Touring the San Juan Huts Gravel Grinder
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Last summer, Hunter Ellis and a ragtag bunch of friends and family took on the San Juan Huts Gravel Grinder, a three-day route that connects Grand Junction to Moab and takes advantage of a network of stocked backcountry huts. See their story of riding through geological wonders, mingling with colorful locals, and learning to ride as a group…
Words and photos by Hunter Ellis (@hunterfryellis)
The San Juan Huts Gravel Grinder is a three-day ride from Grand Junction, Colorado, to Moab, Utah. Along the route are two huts, both stocked with food, snacks, water, and beds, so you can do a multi-day ride without bringing your whole kit. The area abounds with beautiful road, dirt, and mountain track options, making it easy to connect the huts as part of a longer trip. I took on the route with a rather disjointed family group, including my 67-year-old dad who was recovering from a cracked pelvis, my cousin William, my brother-in-law Noah, and my friend Will who hadn’t ridden more than 100 cumulative miles in the past year.
Like many people, I first heard about the San Juan Huts road bike route from an article in the New York Times. I half-jokingly told my dad that we should do the trip back in December, and within a couple weeks he had booked five spots. We confirmed the last rider just a couple weeks before the trip was supposed to start and made our way to Moab. After an almost disastrous shuttle ride to Grand Junction (in Moab, they assume “bikes” means straight-bar mountain bikes; they’re not equipped to handle road bikes or bikes with bags without explicit instructions, apparently) we hopped on our rigs a little outside of Grand Junction and started up the Unaweep Canyon via the Tabeguache Trail.
To my surprise, our group started off fast and strong. I kept to the back, hoping we could all ride as a tight pack, but it soon became apparent that we were destined to spread out. I couldn’t help but worry about my dad a little bit. Although he had probably trained harder than anyone for this ride, road biking was not his strong suit. He’s a mountain biker at heart, so cars, roads, and traffic laws are not among his favorite things. Once we turned up the rather steep and rocky gravel path, however, things became a little more interesting.
My brother-in-law hadn’t ever ridden his bike on gravel before. He bought it a few months earlier with this trip in mind and practiced riding it in New York City. He did this ride as an interlude to a cross-country move back home to Sonoma County. He took the train to Denver, where he met up with my cousin and the two of them drove into Moab together. He had some time to practice on the paths and streets around Moab, but riding with a heavily loaded front end up a gravel hill studded with semi-technical rocks was an entirely different matter.
Unaweep is a rare canyon that has both an east- and a west-flowing river. They are separated by an almost imperceptible “divide” – more of a gentle swell – in the middle. The canyon is U-shaped, which is typical of a canyon formed by glaciers, but the evidence for its origin is inconclusive. No one agrees as to exactly when or how it was formed, although some speculate it could be the ancient bed of the nearby Gunnison. What is certain, though, is its beauty. Verdant meadows dotted with sagebrush and wildflowers are framed by towering sandstone cliffs. We passed a few houses and cars, but mostly it was just us, the landscape, and a rather annoying headwind.
The first of the San Juan huts is located in Gateway, which is also home to a massive, sprawling, and really expensive resort. And just before Gateway is a long downhill section that strung out the group. We all stopped in town for snacks and beer, but unfortunately my dad’s just-keep-trucking pace backfired. He completely missed the sight of four semi-loaded bikes and bikers hanging outside of a gas station and pedaled right by us. Cell reception is dodgy at best throughout the canyons, but we eventually managed to reunite before finding our way to the hut. The hut is nestled between the Dolores River and a thin Mesa, and is stocked with enough canned food and beer to double as a Y2K bunker. We shared the space with three older bikers on carbon frames and relatively skinny tires (compared to my 2.3” slicks). I realized then that we had severely overpacked, but oh well. I made dinner for our group that night – canned chicken fajitas with rice and beans –and we settled in for a much-needed rest.
In the morning, we followed the Dolores River to its confluence with the San Miguel, hugging the river the entire day. On paper it looks easy, but we faced a hellacious headwind 90% of the way. We kept up our tortoise and hare game, trying to run a paceline, but we weren’t very successful. I had nagging concerns about my dad and Will in the rear, but they’d always catch up when we stopped. The canyon kept getting deeper and deeper, and eventually we found ourselves riding along a magnificent road cut into the red cliff walls, the Dolores running far below.
After crossing an abandoned bridge, we backtracked along the river bottom on a dirt road. This was exactly what we’d come for: easy, fun, rideable dirt. We mostly kept together here, all laughing and taking photos and changing up what had become our “usual” ride order. This was one of the best parts of the ride, at least until we turned directly into a powerful wind that carried with it dust and the scent of defeat. I had been trying to ride “unselfishly” so far – thinking mostly of the group, avoiding getting tired, etc. But now I had to ride hard, because the going was no longer easy. I put some good space between myself and my family and friends, knowing that once I reached the highway at the end of the dirt road I’d get to turn right and ride with the wind. I earned myself a nice breather, but paid for it with tired legs, a sore Achilles, and a nagging twinge about leaving everyone behind.
A little before hitting pavement we emerged from the canyons into the Paradox Valley, another hydrological rarity. There, the Dolores splits the valley in half, entering and exiting through two deep canyons, rather than running along the course of the basin’s floor.
The Bedrock Store was the first place to refuel the whole day, almost 50 miles into the ride. The store’s proprietor, Pie, moved out there with his wife from New York some years ago to run the store. One of the few things he brought with him was a heavy Brooklyn accent. He was an absolute delight, as I’m sure every traveler who stops by his small store would agree. I got a small bottle of whiskey to medicate my Achilles and we pulled into our second hut just before the rain, aching and somewhat defeated. I don’t remember what we had for dinner that night, but I do recall that we tried fried SPAM for the first time, which is perhaps the most delicious meat in the world. Seriously.
The next day we got our first real climbs, a 900-foot, 2.5 mile ascent followed a few miles later by a nine-mile, 1,800-foot bruiser. At the saddle we were caught riding in a snow flurry, a first for me. There’s an option to take a dirt road off to the north that leads over the Geysers Pass in the La Sal Mountains. These igneous mountains reach over 12,000 feet and are named after—you guessed it—salt. They were an important landmark on the Old Spanish Trail. Someday, I’d like to return and ride that route, but without the snow. We continued on the paved descent into the “town” of La Sal.
One of the best parts of riding bikes with other people is the instant camaraderie that forms. There’s something about group physical activity in general, and bicycling in particular (and adventure biking in even more particular!) that makes relationships blossom as if they’re on steroids. It’s hard not to come away feeling closer than you should be after a few days. By the time we reached La Sal, our group was certainly feeling this. We had conquered most of the ride, were feeling better than yesterday, and had gotten comfortable with each others’ riding styles. We were on the home stretch together.
Shortly after La Sal we turned off onto a BLM road and it was easily the best riding of the trip. Although the route is advertised as the “Gravel Grinder,” we only got about 15-20% dirt. But the last 20 miles were what we’d all been hoping for. Easy grades followed mesas that dipped down into canyons and skirted rock outcroppings. We were slowly but consistently losing elevation, and our speed (and smiles) showed it. Eventually, we came upon a herd of a couple hundred cattle, which made us slow down considerably. At first I thought this was annoying, it turned out that yee-hawing and bike-wrangling cattle as a group for 30 minutes is really fun, if a little smelly.
The roughest dirt came right before the last paved cruise into Moab, where Noah finally had to pay for overloading his front end – he broke a spoke. But that was the only bad thing that happened on entire trip, really. He was still able to pedal into Moab, my dad didn’t fracture his pelvis again, and no one even got a flat. Not bad. We went with a group that had differing riding styles, experience, ability, and bikes, and grew a lot closer in the process. In fact, we’re already planning an adventure for next year.
The San Juan Huts Gravel Grinder is a great trip for a beginner to intermediate cyclist who want to dip their toes into bikepacking but doesn’t want (or doesn’t have the means) to carry all of their gear. It’s perfect for families or groups of friends. Although our hut-mates were lovely, it would be even more fun to go with a group of eight and book out the entire hut. You could do the trip quite minimally with a hydration pack and a couple changes of clothes, or bring everything except cookware and sleeping gear. As long as you have enough water and food, the days aren’t too bad and the cabins have plenty of both. There’s a lot more pavement pounding than gravel grinding, but the roads are remote and with few cars. I’d love to return and weave the huts into a longer trip — there are tons of great looking dirt options all around the main route that we didn’t have the time or the energy to explore. We’ll definitely be back for more.
About Hunter Ellis
Hunter Ellis grew up in Sonoma County, California. In the late aughts he toured the country with his instrumental rock band, then went to college and started biking in Portland, Oregon. After stints in Los Angeles and New York, he returned to Sonoma County, where he hangs with his wife and one-year-old daughter, runs a textile company, moonlights as a bike trip leader, and rides bikes in his spare time. He likes to cook, eat, get lost, trespass, write songs, and he always misses the desert.