his brand new Sprinter Van. Stephen and Chris would ride White Rim on their trail donkey – a heavily modified cycle cross bike, Jim would ride on his new Cannondale Lefty, and Scott would ride it on his 7” travel Scott Enduro bike. I would be on my 29er Yeti hardtail. We were a motley, Rodeo crew to say the least.
Those that know me, know that I am a notorious over-committer. I see no problem with a 102 mile bike ride and then a 5 ½ hour drive at night to make it back home in time for work the next day. We are all busy juggling life’s responsibilities, so the marathon style trip just seemed to make sense. I didn’t mind driving back to Denver after a long day in the saddle.
We made it to Moab on Sunday in time to ride Slickrock – see here. We had dinner and a few beers in Moab and then made our way thirty miles outside of Moab to the Mineral Bottom Road. The Mineral Bottom parking lot would be our camp ground for the night. We camped in the same spot that I stayed at two years ago during my first WRIAD experience. The top of Mineral Bottom Road would allow us to start our ride with a pretty mundane 12 mile dirt road ride and then a four mile piece of pavement before entering the National Park. The ride would finish back at our camp spot with a nasty little 1700 foot climb to end the day at mile 100.
We started a campfire, cracked a few beers, and setup our tents for the night. I think it is safe to say that Stephen, Chris, Jim, and I were all jealous of Scott as he climbed into his sprinter van for the night to sleep. Scott has an adventure van that we can all be jealous of; it has a microwave, oven, fridge, full size bed, and bike locker in the rear. The van made my small tent feel a bit primitive. Nonetheless, we were camping in Moab so I had nothing to complain about.
The goal was to wake up around 6:30am and hit the trail. Needless to say, we had a bit of a delayed start. We spent the early morning huddled in Scott’s van heating up breakfast burritos’ in the van’s microwave. The outside temperature was in the low 30’s and the sun just starting to rise. None of us were in a hurry to start. Finally, after a dozen or so burritos, everyone got changed and made final preparations for the ride.
One of the things that makes The White Rim so special is how remote the ride is. A rider attempting a through-bike must carry all of his own water and food for the journey. The chance of refueling is slim during the ride. You can either hope to grab supplies from another party along the way or drink from the silty, unfiltered Green River around mile 85. Neither of these options is appealing or safe so proper planning is a priority.
We all took different strategies for provisions. Jim carried a H.A.W.G with him which is essentially an oversized camelbak that he had received for free in exchange for a positive review. Chris had traded in his fanny pack from yesterday’s slickrock ride for a weathered back-pack that was slung around his shoulders. Stephen had a small camelback stuffed with about 20 trail nuggets and two water bottles on his donkey. Scott had a large pack with two fullsize 110 oz water bladders. I had a camelbak as well and two bottles on bike. The weather forecast called for a high of 60 degrees. We would be in luck with favorable weather.
I incorrectly estimated that the ride would take around seven hours. For some reason, that is the amount of time I thought it had taken me last time. As I later found out, if we would have completed the ride in seven hours we would have only been off the fastest recorded pace by 15 minutes! As Stephen later said, “Derek lied, and people died!” – Luckily none of us died, but it made for a funny joke.
The Rodeo Crew pulled out around 8:00am. We pedaled East up the gradual slope of the Mineral Bottom Road. The steady pace and warm sun breaking over the horizon was a welcome sign and welcome relief from the cold night spent camping.
We made relatively good time on the first 12 miles of the ride. We re-grouped at the intersection of Highway 313 and Mineral Bottom Road. Chris took off some gear and stashed it behind a tree at an intersection. Scott, and the rest of us favored to keep all of our cold weather gear in case we got stuck in the desert overnight.
We turned off the dirt road and headed south on Highway 313. The road is a nice paved route that leads to the entrance of Canyonlands National Park. The road offers the first clear views of the LaSal mountains South of Moab and the large buttes that dot the horizon around Canyonlands. New features on the landscape included a handful of new oil dykes. The slow and gradual creep of oil and gas exploration has pushed into the hallowed grounds around Moab. It is somewhat sad to see an otherwise pristine landscape dotted with exploration rigs and drill sites. I guess it is the sign of progress, the same gas helped us drive all the way to Moab from Denver!
We quickly made our way to the Canyonlands entrance. There is a small pay station manned with an old, grizzled attendant. He reminded us that each biker passing through must pay a $5 site visit. Luckily, I had remembered this fee from my last trip and packed my wallet. This was good news because no one else in our group had any money on them. I paid the $25 fee and were off on our way.
Within a mile or two of paying our dues at the station, the trip began to pay dividends. We ducked under the road closed sign at the top of Shafer Switchbacks. The road was closed to vehicles due to some rock slides and snowy conditions. The small remaining bits of snow clung to the shadow outcroppings of an otherwise arid landscape.
Shafer Switchbacks is one of the most breathtaking “roads” that I have ever ridden. The road is literally carved into the side of the cliff walls. The road descends approximately 1800 feet within a few short miles.
Jim, Scott, and I quickly descended the road and numerous switchbacks while Stephen and Chris stayed behind to admire the views and photograph the experience. Taking pictures and admiring the breathtaking views would become a common theme for the day. It is impossible to not stop along the ride and appreciate the grand scale that is Canyonlands National Park.
The bottom of the ripping descent took us to the granite plateau and the start of the real ride. The route received the name, White Rim, due to a large band of white granite the follows the ledge of the canyon that overlooks the Colorado River. The route is a never end series of undulating climbs that traverses the granite overlook and soft desert sand nearby. Each mile provides a new view and vista of great expanse of the park.
We planned to break up the ride into a few segments to make it more manageable. The first segment would take us to Musselman Arch (mile 35), the next would be a lunch re-group at the top of Murphy’s hogback (mile 65), Hardscrabble Hill (Mile 87), and finally Mineral Bottom Switchbacks (Mile 100).
We settled into a comfortable pace and slowly started knocking out the miles.
The first pit stop came at Musselman Arch. The arch is natural granite bridge, with 1,000 foot canyon drops on either side that is about as wide as an office desk and as long as school bus. The arch is located about 300 yards from the main White Rim Trail.
The next 30 miles were pretty uneventful. The weather was absolutely fantastic. Temperatures hovered around 60 degrees with a calm breeze. We trudged along the Rim trail while occasionally stopping to take a picture or grab a snack.
The goal was to make it to the top of Murphy’s hogback for a “lunch break”. None of us had packaged actual lunch food, but the break would serve as a good mental break and would be over halfway.
Murphy’s Hogback is the first difficult climb in the route. We arrived at the base of the climb and promptly attacked it. I was a little overzealous with my ascent and found myself dismounting halfway up to catch my breath. Stephen, Chris, and Scott all managed to clear the entire climb without dismounting. The pitch is steeper than any normal climb on the Front Range in Colorado.
After we all successfully made it to the top of Murphy’s, we stopped to grab a quick break and lunch. We were now at mile 65. There were 280 degree panoramic views of the confluence of the Colorado and Green River nestled deep within the layers of granite cliffs and red dirt.
We basked in the sun and enjoyed the views. Stephen tried to unsuccessfully barter for a cold coca cola from some unfriendly campers that were staying at the top of the hogback. I remember joking that we only had 35 miles left in the trip, the same mileage as a loop around Cherry Creek Reservoir from Wash Park. Stephen joked that every mile was a challenge, we were all no doubt starting to feel the toll of White Rim’s rugged trail. It was now 3:00 in the afternoon.
We descended a blazing fast descent on the backside of the hogback. Stephen and Chris proved very nimble in negotiating their Trail Donkey’s down steep, rock lined trials. I keep waiting for one of their wheels to explode on the rough terrain, although it never happened. The biggest mishap was when I was descending a section of trail and managed to get my front tire stuck in a wash-out. My bike quickly slammed into the ground and I was thrown off. Luckily, I managed to fall in a spot of the trail filled with soft, silty dirt. Crisis adverted. A bad crash would have been terrible at that point in the ride. The White Rim is very remote. It would have taken a herculean effort to get medical care in the remote section of the park.
The group now pushed on to Hardscrabble Hill at mile 85. We settled into small groups as we made our way around the back side of the White Rim trail.
About an hour and a half later, everyone gradually reached the base of Hardscrabble and decided to fuel up at a beautiful section of trail that overlooked the Green River.
Hardscrabble Hill is a doozy. Much like Murphy’s, the trail grade is extremely steep and we were all running on fumes at this point.
I was determined to not unclip on this hill so I was a little less zealous with my gearing selection. Hardscrabble has a number of false summits as it climbs out of the valley next to the river.
It is a difficult but rewarding climb. Chris led the way while the rest of us followed and eventually reached the summit on our weary bikes. What goes up eventually goes down. We found ourselves descending the other side back to the shores of the Green River.
We were now a short ten miles away from achieving our goal of finishing the White Rim in a Day. The only thing that stood between the finish and a few cold beers was a nasty sandpit and one last climb.
The sandpit is located at the low point of the White Rim trail next to the Green River. What is probably a ton of fun for 4×4 vehicles and motorcycles tends to be a drudge for cyclists, especially after 90 miles of hard desert riding. Chris, Scott, Jim, and I all dismounted and walked through the 500 yard sandy wash while Stephen in true cycle-cross fashion managed to ride nearly the entire section.
We approached mile 95 as a group of five around 6:30. The sun was beginning its slow decline towards the horizon the long shadows were bouncing off of the canyon walls as the air temperature began to drop.
I decided that I was ready to be done with the ride and put my head down and pushed through the last few miles. The allure of a cold beer was too great at this point and we were quickly loosing daylight.
I final made the final turn and spotted the Mineral Bottom Switchbacks. Scott followed close behind. The last climb is a mental challenge.
You look up from the road weary perch of your bike seat and have a difficult time counting the number of switchbacks hugging the canyon walls. The climb is basically an inverse of the Shafer switchbacks that we had gleefully descended 8 hours prior. I geared down to my granny gear and slowly grinded up the road. Near the top, I looked back and saw Scott making his way up a few switchbacks below and three small dots just starting the climb at the bottom. I crested the final turn and saw the beautiful view of my truck, parked next to Scott’s Sprinter Van, and my Coleman cooler resting in the shade.
I dismounted at camp, grabbed a cold beer and slumped into my camping chair. My White Rim ride was over – 101.1 miles with 7,735ft of climbing in a total moving time of 9:02 minutes (much longer non-moving time). Scott showed up a short time later and promptly laid down in his van, utterly exhausted and dealing with stomach cramps. Scott had the difficult challenge of riding his 7” Enduro Bike on the route, a huge accomplishment.
Chris, Stephen, and Jim were still not to be seen. It was now dusk so I decided to start breaking down camp and getting ready for the long drive home. There was no cell reception at either the camp or during the ride and I was anxious to text me wife and let her know that we were all safe. I had assumed a quicker pace by a handful of hours and I wanted to get her word that we were safe ASAP.
Finally, nearly 30 minutes after finishing the ride, I spotted Chris, Stephen, and Jim cresting the final switchback at 7:15pm. Jim looked as if he was completely spent. I then noticed that they had rigged up a handful of bike tubes between Jim’s bike and Chris’s bike. It turns out, Jim hit the “wall” hard around mile 95. He had run out of water and food. Stephen had stayed back with him and helped rig up a bike tow to help Jim through the final few miles.
Chris offered to help tow Jim up the last climb. It was amazing to see the three guys work together to overcome a difficult situation. The shared comrade of riding bikes together and overcoming obstacles was what this ride was all about.
Stephen, Chris, and I enjoyed a celebratory beer as Jim and Scott rested in their respective vehicles. High fives were shared and the joy of finishing such a long ride started to settle in. We all finished with very little water and only a single bar of food left – we had little room for error with our provisions. We were fortunate to have near perfect weather conditions for the day. The White Rim trail would be much more difficult had it been twenty degrees warmer. We finished not a moment too soon, within a few minutes the last rays of sunlight were hidden behind the mountains and day turned to night.
We slowly loaded up and pointed out vehicles East towards Denver, our sleeping families, and comfortable beds. Once we neared Moab, our phones suddenly sprung to life. We all called our wives and let them know that we were safe and headed home. The long White Rim ride was complete, now all that was left was a 5 ½ hour drive back to Denver. We made it to Fruita just in time to grab some late night food at Wendy’s. Scott decided to sleep in his van for a few hours before driving further. I was motivated to make it back to Denver in time to catch a few hours of sleep before heading to client meetings the next day. We made it back safely to Denver and I pulled into my garage at 3:45am.
By Derek Murrow. Photos by Derek Murrow and Stephen Fitzgerald.