The San Juan Huts are a network of backcountry huts which offer mountain bikers the opportunity to tour through the stunning US SW desert and high plateau landscape along a mix of dirt roads and single track. Food and sleeping bags are supplied at the huts, allowing riders to travel light. Of several options, we chose the route from Telluride, Colorado to Moab, Utah, covering roughly 350km over 7 days at elevations ranging from 1210m to 3330m.
From Golden (Colorado), Calgary (Alberta), Revelstoke (BC), and Seeheim (Germany), we all converge on the desert adventure mecca of Moab, Utah. The afternoon is spent cleaning and testing bikes, last minute shopping and organizing, and then dinner and packing. The next day we catch a shuttle bus that takes us to the swanky but beautiful ski resort town of Telluride, Colorado, where we spend the night. And the following day we jump on the bikes to begin the trip back to Moab…
Sep 24: day 1, to Last Dollar hut
The trip starts with a ride that is short on distance but long on climbing, with 1180m of elevation gain.
After yesterday’s rain the sky clears in the evening and this morning we wake up to clear blue skies and frost on the ground in Telluride. The leisurely morning is spent packing up gear, eating breakfast, and going for a sight-seeing trip up the gondola. We are all procrastinating getting on the bikes until the sun has had a chance to warm things up.
Because of last nights rain, the trails are all wet and muddy and so we take the paved trail and road west out of town before turning up Airport road, which winds through very wealthy “ranch” country of $50M properties. The paved road turns to hard packed dirt and we drop down into a valley before climbing up through beautiful aspen forests. The views of 14,023′ Wilson Peak, to the south and the Telluride resort peaks to the east are stunning. Last Dollar pass is popular with the jeep crowd and we meet a series of vehicles crawling up and down the road.
The climb to Last Dollar pass follows a series of switch backs which the fit people with light packs are able to ride, but those of us with stupid heavy packs end up pushing their bikes up. From the pass, a steep, loose rocky road runs up to the hut, but everybody needs to push the bikes up to the 10,900′ hut, sucking the thin air.
It didn’t taken long to get to the Last Dollar hut, but it certainly was a bit of work, biking at over 10,000 feet. The huts are fully stocked with food, and we find a great selection of canned goods, some fresh vegetables, fruit like apples and oranges, bread, cheese and eggs, plus nuts, fruit and bars for snacks. And beer!
It cools down quickly in the evening and the night is cold and beautiful, with the Milky Way climbing straight up out of the Wilson Peaks to the south and the crescent moon just to the west of the constellation Scorpio. A stunning start to this trip!
Sep 25: day 2, to Spring Creek hut
We awake to a brilliant blue sky morning, and the air and ground are frosty up here at 10,900 feet.
Today’s route has us dropping 500m and then following undulating terrain as we skirt around the west edge of the San Juan mountains and head north.
After a luxurious breakfast of French toast we pack up and then walk our bikes down the frozen trail on the north side of Last Dollar pass, aiming for a road that will take us north today. Once on the road we soon start to see vehicles, many full of photographers keen to capture the beautiful autumn colors that are in full display this morning.
The road takes us down through coniferous and then aspen forest. The aspens glow a brilliant yellow when backlit by the sun and are stunning with their white bark against the blue sky. On the far horizon we see a heap of peaks which must be the La Sal range just east of Moab, our destination at the end of the week.
The road continues dropping through ranch country with the big peaks of the western San Juan mountains rising to our right (east). Eventually the road deposits us at a paved highway, which we follow for a mile before returning to the gravel.
Back on the gravel road, we are now climbing slowly onto a large rolling plateau covered in cattle and sheep ranches. The mountains of the Mt Sneffels Wilderness region to the south stand in dramatic contrast to the gently undulating terrain in all other directions as we ride along good gravel roads.
It feels good to be at a lower elevation than last night, and the air is significantly easier to breath here. One final push as the road contours around and climbs a gentle hill, and in five hours we have reached Spring Creek hut.
Sep 26: day 3, to Columbine hut
Today’s route is moderately undulating elevation along the Divide Road, following a broad ridge to the west.
We decide to start off with an optional loop of single track, which would have been a fun spin through mixed aspen / coniferous forest except for the big loads on the bike. Not being able to drop the seat and having a heavy pack on makes navigating roots and rocks and stream crossings a chore, and after a couple mechanical issues we escape back to the dirt road.
We follow the Divide Road for around 50 kilometers today, smooth and easy traveling on hard packed dirt and gravel, through conifers and aspen forest filled with cattle. There are three overlook points along the way, with impressive views down into a deep broad valley with mountains on the other side. Storm clouds obscure the mountains to the south, and we are a bit concerned about weather coming in tomorrow.
Everybody has aching butts, feet, arms and backs by the time we arrive at the hut after 6.5 hours, with 693m climbing and 723m descent. As soon as we get to the hut we fetch our reward snacks and beers and enjoy the warmth of the sun on the picnic table outside. The air temperature has been around 10-15 degrees but the sun makes it feel 20ish.
Guinness does a very fine job of hydration, chips replenish the lost salts and cheese and soup round out the appetizers after what felt like a long day in the saddle. After the big afternoon picnic, dinner this evening is fairly light, and Betsy makes excellent salmon cakes which we have with macaroni, cheese and vegetables.
The last three days have been stunning blue but the last weather forecast we saw, in Telluride, predicted another system coming in tomorrow. We shall see.
The stars are out again this evening and the moon is smack in the middle of the Milky Way now. The moonlight lights up the aspen trees surrounding the hut beautifully as thin clouds move in from the south.
Sep 27: day 4, to Graham Ranch
We start the day with a two-course breakfast of oatmeal and pancakes. The sky is mostly overcast with heavy clouds over the San Juan mountains to the south east and the La Sal mountains to the west.
The mornings are getting more efficient, and within about two hours we are riding, continuing down the same Divide road that we followed yesterday.
The first roughly 12km go quickly as we cruise down the smooth dirt road. There are beautiful views of autumn colors in the mixed forest as it drops to the south, perhaps 1000m, into a broad valley between the ridge we are on and the now fairly distant San Juan mountains.
After so much riding along the road, we decide to take the Bench Trail, a single track which winds down off the ridge through aspen and scrub oak forest. There are cattle everywhere, and the trail is constantly crossing muddy creeks and skirting around ponds.
Despite the constant dodging of cow patties and the coating of bikes and everything with a layer of poo, the trail is actually a really fun ride. The more technical riding is a nice change from the road, and single track trail offers some smooth cruising through beautiful aspen forest, where the ground everywhere is covered with yellow leaves.
The single track is muddy fun but long and slow, and we have a long day already. The minimal day is 60km and the single track adds another 10km, and we are all happy when it’s over. The single trail ends at a horse cabin, and then climbs 100m back up to the road. By the time we get there it’s cool and windy but we are happy to be back on the road where we can cover ground quickly again.
The road has been hard packed and fast, but after the first 10km, it becomes freshly graveled which makes for rather slow and lumpy riding.
The last 10km to the ranch are mostly downhill, fast and cold. When we get there we are greeted by Tam Graham and his two border collies. Tam is the quintessential American cowboy, with a big mustache, big belt buckle, a big western accent and a big laugh. Super nice guy, we chat for quite a while and he offers us some wine. He’s been involved in the hut system for 30 years, and was instrumental in setting up the San Juan hut locations.
There’s a guest shower at the ranch, which feels great after four days. Soon after arriving at the hut it starts to rain, and we are really glad to have made it here in dry weather, not just to stay dry but because the roads are all dirt and gravel which would have turned to sticky muck. Dinner tonight is chili with grilled cheese, and really hits the spot after a long day in the saddle.
Sep 28, day 5, to Gateway
Today’s route starts with a gentle climb, which is a good warm-up, followed by a big downhill, a few kilometers of uphill, then a long downhill to the town of Gateway, Colorado.
Thunder storms are in the forecast for today so we are on a bit of a mission to beat the weather. The mission is made more serious by the flash flood zone that we need to pass through at the end of the day, which is certainly not the place to be during a thunderstorm!
After a quick breakfast, we pack up and climb the minor hill up from the ranch to rejoin the road, with the dirt still tacky-wet from last nights rain but not muddy. We follow the Uranium road west for a few miles across gently undulating terrain before dropping down into rocky terrain of gullies carved into the surrounding plateau.
As we descend it gets noticeably warmer, a nice change from the coolness at high altitude over previous couple of days. After descending to our first low point we follow a road up a gentle gradient again, before coming to a four-way junction called Turkey Track and continue climbing.
The sky is full of ominous cumulus clouds but so far no rain or thunder as we climb up to today’s high point of 2400m. There is a definite urgency to the day, and work hard to get up and over this high point before the clouds unload on us and turn the roads to sticky mud, or lightening threatens us on this high exposed mesa, or the flash flood zone fills with a torrent of water.
As we begin the descent to Gateway the world suddenly falls away and we are staring in awe down 1000m into a landscape of red walled canyons and mountains covered in pine and aspen forest. We are following a rough dirt road cut precariously into the edge of the slope, and there is a real sense of exposure as we drop down through the layers of red sandstone, with 100s of meters of steep slope off the edge of the road.
The red dirt road transitions to white sand as we change rock formations, and soon afterwards we enter the flash flood zone, the road surface is deep, soft sand, and we need to surf the bikes, leaning back over the saddle, down and down in to the canyon.
The final stretch to Gateway is along a highway, and we hurry in down the road, trying to beat the rain falling out of dark storm clouds in front of us. And just about make it, as the storm unloads on us just as we peddle the last few 100m to the hut.
This hut is armored like a fortress, with steel shutters over the windows and a shielded padlock, no doubt because it’s stocked with beer and fairly close to town, and we struggle for a few minutes in the pouring rain to open the door.
After getting inside, unpacking and drying off, the storm continues for a little while before and after about 20 minutes it’s finished. We decide to ride to the posh Gateway Canyon resort, where Kendra and Micki are spending the night.
The resort is certainly a different world, and it’s tough not to succumb to the luxury and indulge in food that somebody else cooked and expensive drink, but Marc, Mel, Betsy and I only have some fries before heading back to the hut to cook up an excellent dinner of curry and rice and enjoy hut beers.
Sep 29, day 6, to La Sal hut
Storms continue to rumble through the night, with at least two thunder booms and some showers. The hut is dark and is the only one we have seen that does not have a wood stove, so in the morning it’s chilly, and nobody wakes up until 7ish when Betsy opens one of the windows and lets in some light.
Today is a big climbing day, 1200m up the John Brown canyon. We ride from the hut and turn right just past the resort and the road turns to red dirt. The sky is mostly clear, with a few cumulus clouds, and the scenery in all directions is spectacular, with the lower, softer rock slopes of the canyon topped by red sandstone cliffs of the Navajo formation. The dirt road is a bit soft from yesterday’s rain but not too much sand and dirt are sticking to the tires.
The road climbs relentlessly for 10-12km up through the steep red walls of the canyon until the angle eases off as it tops out on top of the mesa. The bikes are heavy with overnight gear, heavy with dirty tires, and the sandy dirt is soft, making for slow and tiring progress up 1200m in the heat.
As we finally exit the canyon onto the top of the mesa we enter a different world, with tall pines replacing the junipers, shrubs instead of cactus, and sprawling cattle ranches. The road is a bit muddy now, and we are constantly weaving from one side to the other looking for the driest, most solid path to ride on as we ride across the high plateau, past cattle ranches, and toward the La Sal mountains on the horizon.
The La Sal mountains are beautiful in front of us, multi-colored with fall foliage, covered with a dusting of fresh snow and blanketed with storm clouds which have been threatening all day. We are all feeling very lucky again today to have avoided the rain so far, and push across the undulating road, slowly climbing up toward the mountains.
After a late afternoon spent eating chips and salsa, rehydrating with water, beer and wine, we snooze outside in the grass enjoying the warm sun. The storm clouds have dissipated and the sky is clear as we do some camp-chair yoga in the grass.
The air temperature is cool up here at 8100 feet, but sun is warm. Eventually the sun moves down and behind the mountains, and we shuffle across the grass, fleeing the shadow and chasing the last warming rays of sun.
After dinner we organize a night photo session with some light writing. Marc, Mel, Betsy and Micki did San Juan, and Tracy and Reinet did 2017. It’s difficult to get the gang to stay up until 8:30, but there are laughs all around and only five tries were needed to nail these characters, drawn backwards in the air using headlamps.
I get up again at 2am to do some night photography once the moon has set and Orion is up. Orion rising means that winter is coming; there is frost on the hut steps and grass, and the sky above is clear and beautiful. I’m surprised to see bare foot prints in the frost, from Micki heading out for a mid night errand. Marc joins me for a few minutes of star gazing, and it takes me about an hour to capture the full hemisphere of stars.
Sep 30, day 7, to Moab
The morning starts off with lightly cloudy skies, but as we are packing up, the sky thickens as more clouds come in. By the time we are riding the clouds are dark and threatening, and we all wonder how wet we will be getting today…
As we ride around the north end of the La Sal mountains, the first stop on the gravel road is a cliff overlooking the Castle Valley, with spectacular exposed dinosaur footprints, about 20x30cm. By the time we get there, the clouds are dark, the thunder is booming, and we do a quick hike around the footprints before deciding to hunker down under the interpretive sign and wait out the storm.
The wind picks up and the clouds stream past, just above the forest, and suddenly rain and hail blasts us and the lightening flashes immediately overhead. The tiny interpretive sign provides surprisingly good protection, since the rain is coming sideways and we are able to squeeze into the lee behind the sign. The storm blows through quickly, and after about 15 minutes there are patches of blue sky appearing above. The view of the storm disappearing into the valley from the edge is stunning, but the gang is very keen to descend from this high point during the brief weather window before another storm hits. No dawdling and off we go, down the paved Castle Valley road heading towards Moab.
At the junction of the Castle Valley road with the La Sal Loop road we break into two groups, with Reinet and I continuing down the Castle Valley road while the rest of the group turns left to climb up the La Sal Mtn loop road to the Porcupine Rim.
The Castle Valley road is smooth and gently downhill and we cruise quickly down the valley, toward another storm coming in from the north west. As the storm moves across the valley, the clouds first wrap around Parriott Mesa, envelope it, and then flow over to swallow Castle Rock in turbulent grey fog. We wonder how far down the road we will get before the storm hits.
The lightening is flashing regularly and moving closer, from 6km to 4km and suddenly there’s a brilliant flash directly ahead followed immediately by the crack of thunder and we both agree that now (!) is the right time to hunker down and wait out the storm. Within a couple minutes the rain is lashing us and rivulets immediately start to flow across the desert soil.
15 minutes later the rain has slightly let up, the lightening has moved on and we decide to continue riding – if we are wet and cold we might as well be moving. Eventually the rain stops and patches of blue sky appear above us, and by the time we approach the base of the valley the sky is clear and the sun is warm and we are drying out. The sky to the north is dark with another storm and we see the first of many red mud flows that have washed across the road from the downpour.
At the end of the Castle we meet the Colorado river and highway 128. It feels good to get here, as Moab is now only about 24km away. The cruise into town is interrupted only by several mudflows that have covered the road and blocked one lane. The Colorado River, normally a mucky brown color, is now brilliant red/orange with all the fresh mud from the morning storms.
Eventually the three groups that split up into today – Castle Valley, Sand Flats Road and Porcupine Rim – arrive in hot and sunny Moab, clean up, then we go for pizza and swap stories about our different adventures in the storms this morning.
A fantastic trip and highly recommended for those who love to ride!
Darren Foltinek, October 2017.