We looped around yet another massive rock formation, rising up several hundred feet into the air. The various shades of red added to the otherworldliness of the place. The sun continued to beat down on us relentlessly, as it had been since we started this adventure the previous morning. But what brought me closer to a state of delirium wasn’t the 97 Fahrenheit (36 Celsius) but the pending onset of dehydration.
We knew that water would be scarce along the route, and our only opportunity to refuel would be to scoop silty water from the river at the end of the day. Everywhere else thus far on the White Rim Trail, river access was out of reach, relegated to the mere sight of the stream, several hundred feet down from the canyon rim where we were, with no feasible route down.
It was mid-afternoon when we approached Potato Bottom Campground, our stop for the second night. As we surveyed the area and noticed the thick vegetation seemingly denying us from getting to the river bank, the looming question was: How would we get water?
Cycling the White Rim Trail is, first and foremost, a dry experience. Not surprising, given that this is the high desert and involves traveling at an elevation level hovering around 4,900 feet (1500 meters). According to Wikipedia, the road was constructed in the 1950s by the Atomic Energy Commission to provide access for individual prospectors intent on mining uranium deposits for use in nuclear weapons production during the Cold War. Large deposits had been found in similar areas within the region; however, the mines along the White Rim Road produced very little uranium, and all the mines were abandoned. Today, it is part of Canyonlands National Park and thus managed by the National Park Service and open to four-wheel-drive vehicles, cyclists, hikers, and people on horseback.
The trip began innocently enough with my friend Ethan and me anxiously preparing our bikepacking steeds in a dirt road parking lot off Highway 313 before riding eight miles south to the entrance of the park. This would be the only time we would see tarmac for the next three days. The vastness of the scenery was barely comprehensible, looking down into the canyon from the top of Shafter Canyon Road. The dirt road switched back and forth to the next canyon level below us and subsequently stretched on into the distance. Slowly and carefully, we followed its path, hollering at the walls occasionally to experience the echoing sound waves eventually hitting us on their return trip.
Once at the bottom, we continued to putter along on that elevation level for the next three days, with some short but steep and rocky ascents along the way. We started to get accustomed to the unfamiliar handling of the bikes, packed with equipment, food, and water as we followed the dirt road ribbon through this alien landscape. We took a break at Gooseneck Overlook, marveling at the U-shaped turn of the Colorado River below us. A guided mountain bike tour group caught up with us, most of the riders on new-ish looking full-suspension bikes. They got to ride unencumbered, a support vehicle traveling with them, carrying their luggage. “If you see a white van at Musselman Arch, tell Pete to top up your water,” the friendly tour guide told us. We didn’t want to believe it at the time, but the worth of water in this environment would soon exceed that of gold on this adventure.
We looped around various buttes and mesas for the rest of the afternoon, the most distinct looking ones given names like “Airport Tower” and “Washer Woman“. The road intermittently brought us to the edge of the White Rim and the exposed white sandstone it gets its name from. We usually stopped at these overlooks, staring in disbelief into the gigantic chasm in the landscape below us.
Just a few hundred feet from Gooseberry Campground, our overnight spot, we dropped our bikes and walked over to a nondescript pile of rocks a stone’s throw from the road. We were anxious to see if what we had deposited here the previous day was still there. You see, there was no opportunity to get access to water for the first two days of this trip. This is why, the day before we started the adventure, we hiked down from the top of the canyon and stashed 18L (4.75 gallons) of water, divided into various containers, underneath a hollow rock. Unfortunately, some sharp-toothed animal seemed to have feasted itself on one of our water containers overnight. Bite marks and two pin-prick-sized holes in the plastic were evidence of the crime. With roughly 3L stolen from us, we had 7.5L (2 gallons) left for each of us, which, under normal circumstances, would have been sufficient. We knew we would be cutting it close given the hot conditions and, therefore, bigger hydration needs. All we could do at that point was hope that it would suffice.
We attempted to leave early the following day as to escape most of the heat during the day. Just as we pulled out of our campsite, a couple of ravens descended on our spot. They likely learned from experience that they could scavenge some food by hunting for any leftover crumbs we might have dropped while eating dinner and breakfast next to our tents.
We continued to skirt along the edge of the rim, and roughly two hours into our ride, we hit the southernmost point of our loop as we curved around Junction Butte. That meant our route from now on would take us away from the Colorado and towards the Green River, from which we hoped to pull water from at the end of the second day. The dirt road directed us north and forced us into our first serious hike-a-bike section: a rocky, steep 300-foot incline called Murphy Hogback that just seemed impossible to ride on laden mountain bikes. Temperatures were steadily rising as the day progressed, and we started to feel it. On paper, it should have been an easy, ever so slight downhill over the remaining 18 miles to our next campsite. What made it aggravating were the sandy sections of road, now occurring with increased frequency. The soft surface regularly ate up our tires, requiring us to pedal with more effort to not be forced to grind to a halt and push our bikes. All the little nuances started to compound until I was more or less running on fumes, having fallen way behind Ethan and stopping frequently. The road now danced close to the edge of the canyon, with the Green River beckoning us, yet it was way too far and dangerous to make an attempt to get down the steep cliffs for water.
Eventually, we reached Potato Bottom Campground, all our water reserves more or less depleted. But the vegetation separating us from the river appeared thick. Over the next several hours, we navigated down 10-foot drops, waded through muddy river banks, and fended off ants, flies, and mosquitoes until we had scooped a total of 16L of water from the river. That wasn’t the end of the arduous task after close to nine hours of riding, unfortunately. After treating the cloudy water with potassium aluminum sulfate – commonly called “alum” – we were finally able to use a gravity filter to turn the liquid into delicious drinking water. Et voila, we were saved from dehydration. Rarely felt the availability of water so precious.
The sun had barely started to rise the following day when we pulled out of camp. Still fresh and in cool morning temperatures, we climbed Hardscrabble Hill, marveling at how the rising sun started to paint the scenery around us. The mesas and plateau walls around us began to glow in various shades of red and brown, and the river below us glistened with the sun rays hitting the water surface from the east. I stopped a few times, in awe of the spectacle unfolding in front of me.
The road now stayed close to the river, which meant more humidity, cooler temperatures, and a more compact riding surface. Fully hydrated and rested, we were all smiles, and progress seemed easy compared to the previous day. Thirteen miles from our second camp, we made it to the junction with Mineral Canyon Road, which took us out of the canyon via a two-mile climb switchbacking up the cliffside. Back on the highest level, all that was left was thirteen miles on a well-maintained gravel road until we were back at the dirt parking lot where we had left our cars.
Following the White Rim Road doesn’t really require using your GPS, it is very straight forward to follow. Nevertheless, the route description and additional info on BIKEPACKING.COM helped quite a bit to put this trip together.
The obvious choice for a base camp/starting point for an outdoor venture in this region of Utah is Moab, the local outdoor capital. It boasts a large selection of accommodation options, however they can get pricey and sell out in the high season.
From Moab, it is about a thirty minute drive to where we parked our cars for the start/end point of the trip.
You will need to carry food for the whole trip, which for us meant three days. Additionally, there is no access to water until the end of the second day, when the road takes you closer to the Green River. As mentioned above, be mindful that water from both the Colorado and Green River is very silty and needs to be treated and filtered appropriately.
We ended up caching enough water for our second day off-route close to Gooseberry Campground the day before we started the trip. This required a 5.3 mile hike from the top of the Canyon to the White Rim and back.
A hard-tail mountain bike seems ideal if you are planning on doing this as a multi-day bikepacking adventure.
We encountered a person on a gravel bike seemingly doing the full 100 miles (counter-clockwise) in one day, which seemed very ambitious. However, it might work if you stash food and water along the way and can therefor travel light. The deeper sand sections might also not be as bothersome riding with a lighter setup.
Trip Reports & Articles
- Bikepacking the White Rim (BIKEPACKING.COM)
- The White Rim: Montanus in the Utah Desert (BIKEPACKING.COM)
- Bikepacking: The White Rim Trail (Kona Bicycles Blog)
- Bikepacking the White Rim Trail, Canyonlands National Park (MSR Blog)
- Bikepacking Canyonlands’ White Rim Trail (Cycling Utah)
- Making the most of a day on a bike (Salsa Cycles Blog)
- Riding the White Rim (Adventure Cycling Magazine, PDF)
- The Secret Loop (Adventure Cycling Magazine, PDF)
- The White Rim Trail | A journey between river and sky (Adventure Cycling Magazine, PDF)
- Using alum for extracting silt from river water for drinking and cooking while camping (YouTube)
- Desert Water Purification (SectionHiker.com)
- Filtering Silty Water (Southwest Explorers)
Other useful resources
- White Rim Road info page from National Park Service. Includes a map as well as general and campsite info.
- Overnight Backcountry Permits. Required for overnighting along the White Rim Road.