Life on Two Wheels: The Canyonlands provide a fun, wet mountain bike ride
September 17, 2016
Editor's note: For countless Summit County residents, a bicycle is more than a machine — it's a lifestyle. Every week during the summer, we'll ask our most adventurous residents, "Where has your bike taken you?"
A bugle blowing reveille could not have aroused us more quickly. With adrenaline rushing we raced from our sleeping bags and tents, but the snake disappeared into the nearby rocks. Keeping a sharp lookout (but with no further encounters) we worked through breakfast and our morning chores, preparing for our second day of mountain biking on the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park.
Situated on the Colorado plateau, Canyonlands National Park in Utah, which is only part of the greater Canyonlands area, is divided into three parts by the Colorado and Green rivers. Originally built by the Atomic Energy Commission in the 1950s to facilitate the search for uranium, the White Rim Trail runs 1,200 vertical feet below the top of the mesa, with another 1,000 feet down to the rivers.
Into the Canyonlands
We left the campground on the Jeep trail and within a short distance a detour led to a sheer drop-off into a larger canyon. We had been riding in a canyon that turned into a smaller canyon that abruptly dropped into another canyon, which contained a narrower, more recent (in geologic time) water-carved canyon. Oddly, for an extremely arid area with fewer than 10 inches of rainfall annually, Canyonlands was created by water erosion.
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"How many canyons can you see?" one of my fellow bikers, Tom, asked in an awed voice.
"When you have a canyon within a canyon, is that two canyons or a sub-canyon?" I asked, rhetorically.
Grinning, Patch interjected, "Wait until we get to Murphy's Campground and then try to count the canyons."
Down to the rim
Down on the rim the temperature rose dramatically. Sweating freely, we searched for any shade we could find and drank copious amounts of water and energy drinks. We soon arrived at Gooseberry Canyon Campground. While the others turned into the campground, I couldn't resist riding on the sandstone to the canyon rim. After enjoying the spectacular view of buttes and spires and more canyons, I attempted to video while I rode near the rim — it was pretty shaky.
Finally, I rode back to my companions and found them huddled around the small chemical toilet building, which had a distinct odor but no shade. I stayed in the hot sunlight, unwilling to make the sacrifice.
The next section of the ride was the least scenic: long stretches of double-track surrounded by flat expanses of sage brush, rabbit brush and other arid country vegetation, with the buttes, monuments and canyon walls far away.
It was hot and dry with no humidity, but no shade either. We had sent our support vehicle ahead and it appeared as an oasis, with a tarp strung up to provide a respite from the grueling sunlight. That desolate sagebrush landscape inspired little but a desire to get into some shade and hydrate.
Hunkered in the ditch
Shortly, dark clouds rapidly rolled in, often illuminated by lightning bolts. The air became charged with electricity. The ruddy sandstone, red sandy clay and sparse vegetation provided no shelter from the quickly approaching storm. We were exposed on the canyon rim.
We hunkered down in a small gully, hoping there was more security closer to the ground — and then the rains came. I had donned my rain jacket, all the while lamenting that I had not brought rain pants.
Being from the mountains of Colorado, we found this to be a warmer rain. It was oddly refreshing and certainly cooling after the heat of the day. Though it continued to pour down, the lightning soon passed, leaving the air cleansed of the dust and infused with that uniquely wonderful, fresh smell.
We un-hunkered and gathered to enjoy the sight of slim sunbeams bursting through the dark clouds, which highlighted the spectacular red and vermillion sandstone formations.
"I guess we will have to walk our bikes for a while," said Patch, our leader by acclamation, after checking to see if everyone was all right. "This sand has that clay in it that will just clog up the derailleur."
Tall and sinewy, with a great biker's build, Patch got his nickname because he was blind in one eye. He'd been to Canyonlands before and was our acknowledged leader.
It was still raining and showed no signs of slowing.
"I'm not very good at walking," I groaned.
"I don't like walking either," Patch said. "But what else can we do?"
Rain, rain and more rain
The rains continued and the road was indeed soft, clayey sand. Finally tired of slogging through this unforgiving terrain, I climbed on my bike, looked back at the others and said, "I can't take this — I'm going to try to ride."
And ride I did. The rain created rivulets in the Jeep road and I discovered that if I rode in these tracks I could keep my drive train relatively clean. I was still sopping wet from head to toe — rain ran off my helmet and through my "waterproof" jacket — but my derailleur stayed clean of sand. I rode through small creek crossings and felt like a boy jumping and splashing into rain puddles on his way home from school. I can't sing, so I just whooped and hollered instead.
For some unknown reason, the uphills seemed easier and the descents more exhilarating. I never even bothered to look back to see if any of my companions had followed me. At that moment, I felt alone in the world and didn't want it to end.
Out of the storm
Finally, I came over a rise and spotted Zach's car in the distance. The good times had to end, but not before one more — and the largest — stream crossing. I hit at full speed with a final whoop and holler. (In fact, it was so much fun that after saying a quick hello to Zach, I jumped back on my bike, rode through the stream, climbed the hill and did it again.)
"Was that fun?" Zach asked when I returned.
"Spectacular and awesome," I said.
Pointing to where the large stream flowed over the edge of the canyon, he said, "Check it out."
I walked over and saw a waterfall.
"Spectacular and awesome," I replied. "Where are the others?"
Just as I responded, we heard far-off whooping and hollering. The others arrived in ones and twos, obviously relishing the ride in the rain.
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