The real mountain bikers, those with ropy leg muscles and well-worn bike saddles, careened down the Jeep Trail, past the red rocks and purple pinnacles, toward the White Rim Trail below. In minutes, they sliced through the sandstone layer cake of reds, chocolate browns, curry yellows and greens that took 15 million years for time and water to carve into a labyrinth of colored canyons, buttes and arches.
It's easy to see why Edward Abbey called the canyon lands around Moab, Utah, "the most beautiful place on Earth." Every twist in the trail unveiled attention-grabbing colors and formations that demand a long stare. But in those first miles, my focus was trained on something more immediate: the steep, rocky trail beneath my tires.
"Right for rear brake and left for front." That was my mantra as I tried to maintain control on the mining road that begins at 5,920 feet near the Island in the Sky Visitor Center and corkscrews downward 2,400 feet to the Colorado River.
Two bends ahead, my partner, Ken, waited patiently. Both of us are occasional cyclists, and the double- suspension bicycles we rented for this trip seemed as sensitive as racehorses. The rest of our group, all hard-core bikers, had sped far ahead, except for Chris and Karen, who pedaled back uphill to offer friendly advice. "Too much front brake and you'll go over the handlebars, too much rear and the back wheel will skid out from under you," Chris coached, gliding beside me in effortless control. "And don't clutch your handlebars too tightly — it makes the ride bumpier."
This was the beginning of our five-day mountain-bike trip early last May on the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park, a 100-mile loop through a wilderness of rock. The White Rim is to mountain bikers what the Grand Canyon is to river rafters: a self- propelled journey into what the National Park Service calls the heart of "wild America."
Over the millenniums, Utah was flooded by seas, cut by rivers and buried by mud and sand. But today only the sedimentary strata in the canyon lands are left to reveal this past.
The "white rim" is a sandstone bench about 1,200 feet below the top of the plateau, tracing the shoreline of an ancient ocean.
The former white-sand beach was squeezed into rock, then uplifted by tectonic shifts over geologic time. The white layer gleams in contrast to those above and below.
It became our path, the thread that guided us through this immense backcountry, looping between the Colorado and Green rivers that meet here, mixing their silt-laden waters and carving the Colorado Plateau into a mesa called the Island in the Sky.
Outfitters out of Moab lead guided trips on this world-class trail, a circular route that can be ridden in either direction.
Our group was made up of White Rim veterans who, just like the professional outfitters, had a pair of four-wheel-drive support vehicles that carried all the gear of a comfortable safari camp, leaving us to ride mercifully unencumbered.
The park service limits each group to 15 people and grants permits — key to a true wilderness experience — for each of the minimalist campsites.
Some days we ran across only a few other souls, usually those navigating the White Rim Trail from the opposite direction. Other days we encountered members of only our group. Sharing such big country with so few people is inspiring, even meditative. An experience of desert solitaire.
A downhill blur Even at my timid pace, the steep descent into Canyonlands National Park went by in a blur. Before I knew it, the switchbacks opened up into rolling hills. I began to pedal leisurely and to believe the brochures that tout the trail as of "intermediate difficulty."
By late afternoon we rolled into a flat area, called Airport campground for a makeshift airstrip that has been since swallowed by desert sands. Only 18 miles from the trailhead, it is a world away — a sweeping barren plateau with pipe-organ-shaped buttes and La Sal Mountains ringing the horizon.
Nothing marked the site but a sign and a well-designed composting outhouse that was surprisingly pleasant. In no time we had a comfortable camp fine-tuned by our seasoned group. Our trucks carried portable tables, chairs, gas stoves, lights, tents — even black plastic solar showers to wash off the day's dust — and, most important, 5 gallons of water per person.
Then there were the coffin-sized coolers like professional rafters use, filled with icy beer and imaginative foods, thanks to Christine, a chef, caterer and an avid fan of cycling, a passion shared with her husband. Taking turns cooking, members of the first team made a feast of Thai-style curry with basmati rice. By nightfall we could barely stay awake and eagerly crawled in our tent, falling into a deep sleep in the moon shadows of buttes.
Six o'clock came quickly. On this day, the distance to cover was twice as long, with a long uphill pedal at the end. The camp was frenetic with preparations: filling water bottles, sorting snacks, slathering sunscreen and lubing dusty bike chains. By 8 a.m., it was hot and we wore large straw hats as we rolled across easy terrain. The scenery that unfolded was the terrestrial equivalent of cloud watching, each rock formation suggested a shape — a pulpit and a priest, two ghosts whispering. In some places, the harder White Rim sandstone acts as a capstone over brown shale that erodes more quickly. The result are pinnacles shaped like white mushrooms with brown stems.
We stopped and walked to the edge of the white rim to look down toward the canyon floor. Violet-green swallows and white-throated swifts catapulted past, their chittering calls reverberating off the slick rock walls. At midday, we deviated from the main trail to reach Whitecrack Overlook for lunch and a view of the Maze, a puzzle of white and orange sandstone canyons.
A bit alarmed by talk of the climb at the end of the day, Ken and I volunteered to take our turn driving the support vehicles for the afternoon. We lumbered slowly behind the cyclists, who powered ahead. At the most difficult passages, the White Rim veterans were waiting with the bikes with helpful advice. "Put your wheel on the biggest rocks so you get clearance," said Larry, owner of one vehicle. As soon as I cleared the spot, he raced ahead.
Coming around a curve, my eyes followed the pencil line of trail winding up to Murphy Hogback, a high point at 5,200 feet. The cyclists were gathered around a blue SUV impaled on a rock and hanging off the road at a sickening angle. The driver, a man in his 50s, was scowling at his predicament. A passing cyclist managed to get cellphone reception at the hilltop and called for a tow-truck operator, who promised to arrive the next morning.
Knowing help was on its way, we pushed on to camp at the top of the rise. While dinner was prepared, we sat on the edge of the precipice and looked outward at the next day's path glowing like a golden thread in the fading light.
A costly mistake The morning began with a sweeping downhill run. I swallowed my pride and walked my bike down the steepest parts. As we headed down, the tow truck was coming up. The driver stopped, happy to chat after a lonely five-hour drive from Moab. He underscored the treachery of the road and the cost of a mistake: At $150 an hour, the towing bill would reach $2,000, he estimated.
Back on the path, we stumbled onto a slot canyon that gleamed in the sun. Lowering ourselves into a deeply eroded notch, we slid down water-polished rock that glowed as if generating its own eerie light. Mud in low-lying spots proved that water had just swept through.
Someone mentioned that a cloud burst 200 miles away could trigger a flashflood here. With clouds building on the horizon, this suddenly seemed a good time to scramble out of the canyon and pedal on. When we arrived at our camp along the bank of the Green River, everyone was preparing for the evening's gastronomic fiesta of Mexican food. An enormous block of ice was produced from the magical cooler. A screwdriver served as an ice pick, and the group's camaraderie was further fueled by a superb chile verde washed down with icy margaritas.
Although the White Rim Trail is typically a four-day trip, we decided on five days and a more leisurely pace. Good thing. On this morning it rained heavily, turning the dusty ground into thick, caking clay. Canyonlands receives only 9 inches of rain a year, and a good part of it seemed to fall on this morning. Our bicycle tires accreted great globs of mud, forcing us to wait for the ground to dry, which it did within about five hours, once the sun came out.
We took the opportunity for a hike to an outlook over the Green River. The stone fort built by the Anasazi, or Ancestral Puebloans, the prehistoric people believed to be ancestors of Pueblo tribes, dates to about 1260 and is one of several ruins along the route.
The weather continued to clear, affording us a grand finale: a lunar eclipse in one of the darkest skies of the nation. Our setting on an open mesa was ideal. We watched the celestial display before retreating to our tents, where we were lulled to sleep by the gurgle of the river and the plaintive call of a poorwill.
Camp stirred at 5:30 a.m. Knowing we had a long uphill climb on this final day motivated us to take advantage of the cool of the morning. We set off on rolling hills, enjoying the feel of changing gears to ease the way. Eventually the trail led into a steep canyon wall where, craning our necks, we saw our final ascent — and the counterpart to our dramatic descent five days earlier.
These were the infamous Mineral Canyon switchbacks — a rugged cattle trail reputedly used by Butch Cassidy and other members of Robbers Roost gang. We had worried about this for days. Shifting into the lowest gear — granny gear — we began the climb. Slow and steady. Leg muscles screamed for relief, but we ground on, one switchback at a time, fearing if we stopped we wouldn't regain the momentum.
Finally we emerged over the top at 5,000 feet, where a clutch of cyclists rested their quivering legs and snapped photos of the trail that tumbled down the mountain in near freefall. Everyone was giddy about making it to the top and already a little nostalgic. We looked enviously at the cyclists headed down the trail we had just climbed up, only beginning their own amazing journey into this wilderness of sandstone.
As the lucky cyclists whizzed past, they left a fine dust trail, a microcosm of the forces that have shaped this land.
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Pedal power to Moab
From LAX, America West, United and Frontier offer connecting service (change of plane) to Grand Junction, Colo., about 120 miles from Moab, Utah. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $335.
WHERE TO STAY:
Kokopelli Lodge, at the junction of Highways 72 South and 100 East, Moab; (888) 530-3134 or (435) 259-7615, http://www.kokopellilodge.com . The lodge has only eight rooms, but it's clean, friendly and hospitable to cyclists. Doubles $56.
Standard chain hotels can also be found, including Best Western, Ramada and Comfort Suites. Moab/Canyonlands Central Reservations, (800) 505-5343, http://www.moabutahlodging.com , represents a variety of lodging and will help you find your match.
For a list of accommodations, mountain-bike tour operators and other amenities: http://www.discovermoab.com .
WHERE TO EAT:
Eddie McStiff's, 57 S. Main St., (435) 259-2337, runs a microbrewery and offers hearty meals ranging from barbecue to pizzas. Entrees $6-$16.
Slickrock Cafe, 5 N. Main St., (435) 259-8004, is popular with vegetarians because of its salads, soups and creative main courses. Serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. Entrees $7.50-$17.50.
Red Rock Bakery and Internet Cafe, 74 S. Main St., (435) 259-5941, makes bagel-sandwich breakfasts and terrific sandwiches on homemade bread. $4.50-$6.25.
Back-country trip reservations must be made at the National Park Service Backcountry Reservations Office, 2282 S. West Resource Blvd., Moab, UT 84532; (435) 259-4351, http://www.nps.gov/cany . Permits can be reserved starting the second Monday in July for the next calendar year.
TO LEARN MORE:
American Park Network, (212) 581-3380, http://www.americanparknetwork.com .
— Nancy Baron