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Beers, Steers, and Granny Gears

Mountain Biking America’s Newest Hut Trip


Story and photos by Christian Timmerman


Ask almost anyone what the Mountain Bike Capital of the World is and they will probably say Moab, Utah, or perhaps Durango, Colorado.  So what could be better than a week-long ride from Durango to Moab?  Well, how about riding with only minimal gear from hut to fully stocked hut?  Sound good?  My long-time riding partner Tim and I signed up for the inaugural trip to find out.


The official route was still being finalized; therefore we did not receive our map pack until the morning of our departure.  I opened the envelope in the parking lot of Durango Mountain Resort.  Along with the maps was this note: “Congratulations!  You are the first of many to ride the new Durango to Moab Mountain Bike Hut System.  As such, you are about to enjoy some of the most pristine and challenging terrain in the Lower 48.  You are the first to use our brand spanking new huts and crappers.  Bragging rights are yours for the taking!”  Okay, I thought, this is going to be cool but the bragging would have to wait a week.


I did one final equipment check.  First aid kit?  Check.  Bike repair kit?  Check.   Rain gear?  Check.  Flask (strictly for medicinal purposes)?  Check.  The gear was carefully packed into the panniers on my trusty 12 year-old Stumpjumper and away we pedaled.  It was a perfect morning, and I felt strong - that is, until we rounded the first corner.  The road ascended an apparently unending series of switchbacks, and it was not long before my lungs were painfully aware of the lack of oxygen at 9000’.  Fortunately, the views of the jagged San Juan Mountains peeking through the quaking aspens kept my mind occupied.


During a much needed lunch break, we met Steve and Carrie, both lawyers from Denver, and two of the riders we would be sharing the huts with for the next seven days.  Not long after, we were passed by the other two riders in our group of six.  Bruce and Erik had traveled all the way from Washington D.C.  Not surprisingly, this trip attracts adventurous, fun-loving individuals.  These four riders had all started several hours after Tim and I, but they had already caught up with us.  I was starting to question my physical preparedness and my ability to keep up.   I felt my bragging rights slipping away.


After topping out on Bolam Pass (our high point at 11, 500’), the six of us arrived at the first hut to find it still under construction.  We were greeted by Joe Ryan, founder and owner of San Juan Hut Systems.  Joe is in the business of fun.  For the last 17 years he has maintained a series of huts between Telluride and Moab for backcountry skiers and mountain bikers.  Joe received the official Forest Service go ahead for this new southern route just a week earlier, so he and his crew were racing to stay one step ahead of us.  It turns out that we saw Joe’s group every evening putting the finishing touches on the huts and outhouses.  This was a blessing not only because Joe is a fascinating guy with a million stories, but also because we could count on his cooler being full of ice-cold beer! 


The huts themselves are an engineering marvel.  They are built on trailers, towed into the field and bolted together à la doublewide mobile homes.   At the end of the season they are unbolted and towed home – all very low-impact.  Similarly, the outhouses are designed to compost the waste.  


Each hut has eight bunk beds with pads and sleeping bags, propane stove and lamps, cooking utensils, and of course, food.  Now, when I signed up for this trip I fully expected to be eating ramen noodles, mac and cheese, and energy bars for a week straight.  Boy, was I in for a pleasant surprise!  Sure, there was the usual assortment of canned goods (SPAM!), but we also found fresh fruits and veggies, candy bars, chips and salsa, cheese, eggs, and bread.  Even the ravenous vegetarians never went to bed hungry.  Over the course of the week, we had everything from green chili omelets to blueberry pancakes, black bean burritos to spaghetti with garlic bread.  Yes, the huts were a great place to relax and recharge at the end of a glorious day. 


Obviously, we did not go on this trip to lounge in huts; there was riding to be done.  The constant bombardment of gorgeous panoramas beckoned us forward each day.  The shear diversity of terrain was astounding.  During our bike odyssey, we traveled through most of the major life zones.  We started up high in the green pines and aspens.  Looking down, our future stretched out before us in the form of red rocks and sandstone cliffs.  The many creeks we encountered were swollen from recent snowmelt and crossing them often required fording. Riotous wildflowers lined our descent down primitive jeep roads to pasture land dotted with cows.


Although our destination each day was determined by the location of the next hut, Joe clued us in on several alternate routes that allowed us to avoid roads or add variety to the ride.  These alternates tested our route-finding skills, as well as our sense of adventure.  We got turned around occasionally but there are worse things than backtracking through world-class mountain bike terrain.  The average distance between huts is roughly 30 miles, but our longest day exceeded 50 miles. 


After several days in the saddle, I was feeling stronger and more confident (and most importantly, I got passed less often).  Unfortunately, the trail would show us no mercy this day.  The penultimate day was to be the ultimate day for suffering!  Our hearts sank as we scoped the route: a 5000’ vertical ascent.   There was nothing to do but shift into our granny gears, put our heads down, and pedal, pedal, pedal.  I felt like a hamster on an exercise wheel, spinning and spinning but not getting anywhere.  Okay, maybe I walked once or twice.  Several eternities later, we were rewarded with yet another fantastic hut site nestled in the La Sal Mountains.


The previous day’s suffer fest had us all looking forward to this last day.  After a quick climb up to Geyser Pass, it would be nearly 6000’ down to Moab.  Consulting the map, we discovered that our route would intersect with the Porcupine Rim trail, one of the best and best-known trails around Moab.  We could either finish this epic tour on the standard dirt road or on a gnarly singletrack that dumps out right at the Colorado River.  Tim and I had ridden Porcupine Rim before.  For us, there was no debate.  The route up to this point was physically demanding but not very technically challenging.  Porcupine Rim would be the perfect antidote, as well as a superior climax to our trip. 


After topping out at Geyser Pass, we were greeted with miles and miles of well-graded road descending steeply towards the slickrock and canyon country of Moab.  A couple of times on the descent, when I dared to take my eyes off the road, I could see my cyclometer registering 40+ miles per hour!  All too quickly we reached the cutoff and bid farewell to Steve and Carrie.  Four of us remained and turned our handlebars towards Porcupine Rim.  From the overlook, the views of Castle Valley and its famous sandstone spires were breathtaking.  Whooping and hollering, we pounded our way down the technical singletrack dodging boulders and cacti and punishing our bikes.  We reached the placid waters of the mighty Colorado giddy with equal parts excitement and exhaustion, our fingers useless from the constant death-grip on the brakes.


A couple of road miles were all that separated us from our hotel and the first hot shower in a week.  Later that evening, as we savored some microbrews at local-landmark Eddie McStiff’s, we reminisced about the ride.  The stats were impressive:  215 miles and more than 26,000 feet of vertical ascent.  Although all of us were from different states, we readily concurred that Durango and Moab are indeed the Mountain Bike Capitals of the World (and the lands in between are not too shabby either).  We half-joked that since we needed to get back to our cars in Durango anyway, maybe we should just ride the trip in reverse.  Like I said, we only half-joked.  The very first Durango to Moab trip had gone off without a hitch.  Our only mechanical trouble was a single flat tire, and the only injuries were our sore bums and smile muscles.  After draining our pints, we looked at each other and grinned:  Bragging rights were ours!

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The San Juan Hut System runs from June 15 to October 1, with up to eight people departing daily.  The trip costs $850 per person and includes map pack and route descriptions, hut keys, and food.  Contact them at www.sanjuanhuts.com or (970) 926-3033.  For a shuttle van back to Durango contact Colorado Adventure Transportation at (970) 626-5491.  Moab and Durango both have a large selection of lodgings.


This trip requires good physical conditioning and intermediate or better riding skills.  Adequate hydration is mandatory, especially in the desert sections.  This is not a guided trip and there are no support vehicles or reliable cell phone coverage.  Emergency services can be a long time in coming.  A first aid kit and knowledge of how to use it is highly recommended.  Ditto for bike repair.  Bring several spare tubes, a patch kit, cables, lube, chain links, spokes, and tools.   Other useful items include sunscreen, bug dope, duct tape, bike gloves, and padded shorts (actually, make those mandatory).    

Photos
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Photos

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