Kokopelli’s Trail: Day Four

Wow, look at the size of that peterpillar!
Wow, look at the size of that peterpillar!

The previous day’s ride was hard both on my body and my bike. I crawled, almost literally, into camp at about 10:00 pm, but Jess’ yummy Indian dinner really hit the spot, and Elijah’s fire helped me fight off the shivers as I drank copious amounts of water. Sadly, Pete downed the entire Poweraide® I’d been looking forward to, but a nice porter more than made up for the sugar water. I slept pretty well, and a super breakfast of cheesy, eggy yummyness also helped.

Unfortunately, all of this great food and drink did nothing for my bike. I still had a chain that was skipping in all but a couple of gears and a detached cleat on my left bike shoe. I decided to simply ride with the chain. The day’s journey would start with a big climb followed with a big descent into Moab. My gears weren’t optimal for the climb, but they’d suffice. I’d just be slow–forced to ride the granny for most of the climb. The cleat was a bigger problem. When it came loose for the 2nd time on Sunday, I was slow to fix the problem. This lead to me losing one of the fastening screws. With only one screw, I had to remove the cleat, and riding the bike became difficult as my foot just slipped off the pedal. Fortunately, Jess brought the entire tool box. I was hoping that I could find a suitable screw, but to my delight, I had an entire spare set of cleats! Who knew? With new screws and a full-sized allen key, I torqued the bejesus out of the cleat, determined they’d stay put throughout the remainder of the ride.

After breakfast I made a trip to the lovely outhouse and down-selected from the previous days’ kit what I thought I’d need for the day’s ride. After much deliberation, Jess, Pete, and I decided that the best course of action would be for Jess and Elijah to drive up to the Sand Flats Recreation Area, just above Moab and the “World’s Most Scenic Dump,” to meet up with Pete and me at the Slickrock Trail parking lot. The plan was to ride at least the practice loop portion of the Slickrock Trail, which Pete hadn’t ridden before. Of course, the original plan was to ride Porcupine Rim, but Pete wanted to ride the official trail, which I was surprised to see came down the dirt/paved roads through the Sand Flats Road into downtown Moab. An additional complication would have been getting back to the car after finishing Porcupine Rim. Since I’d been planning on Jess riding with us on the final day, we’d have had to negotiate several miles of Utah highway 128 and all of the previous night’s ride up Castleton Road.

Looking down on Castle Valley from high atop the La Sal Loop Road.
Looking down on Castle Valley from high atop the La Sal Loop Road.

With the gear all sorted out, we saddled up for the final day of riding. It was nice to jettison all of the weight I’d been riding with. The bike handles pretty well at speed with the rack and panniers, but this felt like regular mountain biking with a light Camelback®. After reaching the edge of the tiny Rock Castle campground, we hit the La Sal Loop Road. From there it would be pavement all the way to the top of the day’s climb. I stopped for a minute along the way to grab some pictures of the Castle Valley from a new angle.

A bit farther along the road, the view of Castle Valley drifted away. We could see where the road would gain the shoulder with the sandstone cliffs up ahead. That’s where we’d make an abrupt right-hand turn and begin our final descent into Moab. About that time, I was beginning to realize I’d made a critical planning error when sorting out gear earlier in the morning. In fact, the error was really a judgment call I made several days earlier when I suggested Jess bring some spicy Indian food. Last night’s dinner was causing some discomfort, and I’d left the roll of toilet paper with all of the other camping gear.

At the top of the climb, we were rewarded with an unexpected view of the mountains near Telluride.
At the top of the climb, we were rewarded with an unexpected view of the mountains near Telluride.

I’d had a similar experience several years ago up on the Colorado Trail near Kenosha Pass. On that day, I learned two important lessons. A pine forest offers little in the way of natural toilet paper, and the corollary, always bring a little TP with you on a remote mountain biking trip. It’d taken me a couple of years, but I’d finally forgotten my own rules. Luckily, I had plenty of water to clean things up with and I felt much better after taking care of business. Back on trail, we reached the top of the road by about noon.

We stopped to grab a quick snack, and I walked the last few yards to the crest of the hill. From there you could see all the way to Telluride. You could also see a large microwave repeater on a giant tower. Suspecting that there were cell antennas as well, I suggested to Pete that he might want to call Kelli. I hadn’t realized how many times he called her the previous night, so I thought she might be worried. During what I thought was their last conversation, Pete had to shoo away a coyote.

After a few minutes, Pete got through to Kelli’s work only to learn that she’d been in a car accident. I grabbed the camera and set off to photograph the mountains so Pete could have some privacy. When I returned, I learned that she was ok, but at the hospital with a badly broken foot. Pete was supposed to be giving a talk in Aspen a couple of days later, but now he wanted to cancel the talk and get back to Boulder as quickly as possible. I certainly understood. Since our quickest route back was the trail, we finished off our snack and set out for Moab.

Back to dirt, it was pretty much all downhill from here. The road wouldn't stay this rutted and money for too long.
Back to dirt, it was pretty much all downhill from here. The road wouldn't stay this rutted and money for too long.

The beginning of the trail was super muddy. If there’d been any recent snow/rain in the La Sals, it likely fell there. We walked a few sections in attempts to keep things relatively clean. Nevertheless, I picked up so much mud on my tires that on a couple of occasions I could swear the rack and panniers must be on the bike. Eventually, the mud abated, and we settled into mostly 4WD road. There were a few rough sections, but most of the trail was fun and fast. I’m sure we’d have taken loads of photos and videos if we weren’t in a hurry. We also started running into some other mountain bikers. To be honest, with Slickrock and Porcupine Rim so close at hand, I’m not sure why anyone would choose to ride this particular 4WD road unless they were doing the entire trail. We also had a couple of run-ins with the same Range Rover. Most of the super muddy trail higher up was extremely rutted from recent 4WD activity, so I wasn’t very excited to see another selfish driver further damaging the trail.

After what seemed like a few more miles of fun riding, we dropped off the 4WD road and made a right-hand turn onto Sand Flats Road. From here it was several miles of dirt road to the Slickrock Trail parking lot. I pointed out a few landmarks like the trailhead for Porcupine Rim as the scenery just kept on going. While the riding certainly wasn’t technically challenging, it was fun to just cruise for miles. I shot a few more photos and a couple of little video clips along the road. We even got another awesome view of the La Sals. Already they were beginning to look distant.

We covered what was certainly several miles, making excellent time. We passed the Porcupine Rim trailhead, but after a few miles I was beginning to wonder why we hadn’t come through any of the numerous campgrounds along the road. I guess I’d forgotten just how long the ride is to get to the trailhead. Eventually my fears of a missed turn were quelled as the familiar campgrounds began to come into sight, and before long we rolled into the Slickrock Trail parking lot.

One last view of the La Sals from along Sand Flats Road.
One last view of the La Sals from along Sand Flats Road.

Given the circumstances, I knew we wouldn’t be able to ride any of Slickrock, so I’d been hoping we could beat Jess and Elijah to the parking lot and continue down the road. If we could beat them to the gate at the entrance to the Sand Flats Recreation Area, we could save a few bucks. Alas, it was not to be. Jess and Elijah timed things perfectly. Just as I was approaching the parking, they were coming up the road from the opposite direction. I pulled up alongside the car as Jess was turning off the engine. She was bummed about the riding, but even more upset to hear about Kelli’s accident. She asked a bunch of questions, but I didn’t have many answers. Pete didn’t either at that point, as everything was quite hectic.

We disassembled Pete’s bicycle and managed to stuff everything into the car. It was a jam-packed ride from Moab back to Fruita where we’d left Pete’s car several days earlier. With two bikes on the roof and one in the trunk, there wasn’t enough space left for the cooler, so it had to site on the rear seat between Pete and Elijah. We also had a number of extra wheels. Our roof rack has fork mounts, and I’d forgotten to add the extra wheel carriers to the rack, so Pete and I each had a wheel on our laps. Elijah was also pretty walled in. He didn’t have a bike wheel, but he had some other luggage piled around him. Only Jess was comfortable, which was fitting since she was the driver.

Luckily it’s a short drive back to Fruita from Moab. When we arrived, we pulled everything out of the trunk and partially reassembled Pete’s bike. We ran to the restroom and shuffeled gear between vehicles. Within a few minutes, Pete was driving back to Boulder. The rest of us stopped in Grand Junction along the way for some dinner. Despite the hectic ending, it was a great trip, and best of all, I have something else to write about besides the great Winter Park trip.

Kokopelli’s Trail: Day Three

Sunrise on the third day. You can see the bikes leaned up in our "parking" spot with my sleeping bag sunning on a rack.
Sunrise on the third day. You can see the bikes leaned up in our "parking" spot with my sleeping bag sunning on a rack.

On the third day, I rose with the sun and spent several minutes taking pictures of the sunrise. The previous night had been the coldest, and I found a little frost on our bags. After a quick trip to the bathroom, I pulled the sleeping bag from the tent to dry it on a rock before putting it back into the stuff sack. I used a little more water (without the diluted Powerade®) to cook another tasty bowl of oatmeal for breakfast with some more fresh raisins and sat down with the map to look over the day’s ride. I had to bring two different topo maps to cover the entire trail, and this morning I was exited to put away the first map for good.

We only faced about 35 miles of riding for the day, but there were two huge climbs. Either would have been sufficient to top our previous days’ cumulative elevation gains, and it was forecast to be even hotter today. After breakfast, I washed up my dishes and spent a few minutes adjusting the bike. I reapplied some chain lube and added about 15 psi to the Headshok® on my bike (mostly, I think, because I had a shock pump along on the trip). I wanted to get an early start, but we weren’t on the trail until about 8:30. Still, this was earliest start of the trip.

I can’t speak for Pete, but I think my rear was even more sore this morning than it had been the previous day. I think it took about 2 miles for me to be able to sit with relative comfort. The first climb started almost immediately. The grade was relatively slight, and the road was mostly in excellent condition. Nevertheless, my fitness wasn’t as good as it had been on the previous two days. I could tell it was going to be a struggle to keep up with Pete all day.

Pete covering up a non-photogenic message attached to one of the better Kokopelli's Trail signs. We had a nice morning snack here.
Pete covering up a non-photogenic message attached to one of the better Kokopelli's Trail signs. We had a nice morning snack here.

The morning went by pretty smoothly. We were passed by a number of jeepers and a few high-end SUVs sporting official Utah logos on their doors. We also rolled past a number of groups camping along the road. There didn’t seem to be any designated spots, but there was still room for a tent or camper along the ride at various wide pull-outs. Eventually we stopped for a snack break next to a nice sign. Throughout the trip, I looked for stopping places that would allow me to prop up the bike. It was so heavy, it was difficult to lay down and pick up again. While we were snacking, a gaggle of dirt bikers rambled through the trail. They didn’t slow down and sprayed dirt and rocks all over, making them easily the most annoying bunch of people we encountered along the trail.

Barely back under way from our snack stop, I suffered the first (and only) significant mechanical of the trip. After a poorly executed shift, I lost the chain. I think it actually broke at the master link, which isn’t supposed to happen. I’d broken the chain the previous summer riding up in Nederland. At the time, I’d given it an impromptu trailside fix by removing a link and pushing a pin back into place to keep it all together. I’d been riding with a spare chain in my Camelback® ever since—just waiting for this moment! In addition to the chain, I had a spare master link with me as well, but I chose to replace the entire chain. I’m pretty quick, so with Pete holding the bike right-side-up, I was able to resize and install the new chain in under 5 minutes.

A sampling of the fine singletrack and scenery we encountered on day three.
A sampling of the fine singletrack and scenery we encountered on day three.

The riding continued through some spectacular scenery. This was definitely the day of endless canyon riding and scant shade. OK, I admit it, every day featured scant shade. Just as I was starting to think that water was going to be an issue, a family pulled up in a Jeep and handed us a bottle of fresh water. It was an odd experience. We hadn’t asked for anything; Pete said something about divine providence. I don’t know about that, but it was cool and delicious. In hindsight, it may have caused me to drink my water even faster, but it felt a little like salvation at the moment.

Not long after replacing my chain, I discovered I was suffering from a bit of skipping. This can happen when you wait too long to replace your chain. It “stretches” and begin to wear out the cogs on your cassette. Then, when you put on a nice new chain, the worn teeth on the cogs cause it to skip under moderate pedal forces. There were a few large gears on the cassette that seemed to work reasonably well, so I decided to push on rather than try and repair the old chain.

After another mile or two of climbing, we came to the day’s first short downhill section. It was a rough stretch of fun singletrack. Pete and I took turns shooting shaky videos of each other bombing through the descent. As always happens, the descent eventually turned into a rough climb. Mostly it was rideable, but there were a few stretches of short hike-a-bike. When we reached the top, we rejoined the road. A quick look at the map, and we were totally confused. Apparently my map is a bit out of date, and that was the reason for our confusion. We were clearly still on the right road, so we just pushed on.

The La Sals in the background with some beautiful canyons in the foreground.
The La Sals in the background with some beautiful canyons in the foreground.

A few curves later we rewarded with some great canyon scenery, and we caught another glimpse of the La Sals. We hadn’t seen the mountains since the previous afternoon, so when they appeared, it was an awesome sight.

About the time the mountains reappeared, I sucked my bladder dry. That was the end of my day’s water. This was a real problem, because we were only nearing the end of the day’s first climb. At that point, Pete had less than 1 bottle of water remaining as well. He offered me some of his water, but I refused. We navigated a short, but super steep, section of singletrack that dropped us about 200′ and then climbed back up the opposite side of a narrow ripple. Upon reaching the far side, the first climb was essentially done. I heard some dirt bikes off in the distance and watched for a while hoping to see them ride what we’d mostly just walked, but they must have been traveling a different direction. We descended for a couple of fun and fast miles until we reached the junction with Onion Creek Road.

At the Onion Creek Road junction, we had a big decision to make. We were both essentially out of water, and sitting roughly at the bottom of the day’s 2nd, and larger, climb. Basically we had three options. We could just keep riding the trail and hope we found some water. We could take an unlikely shortcut comprised of dirt roads across the upper Fisher Valley that eventually climbed at least 1000′ in the final half mile. Or we could ride down Onion Creek Road to highway 128 and then take the highway to Castle Valley Road. The last choice was definitely the longest. I estimated we had about 16 miles by trail, perhaps 8 miles via the shortcut, and around 25 miles if we chose the road option. With our water situation, none of the options were ideal.

Pete scanning the map to find the best route option.
Pete scanning the map to find the best route option.

We picked the shortcut option first. Pete thought he had some iodine tablets in his backpack, and the trail was passing right next to fenced-off cattle ranch. The map also showed a couple of intermittent streams, so we figured if they were ever flowing, mid-April would be the time. We followed the road/trail for a mile or so until we came to a junction. One direction was gated and marked as a private road. The other indicated it was a public road, but that it was a dead end. Did that mean that bikes couldn’t get through either? Pete road ahead a short distance to see if the stream would appear so that we could grab some water. I ate some nuts and raisins and laid down along the roadside to grab a little rest. At this point it was super hot, so I used the map as a sunshade.

The Onion Creek Road winds down the Fisher Valley before us. This was a very fun bail-out route.
The Onion Creek Road winds down the Fisher Valley before us. This was a very fun bail-out route.

Pete returned triumphantly with two bottles of water; however, the excitement was short-lived. After a search through the backpack, the iodine tablets were nowhere to be found. We decided not to drink the suspect water, but used it to cool ourselves off by dousing our heads with it. It was a very sad moment. Definitively out of water and with little hope for resupply, I decided we should ride the road option. It was the longest, but seemed the safer route if things took a turn for the worse. In hindsight, I’m sure we’d have reached camp, and reliable water, much sooner if we’d taken either of the alternative routes, but the Onion Creek Road descent would prove to be super fun.

As we stared down the beginning stretch of the road, Pete remarked that it looked like the Great Wall of China. Riding down the road was a bit like an old wooden roller coaster. Some of the curves had cool banking that allowed for some crazy maneuvering. We shot a bunch of fun videos as we shot up and down little hills along the road. At one point, I captured 2 minutes of the worst video ever as I tried to attach the camera to my chest. I should have realized that when I bent over to grab the handlebars, all the camera would see was my hand as the road rushed by at phenomenal speed. We watched the little clip and had a good laugh. My commentary was especially funny as I described what the camera wasn’t seeing.

A cool tree I spent way to long photographing. Just be glad you don't have to see all the pictures!
A cool tree I spent way too long photographing. Just be glad you don't have to see all the pictures!

As we approached the bottom of the canyon, we began riding up to stream crossings. At first it was a refreshing and cooling change of terrain, but after about the tenth crossing, we were getting a little tired. My shoes were completely soaked. By now, Onion Creek was taking on a distinct sulfur smell, and we were regularly rolling past campers taking advantage of wide shoulders along the road. We also started to see some of the classic Fisher towers. It seemed like the canyon would never end, and our constant photo stops didn’t help much.

As we were nearing the bottom, I spotted a guy who seemed to be breaking camp. I decided to take a chance and see if he had any spare water. He was reluctant, but offered up a little bit. Pete and I both grabbed a little bit, but it was clear it wouldn’t last us long. About a mile later, we were back on the highway. Pete had 1 bar on the cell phone, so he called in to give Kelli an update. We told her about our detour just in case Jess happened to call, and continued on towards Castle Valley road.

One of the spectacular Fisher Towers we passed along Onio Creek Road.
One of the spectacular Fisher Towers we passed along Onio Creek Road.

From the bottom of Castle Valley road, it was still another 10 miles and 2000′ of climbing to reach the Rock Castle campground where we were planning to meet Jess. I wasn’t entirely sure if she’d be there, or if our friend Elijah would be with her. I’d wished there was some way to let her know we’d be a good bit later than we’d planned, but even if she’d had a cell phone, it wasn’t likely she’d have service. As we set off up the hill, I was in the lead, but I knew Pete would pass me soon. I was pretty much out of energy, so I told him not to bother waiting for me. Somehow I lost the cleat from my left shoe along the road. This reduced me to walking quite a bit, but I think I was making equally good time. I stopped for a while to take pictures of the sunset back down the valley.

As night fell, I could hear the coyotes howling all around me. I later learned that one walked right up to Pete. I’m glad I just heard them. I pulled my headlamp out of the bag. In a way, I was glad to finally have a chance to use it. I could see Pete’s light up ahead. It was hard to estimate, but I suspected he was no more than a mile or so up the road. A while later, I had a bit of a 2nd wind and was riding reasonably well, when a car approached and stopped in front of me. It was Jess coming to rescue me! Apparently I was described as spiritually broken, but I wasn’t quite that bad off. I was actually pretty close to the campground. I’d been checking every little dirt road, in case it was the turn.

Looking down Castle Valley at a spectacular sunset.
Looking down Castle Valley at a spectacular sunset.

Jess helped me put the bike onto the roof, and handed me a large jug of water. It was some of the best water ever! In just a couple of minutes we were back to camp where Elijah was busily reheating the homemade Indian food that was dinner. I finished the water and had a lovely porter from Deschutes. Like the water, the beer too was exceptional. Pete was telling me that he missed the turn for the campground and continued up the road until he found the trail junction. He was just about to give up on finding the campsite when he spied the tiny tent sign that marked the way. They really hide these campsites along Kokopelli’s Trail. We sat around the nicest campfire for a bit before heading off to sleep. We thought this would be the make-or-break day of the trip, and I guess it was a little of both.

Kokopelli’s Trail: Day Two

Breakfast is served! It's amazing how much, and little, we had for 4 days of mountain biking.
Breakfast is served! It's amazing how much, and little, we had for 4 days of mountain biking.

One of the great things about camping out is waking up to the early morning sun streaming in through the fly of your tent. If you happened to go to sleep before dark the night before, then you can get up at the crack of dawn and still bag better than 10 hours of sleep. The canteens and Powerade® we’d stashed the previous morning were just enough to fill our Camelbacks® and Pete’s 2 water bottles. Pete had planned for a cold breakfast, but I needed to boil some water to make my instant oatmeal. Unfortunately, I’d already combined the water and Powerade® in my Camelback® , so I boiled about 1/2 cup of dilute Powerade® , mixed it with my strawberry oatmeal, and added some fresh raisins for a truly unique breakfast. Our neighbors stopped by with a coffee peace offering that I gladly accepted, and we chatted a bit about mountain biking and touring. It was a delightful diversion, but we were anxious to get underway. The weather was looking much nicer (read hotter, as well) than yesterday, and our plans called for about 40 miles of riding from Bitter Creek to Dewey Bridge.

Our first glimpse of the La Sal mountain range with miles of desert in the foreground.
Our first glimpse of the La Sal mountain range with miles of desert in the foreground.

The previous night, we were pretty sore. Pete was a bit worried that he might not recover well enough for the next day’s ride. I wasn’t worried about my legs, but I had some concern for my sore rear. But we both slept great, and aside from a pair of tender backsides, we were just fine. The day started with a nice stretch of slightly downhill dirt road. It was smooth sailing for several miles. We were at least doubling our rate of travel from the previous day, and still we managed to shoot way too many pictures and what I later discovered to be gigabytes of goofy video clips. After about 30 minutes of riding, we got our first glimpse of the La Sal mountain range. It looked so far away, it was hard to imagine we’d be arriving there the next evening. A few minutes later, we were finishing up our first section of pavement through a lush irrigated valley leading towards the Westwater access point for boaters on the Colorado. Just after passing under some railroad tracks, we made a left-hand turn. It was pretty, but after about a half mile, Pete and I both felt we were heading the wrong way. We pulled out the map, and after a quick consultation, it was confirmed. We were indeed going the wrong way, and it was slightly downhill to boot! As we were turning around, a train passed by on the tracks, so of course I shot a little video.

One of the few spots where I'd have had trouble driving the Neon. Was this actually a bridge once?
One of the few spots where I'd have had trouble driving the Neon. Was this actually a bridge once?

This continued for a while until we reached what proved to be the morning’s technical crux: a small “stream” crossing with what might, once upon a time, have been a bridge. It was easily handled, and soon enough we crested a small rise to discover an unexpected view of the Priest and Nuns formation in the Castle Valley. Like the La Sals, it too seemed very far off, but the picturesque towers were unmistakable. Between the mountains and the desert towers, it really seemed like we were heading towards Moab.

In terms of mileage, this was probably the longest day of the trip, but most of the tread was was on dirt roads and technically quite easy. It was also generally downhill, so we were making great time, especially compared to the previous day’s 5 mph crawl. We kept rolling over little hills—playing hide-and-seek with the mountains. We knew we were getting close to the Colorado river, but when it finally appeared, it was a bit of a surprise.

Along the river, we were rewarded with a few miles of actual singletrack. It was an oddly lush stretch of trail with tall grasses and junglesque plants tightly lining the trail. I was in the lead, and swept the path clear of cobwebs for Pete. I hate cobwebs! All too quickly, we reached the end of the rideable singletrack and faced a bit of hike-a-bike to reach another stretch of dirt road. Again the hiking was challenging, with the heavy panniers attached to my bike. By this point, it was after noon and the day was getting pretty hot. I don’t recall the temperature, but I was really chugging through my day’s water supply.

Look at the baby cows!
Look at the baby cows!

Back on the road, we traveled through a few more rolling hills and an open cattle pasture that was loaded with baby cows. The little calves are so cute. I like that they’re so young they actually run around. When is the last time you’ve seen an adult cow run? While the calves drew our attention, we drew the attention of several protective heifers. After a few pictures, it was clear we should move along before they got really angry with us.

After another mile or two of dirt road, we again arrived at some pavement. Shortly, we were standing at the first junction with Utah highway 128. We traveled along the highway for about a half mile before coming to the Yellow Jacket canyon section of Kokopelli’s Trail. I was starting to get tired, and the upcoming section (about 8 miles long) promised to be somewhat challenging with one good-sized climb in the middle. According to the map, it also offered some scenic riding—passing near a couple of unnamed arches and Fear and Loathing tower. I pulled out my Camelback® bladder and discovered that I had about a cup of water left. It was hot, and that didn’t seem sufficient. Since we’d planned to filter some Colorado River water for dinner and the next day’s riding, we decided to ride the highway for 4 miles to camp. After setting up camp, we’d grab a snack, top off our water, and head back out (sans gear) to enjoy an unencumbered ride through the section we’d just skipped.

The little campground by the old Dewey Bridge was just about packed. There was just 1 site left when we arrived, so I guess it’s a good thing we took the small shortcut. Arriving at the campground, I realized for the first time that I’d overlooked paying for the night’s camping. Pete had 8 bucks in his wallet, but the fee was listed at $12.00. We made a good faith gesture, and stuck $8.00 into the self-serve envelope, but there wasn’t a pen/pencil to write on either the envelope or the little the stub you’re supposed to place on the post at the campsite. We also lacked a car to park in the parking space. This wasn’t lost on the other campers, who seemed to realize we were a bit light on gear. They offered us beer and a whole cadre of food items, but we turned down the generous offers. In hindsight, I should have accepted a beer.

While Pete struggled to find enough rocks to set up the tent, I went off to the boat launch where I figured it’d be easy to sit by the river and filter enough water to fill all of our containers. The first canteen went by pretty smoothly, but as it was nearing full, I felt the pump getting a bit harder to operate. Suddenly, the hose shot off the top of the filter, spraying water all over my shirt and face. At that point, I transferred the “clean” water to the small-mouth canteen so that I could resume filtering the river. I reattached the hose, and started slowly filtering the water. The hose bulged from the high pressure with each half stroke, and the whole process grew agonizingly slow. By the time I had the second canteen about half full, Pete appeared. He pointed out the the tube appeared to be developing an embolism! If I held the filter and canteen perfectly straight, you could hear a faint trickling sound with each stroke. The canteen was now filling so slowly that this was the only indication that water was still passing through the filter.

What's left of the old Dewey Bridge—an historical landmark and a lesson about the dangers of fire in the dry desert. You can still see little bits of the decking hanging from the suspension wires.
What's left of the old Dewey Bridge—a historic landmark and a lesson about the dangers of fire in the dry desert. You can still see little bits of the decking hanging from the suspension wires.

While I could probably have gotten more water through the filter, it was becoming almost impossible to operate the pump. I had to keep one hand on the hose to keep it from shooting off the top of the filter while simultaneously pumping with the other hand. We were both growing increasingly nervous about our supply of water. At the moment we had about enough to fill our bladders, but we were already dehydrated, and we hadn’t cooked dinner or tomorrow’s breakfast. The next day’s ride was relatively short at only about 35 miles, but it included 2 major climbs of about 2,000′ and 3,000′ respectively. Back when we were leaving Boulder, the weather forecast was for increasingly hot temperatures throughout the trip. Given our dire water reserves, we grudgingly decided not to backtrack for the Yellow Jacket Canyon section of the trail.

Both Pete and I had planned on bringing a deck of cards. Pete pulled his out to save a little weight at the last minute, and I forgot to grab mine from the cupboard as I was leaving the house Thursday morning. The cards would have come in handy while we sat around camp in the early afternoon with little to do. We had an early dinner and were about to turn in for the evening when we struck up a conversation with our neighbors. It was clear that we needed more water, and there wasn’t really any alternative but to play upon their sympathies. They were super nice, and offered up enough water to top off our bladders and Pete’s water bottle. Personally, I felt much better thinking I might at least have enough water for the coming day’s ride. Our neighbors were 3 couples with about 5 children between them and a few dogs to boot. Pete is anxious to start doing some car camping with his wife Kelli and their new daughter Marin, so he asked for some pointers. We exchanged a few short stories of our previous days of riding, and learned that one of the couples had just moved to Denver from Nebraska. It reminded me of when Jess and I had arrived in Colorado and how exciting and new everything seemed.

Shortly thereafter, we made last trips to the restroom, brushed our teeth, and headed off to bed. We chatted for a while, and I listened to some Chuck Mangione with just one ear-bud. It was the Live from the Hollywood Bowl LP, and Pete could only hear the flugelhorn. He thought it sounded like mariachi music, and contracted an earworm that I suspect didn’t Feel(s) so Good.

Kokopelli’s Trail: Day One

Here I am at the trailhead on day 1. Look how well rested I appear!
Here I am at the trailhead on day one. Look how well rested I appear!

Up until a couple of days before the big Kokopelli’s Trail ride, I wasn’t sure when it was going to happen. Balancing all of the things in my schedule, along with Pete’s and Jess’s, was looking hopeless. We planned to leave Thursday night, but I had a meeting in Denver, so even that was put on hold until about 9:00. As luck would have it, we were forecast for one of the biggest snowstorms of the season that night. Rumors were even circulating that the Vail Pass was closed, making the drive all but impossible. Fortunately, the pass was open, but the drive was still dicey. Not only was the driving tricky, but the visibility was pretty bad as well. We finally pulled into the trailhead at Loma around 2:30 a.m., just in time for a few hours of fitful sleep.

It was cold Thursday night in Fruita, but there was no sign of snow. This was a good sign, as we were slightly concerned we might encounter some snow along the high-elevation sections of the trail that passes through the Manti-La Sal National Forrest. Thanks to the accommodations in the front seat of Pete’s Jeep, I was up at first light. After some obligatory stretching, we headed off to Utah to find the Bitter Creek campground to drop some water for the next day’s ride. Getting to the camp was pretty straight forward, but we were surprised to find so many people camping out in both the middle of April and nowhere. We left two collapsible 100 oz. Nalgene® bottles of water and about 1/2 a bottle of Powerade under a tree adjacent one of the picnic tables at an unoccupied site.

By highway, it was about 20 miles back to Fruita. We made a quick side trip into town so that I could pick up a new tube for my Camelback® (I found mildew in my old one, yuck!) and a roll of TP for the trip. I also grabbed a cup of coffee that I hoped would wake me up and fuel me throughout the day’s riding. Back at the trailhead, we unpacked the bikes and started gearing up for the trip. We shuffled some of the gear, with me taking the tent from Pete. I set up the rack and panniers on my bike, and Pete adjusted his backpack. That’s right, in addition to riding to Moab, we’d also be comparing the relative merits of two rival packing systems.

Pete taking a short break along some of Kokopelli's best singletrack.
Pete taking a short break along some of Kokopelli's best singletrack.

We checked the tire pressure, lubed our chains, and saddled up at about 10:30 am. I’d already ridden most of the day’s trail, but never in a single day. The extra load would be a new challenge, and I was a little concerned that the rack and panniers wouldn’t be up to the task. Kokopelli’s Trail starts with Mary’s Loop. Since I’d ridden the trail several times, I was anxious to see how things would unfold with the extra load. I was pleasantly surprised that the opening climb, a prolonged rocky section, was pretty easy. The rack made the rear-end of the bike pretty heavy, but while riding it was almost unnoticeable. In fact, the only reminders of its presence were an occasional banging noise when flying over particularly rough sections of trail and an increased difficulty in getting the back tire over large step-ups. On the flip-side, the extra weight actually added some stability in rolling large drop-offs.

A little after noon, we reached the Salt Creek crossing. The view from above was spectacular. We decided to ride down and cross the little bridge before breaking for lunch. The bridge has two twin posts in place to stop 4-wheelers and the like from crossing. I practically needed to butter up the panniers to squeeze through, but I made it. We had a nice lunch, and I snuck off to find a bit of cover to put the morning’s final purchase to use. There is very little privacy to be found in the desert.

The view of Salt Creek from above and the little bridge with the tight squeeze.
The view of Salt Creek from above and the little bridge with the tight squeeze.

Just after lunch we tackled the first significant hike-a-bike section of the trail. Quickly it became clear that all of the benefits of riding with a rack and panniers were negated when trying to carry your bike over rough terrain. Pete was suffering from a sore bum due to the extra load from his backpack, but I was really struggling to haul my bike up all of the climbs and around all of the rocks. Struggling with the bike really took a lot out of me, so I was glad to reach the end of the hike. I didn’t realize at the moment how little singletrack remained, but I was glad to have smooth, rideable road the whole way into Rabbit Valley.

The Rabbit Valley trailhead was bustling with activity when we rolled in for a snack stop. Dirt bikers, ATVers, and fellow mountain bikers were seemingly everywhere. We had a nice snack, but it was getting late. We needed to get back on the bike and finish the day’s ride. This brought us to the ride’s first disagreement. In my mind, Kokopelli’s Trail was going to be 142 miles of stellar singletrack. There are two ways to ride through Rabbit Valley. One, the official trail, uses a variety of dirt roads. Some of them are pretty rough, but mostly it’s a slough through pretty sandy washes. As an alternative, there are a number of singletrack trails like Rabbit Valley #2 that mostly parallel the roads. Pete wanted to ride the official trail, but I was in favor of singletrackus maximus. That’s when I reconciled the goofy image I had of Kokopelli’s Trail with the reality that was Kokopelli’s Trail. We ended up taking the official route.

Pete setting up our first camp at Bitter Creek. Anything would be better than sleeping in the Jeep again.
Pete setting up our first camp at Bitter Creek. Anything would be better than sleeping in the Jeep again.

Rolling out from the trailhead, we only had about 10 miles of additional riding to reach our first campsite. We’d been averaging a pathetic 5 miles an hour (breaks and photo stops included), and some profound saddle sores were beginning to set in. Most of the remaining miles were scenically beautiful, but my mind kept drifting to the 400′ climb listed on the map. It was literally the end of the day’s ride, finishing right at the campground. When we finally got to the bottom of the climb, it became obvious that it was steep. Pete had opened up a small gap on me over the proceeding couple of miles, and I found him standing next to his bike at the base of the climb. He had already determined that he’d just walk the 1/2 mile climb, but I was determined to try and ride the whole trail. I told him it looked pretty manageable after the 2nd switchback. I’ll never know if I was right, because I lost control and had to put a foot down after an ultra-slow-speed collision with a rock. Pete caught up to me sooner than I caught my breath, and we finished walking to the plateau together.

At the campground, we discovered that the water we had stashed earlier that morning was insufficient to hold the campsite. We also discovered that some of the water was missing from one of the canteens. There was another site available nearby, and the guys camping by our water replaced what they’d taken. We were shocked that someone would take some of the water, but we were way too tired to really care. We made dinner, brushed our teeth, and turned in to bed before the sun had even set. Since I’d brought the iPod, I set up an alarm for 8:00 am and put on some Cat Stevens. I don’t even remember the 2nd song.

Kokopelli’s Trail: Day Zero

When we announced that we were moving to Colorado, several of my coworkers back in Boston recommended new vacation spots that they were sure we’d enjoy. Moab was one of the most frequently mentioned; I often rode my mountain bike to work. It wasn’t until we’d actually arrived that I’d even heard of Fruita. I guess I’d had my head buried in the proverbial sand throughout college.

Not long after the move, we started looking into some of the new places we could go and things we could do. Unlike Boston, parking was a non-issue in Boulder, so we were keen to get out on the weekends. One of our first events was the 6th annual Ouray Ice Festival. While we’d been poor excuses for rock climbers for some time, we were just beginning our careers as mediocre ice climbers, and the idea of being in a small town where practically everyone climbs ice was fascinating. That was the fall of 2001, and we’ve been to every festival since.

My rig next to the Kokopelli's Trail sign marking the beginning of the Yello Jacket Canyon section of the trail.
My rig next to the Kokopelli's Trail sign marking the beginning of the Yellow Jacket Canyon section of the trail.

One of the great things about Colorado is the extreme changes in weather. While most of our friends and relatives assume that winter is a 10-month season of hellish cold and unrelenting snow, reality is pretty different. You can often find days in the winter warm enough for a nice day of climbing at Eldo or riding the mountain bike around Lyons. Jess has only had to remove the battery from her motorcycle once because extended poor weather made riding unlikely. By the time April rolls around, the Western Slope is already growing hot and hitting its prime for mountain biking. That’s when we first learned of Fruita.

When we were living in Boston, we took a weekend camping trip to Wampatuck State Park. They had a nice system of trails open to mountain biking, so we brought our bikes. That was Jess’s first exposure to mountain biking, and she was hooked. So, when the weather turned nice in Boulder, I started looking for some of this legendary Colorado mountain biking I’d heard of. One of the first things we found was the Fruita Fat Tire Festival. The weather forecast looked exceptional (80 degrees and sunny in April), and rumors circulated that the trails were incredible. We ended up camping pretty far from the trails, but had a great time anyway. We got to ride some awesome trails, and despite running out of water and fitness, were grinning ear-to-ear the whole time. We also watched a couple of really fun trials riders doing a series of demos in the park in downtown Fruita. I’m still blown away by what some people can do on a bike.

The first trail we rode in Fruita was called Mary’s Loop. It’s a neat combination of rocky climbs, 4-wheel drive road, and some fun singletrack. It taught us that you need more than a couple of water bottles to ride in the desert. It’s also the beginning of this cool trail called Kokopelli’s Trail that runs from Fruita to Moab. From that day onward, I determined I should ride Kokopelli’s Trail, and that the entire trail would be sick mountain biking.

Fast-forward several years. It’s 2009; I’m flipping through a new issue of Dirt Rag, and I’ve just learned that Kokopelli’s Trail turns 20 this year. Now, the desert is no place to be in the summer, and in the desert the summer is pretty much May–September, so that leaves two smallish windows of opportunity in the spring and fall. I know Jess pretty well, and I know she doesn’t have the vacation or desire for this ride, so I e-mailed an adventure-writing buddy of mine, Pete, to see if he’d be interested. He was, and more importantly, he’d landed an article assignment based on the ride. It was on like Donkey Kong; just the planning remained.

In planning a trip on Kokopelli’s Trail, as with riding the trail, there are 3 major concerns. One is the length of the trip. At 142 miles, most people will require several days and therefore some vacation to finish the ride. This brings us directly to the second major issue: water! Of all of the essentials, water is really the biggest logistic challenge. If it’s hot, and it probably will be, you’ll want at least a gallon or two per person, per day while on the trail. This dovetails nicely with challenge three: planning the trip. You’d be surprised to discover that there’s a dearth of quality information available for planning to ride Kokopelli’s Trail. It’s mentioned in a few guidebooks, but mostly they focus on either end of the trail in Fruita or Moab. There’s very little detail about the middle of the trail.

The best resource I could find was a 1-page, 2-sided map produced by the Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Association (COPMOBA). Even that was rather confusing, because it listed a number of smallish campsites not included on any other maps. Eventually I had to call the BLM offices in Grand Junction and Moab to find out if the sites were real. The field rangers I spoke to were quite helpful. The ranger in Moab gave me pretty good directions to the Rock Castle campground high above the Castle Valley outside Moab, and she warned me against filtering Colorado River water due to excessive silt. I should have listened to this advice specifically! The Grand Junction office informed me that it was legal to park overnight at the Loma trailhead, and that they’d not experienced issues with vandalism or break-in. Both rangers impressed upon me that there is “no water on the trail!”

This is a picture of the Kokopelli's Trail overview map and elevation profile that we found posted near Dewey Bridge. Oddly, while planning the trip, I didn't find anything much better.
This is a picture of the Kokopelli's Trail overview map and elevation profile that we found posted near Dewey Bridge. Oddly, while planning the trip, I didn't find anything much better.

Okay, if you’re familiar with the trail, you might also know that there are several travel companies that offer guided tours of Kokopelli’s Trail. If you can afford to travel this way, it’s a great idea, but at around $1000.00 a person, it’s way too steep for my blood. The upside to the guided tour is the ability to have all of your camping gear shuttled from campsite to campsite by a support van. This also includes a prodigious amount of water, food, and best yet, beer. It sounds spectacular, just you and about 8 of your newest friends sitting around a campfire at night after riding all day, sipping a fine microbrew.

So, maybe that doesn’t really appeal to you any more than it appeals to me. I want to carry my stuff, and more importantly, I want to ride with my friends, not a laundry-list of guide-service clients. The biggest problem was going to be water. After looking at the COPMOBA map, which included rough trail descriptions and mileage, I cooked up a plan that seemed like it could work. We’d spend 4 days and 3 nights on the trail. We’d drop some water at the Bitter Creek campsite prior to setting off on the trail, and filter some Colorado River water at Dewey Bridge (not quite there anymore) for day 3. Jess would meet us above Castle Valley on the 3rd night with more water, and join us for the Porcupine Rim descent into Moab. It would be a mostly unsupported trip on Kokopelli’s Trail, and it would be nearly impossible for us to complete as planned. (I wouldn’t be aware of the last point until I was halfway to Moab.)

With the itinerary planned, the only thing that remained was the question of how to carry all of my stuff. I did an overnight trip to Winter Park a while back via the Rollin’s Pass/Corona Pass road, and for that trip I used a rack that attaches to the seatpost of a mountain bike. It worked pretty well, but the clamp wasn’t designed for a seatpost of the size that fits into my Cannondale hardtail. It’s too big and doesn’t attach firmly. That allowed it to swing around during hard cornering, not something I wanted to deal with for 4 days. Luckily, a coworker was able to machine a small plastic spacer for me. It worked well in the shop, making a tight fit that didn’t want to slip under moderate force.

On the Winter Park ride, I used a small bag that clipped to the top of the rack. It was large enough to hold a change of clothes and some extra food and water, but it wasn’t going to be sufficient for camping gear. On the Winter Park trip we stayed in a lovely hostel in Frazier, so I didn’t need much in terms of gear. A trip to the local REI produced a pair of “inexpensive” panniers that explicitly stated they were for road use only; however, after trying every single bag they stocked, it was clear that these attached the mostly firmly to my little rack. Since I was certain that most of the damage would occur from the bags flopping around, I decided that these would probably hold up better than the others that fit more sloppily. They were also the cheapest set of bags available, and because they were a little smaller in terms of volume, they’d help me keep my load under the 20-pound weight limit of the rack.

I was up crazy late the night before the trip, packing and repacking the paniers. I kept trying to reduce the weight without compromising my total calories. I even looked up how many calories you get from peanuts (a lot) in order to determine how many to bring (too many). Finally, I was satisfied, but the bags still seemed likely to outweigh my rack’s rating. I was pleasantly surprised to find that they were 9 and 10 pounds respectively when I put them on the scale at work the next day. With everything packed, it was hard getting through the day of work knowing that I’d be on Kokopelli’s Trail tomorrow morning! It was an odd mixture of nervousness and excitment.