Impassable singletrack, high elevation passes, never-ending climbs, saddle sores and scorching heat—not necessarily everyone’s idea of a vacation.
“Good luck out there!” shouted our shuttle driver Brian, as he waved a hand out the window and drove back towards Moab. Dropped in the parking lot of Durango, Colorado’s local ski hill, Purgatory (Purg, as the locals call it), surrounded by bikes, bags and snacks, we stared down two hundred human-powered miles back to the way we’d just come.
Our plan was to spend the next week traversing from the San Juan Mountains to the La Sal Range rising up from the desert of eastern Utah. The terrain between here and there was remote and unfamiliar, but we had each other—Kyle, Robin, Max, Abbi, Andy and myself. We would be in our own world, filled with laughs between route finding and mechanical mishaps. Many of us were relative strangers, but we had an irresistible desire for challenge (or suffering) that had brought us together for this cross-desert summer bike trip.
Fortunately, we wouldn't be completely roughing it, since we were staying in the fully stocked San Juan Huts system. In addition to leaving our sleeping bags, pads and stoves at home the huts provided coolers of fresh veggies, water, snacks and canned food—there was even beer! Each about 35 miles apart, these huts would serve not only as daily benchmarks for our progress along the route, but they also served as a refuge, a chance to slow down and connect with the group while living simply off-grid.
“Have you been riding much?” Andy asked me. “No.” I could hardly say I was out of shape, having climbed Everest just two months earlier. But since then I’d been taking it easy to let my body recover and I hadn’t touched the bike in months. I was nervous to see how my legs would react to climbing over 3,000 feet a day on a loaded mountain bike, but also motivated to keep pace and spend time with the group.
I got my answer soon enough. Pedaling away from Durango and into the San Juans, my legs burned as we switch-backed up old, rutted Forest Service roads. Climbing up Bolam Pass, I chatted with Kyle, a professional skier, Stio Ambassador and Lake Tahoe local. A fellow Miranda Lambert fan, we became quick friends. Better still, he was genuinely helpful and knowledgeable about the ins and outs of bikes, as he helped me repair mine after finding a sizable thorn in my tire which caused a flat.
Sitting at 11,000 ft Bolam Pass Hut felt like paradise with a small alpine lake and view of Hermosa Peak —topped off with a cooler stocked with cold beer and food. It was a rewarding first day and my legs did better than expected, but it was only day 1.
Day 2 | Friday, July 1, 2022
Today we opted for a singletrack option of the route knowing it would be slower but more fun and the perfect opportunity to test the stability of our bikepacking setups while rambunctiously rolling over rocks, drops, and stream crossings.
Our hoots and hollers came to an end as we reached the base of the Wilson Group’s 14ers and the summer monsoon skies grew increasingly darker. Undeterred, we put on rain jackets and rode on, skirting the Lizard Head Wilderness. This time I rode with Robin and got to know the person behind the perm-a-smile. Through her mud-covered grin she shared her kind heart, ambition for life and appreciation for the little things in nature. That night at the Black Mesa Hut, we sipped hot toddies and were especially thankful for the dry roof over our heads. We shared stories, recounting the ups and downs of the day, and a meal before calling it a night.
Day 3 | Saturday, July 2, 2022
While Durango and Moab are well-known playgrounds for outdoor enthusiasts, the terrain between sees far less traffic. The remoteness of this zone quickly became apparent as we rode an unmarked singletrack section of the route. Moments of raw flow trails were contrasted by downed trees and dead ends, but it was hard to complain with so much downhill.
The temperatures climbed as we dropped in elevation, but with a lunchtime dip in a reservoir and the late afternoon storm, we cooled down quickly. Taking shelter from the storm, I finally got to know Abi. On the route I’d only caught a glimpse of her as she checked in, told a cheesy joke, then sped off again, leaving me in a cloud of dust. Over dinner, she shared stories about her life in Oregon and adventures in the mountains. I saw in her the innate drive and dedication of athletes that I had recognized in teammates over the years, so it was no surprise to find out she was a former college runner and now a wellness coach.
The sound of raindrops splashing on the metal roof was an idyllic backdrop for conversation, but in the back of my mind fear about the clay-packed roads turning to mud pits started to creep in. That night the sound of rain lulled me to sleep while peanut butter mud nightmares raced through my head.
Day 4 | Sunday, July 3, 2022
The next morning, a trip to the outhouse confirmed my worst fears as I returned with a 1-inch thick heel of mud on my shoes. A quick scan of the map revealed our only escape was to take the county roads for as long as possible to reach the Wedding Bell Hut.
We pushed our way for a mile along the hut’s rutted access road before reaching salvation in the form of a half paved gravel roadway. The miles flew by as we rode across parts of southwest Colorado typically only seen by the farmers and ranchers. We were relieved to arrive at the Wedding Bell Hut in only a few short hours. The hut’s “backyard” features vertical cliffs of sedimentary rock that lead down to the Dolores River, framing it like a postcard. Beyond that, the landscape takes on otherworldly characteristics with rock formed into a maze of fins, spires and plateaus until finally, the pyramidal La Sal Mountain range rises above it all.
Day 5 | Monday, July 4, 2022
The route to our next stop, Paradox Hut, goes via a small rocky pass historically utilized by cattle ranchers. As we reached a waypoint on the GPS, it read simply “Hike-A-Bike,” our loaded bikes certainly felt like cows as we lugged them while boulder hopping between loose sandstone blocks. We dropped down the pass unscathed and found ourselves in the bustling metropolis of Paradox, a small ranching town. We had hoped to resupply or at least find some ice cream. Instead, we found the local gas station boarded up with a “For Sale” sign out front.
At 5,000 feet in the sweltering heat, Paradox Valley was physically a low point in the route, but our spirits were riding high.“One last push,” Kyle said as we set our sights on Geyser Pass the next morning, near a treeline on the east side of the La Sals.
Day 6 | Tuesday, July 5, 2022
I found myself grinding uphill with Max. A fellow creative, we couldn’t help but stop to document the red sandstone walls illuminated in the morning light. I learned that the previous year he recovered from a serious crash and this ride back meant more than I ever realized. As we crossed the state line into Utah, I thought to myself...
Despite the cumulative calorie deficit, fatigue, and saddle sores, we spent the afternoon together riding and exploring around the hut, just generally enjoying the last stop on this spectacular hut to hut bike-packing trip. We were all excited for a shower and meal that wasn’t cooked on a Coleman stove, but also sad that our time together disconnected from the real world was coming to an end. At least the best was still to come.
Day 7 | Wednesday, July 7, 2022
“Don’t slam the screen door on your way to the Whole Enchilada” was scribbled above the door of the hut. As we left the hut behind, we were indeed on our way to Moab’s most infamous ride, the Whole Enchilada.
After an hour of punchy climbing at 11,000 feet we found ourselves atop Burro Pass, cresting the La Sal Mountains and looking down to Moab over 7,000 feet below. Not long into the descent the crew came screeching to a halt with a broken chain, depressurized fork, and 2 flat tires. It was no wonder why this steep and rocky section of the trail is known as ‘Hazzard County’. We managed to make the trailside repairs and push the limits of a XC bike as we navigated from the evergreen forests, to berms winding through sagebrush, and finally endless sandstone ledges and rock ramps traversing the desert.
We skidded into town just in time to dodge the daily thunderstorm and savor the taste of fries and a milkshake at Milt’s. Coming back to where we started a week earlier I felt changed by this adventure and thankful for the new friends I’d made along the way. Months after the trip the group text chain we put together for initial planning logistics still pings with inside jokes, life updates, and general check-ins with each other. This trip was a perfect example of just how strong friendships formed in the mountains can be.