Bikepacking the White Rim Trail, Canyonlands National Park
The sharp sun melts our motivation to pedal. We’re resting on the edge of the canyon. It’s September and the Garmin on my handlebars reads 113°F.
A sudden blast of air turns our heads. An impressive storm front emerges from behind the towering massif of Island in the Sky in Canyonlands National Park. The wind strengthens and pushes the dark clouds toward us, illuminated by hundreds of lightning flashes. We look at this spectacle, hypnotized, when an unexpected gust of wind sweeps our bikes towards the divide. In the last moment, we catch them. With the first drops of rain we hide underan overhanging ledge and observe the blows of the raging wind.
Within minutes the road becomes a gushing stream threatening our refuge. The downpour becomes hail. The temperature drops to 60°F.
I’m silently considering the darkest scenarios for the rest of the day. My partner Klimek on the other hand possesses a childlike happiness, absorbed by the lightning strikes and giant hail.
One hour later, the storm finally abates and the weather front moves along. We crawl like lizards out from under a stone, chilled and soaked. The majestic landscape comes to life before us: the previously washed out green of scarce vegetation becomes vibrant, the pale ground now an intense red. Under the wide rainbow, the incredible panorama of Canyonlands unfolds.
The minivan is packed to its brim with people, bikes and gear. Two passengers find relief in sipping craft beer from small bottles. And the driver’s only entertainment is in anticipation of the very center of Canyonlands National Park: Island in the Sky.
It’s fairytale name satisfy the beauty of this place. Most visitors use the asphalt road to access the Island. But for people who’d like to, feel the red dirt in their teeth and become part of this landscape, a 100-mile wild trip through the Canyonlands National Park awaits.
White Rim Trail is a dirt road. It has no access to water. The linking paths to the river are scarce and it’s unwise to count on the passing trucks. Our survival strategy is to stash water caches. We split into two groups, and the plan is that each descends the hiking trails on opposite sides of the Island and hides the water. This takes over 4 hours and when we’re back it’s time for a couple of hours of sleep.
The morning sun is unusually gentle. We unhurriedly pack our bikes with all the gear. Soon, we city slickers will be transformed into tough men of the desert.
The White Rim Trail should be completed in the clockwise direction. Therefore, we take the turn eastward to Shafer Trail.
The winding road descends sharply. The Colorado Canyon meanders before us and further down we’re dragged in between vertical red rocky walls. A sharp, bendy traverse changes into a long gentle downhill straightaway. Three-inch tires provide perfect traction and are a perfect choice for Utah’s desert sideways.
Lit by our headlamps, the road leads us to the first campground with a graceful name: Airport. Riders are to sleep only in the designated campgrounds.
The White Rim’s campsites are defined by only two things: wooden signs and bricked toilets. Otherwise, they blend into the surroundings.
The joy of the first fantastic day intensifies for supper: dehydrated meals! In these circumstances, they taste like the best restaurant food in the world.
After breakfast, we discuss the plan, which is to reach the first water cache. Dehydration it statistically more likely than a bite from snake, scorpion or spider, so we’d carried 2 gallons of water per person. This allowed for a day and a half of comfortable drinking and eating. We’ll need to replenish.
It’s noon when we stumble upon the only human we see: a ranger in her 4×4.
Enthusiastically she checks that everything is fine, that we have enough water as well as our permits. Then… off we go to the canyon’s desolate white rim in an increasingly fierce sun.
When the storm rolls in, long-awaited relief rolls over us. The road, now a muddy stream, is fed by torrents cascading from the canyon rim. After the storm fades, we follow the road further, taking in the remarkable vistas. Toward the end of the day, we reach the water drop and no one craves riding further. We surrender and pitch the tent.
We pass the White Rim’s southernmost tip. The road meanders between the canyon cliffs and vertical walls of Island in the Sky. Overdosed with spectacular views, we let our eyes find rest on the dirt, which disappears under our wheels.
Today, we are luckier. Another storm goes around us and we manage to stay dry, yet close enough to feel the drops. Still the amazing spectacle unfolds before us, locking us in for a few hours.
The day comes to an end by the Green Canyon River.
In the morning, we realize that our final stop is at nearly 6,200 feet. We are currently at 3,900 feet…
But which is worse: the realization we are in for an all-day ascent or that our adventure in Canyonlands is coming to an end?
We raise our eyes to the sky. Large black birds are circulating us. Vultures? Have they caught wind of our struggle? On closer inspection, they’re simply ospreys.
Setting off, we head toward the point where we started a couple of days ago. Soon it’s after dusk and we reach the empty Visitor Center. Civilization has reclaimed us.
Photos by Adam Klimek
Words by Łukasz Piątek