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Know the West

Biking the line between wilderness and civilization

A bikepacking trip in Canyonlands offers a new look at a well-travelled landscape.


One weekend in May, I bump down the swooping turns of a jeep track in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. My friend Cecilia and I are embarking on a three-day bike trip along the White Rim Road, which skirts the chiseled contours of the Colorado and Green rivers at the southern edge of the park’s Island in the Sky district. Cecilia and I met in college and have since made many poor decisions for adventure’s sake; tackling 100 miles of blazing-hot desert promises to be no different.

Aside from one spot two days in, where the road descends from the rims to touch the muddy Green River, for example, there is no water. This means you must carry nearly all you need — and fight the urge to guzzle it prematurely as the dry air sucks moisture from your body.

A friend had insisted we cache water along the route or enlist a support car — “so you can drink beers in your camping chairs at the end of the day.” (The Park Service “highly recommends” the same, for soberer reasons.)

“No way,” I replied. I wanted to carry everything in my bike’s three small bags, following in the tracks of cyclists going back to the early 1900s. But where they mostly rode pavement on skinny tires, we journey over more rugged ground: The White Rim Road is high-clearance and so remote that a tow can cost drivers more than $1,000. This makes it perfect for bikepacking — a cross between classic bike touring and backpacking that opens up vast networks of underused national forest roads, ATV tracks and singletrack, often far from more conventional destinations.

 Bikepacking was popularized in the early 2000s by mountain bike racers, who pedaled hundreds of miles over many days with little gear. By 2010, non-racers had picked up the minimalist ethic, and manufacturers began designing bags that were lighter and less cumbersome than traditional rack-and-pannier setups. New routes were pioneered and competitions created, including the unofficial 750-mile Arizona Trail Race and the 2,700-mile Tour Divide Race along the Continental Divide from Canada to New Mexico. In 2004, the Tour Divide’s first year, less than 20 people entered. This year, there were 150.

Bikepacking’s appeal is obvious to Cecilia and me. You can ride much farther than you can walk over the same timeframe, without heavy backpacks. And you see places in unexpected ways: The routes are often hybrids, linking singletrack with dirt roads and occasional stretches of pavement. Sometimes you have to drag your bike under a fence. The goal: Find those in-between places lying halfway between wilderness and civilization.

We pedal beneath crumbling red-rock towers, and stare into canyons that tumble away in sudden, stomach-turning drops, as if an angry god scooped out great chunks of earth. Spring moisture has carpeted rocky ledges with green; cactus flowers splash pink in a sea of reddish brown.

And we are alone, mostly; the park’s permit system strictly limits backcountry campers. A few jeeps loaded with uncomfortable-looking passengers rattle by. There are some bikers, too, though all are on van-supported guided tours. “Need any water?” one driver asks, slightly incredulous when we shake our heads no.

Luckily, recent storms left pools of water in the rocks where we spend our first night. Otherwise, our 15 liters might not have lasted. Unluckily, dark clouds roll in the next afternoon, bringing thunder, lightning, and more rain. “I guess we should have brought the tent,” says Cecilia; to save weight, I had left it behind. But just before the storm hits, we find a rock ledge to sleep beneath, sheltered from the rain. And what if we weren’t so lucky? Well, I remind Ceci, at least we could get out of here faster on bikes than on foot.