Many people that we met along our travels in the US told us that Utah is their favorite state. “It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen,” they would say. But how can you comprehend something never experienced, never seen, touched nor smelled? Would it be as grandiose as the high peaks of Colorado, more engaging than the endless dirt roads of Montana or vaster than the Canadian Rockies? A lot of the things we have seen so far were “unlike anything” else, how would Utah be different?
Our hitchbiking spree took us from Crested Bute to Grand Junction in less than 5 hours, leaving us in a big city just before dawn – not something I feel comfortable with. Not to waste any time on cycling out of town and searching for a suitable camping spot that’s out of the way we opt for trying our luck with warmshowers. Our host, Greg, answered almost immediately giving directions to his place and saying that he might not be around but that we should help ourselves to whatever we needed inside the house until he’s back. We planned just an overnight stay but ended up enjoying Greg’s company and that of his dog Blondie. During the day search, Grand Junction’s streets for stores that could supply Saska with a new pair of shoes. Her old leather approach shoes, although well suited to general bikepacking duties, turned out to be too hot for the southern states and we were expecting temperatures to rise rapidly the more we travel south. A pair of Merrell trail runners were a great option, giving enough grip on- and off the pedals and providing Saska’s feet with enough air circulation to prevent moisture build up.
Just before we parted with Nick and Lael, Nick brought to our attention a possible route we could follow out of Moab, the Lockhart Basin road. A rough 4×4 track winding its way between the canyons and the Colorado River.
Well rested we leave Grand Junction towards the trailhead and stocked with enough food for four days of riding we camp just past where the Kokopelli trail begins – somewhat illegally, but encouraged by the advice of some local riders.
The Kokopelli Trail is probably the best introduction to canyonlands for newcomers like us and gradually lures us deeper into sandstone labyrinths. It starts with some great singletrack riding making good use out of the local mountain biking trail network. The more we get away from Fruita and the trailhead the rougher it gets. For a short stretch, we are lifting bikes over boulders and manhandling them down steep rock cascades. Once we are over this obstacle the trail joins a dirt road and is a good, albeit a hot summer ride. Chasing water sources is our main occupation since we left higher parts of Colorado.
The Kokopelli is considered a mountain biking classic in the US, which is surely disserved, yet we only met one other group of bikers. A bunch of college buddies is enjoying the mountain biker high life on their self-guided adventure, at the same time their driver Casey makes sure that there are a cold brew and a kitchen waiting for them at the end of the day. Not having to haul all our belongings does look tempting but we prefer the freedom of camping wherever we please without any given schedule other than the one dictated by shrinking water and food supplies. We do get treated by our new friends with some post ride beers and in the morning Casey prepares us a delicious eggs and bacon breakfast followed by coffee. Casey, being an avid bikepacker and Great Divide racer knows quite well the term “Trail-Angel” and now he’s happy to be on the giving end rather than the receiving one. Don’t return the favor, pass it on. Thanks for the food and company Casey and for introducing us to the Marshall Tucker Band!
Pass the Dewey the surface gets gradually rougher and goes way deeper into the bottoms of canyons than before. This, of course, means more pushing for us, but also the experience of being in a special place. Unlike anything, we’ve seen or experienced at all. This might be the first place out in the backcountry I feel truly vulnerable. A petty human existence, consisting of 70 percent water in a place where there is none. One false move, an injury and you’re stuck waiting for help, any sign of human traffic, in a place where there is barely any. And yet there is this huge indescribable beauty cast into the steep red walls surrounding us. Watching the walls encircle us from all sides is like playing with fire. The only signs of life lay deep within the bottoms of the canyons where they explode with the life of bush and trees and faint creeks at times, well hidden in the shadows only dispelled for barely an hour by the high noon sun. Otherwise, it’s all rock. A strange form of beauty, an early creation, still imperfect, brittle and rough, but a necessary step in the process of creation, a step towards ultimate perfection. A holy place. The red rocks don’t say much and will only answer in our own voices with the echoing of a thousand walls, but if they could speak they would say in a murmur “go away…”. This is what we intend to do, ride in packing as much water to allow us to peacefully go away before our supplies run out. At night, when we lay down in the tent awaiting sleep everything falls dead silent and our blood rush and heart beating flow into the dark void.
As we move one the trail gets tougher and tougher and we find ourselves pushing more than riding and just before entering the high mountains before Moab we decide to shorten our Kokopelli trip and ride down the Onion Creek Road towards highway 128 that will take us to the town. To be honest, the ride down might be the biggest highlight of this stretch and as we go down a perfect dirt road the canyons grow bigger and more grandiose than ever before. We surely don’t regret taking this shortcut. Rocks flash with reds, grays, greens and blacks in front on our and there is this strong sulfur smell in the air from time to time which probably is the reason of the adjacent creek’s name.
Moab is again one of those towns that in the first place seem to serve the needs of the tourist industry and although surrounded by all of nature’s splendor it appears to be the ugly duckling in this story. Still, it’s a good (only) resupply point and has some well-stocked bicycle stores in case repairs or spare parts are needed. It is Moab where we get the last missing bottle cage for Saska’s bike, rounding up here water carrying capacity to 6 liters sans the 2.5L Platypus emergency bag carried for long stretches without water. The Lockhart Basin Road is one of those cases where surplus water is not a burden but a necessity.
First scouted by Cass Gilbert in 2009, then ridden by Nick and Lael in 2013 and Scott Pauker in 2014 it is a 100 km long jeep track squeezed between the Colorado River and the vertical walls of the canyon. Having such a recommendation we knew the trail would be a fun option to extend our ride in Utah over the well-known Kokopelli Trail. Although the Colorado River is not that far from the trail the first opportunity to actually reach its banks for resupply come almost at the end of the road and are 10 miles one way off the trail. There are no other water access points along the way so be sure to take enough water to last for two days. We had 18 liters for the both of us which was enough and we reached the paved highway 211 leading to Newspaper Rock with 2 spare liters. There’re no real resupply points on the highway either although one might try his luck in the Canyonland Research Center close to Dugout Reservoir. The last resort would be holding an empty bottle on the side of the road, in this arid land people have a good understanding of just how important water is and sooner or later someone will stop to offer help.
To find the road look for Kane Creek Road leaving Moab north-west (just past Burger King). The track is somewhat marked along the way and for most of the time easy to follow as it is the most used road in the canyon, in spite of that a GPS receiver is recommended as navigation errors can possibly have bad consequences in such a landscape. We use the Utah TOPO map found on GPSfiledepot which for most of the time had the road marked with its proper name – we didn’t have a GPS track to follow.
Having ridden the Lockhart Basin Road we are surprised that it’s not on the map of every bikepacker as it is a very fun trail to experience. Much more ridable than the – now heavily eroded – Kokopelli and not less beautiful.
Utah is not to be missed when on tour in the US. It’s definitely unlike anything else on this third rock from the sun.