Bikepacking Through Geology: Part One

Imagine being able to combine your greatest passions in life and call it “work.” Envision nine bright-eyed, excited, nervous college students rolling out together on their first bikepacking trip. Some were relatively new to mountain biking. Only two had ever done any bikepacking, and most of the students’ longest previous rides were 30 to 40 miles in length. Then picture this crew three weeks later, having each already covered 450-plus miles of difficult Colorado Plateau terrain, shredding down the steep, technical, and breathtakingly stunning Thunder Mountain Trail. At the bottom, each and every student was covered in orange dust and brown mud from a four-day ride and grinning ear to ear.

Kaitlyn and I lagged behind just a bit, letting the students’ dust settle before swooping through the final section of singletrack to the trailhead on our El Mariachi's. Our smiles were just as large, only we were grinning more out of relief and satisfaction. The students had all made it through the course unscathed. Everyone’s bike had survived. Our complicated logistics had worked out almost flawlessly. Each student had learned a tremendous amount, and Kaitlyn and I had probably learned at least as much as the students. We had just pulled off an ambitious month-long bikepacking course and witnessed incredible personal growth in everyone involved along the way.

I was given the amazing opportunity through my job at Prescott College to create a new course called Geology Through Bikepacking. It combined aspects of our Adventure Education and Environmental Studies programs, and was designed to use bikepacking as a means for students to delve deeper into the landscapes and geology in a variety of locales across the Colorado Plateau while learning about the geologic history of the region. Students would also learn how to plan, prepare for, and execute bikepacking trips, practice group leadership in a backcountry setting, and learn a variety of other skills that would be necessary for any sort of bicycle guiding endeavor. It was also, as far as I’m aware, the first inclusion of bikepacking in any academic curriculum (though I believe that fellow Salsa rider Brett Davis’ Fort Lewis College Outdoor Pursuits crew were the first collegiate bikepackers!).

We had nine students in the class, most of which had been riding regularly over the summer to get ready for the class. There were two TAs, one graduating in just a few months with a degree in Adventure Education. He had also ridden the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (GDMBR) over the summer. The other TA is an accomplished geology student with a contagious passion for the rocks of the Colorado Plateau, and he’s a strong rider to boot. And I was fortunate enough to recruit Kaitlyn to help me at the helm. She’s an experienced Prescott College and NOLS instructor with the Colorado Trail and GDMBR under her bikepacking belt, and it would have been tough to find a more qualified co-instructor.

The course began with a few days of bike bag fitting, gear acquisition, nutrition and food planning, and basic geology lessons on campus. Then we rode out of town for a one-night shakedown ride in the mountains above Prescott. The route was difficult with ample climbing and classic Arizona chunk riding and set the stage for the physical rigor that would characterize many of the rides. Twenty-three miles from town, we made camp, then huddled beneath our mid-shelters and tarps as steady rain settled in for the night. The students were exhausted but exhilarated, feelings that persisted for all of us for the following three weeks.

Following our overnighter, we headed north to circumnavigate the San Francisco Peaks, test the students’ improved bikepacking setups and learn about the volcanic history of the Flagstaff area. The humid monsoonal atmosphere delivered heavy rain and lightning, but everyone took it in stride, laughing at the nearby lightning strikes as we crouched in lightning position for 45 minutes. The following day, we explored cinder cones, a laccolith, and then hit the Arizona Trail singletrack. The students were in disbelief that such magnificent trails could exist. And I was in disbelief that we had just completed two of the five planned bikepacking routes without any bad crashes or bike failures. The students were just getting more excited and confident with each passing day, but our toughest routes were still to come, and I was nervous about the desert heat and lengthy climbs we had yet to face.


This post filed under topics: Bikepacking El Mariachi Explore Kurt Refsnider Mountain Biking Overnighter 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=][/url]


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Bryan | November 27th, 2013


This sounds fantastic! Any thoughts about doing another and/or a teacher enrichment course in the summer for teachers?

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Payton MacDonald | December 20th, 2013

Congratulations, Kurt, on ingeniously combining your passions and creating a dynamic learning environment for your students.  I’m sure this adventure changed their lives in many positive ways.  You’ve inspired me to start thinking of ways to combine bikepacking with music for my job as a music professor at William Paterson U. . . . Maybe “Rail Trails and Ragas?”  Or “Miles for Miles?”  Hmmm . . . :)

No avatar image | July 19th, 2014

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