Bikepacking Moab: Scouting Peaks & Plateaus (Video)
As a newcomer to bikepacking, Josh Hicks dove in headfirst when he agreed to join for a three-day scouting ride of our new Peaks & Plateaus route in Utah as his second bikepacking trip ever. Find his 10-minute video recap and written report from the spectacular route here…
Words, photos, and video by Josh Hicks (@joshhicksss)
While we were out on a ride last winter, I asked Neil about the trips he had on his calendar for the upcoming year. He briefly mentioned jamming in a few mid-week trips once spring arrived to test the new products that were piling up in his house. The first of which would be revisiting a 170-mile route with 12,000 feet of climbing around Moab, Utah, that he last rode five years ago with his wife, Lindsay. But, this time he’d be adding new roads to further avoid pavement. He asked if that was something I’d be interested in, and my heart began to pound with intense excitement, knowing this would be quite the adventure.
After keeping an eye on the weather forecast for weeks, Neil finally saw a window of opportunity less than a week out and sent a text message to a handful of friends around the foothills of Golden, Colorado, asking if they’d like to join him. Three of us responded that we were in. At that moment, I knew I was completely and wildly in over my head, having only one sub-24-hour bikepacking trip under my belt. I also knew that I’d be in good hands. With Neil’s deep well of experience from overnighters to bikepacking races, he assured me this would be a laid-back trip where stories would be shared around camp and laughs had together while navigating through new territory. The two other riders who joined us were Leonardo Brasil, a professional photographer and ultra-endurance cyclist, and Chuck Jones, a touring jam band bassist and outdoor guide.
Once Neil and I arrived in Moab, we stopped by the house of Dave Wilsons, a local who sews custom bikepacking bags and runs mountain bike tours around all of the famous trails nearby. There’s a 60-mile section of the route on days two and three through Lockhart Basin that’s desolate and rugged and without water access, and Dave was helping us orchestrate a water drop. If it was a dire situation, a person could find themselves scaling down to the Colorado River to filter or asking a Jeep crew passing by. Otherwise, you’re completely on your own out there when traveling through the basin. We left town and headed toward our starting point where we’d camp and wait for the others to arrive later that night. On our way, we scouted a few north-facing roads near La Sal to be sure they were passable. We pulled off the highway, picked the last remaining dispersed campsite, and quickly got the bikes unloaded, set up camp, and cracked a few beers before the sun went down. The next few hours waiting for Leonardo and Chuck to arrive were spent sharing stories and laughing until our stomachs were burning.
Morning quickly dawned, and I couldn’t wait another minute. The forecast was calling for a mid-30s night but ended up dipping near 28°F. I was frozen, with hardly any sleep. I made several poor planning decisions on this trip, and the first one presented itself here. My 40°F sleeping bag didn’t fare well, and even worse was trying to put my sleeping pad inside of the bag because I forgot a ground cloth. I’m certain this made me much colder due to the insulation underneath me not performing to how it was designed to. Either way, a coffee and leftover half of a sandwich warmed me up and we were riding out of camp on the sandy road to start our three-day, two-night adventure.
Our plan for the first day of riding was to make it about 65 miles to Black Ridge on the edge of the forest leading into the La Sal Mountains. The starting point of the route is just outside of Canyonlands National Park, with a short section of pavement before several miles of beach-like sand roads. Three of us were riding on Salsa Cutthroats, and Chuck was on a new Surly Karate Monkey build with 2.6″ tires, a dropper post, and a shiny new Fox fork. His larger tires definitely shined in sandy sections like these and technical slickrock areas later on in the route.
After crossing through several gates filled with substantial tumbleweed collections on doubletrack BLM roads and winding through native Ute land with free-range cattle and natural gas wells, we were staring straight toward the massive La Sal Mountain views. With gaining a bit of elevation throughout the day, we could see the road we were traveling on in the distance for miles. The remoteness of the route made it completely silent at times, and it was also very humbling and peaceful. Often, we were the only people on the road for long stretches.
As we began descending into La Sal for our first of two resupply stops, large herds of elk and mule deer ran through the sagebrush. La Sal consists of only a few buildings: a post office, library, and a general store. Walking through the door of the store, my body felt things it had never felt before. After a full day of eating bars and snacks, I was in mouth-watering heaven walking the aisles and amassing my $20+ meal consisting of two mini pizzas, a tall can of Pringles, Butterfinger, Starbursts, several granola bars, a banana, M&Ms, Powerade, two liters of water, and an ice cream sandwich, 90% of which I consumed on the spot. We had a little cell service here to update anyone we needed to before heading up to Black Ridge to camp for the night.
As you leave La Sal, there are a few quick miles of pavement where it’s necessary to dodge the occasional UPS or local farm truck before hitting dirt and climbing up to the plateau. There’s a really fun section in here that seemed to come out of nowhere, a winding descent into an offshoot canyon near jeep trails before a punchy climb back up. Once we made the top, we rode a bit to find a campsite for the night just off the road before it descended again on the way into Moab. The view was magnificent, with the snow-capped La Sal Mountains off in one direction and the valley off the other. The moon was rising quickly and we got camp set up and made dinner. An almost full moon gave enough light we could walk around without headlamps. After freezing the first night, I borrowed an extra tent fly from Leo for the other two nights to use as my ground cloth so I could put my sleeping pad back underneath me.
Day two was set for another 60-something-mile ride to make a short third and final day back to the van. From Black Ridge, we descended into the valley and rode to Ken’s Lake before entering a canyon straight out of The Land Before Time movies from the 90s. A waterfall on one side, massive sandstone walls and rock formations all around, and the snow-capped La Sal peaks shining through again in the distance. This is where Flat Pass begins. A new section of the route that Neil hadn’t scouted before adding it in. We were all going in blind. Our adrenaline was pumping from the views surrounding us, dismounting for a water crossing, and all agreeing that this route is absolutely stunning, diverse, and challenging.
Flat Pass is also known as Steelbender, a famous jeep trail in the area. The trail rating for off-road vehicles is hard, or a 6 out of 10 on the sign at the trailhead. Directly after the water crossing—during which I went first and slipped off the rock stepping stones, filling both shoes full of water—was a steep climb on slickrock, followed by another, and another, and so on. It was ledgy, technical, and slow-going to put it kindly. We lost a lot of time on the day here and were all salivating at the thought of a late afternoon lunch in Moab that had been hyped up all day. Burgers. Milkshakes. Onion rings. We could hardly wait any longer.
Somewhere in here is when I learned another lesson. Your cleats can become stubborn after riding in diverse conditions. We were on a technical section of step-down ledges when I felt a lack of confidence and knew falling was a real possibility. I was twisting and pulling with no luck at all and then, boom! Crash! I fell drive-side down on slickrock. My ankle took the hit, right on the bone, tearing a hole in my sock and breaking skin. I was the caboose. The others in the group rode ahead as I gathered myself and assessed the situation. There I was in the last position I wanted to find myself in, being asked to come along on my first multi-day ride, and now possibly injured. I slowly got up, checked over the bike, and took my time getting down to regroup. There was pain, but I could move it. My mind was still on the burgers. I’ll rub some dirt on it as my Midwest roots tell me to do. Let’s ride!
After what felt like a dozen dismounts, we finally made our way through most of the pass when we met Dave on the trail. He’d left Moab and started riding toward us after we didn’t make it to town as early as expected. The five of us rode down the final sandy section of Flat Pass together, navigating several more water crossings and finally a speedy paved descent into town. At last, Milt’s Stop and Eat, a window walk-up burger joint that has been open since 1954 and is the oldest restaurant in all of Moab. We all ordered piled high burgers, fries, onion rings, and tater tots, washed down by milkshakes. It was glorious. Another mouth-shattering experience after a grueling first half of the day.
Dark clouds moved in and rain was threatening, so we resupplied at a market next door and left town toward Kane Creek to follow the Colorado River through Lockhart Basin. Several miles up the canyon, we were in awe yet again by the landscapes. Vertical slab walls hundreds of feet tall on both sides, the wide and softly flowing river beside the road, and rugged views filled with sandstone formations ahead deep into the valley helped me forget about the slow going earlier in the day. I was smiling ear to ear again, and taking photos endlessly to hold this moment forever. Dave knew of a spot on the canyon wall where petroglyphs could be found, so we hiked up a small boulder field to take in the art of those who traveled this canyon long before us.
This was it. This is bikepacking, I thought. An easy-going pace where we can stop and see, enjoy enormous meals, and laugh our way through the ups and downs. Neil had been saying all along that Lockhart Basin is the best riding of the whole route. The road began to turn from chip seal to fine dirt again, and we found ourselves on a big descent with switchbacks heading down further into the canyon. I remember entering another jeep trail that was one of the most remote and rugged sections I’ve ever ridden anywhere. It was like we were on Mars. I couldn’t get over it. I still can’t. And I surely can’t describe it in a way that does it justice. Simply put, we meet a jeep driver before entering it who said, “You’re going that way? We attempted it briefly but there was no way I could manage it.”
A few more hours of navigating the desolate basin trail went by, and we began hunting for a campsite. We were just across from the White Rim Trail and atop a high point of sorts. We could see for miles in all directions. The wind was west-northwest but expected to change during the night, so we chose a bowl-shaped spot below a ledge off the road for extra protection. Dinner was the next order of business, and the storytelling began. We all shared stories from other rides over the years, moments from the day, and got to know one another better. As time went by, heading to sleep for the night was next up. I hadn’t stood up since we got camp settled and started dinner, and I forgot about my ankle since it felt decent most of the day. As soon as I stood up and put weight down to walk to the tent, the pain dropped me to the desert floor.
My earlier thoughts about being the rookie on the trip grew much worse. We were deeper into the route and further from town than when I fell. The only option now would be using the Garmin inReach to orchestrate an extraction, late at night, down a very remote trail. I couldn’t bend my toes or move my ankle in any direction. Riding all day on it must’ve kept circulation going and swelling down. I hopped on one foot to the tent, kept quiet, crawled into my sleeping bag, and lay awake for as long as possible. I didn’t want to fall asleep because I feared it could get worse. If I stayed awake, I could feel it in the process, right? Finally, I couldn’t keep my eyes open and got some rest. I remember rolling around during the night and trying to keep the hurt ankle elevated on top of my other ankle. Once morning came, the first thing I did was try to bend my toes. Unbelievable. Full range of motion. Side to side, no problem. It was swollen and quite tender, but no pain like the night before. I could put weight on it, but once we set off pedaling again, it felt less than great.
Our third and final day was underway. Due to our slow pace over Flat Pass the day prior, we had another 50-mile day to reach the van, load up, and drive back to Denver. Most of the day was spent riding through the final half of Lockhart Basin. The road travels up against one of the basin walls and twists and turns all through the canyon with several technical sections, which we were accustomed to at this point. Once we reached the end of the basin, we had a water drop waiting for us, organized by Dave. This allowed us to use water as needed and eliminated the need to carry 6-8 liters through this section. We topped off our water, loaded up the empty jugs on our bikes, and began a climb out of the valley floor.
The road shifted between sand and gravel as Neil hustled off the front of our ride to shoot photos and videos of us. At this point, I began to feel sad the trip was almost over, but also felt full of gratitude to be along for the ride and respect for the diverse land we were allowed to traverse. We topped out near a campground before turning onto the final pavement that led to the van. We began a slow and steady climb of about 10 miles, leading us by a popular rock climbing destination and more petroglyphs. Ahead were several switchbacks that held most of the 1,000 feet of elevation on the long climb since hitting pavement. As soon as we reached the top, the road our vehicles were parked on was less than a mile away. We did it! The moment our bikes were set down, a celebratory beverage was shared while we loaded bikes into the van and headed for town to drop off Dave.
We went our separate ways, Leo and Chuck stopping for dinner, and Neil and I headed east for Denver, blaring bluegrass music and chugging caffeine. “What just happened?” I remember asking myself. The diversity of landscapes, trails, and moments we shared in what felt like such a short amount of time left me with so much to process and soak in. Running out of the city to the desert and now back to the city, but now with so many new memories added to my life that I’ll be retelling all the way until my next bikepacking trip and well beyond.
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