Maximizing A Weekend

The fall for me typically signifies a loss of personal time on the weekends. The start of the new school year means that every weekend I am leading enthusiastic college students on adventures in the mountains, deserts, and on the rivers of the southwest. So when the ever elusive free weekend suddenly becomes available, I seek to make the most of it and maximize my personal adventure time. In late October, such a gift was delivered from the “Adventure Gods”—a work trip was cancelled and I was staring at the prospect of a three-day weekend. Oh, what to do?!  

With a light dusting of snow and the temperatures dropping quickly in the high country, an alpine rock adventure was going to be out of the question until next summer. Looking west to the desert country of southern Utah I knew I would find multiple solutions to my question. My adventure partner, DP, really wanted one last river trip before ski season arrived. After a quick check of water levels and river permit availability, a plan for the weekend was emerging.

Oh, what to do?!

The San Juan River originates among the high peaks of the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado. Falling over 10,000’ over the course of over 400 miles, the river basin is a huge watershed that combines with the Colorado River to create Lake Powell. There are two sections of the river that require permits in order to float the river corridor. The river in these sections has carved out a series of deep canyons that make for an amazingly beautiful and stunning river adventure. From spring to early fall it can be nearly impossible to secure a last minute permit for either of these sections as the BLM regulates river use via a lottery system that takes place in late winter. Looking at the BLM’s river permit calendar, it became clear that the upper 28-mile section which is typically floated in a weekend was out of the question for us—there were no permits available. Darn. What about the lower section?

The San Juan River—carving its way through the southwest…

The lower section is roughly 56 miles in length and winds circuitously through some of Utah’s most remote canyon country. Once on the river there is very little access to the outside world until one reaches the permitted section’s terminus at Clay Hills Crossing. There were permits available. How could we float 56 miles of low flow in three days?

Packed and ready for the adventure ahead…

DP and I left Durango at 6:30 AM and by 10 AM were standing at a trailhead peering 1200 feet down to the murky river below. This was our drop-in point. Our chosen trail is one of the few access points to the San Juan River once the river leaves the sleepy town of Mexican Hat. The rocky trail was built in the 1890’s as a supply route for gold prospectors and drops steeply from the canyon rim to the entrenched river below. Carrying backpacks overloaded with camping equipment, paddling gear, food, and full dromedary bags of water, we began the hard work of pushing/carrying our mountain bikes down into the river canyon. 

DP dropping in to the lower San Juan…

My Fargo Ti was yet again the perfect bike for this adventure. Its light weight made it easy to maneuver around and through the boulders constricting the quickly descending trail. After a short snack at the top of a lofty and exposed rock point, we began descending the final switchbacks to our destination. Our trail cut through one rock layer after another forcing us to work together as a team to pass our bikes down short vertical sections. At times the trail seemed to hang precipitously along the canyon’s wall as it traversed to a weakness in a rock band that allowed us passage to the river below. In these exposed sections, extreme care was taken with each footstep and shift of a bike tire so as to not have a quick, premature and fatal descent to the canyon bottom. 

Exposure is the name of the game on the lower section of the trail…

Within a couple of hours, DP and I were basking in the sun on the sandy river bank as the San Juan meandered by, continuing to sculpt the canyon as it has for a millennium. Relieved to have completed segment one of this adventure, I surprised DP with an insulated bottle of chilled margaritas—it was after all the weekend and we were on a river trip. 

Prepping for segment two…

Our libations went down easily as we prepared for segment two. Packrafts were unrolled; paddles assembled; gear stowed; and paddling gear donned. By mid-afternoon we took our first paddle strokes into the current, launching ourselves into nearly 24 miles of river until our planned takeout and the beginning of segment three. By doing the hard work to access the river via foot, we had eliminated 16 miles of river, thus making the lower section much more doable in the span of a three-day weekend. Furthermore, the presence of our bikes would make this weekend river trip a feasible adventure.

River time!

For the rest of the day and the day following, we made our way slowly downstream taking in the many wonders of the canyon. Several big horn sheep graced us with their presence as the rams were in rut and seeking frisky ewes. The weather was perfect with warm but not overwhelmingly hot temperatures and cloudless skies. The canyon was ours to explore without the presence of another human being felt. Without a moon, the Milky Way lighted up the night sky and many a shooting star was counted. What an amazing weekend!

Seen any ewes around here?

Day three dawned clear as the sun’s rays fell upon the tips of the rocky outcrops upon the canyon rim. Relishing in the peacefulness and beauty of our landscape, we were slow to emerge from our sleeping bags and begin the prep for the final leg of our adventure. We were camped at the base of an old road built in the early 1900’s to access oil drill sites along the river. This would be our exit point from the river and thus, eliminating another 18 miles of paddling to the normal takeout. 

Not too bad of a view to wake up to…

Bikes were reassembled. Packrafts were cleaned and rolled, to be stowed away once again in our packs along with our paddles and other camping equipment. Away went the river sandals to be replaced by tennis shoes. Once our water bottles were filled, we began ferrying bikes, and then backpacks, up the initial un-rideable portion of the road. The road, if you could call it that, switchbacked steeply upward, passing remnants of an era long gone in oil exploration. After gaining nearly 500 feet of elevation, we reached a plateau of sorts above the river and were able to take our first pedal strokes of the trip.

Finishing the initial hike-a-bike out of the canyon…

Our road was no more than a sandy footpath that contoured along the plateau—winding in and out of the many drainages that fell to the river below. Our large backpacks made the riding tricky as neither of us was accustomed to riding with them on our backs. The sand presented challenges as well, but neither of us seemed to mind as we made our way back up canyon to where our adventure had begun. It was fun to view the canyon from up high as we had just spent the last two days gazing up at its walls. 

Segment Three: 31 miles of mountain biking…

Because of our leisurely morning, we did not begin our bike ride until almost noon. This normally would not have been much of a problem, if it weren’t such an unusually hot fall day. Once away from the river and exposed up high, we encountered the full force of the desert sun. With virtually no vegetation and only random house-sized boulders to provide shade, the sun relentlessly beat down upon us—zapping our energy. We found ourselves with an insatiable thirst and quickly consumed our water supplies. Seeking to slow down the dehydration process we slowed our pace so as to minimize our energy output—and thus making our water last until we arrived at a water source that I knew was along our route.

A fitting sunset for an amazing weekend…

As the sun sank lower on the western horizon and the desert shadows became longer, we arrived at the water source. It was clear and cold. Wahoo! We still had 16 miles of riding to do, but the heat of the day was over, and most importantly, we had revitalizing water to drink. Additionally, our footpath was now a dirt road that two-wheel drive vehicles could easily negotiate. We would be arriving at the truck under starry skies with the guidance of our headlamps, but I didn’t care. I secretly knew that another thermos of margaritas was waiting for us to celebrate a weekend lived to its fullest. What a great ‘Adventure by Foot, Pack Raft and Bike!’  





This post filed under topics: Bikepacking Brett Davis Explore Fargo Mountain Biking Overnighter

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Brett Davis

Brett Davis

I grew up in a military family where we moved 13 times before I left for college. Consequently, I have the continual urge to explore and travel having climbed, kayaked, and biked all over our amazing planet. My passion for the outdoors drives me to seek out adventures which often times combine multiple modes of travel or activities (i.e. biking to a wilderness area and then backpacking in to climb a high peak). "Keeping life simple" is a guiding motto of my life and for me, bike travel epitomizes simplicity.


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Zach | December 25th, 2014

Great little story.  I do have to ask what app you’re using for the USGS map?  LOoks like it would be an awesome tool.

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Brett | December 31st, 2014

A great app that I often use when in the backcountry is “Topo Maps.” It costs a few
dollars but allows you to download for free any topo map in the country
on to your phone. It also interacts with the gps capabilities of a smart
phone to track your progress, add way points, etc.  There are various
other apps out there that do the same thing, but this one has worked well
for me.

Happy Riding!

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Raymond Vought | April 6th, 2015

I floated the San Juan many years ago.  Your story and pictures took me right back there - certainly a peak experience of my life.  I love the approach you took to the constraints you faced figuring out a way to do this trip in the time allotted. 

Some people have vision, and zest, and some people don’t.  You do.

I have a similar background to yours.  Lots of traveling, all over the globe.  I’m an adventurer like you, and I love the planet and being “out there”.  But I don’t like to travel widely - no commercial aviation, is my constraint.  Not fear, just an impact and experiential choice. 

Thanks for writing this up.

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