I get pretty excited about mountain biking these days. But add camping and traveling on a bike off road all day for several days? Well, I’m ecstatic. Like if I could do that forever, I would. I’ve been road bike touring before and loved getting around with only what I had on my bike. But I had never been off-road “bikepacking.” This was new to me, and being an adventurer and explorer, I was excited to try it out. My fascination with this newfound interest quickly grew when I decided to plan a local route around Zion that would utilize a variety of the expansive terrain southwest Utah has to offer, including some paved roads, dirt roads, old double track roads, and single track mountain bike trails.
I discovered the route I planned on doing while shuttle driving in Springdale. As a shuttle driver, I drive a dirt road for about 13 miles to drop hikers off at a trailhead for hiking the Zion Narrows, an impressive river canyon hike. My curiosity was sparked when I saw a sign for Navajo Lake where the road forks and I follow it to the left to drop off hikers. The road to the right leads to Navajo Lake where the elevation is 10,000 feet and there is a singletrack biking trail called the Virgin River Rim Trail that offers distant views of Zion and traverses an aspen and pine flanked pink cliff rim. When I first biked this trail awhile ago, I knew I wanted to camp overnight on it. And now as I dropped hikers off at their trailhead on each of my shuttle runs, my route was beginning to connect the dots in my imagination. I would excitedly describe the route to my shuttle clients, anticipating the day I would finally be biking it and making it a reality. After dawdling over maps for some time, I discovered that I could connect the Virgin River Rim Trail to the opposite side of the park via a dirt road and end up within the park on a paved road to make a massive loop of the park and end up back in Springdale. I recruited my usual mountain bike partner in crime, Rich, without saying much more than the words mountain biking and camping. He was in.
Below you will find a travelogue of the experience written from the perspective of a beginner mountain bike packer. Enjoy the rambling!
Preparation: The trip involved an extensive amount of pre-trip planning including caching food and water along the route so we wouldn’t have to carry all of it, looking at maps over and over again to make sure our route would work, and researching the most calorie dense food that would weigh the lightest (and still be appetizing!) Rich prepared the meals for the trip by prepacking each campsite’s dinner, dessert, and breakfast in a sturdy Ziploc bag. We decided on a route that would involve riding on both dirt roads and singletrack to break up how technical the ride would be. Our timeframe for executing the trip was to be when the Aspen leaves were at their peak colors. This meant planning the trip for the end of September when the Aspens at 10,000 feet are usually at their prime. We decided to go with a lightweight set up on our mountain bikes: framebag, handlebar bag, small tool bag, and a backpack. For our first bikepacking trip, this setup was an enormous plus, enabling us to ride faster and be comfortable without being weighed down by bulky, heavy bikes.
Framebag: a custom designed framebag (by Rogue Panda Designs out of Flagstaff) for the front triangle on the bike that would store the heaviest weight, which ended up being food and water. The framebag appears quite small when first attached to the frame, however a lot can be stuffed into it.
Handlebar bag: a Sea to Summit compression stuff sack strapped to the handlebars with a sleeping bag, ultralight hammock and webbing, and warm layers stuffed inside
Gear bag: a small seatbag attached to the seatpost that stored all repair tools necessary for 3 days of riding such as spare tubes, tire levers, patch kit, spoke wrench, and multitool
Backpack: I’m used to riding with weight on my back so I decided to store my water in my three liter bladder on my back. My Deuter backpack also stored extra snacks, my puffy jacket, my first aid kit, headlamp and toiletry bag.
Saddle: Serfas Dual Density Gel Saddle. The most comfy bike seat on the planet, borrowed from my road bike. Game changer.
Day 1: Springdale to Strawberry Point (43 miles) 5:45 AM start
We departed from Springdale at 5:45 am in the dark. Our first leg involved climbing the paved switchbacks through the park to the Zion-Mount Carmel tunnel, a 1.1 mile long tunnel that pedestrians and bicyclists are not allowed through. Because there was no space on the early morning shuttle to get through the tunnel, we decided to try our luck at hitchhiking in the dark. When we got to the tunnel, we put our bikes down and waited for the first car to come up the hill. We stuck our thumbs out as we saw its lights round the bend and come into view. I figured we were going to have to wait awhile with it being dark, there being less traffic on the road, and the fact that the vehicle needed to be able to accommodate bikes. The first vehicle so happened to be a truck that stopped for us and let us put our bikes in the bed and sit with them in the back! Within 5 minutes, we were on the other side of the tunnel and biking into the sunrise.
We left the east side of the park feeling warmed up and awake from the uphill climbing, ready to tackle the day. We knew the first day would be difficult with 43 miles to go to our camping destination and 7,000 feet of elevation gain over unknown terrain. We loaded up on some homemade “trail butter,” a blended concoction of various nuts, dried fruit, honey, maple syrup, Justin’s Almond Butter, and chocolate chips, before hitting the dirt road.
I’m used to seeing the distant views of the park from the driver’s seat of my shuttle while I’m trying to avoid hitting suicidal bunnies and deer, potholes, and another wild shuttle driver on the always eventful North Fork Road. Now, on my bike I could enjoy the views at a slower, more relaxed pace.
The North Fork Road was mostly downhill riding save for one grueling hill that seemed to go on forever. At the junction where I normally turn left to drop off hikers, we headed to the right into parts unknown.
The ascent began shortly after we reached one of our caches and refilled our water and food. With heavier packs and bikes, we forged onto loose, rocky terrain and forgotten about roads that still existed on a map. We navigated over grass and through rocky washes as we encountered nothing but irritated cows who acted like they hadn’t seen humans in ages. Keeping an eye on the Pink Cliffs, they slowly became closer and closer in the distance.
As we neared the Pink Cliffs, we began to see log cabins lining the rim, a welcome sign for us. Once we reached the cabins, we knew we only had two more miles of climbing before we reached our campsite for the night. Well, those were the longest two miles of the entire trip. Our legs had become jelly and our bodies were already craving food other than trail butter. At long last we reached Strawberry Point, an overlook in the Dixie National Forest that affords tremendous views of Zion to the southwest, the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument to the east and the rim of the Virgin River to the northwest. Before even heading out to the point for a view, we strung up our hammocks and passed out at 4 pm. Our bodies coaxed us awake an hour later, begging to be fed with real food. We set up our kitchen and boiled up some water, adding it to instant rice with refried beans, taco seasoning, fritos, and cheese for one of our favorite quick camp meals to date. For some extra calories and salt, we also made instant mashed potatoes to follow the Mexican entrée. And for dessert we consumed a whole Lindt bar of Blackberry, Acai, and Dark Chocolate. I also boiled water and added it to Strawberry and Kiwi flavored Emergen-C for a vitamin rich warm drink that became a staple of the trip.
We headed out to Strawberry Point to soak in the remaining sunlight and enjoy the changing colors on the now orange-colored rock.
We passed out at 8 pm and lucky for us there was no breeze the entire night, something we were worried about at an overlook point over 9,000 feet high. Because we had decided not to carry sleeping pads, we unzipped the bottom of our sleeping bags and put our hammocks through them so that the sleeping bags weren’t compressed underneath our bodies, but were able to insulate us below the hammock. I slept very warm in my synthetic top and bottom base layers and my puffy jacket.
Day 2: Strawberry Point to Somewhere far from the Kolob Reservoir (35 miles, 17 of which were singletrack) 7 AM start
You know it’s going to be a long day when a couple of hikers pass you while you’re biking on the trail…
We way overshot our mileage for Day 2 because we didn’t consider how slow the going would be on singletrack trail. We planned on doing 33 miles of singletrack that day but by mile 8 we were considering an alternative route; a detour one might say. The Virgin River Rim Trail is a beautiful trail with spectacular views the entire way, but that doesn’t outweigh the continuous ups and downs and technical rocky sections along the trail that made us jealous of hikers skipping down the trail with feather light packs. We never questioned why we decided to do this trip; we knew it was going to be hard at certain points. But we did scream obscenities out of frustration when we were climbing up hills and falling over sideways while clipped into the pedals because we couldn’t unclip our shoes fast enough. Those were hard times. It was no wonder we were burning through calories at record speeds.
When Rich apprehensively mentioned to me that we could take a dirt road instead of hike-a-biking up steep singletrack to reach a halfway stopping point, I agreed with him for once. Logic and a far-fetched hope that the Navajo Lake Lodge (where we could get more food) would be open took over and we headed down a dirt road at mile 11. When we reached the familiar Navajo Lake road, I was beginning to bonk. That is, my body was punishing me for not feeding it enough food. I knew the lodge was right around the corner. This is not true when you’re bonking, even if it really is just around the bend. I was tired and “hangry” and I thought this road was flat, so why are there so many small inclines on it that I never noticed before?
At long last, the sign for the lodge came into view. We turned onto the road and passed teasing wooden signs that said things like “groceries” “ice” “water” “firewood.” They were beaming signs of hope. It wasn’t like we were desperately starving or in need of food. We had plenty in our bags. Heck, I had like 3 pounds of trail butter! But the lodge would have food other than trail butter. As we rolled up to the lodge, I first noticed all the windows and front door boarded up with plywood. My heart dropped. A man came around the side of the building and greeted us. We said hello and asked him if the store was open. His reply was, “Well, we don’t have much. You can come in and take a look but we’ve gotten rid of most stuff.” I was skeptical; I knew that whatever was in that store was going to be appealing to us, even it was just a few bars. He let us take a gander inside and we were in awe. There was candy, Pringles of all flavors, Starbucks drinks in the fridge, frozen snicker bars he was giving away for free, soda, a 50 cent box of calorie dense packaged pastries that were probably years old, and plenty of other salty snacks. I’ve never been so excited to see so much junk food. There was also an entire shelf of medications. Rich grabbed a bottle of ibuprofen. Both of our strong knees were very tender from the previous day’s uphill grind.
Snacks in hand and a gracious thank you to the man and lodge for being open, we scarfed down the food at picnic tables outside. I attacked the Pringles first. I needed some salt to balance out the sweetness of the trail butter. Fifty calories per chip. I was in a happy place. (I looked it up on the Googlebox and found that Pringles have the highest calorie content of all chips. Check out Kent’s Bike Blog post on “What Long Distance Cyclists Really Eat” http://kentsbike.blogspot.com/2009/10/what-long-distance-cyclists-really-eat.html).
Fully re-energized with coffee, candy, and carbs, we refilled our water reservoirs at a nearby spring and hit the road around 2 pm. Faces beaming with joy and surrounded by beautiful yellow Aspens, we both agreed that this trip was a good idea. We were stoked on life at that point. I had never really experienced the sensation of bonking while biking. After experiencing it several times over the course of the day, I realized that food intake couldn’t just be stopping for a snack every 45 minutes or so. It had to be a constant shoveling of calories and electrolytes into one’s body while riding. I also learned a valuable lesson for future tours: junk food is the best fuel for long rides.
The rest of the day was very enjoyable. We hopped back on the singletrack which was now a mostly downward grade, smooth trail, twisting and turning through Aspen forests. With out lightweight rigs, we could ride our mountain bikes as if they weren’t loaded with anything. We were even getting air off little jumps!
The most memorable part of the day was the hour during which we “bikewhacked.” Due to route complications, Rich and I made a decision to travel by foot through a forest thick with downed logs. We pushed, pulled, lifted, and carried our bikes through, over, under, and around logs and brush. By following our map, we were able to re-connect with the dirt road we were supposed to be on. Once again, our lightweight set ups came in handy, or else this would not have been feasible. It’s funny how when you think about doing something that sounds unappealing and rather difficult, you can easily talk yourself out of it. But if you just go through with it, you will often find out its not that bad and can be quite enjoyable with the right mindset.
We didn’t end up making it to our food cache that night. However we did make it to where we had cached some extra water for the third day. This is where we decided to camp for the night on the side of a quiet dirt road. Fortunately we were carrying a dehydrated meal and extra oatmeal for breakfast in case this happened. The soon to be rehydrated meal was Cuban Coconut Black Beans and Rice with a side of instant golden mashed potatoes. I was so full I could hardly finish the intense orange dark chocolate bar for dessert. After dinner, we swayed to sleep in our own little Aspen grove just as a chilly front moved in.
Day 3: Somewhere far from the Kolob Reservoir to Springdale (77 miles) 7 AM start
Our final morning we planned on waking up at 5:30 AM to be on the road by 6 AM so we could get to the Kolob Terrace Road before it closed at 9 AM for 3 hours due to construction. The combination of it being very cold outside of our sleeping bags, dark out, and our sore bodies made getting up a struggle that morning. We were on the road an hour later than planned but we knew this was all part of the experience. We would just have to adjust the rest of our day if we didn’t make it before the road closed. I figured we could just nap while waiting. We did have the entire day to get back to Springdale. The morning was very frigid; we were starting at 9,000 feet in elevation before the sun had risen. We began the ride in all of our layers, including gloves and ear warmers. By the time we reached the familiar Kolob Terrace Road, we could see the sun beginning to rise over Cedar Breaks National Monument. Not a bad way to start the day.
The next leg of the ride involved long uphill climbs through farm country. Around 8 am or so, we encountered a sheep herd crossing the road. I was very excited as the sheep ran toward us, “baaa-ing” like crazy, and negotiated their way around us. Definitely a highlight of the trip.
Once we reached the Kolob Reservoir, we returned to pavement and a mostly downhill ride. Getting to ride this road on a bike feels like being a little kid again. It makes you want to spread your arms out wide and fly. I can still feel the wind blowing on my face as we cruised downhill for about 10 miles going about 30 mph. A pit stop at the Hop Valley outhouse was a must. This is one of the nicest outhouses that exists. It doesn’t smell, is extremely clean, and is brand new. Outhouse technology has really seen an improvement. Back in the desert climate, we delayered and continued on our descent.
To make our route slightly longer, we added on a tour of the Smith Mesa road. Neither of us had ventured far on this road before and we were curious about it. We had no idea it would add on 10 miles and be a slight incline the entire way. At this point in the trip, we were seriously beginning to think about “real” food, that being burgers and French fries. We had been talking about Fort Zion, a local joint in the town of Virgin that has some pretty tasty burgers. But we didn’t want to get our hopes up in case they were closed for the season since it was now October 1st. Thank goodness for high mesa tops that have good cellular service. We were able to call and confirm they would be open. The ride on Smith Mesa ended up being a delightful detour with spectacular panoramic views of the park and the Pine Valley Mountains the entire time. Another fun descent at the end of the road put us in good spirits and dropped us off right at Fort Zion.
After our incredibly filling pit stop, we hit Route 9 and biked the 15 miles back to Springdale. Our finish line for the trip was the Switchback’s Liquor Store where we could celebrate the ride with some victory beers. To 155 miles, to the beautiful, diverse land around Zion National Park, to riding without padded shorts and with cushy seats, and to this beautiful life that we are fortunate to live here in Zion. A big thank you to Freddy, the owner of our local bike shop Zion Cycles, and to Nick at Rogue Panda Designs for our custom framebags. This trip was filled with adventure, challenge, epic scenery, delicious meals, great company, and a whole lotta celebrating of the simple things in life. The success of this trip is an indication of more to come. See you on the trails out there!