That feeling came back. The one I had as a kid when I felt in charge of my destiny as I pedaled myself wherever I wanted to go. That fluttering lightness of feeling carefree came back, too. This initial ease and glee would be challenged over the next three days, however, as I mountain-biked the 100-mile White Rim Trail that runs deep into Canyonlands National Park on a guided trip with Holiday River Expeditions.
As we descended Mineral Bottom Switchbacks the first day, I watched the multicolored rock layers—Wingate, Kayenta, and Navajo sandstone—rise up around me like some ancient layer cake. The ride along the White Rim Plateau, named for the thin, durable layer of white rim sandstone deposited here some 225 million years ago, is flanked by the Green and Colorado River gorges below and by mesa tops above. The trail itself is an old jeep road left over from the uranium rush in the 1950s and cattle ranching prior to the establishment of the 528-square-mile park.
Being dwarfed and awed by nature and immersed in will-powered physicality has a way of clearing the clutter from the mind and crystallizing what matters. With a frazzled, too-busy life and only a few recent mountain bike rides under my belt, I was a prime candidate for such therapy by exhilaration and exhaustion.
As I navigated the sometimes rutted and rocky trail, I remembered the advice a friend had given me when I first put butt to mountain bike saddle some 15 years earlier: “Always look to where you want to go.” Retesting this approach, particularly as the trail veered toward vertigo-inducing drops with spectacular views, I found that it remained true: shift the focus, and your wheels turn. Not a bad life lesson, either.
Catching up to the group, I overheard Colleen, an army veteran who had spent time in Iraq, comment to her partner, “I’m just listening—listening to the wind, because that is all you can hear.” At quiet moments, as I rode in my own space, I noticed how the steady churning of my chain was punctuated by the distant rumble of thunder, as if the noise belonged to some hungry god intent on foraging in the autumn desert. Above us was only blue sky with the occasional slow drift of a cloud creature. Similar animated shapes showed up in the vast landscape of rock sculptures; among the buttes, fins, arches, spires, and hoodoos, I glimpsed giant chess pieces and angular worshipers.
At the end of the first day (28 miles), I didn’t even have the energy to pound in our tent stakes with rocks at the Gooseberry Campsite. Fortunately, my husband did. My second wind came only after a quick Sun Shower, a cold beer, and a generous helping of chips and guacamole (the precursor to sizzling fajitas on the grill). As the next two days passed, it was the scenery that fueled me most, pushing me forward through tricky sand patches and the occasional grueling climb. The vast and sometimes dizzying views proved as crucial to my perseverance as the water on my back, the gorp, and the padding in my bike shorts. (A guide told us that on a recent White Rim trip, one woman duct-taped her pillow to her bike seat. I could see why.)
As we pedaled through the Island in the Sky district of the park, we witnessed panoramic views of the Maze to the west and the Needles to the east. Serpentine swaths of the Colorado and Green Rivers below eventually joined in a confluence: a place that the early Ute Indians revered as the center of the universe. From the White Crack campsite, while perched on a monolithic mushroom rock, I crept toward the edge, certain that I would never again see anything like this—and momentarily convinced that this actually was the earth’s center.
On that second night, we all shifted our camp chairs to face the full moon rising—a front-row seat in a cosmic light show, humbling even the stars. Perhaps entranced by the mood, our fellow rider Winston, a scientist and former river guide, asked each of us what we would choose as our spirit animal: “A wolf, a rooster, a collared lizard, a great blue heron …” came the responses. Annie, a recent college graduate, refused to settle on an animal. “It takes time to know,” she said. “It takes years.”
Author Edward Abbey, a frequent Canyonlands visitor, once described it as “the most weird, wonderful, magical place on Earth—there is nothing like it anywhere.” Surrounded by a landscape dating back millions of years—where eagles now fly, primitive sea creatures once swam—I thought of how little we have lived, how little we really control. And I was wonderstruck by the scope of the possible.
Our human scale of things is knocked askew out here; what feels big and overwhelming back home shrinks in this environment. Spinning becomes meditative, and perspectives shift. One of my fellow White Rim riders felt it profoundly. “I’ve been in some dark places with some difficulties in my life this past year, and being out here reminds me there is a whole other world that exists—a beautiful one,” she said, as she pedaled beside me. “Being here has allowed me to see beyond my struggles and reassured me that they will pass, just as the thunderstorms do out here.”
Planning a White Rim Trip
Permits are required for White Rim use, and they can be tough to get. The Canyonlands National Park Permit Office (435.259.4351 or nps.gov/cany) opens reservations the second Tuesday in July for the following year. Spring and fall dates (prime time) fill up first, and reservations must be made at least two weeks in advance. Twenty individual campsites are available along the route; the most popular are those located in the middle, White Crack being the most coveted, filling up year-round. Pit toilets are provided at each area. Each campsite will accommodate up to 15 people and three vehicles. In order to protect the fragile environment, there is absolutely no camping allowed outside these sites.
Most mountain biking trips take three to four days to navigate the approximately 100-mile ride. There are some long rocky stretches, deep sand, and little shade. Plan on carrying at least one gallon of water per person, per day. Support vehicles are necessary and require high clearance and four-wheel drive. In late summer and fall, expect passing rain showers. Make sure your vehicle can handle the terrain (in rain as well), as towing in the backcountry can run $1,000 or more. For shuttle services, visit discovermoab.com/shuttle.
What to Ask a Guide
Most backcountry commercial outfitters for the White Rim are based in Moab or Green River. When choosing a guide, ask:
What is the ratio of guides to guests?
Do they have bikes to rent, and are they maintained for you on the trail?
Is there room in the support vehicle if you want to rest from riding?
Are guides knowledgeable about the area?
Does the company have a backup plan if there is an emergency or unexpected variable (e.g., an unpassable road)?
Does the menu include food that fits your likes/dietary needs?
Backcountry Mountain Bike Guides
Holiday River Expeditions, 800.624.6323, bikeraft.com
Magpie, 800.546.4245, magpieadventures.com
Rim Tours, 800.626.7335, rimtours.com
Western Spirit, 800.845.2453, westernspirit.com