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Common Tread

Riding through Hell: Conquering White Rim Trail in July

Aug 14, 2020

A piercing shriek split the silence shortly before 4 a.m., waking me with a start. I floundered in the darkness trying to find my alarm. I vaguely remembered stuffing my phone under my pillow to prevent it from falling to the floor while I was sleeping.

Silencing the racket, I sighed heavily at the backlit glow. The screen read 3:45. I laid my head back down on the pillow and stared at the ceiling. Despite bedding down around 9 p.m. the night before, I was still exhausted. My body ached from the previous day's ride.

While most folks would consider this ungodly hour the middle of the night, for my ragtag group of friends, it marked the start of our third day in Moab, Utah. After trailering a pile of KTM dirt bikes and one odd-duck Husaberg across the country in a rented Ford F-350, we made camp in a small cabin located behind the Lazy Lizard Hostel just south of town.

The one-room cabin featured cramped accommodations with two sets of bunk beds to house five people and their gear. There was no bathroom but it had an AC unit crammed in its tiny window, so we were OK with it.

White Rim Trail in Moab, UT
At the end of the day, the celebratory beer in the shade.

Most folks traveling to Moab don’t choose July because of the ungodly, hellish temperatures. Our plan to beat the heat was to ride early, starting each day in the comfort of the early morning’s dark and riding until shortly after mid-day before retreating to the shade of the ash trees surrounding our cabin to imbibe on the chilled contents of our coolers.

In the inky darkness of the cabin, I heard my friends beginning to stir before I saw them. Jeff and Liz Kiniery, sleeping in the bunk below me, were usually the first to actually get out of bed, followed shortly by Amelia Nunn in the second ground-level bed. Carlos Barrios was in the other top bunk. Every morning he would audibly whine when one of the Kinierys would fire up the room’s single light bulb. This morning was no exception.

Up until this point in the trip, we had only conquered shorter trail rides on the outskirts of town. Moab has no shortage of amazing trails on public land and typically they’re all close enough that you can simply ride back into town for additional gas or supplies. Keep in mind that depending on the difficulty, a 25-mile trail could take three to four hours to complete, so even on these “shorter” rides you’ll want to be sure to pack snacks and a full hydration pack.

But today’s ride was different.

White Rim Trail Moab, Utah
White Rim Trail is a 100-mile loop which winds itself around the northernmost portion of Canyonlands National Park. This shot was taken shortly after starting out at the Island in the Sky Visitor Center. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

White Rim Trail (or White Rim Road as it’s listed on the Canyonlands National Park website) is a 100-mile loop which winds itself around the northernmost portion of Canyonlands National Park. The trail doesn’t even get started until you’re roughly 35 miles outside of town. This means we’d burn over half of our fuel just riding out to the trail and back to camp.

We devised a plan where Jeff and I would throw our bikes in the back of the truck and haul a bunch of supplies out to Horsethief Campground. The other three would ride out and meet us at the truck, where we would top off everyone’s fuel and hydration packs prior to starting out. Even then, we all strapped luggage on our bikes for the first time during the trip.

White Rim Trail Moab, UT
Traveling light with the Kriega OS luggage. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

I used the Kriega Overlander-S mount with two six-liter OS bags to carry an extra six liters of water and two liters of fuel, in addition to what I had in my hydration pack and gas tank. To carry the water, I used two MSR Dromedary Bags and two one-liter Primus fuel bottles. I also used Nuun Hydration Electrolyte tablets in the water, one tablet per liter. These are a game-changer for riding aggressively in extreme temperatures.

We were packed and ready to roll at 6:30 a.m., just as the sun was kissing the eastern horizon. We clicked the bikes into gear and headed south.

We decided to tackle White Rim Trail in a clockwise direction, starting out at the Island in the Sky Visitor Center about 10 miles south of where we ditched our truck. The trail wastes no time turning scenic. With breathtaking views right out of the gate, I constantly had to remind myself to keep my eyes on the road and wait until we pulled over to check out the views.

Which we did, regularly.

White Rim Trail - Amelia Nunn, Liz Kiniery, and Carlos Barrios
The trail is so sparsely travelled in the summer months that you can pretty much make anywhere a photo stop. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

There are plenty of scenic overlooks and places designated to pull over. But we found that in July you could pretty much stop in the middle of the trail, snap a dozen photos, comment on the unbelievable nature of your surroundings, and get going again without any worry of running into another vehicle. In fact, during the entire main loop we only met one other Jeep on the trail (we did pass a National Park Vehicle cleaning out one of the remote toilets, as well).

While there is an extremely peaceful solitude that can be found on the trail in the summer months, there is a reason for that. By 9 a.m., temperatures were over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, but because it’s a dry heat, your sweat evaporates before you even realize how hot you are. For those of you who have never experienced desert heat, it’s a weird feeling, especially if you’re used to the humid mugginess of an East Coast summer.

White Rim Trail Moab, UT
Much of the route is easy enough for larger adventure bikes but a few areas will prove to be quite challenging for novice riders. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

The terrain was relatively open and easily ridden on our smaller 350s. While I think this loop would be especially fun on an adventure bike (or a Jeep, if you want to take the family along), there were some more challenging sections that could cause novice riders to struggle. Mainly an abundance of sand, rocky hill climbs, and even a few slick muddy areas that dried up as the sun rose higher in the sky.

White Rim Trail, Carlos Barrios
Carlos stretching his legs. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

On the 350s, the biggest challenge was not doing something stupid and hurting yourself. Our pace was fast and we broke up the longer straight stretches by wheelieing over berms and whoops and jumping off rock ledges on the trail. There are no guardrails and in certain areas the trail winds right along the edge of a cliff. A couple of times one of us came around a corner too hot and had to panic brake to a skidding stop.

Stopping for lunch around 10:30, I found I had melted through the right mounting strap on my Kriega bags. Turns out I looped it around the frame too close to the 350’s exhaust. Purely user error. I made a quick repair by using a spare ROX strap (always carry a few of these in the bottom of your pack, they come in handy) to lash the luggage down. 

I refilled everyone’s hydration packs (as most of us had already worked our way through all three liters we had started with) while the rest of the group looked for a place to eat.

White Rim Trail - Carlos Barrios, Jeff Kiniery, Liz Kiniery, Amelia Nunn
Carlos riding on top of our lunch spot, the only shade we could find. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

We eventually settled on a small ledge underneath a larger cliff, which jutted out just enough to provide shade for five people if they squished together. We dined on beef jerky, almonds, and caffeinated energy gummies while reminiscing on the morning’s ride. If I had to pick the best lunch spot I’ve ever found, this shady rock ledge in the middle of the desert, eating jerky with my four friends, would easily be top on the list.

White Rim Trail - Spurgeon Dunbar
Spurg riding alongside the Green River. Photo by Jeff Kiniery.

During the first half of the day the trail provides distant views of the Colorado River. But right around the midway point of the trail, south of Junction Butte, the Colorado meets up with its main tributary, the Green River, which flows all the way from the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. After lunch, large portions of the trail had us riding close enough to the water that I found myself searching for a place to jump in to find relief from the heat.

White Rim Trail
There was enough extra gas to provide one liter for each rider, good for about 13 more miles. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

The fuel lights on the bikes all came on around the same time and we pulled over to fill up just past the Labyrinth Campground “A” where Taylor Canyon Road trails off into the hills. If you want a detour, you can ride up into Taylor Canyon to see two large sandstone formations nicknamed “Moses and Zeus.”

White Rim Trail - Liz Kiniery
Liz focusing on the road in front of her and not the scenery around her. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

We regretfully opted out of the detour due to our fuel situation. Even with an extra liter of fuel for each of the bikes in total, we would still be cutting it close with about 25 miles to cover before we reached the truck.

White Rim Trail
Look close and see how many wrecked cars you can find buried in the rocks. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

White Rim Trail technically ends when it reaches BLM 129 in Horsethief Bottom. But if you’re looking on Google Maps you notice a series of squiggly lines which have proved to be quite treacherous over the years. If you were left with any doubts as to the seriousness of the terrain, you can stop at a certain section at the top of those “squiggles” and look straight down. At the bottom of a rocky ledge you’ll see a few cars from the 1950s and '60s permanently engulfed in a rocky tomb from a crash long ago.

Pulling into Horsethief Campground, my odometer clicked over to 125 miles. Even though the map puts the entire loop at 100 miles, you’ll want to account for all of the back-and-forth shenanigans that take place when you’re with the right group of friends.

Spurgeon Dunbar, Jeff Kiniery, Amelia Nunn, Liz Kiniery, Carlos Barrios
From left to right: Spurg, Jeff, Amelia, Carlos, and Liz. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Tackling an adventure like this was so much more enjoyable (and safer) with my friends than if I had done it solo. But it does take advanced planning, coordination of schedules and PTO, and most importantly, having folks you can trust out on the trail with you.

It’s important to have a good understanding of each person’s riding experience and mechanical ability prior to heading out on a trip like this. If someone has a bike that’s constantly breaking down and they don’t know how to fix it, or if their ability is too far above or below your own, that can cause stress which can not only ruin the fun of a trip like this, but it can also prove to be dangerous when you’re 100 miles from the next nearest human.

Luckily for our group the closest thing we had to a fight was deciding on where to have dinner later that afternoon. Ultimately we settled on The Moab Diner where we all decided to have milkshakes as an appetizer to the main course. Not a bad idea in a town where the nights provide little relief from the sweltering summer heat. 

Sipping our milkshakes, cracking jokes, and planning out the next day’s ride, it’s all that mattered in the moment. And if you can infuse a bit more of that into your day-to-day, imagine how much better life could be. Some say trips like this are “trips of a lifetime”. I'd like to think that’s not true. Trips like this should be what living is all about. Yes, they take planning and organization, but this particular trip was relatively affordable (mostly because we were willing to all split expenses five ways and share one cabin thus putting up with a lot of strange smells). But my point is that a trip like this is something anyone reading this can tackle. 

White Rim Trail Carlos Barrios
A picture is a great reminder of an excellent adventure, but it should never serve as a substitute for the real thing. Get out and ride. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

And I hope you do.

Because no matter how good a picture looks, it can't compare to seeing it with your own eyes.