Bikepacking the San Rafael Swell—Part Two

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Day Three

We got an early start as the weather had been warming up through the week. Little shade and direct exposure to the sun, even if only in the 80’s, wears on you. Within an hour we had arrived at the Muddy River (again). The water was cold and refreshing, and the mud deep and sticky.

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We spent some time wading in the cool water. We had hoped to hit the river the night before when we were hot and sweaty, but where we camped was better. All around the river was deep sand, which made for more pushing for Bullet and Finn, and a little for me as well. After climbing out of the river plain, we spotted a cabin a ways off the road, so headed over to check it out. It was quite old, with the chimney still intact. We wondered who had built it, and for what purpose. We poked around for a bit, then continued on our way.

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No one home.

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The road roller-coastered for several miles up and down near white hills before finally dropping down into the wash a couple miles before the entrance to Ding and Dang Canyons.

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At the Little Wild Horse Canyon Trailhead we took a break, then headed out on the paved Goblin Valley State Park Road. By this time it was quite hot, even though it was only early afternoon. We were relieved to arrive at the visitors center where we promptly drank as much as we could hold, then lay down on the cool concrete to rest. We chatted with tourists, drank some more, ate, and rested for about an hour.

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We reluctantly packed up and continued down the paved highway to the junction of Temple Mountain Road. About two more miles of pavement and we were back in the dirt. The road was at times steep and unrelenting, and it was hot.

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About 4:00 pm we found a campsite that looked too good to pass up, just off the main road. After a short consultation we decided to stop for the day. We had covered only 30.6 miles but we only had about 25 left and we were tired. We had also climbed 2,051′, the most so far on this trip. It felt really good to lay out our tarps, blow up our pads, and lay down to rest.

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Day Four

The biggest challenge about spending time in the desert is water, or rather a lack of water. This affects everything you do—how far you can ride, how hard you ride, where to camp, what kinds of meals you eat, how and if you can bathe, and so on. After three days working hard in the desert sun, you feel sticky, gritty, and generally pretty gross. Baby wipes only go so far to get you clean, and we simply didn’t have enough water to really bathe properly. That’s the desert for you. If you are lucky you can wash off in the occasional river, but only if you hit it at an opportune time. No such luck for us.

We knew that day four would be our shortest day, but also have the most elevation gain. And our route did not disappoint. We spent much of our time climbing, though we did have occasional downhill sections to rest our legs and cool us off. The last couple climbs up toward Eagle Canyon were steep and chunky requiring us to push our bikes, but sometimes it’s better to have short and steep than long and gradual climbs.

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Looking back at Temple Mountain.

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Just before dropping into Eagle Canyon we visited the historic Swasey Cabin, built in 1921 by the Swasey brothers who had been running cattle in the area for decades. It was built from douglas fir trees hauled up from Eagle Canyon. It was still solid and sturdy.

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The descent into Eagle Canyon was a lot of fun and some of the most technical riding of the whole loop. It went of for several miles, flowing at times, rocky and blocky, and finally sandy in the wash at the bottom. We rode this section pretty fast. We stopped at Eagle Canyon Arch for a short break, then continued on under the tall I-70 bridges.

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The climb out of the canyon and back to the trailhead where our car was really took it out of me. It was very steep, and either deep sand, or blocky and chunky, making pushing your bike even more challenging. This went on for 2+ miles. It didn’t help that we hadn’t eaten that much anticipating getting to the car near lunchtime. We finally arrived at the car feeling relieved and satisfied with our ride. We had zero mechanical issues, our gear and water carrying methods worked well, no one bonked, we had enough water (for the most part, though it seems we were always thirsty and rationing our supplies), and the scenery was spectacular. Finn even used traditional panniers (Lone Peak) on a rack and they performed well, even on the rough, technical sections. Our last day we covered 26.3 miles and climbed 2,382′.

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I should mention that just because a couple middle-aged, pudgy guys can ride this loop, it should not be taken lightly. Some of those roads are very remote and if you got into trouble it would be pretty grim. One day we saw only one vehicle the whole day. Before attempting a route like this, you should be reasonably fit, and have some experience in the desert.

Trip totals: 156.6 miles, 8,666′ gained (and lost), in four days (we actually finished at about 1:30 pm, so technically it took us three and a half days.

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One comment

  1. Ben Duncan · · Reply

    Thanks for sharing your adventure! Living in Pennsylvania, I haven’t had the opportunity to fat bike through the desert. Your pictures of the landscape are awesome.

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