30 Days On The Colorado Plateau: Part One

If you had a month with no obligations, an urge to spend it pedaling, and a desire to immerse yourself in relatively remote territory, where would you go? The Yukon? Siberia? Central Australia?

Over the past winter, I pondered long and hard about where I wanted to find myself during the coming summer. I entertained a wide range of ideas, from tame local exploration to ambitious trips abroad. In the end, I settled on a nearby region that has captivated me during recent years – the Colorado Plateau of southern Utah. It’s a stunning and unforgiving landscape, sparsely populated, and hosts some incredibly fascinating geology.

After some rather hasty planning, I spent the entirety of June traversing Utah and southwestern Colorado, almost entirely on dirt, covering nearly 1500 miles 30 days. I started out with a handful of friends on the high plateaus east of Cedar City, and then after a few days, struck out on my own, bouncing from plateau to plateau, and then from one isolated mountain range to the next as I neared Colorado.

On some days, I felt like an ant in a jungle of thick grass as I lugged, hoisted, and tossed my El Mariachi Ti bike through miles of deadfall. These frustrating trails, however, often gave way to unbelievable singletrack rewards and huge vistas. On other days, I wilted in the summer heat beneath a cloudless sky. A cold spring and a small patch of shade was the most relief for which I could hope. I wound through deep, hot canyons, only to then climb a mile into the sky the following day to find a cool and blustery reprieve from the desert and some of the most impressive vistas imaginable. Eventually I’d roll into a tiny town, find a place to get a meal, and then continue on with another four to five days of food and a couple gallons of water. On a few days, I did not see a single other soul and was left to make small talk with the cicadas and ground squirrels. This was exactly the type of adventure for which I had hoped.

For the second half of my tour, I had no preplanned route, so I toted along a small library of maps. I’d stare at these in the evening over a heaping bowl of couscous or mashed potatoes, determining where to head the next day. I eventually reached southwestern Colorado and the touristy San Juan Mountains. Bustling little towns and gift shops peddling snacks and cold drinks became more frequent, I began crossing paths with friends, and my desolate route across the remote expanses of Utah quickly faded in my mind. Instead of wondering where I might be able to next find water, I found myself enjoying an evening concert in the park in Ouray as the moon rose over the towering cliffs at the edge of town. Two days later I stood by one of the few snow patches on the Continental Divide cheering on racers in a 50-mile ultra-marathon. A day later, I enjoyed ice cream treats in two campgrounds and in the revived mining town of Silverton.

As Durango, my ultimate destination, grew nearer, my route became even more circuitous. I climbed needlessly over passes just to gaze out over the expanses obscured on the opposite side. I detoured miles off the most direct route to ride a singletrack descent shown on one of my maps. Even after a month of pedaling, I found myself delaying the inevitable end of the ride, a sure sign of a great tour.

Stay tuned for Part Two, where I will answer some questions folks have asked me and provide a bit of information about planning a big tour.

This post filed under topics: Bikepacking El Mariachi Explore Kurt Refsnider Mountain Biking Sponsored Riders Touring

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Kurt Refsnider

Kurt Refsnider

After growing up in Minnesota, I’ve been lured away by the rugged charm of the mountainous west. I relish every opportunity I find to spend a day (or days) on the bike, linking together unknown trails and forgotten routes through deserted country, enjoying the simplicity and unpredictability. When driven to race, I am growing ever fonder of pushing the limits of endurance and sanity. [url=http://www.krefs.blogspot.com]http://www.krefs.blogspot.com[/url]


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Logan | November 6th, 2013

Great article. Do you have any map data posted from that fine looking route?

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Will | November 6th, 2013

Hey Kurt, a fellow geologist and cyclist here.  I’d like to hear some more about the geology too!

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Scott Andrews | November 6th, 2013

Ilive in Telluride and have ridden extensively between the San Juan’s and Mesquite, NV.  From Green River to the north to Gallup, NM to the south.  Anyone ever want to discover this jewel of open country, contact me and we will go for a nice long ride.

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Kevin Sainio | November 6th, 2013

Good to see that you enjoyed my backyard as much as I do. Durango is my home and it continually amazes me the diversity and stunning beauty of the landscape surrounding it. There are thousands of miles of riding to be had for those willing to look at a map and create there own adventure. Nice job creating yours.

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kurt | November 8th, 2013

Logan, there’ll be a map included in the follow-up post. I do have a gpx track from most of the route, but it’s a bit messy, and I haven’t had time to clean that up quite yet. I’d be happy to share that, as well as info on water sources, when I get around to it.

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MountainBiker | November 8th, 2013

One of the items on my checklist for 2014 is to get out to ride in Colorado. The sights on your pictures are absolutely amazing. The nature changes from a forest to an Arizona like sights, that kind of eyecandy will never let you get bored. I also am interested in doing downhill mountain biking there. Couple friends were there this year and they all loved it.

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Scott Andrews | November 9th, 2013

If one draws a 150 mile circle around Monticello UT one will find more beauty and challenge than any place in the good old USA.  There are 1200 year old ruins with artifacts and relics untouched.  There are small pools where you can float on hot days.  The historic mines can be explored; left as they were when abandoned in the early 1900’s.  Oh and by the way days go by before two people will run into one another.

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