Biking the Open Road in Colorado, With a Few Bumps Along the Way

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The granite cliffs of Unaweep Canyon, in the western area of Colorado, just south of Grand Junction and about 265 miles from Denver, are said to be some of the oldest exposed rocks in the state — roughly 1.5 billion years old, or a third of the earth’s recorded history.

This sparse, unaltered landscape has long been a source of fascination for geologists, mainly because of its shape. Rather than charting a one-way course (as with most canyons), Unaweep, which bisects a portion of the sprawling Uncompahgre Plateau, instead flows out in two directions, with an elevated hump in the middle, like a hose with two openings.


Grand Junction

Unaweep Canyon

Unaweep Divide

Gateway Canyons

Resort & Spa

Dolores River

La Sal


By The New York Times

This makes it ideal for road bikers, who see the bare, winding roads of Unaweep, and nearby Grand Junction, as an irresistible challenge. Since the 1970s, bike enthusiasts have latched onto Mesa County for its rich supply of trails. Just outside town, the Colorado National Monument makes for one of the most spectacular, high-altitude rides in America. (The 1985 Kevin Costner film, “American Flyers,” was filmed here.)

With the recent opening of the Grand Junction-Moab route, a 155-mile ride linked by a network of backcountry huts, regular travelers can finally get a taste of what backcountry bikers have known about for years.

It is the latest project by the founders of the San Juan Hut System, which launched in 1987 with a set of five huts on the north face of the Sneffels Range in Colorado. Originally meant as an easy-to-navigate route for intrepid skiers, the DIY appeal of the huts soon expanded to bikers, who take over those same trails in the summer months. Today, the system commands a total of 16 huts, spread over hundreds of square miles inside Uncompahgre National Forest.

One of the few signs of life can be found at the Bedrock General Store, looking like a time capsule out of the 1910’s and which made an appearance in “Thelma and Louise.”CreditCaine Delacy for The New York Times

In May, just after this new trail officially opened, I was one of the first bikers to attempt this challenging route, accompanied by my friend, Joe, who bailed halfway through the first day. (More on that later.)

The remoteness of the trail is a double-edged sword: on the one hand, there are razor-sharp mesas and ghostly valleys, making for unforgettable scenery. But this being rural Colorado, the weather can be unpredictable. Heat makes the trail brutally uncomfortable in summer; the snow and ice make it impassable in winter. As a result, it’s only open for two months a year — May and October.

“These canyons are rough, desolate, harsh,” explained Zebulon Miracle, a geologist who leads dinosaur walks for guests at the Gateway Canyons Resort, an unexpected luxury outpost in the middle of the red rock peaks, 53 miles from Grand Junction.

For bikers, all roads lead to Moab

But if humans have survived in these parts for a couple thousand years, then I should be able to manage for a couple days, right? And it’s not like I’d be camping out in the wilderness. Two huts, installed along the trail roughly 50 miles apart, would provide overnight shelter for the three-day, two-night journey. They are basic cabins, built of plywood, and furnished with bunk beds and a propane tank stove.

Best of all, they are fully stocked with food: bacon, eggs, tortillas, onions, canned food (beans, salsa, tuna fish), cheese, salami sticks, cookies, different kinds of dried fruit, coffee, tea and plenty of water. There’s even a cookbook to show how to make elaborate meals like curry or chicken parm. (We booked our huts three months in advance of our trip, on the San Juan Huts website:

Heading up the first climb of Unaweep Canyon on Highway 141.CreditCaine Delacy for The New York Times

The cost for two nights was $199. (The “beer option” costs an additional $30 per person.)

Ahead of this trip, I had spoken with Kelly Ryan, a former ski patrol and the daughter of Joe Ryan, who founded the San Juan Huts System in 1987. According to Ms. Ryan, the Grand Junction-Moab route, though challenging, is “beginner friendly.” While this tour involves long days, the terrain itself is nothing a newbie — even someone who’s never been on an overnight cycling trip — can’t handle, she said. Plus, the relative absence of cars on this route makes things more manageable. Typically, busy highways represent a hazard for road biking. “You’re more likely to get hurt mountain biking, but you’re more likely to die road biking,” Ms. Ryan said.

This didn’t exactly inspire confidence, but then again, this wasn’t a road biking trip, per se. The route is split between old paved highways and sections of dirt, and because of that, the route is technically classified as a gravel grinder tour.

Gravel grinding, once popular in the 70s and 80s, is essentially off-road road biking, and it’s enjoying a resurgence lately. Shops like SloHi in Denver Rapha in Boulder are now renting gravel grinders and hosting group rides.

While mountain biking is often seen as too dangerous, and road biking has a reputation for being a little dull, gravel grinders offer a middle way. Their tires are thick, but more pressurized than mountain bikes, and they are more stable in their frames. Ms. Ryan called them the “Swiss Army knife of the bike world” — not as clunky as a mountain bike, but not skittish and thin like road bikes.

Two huts, installed along the trail roughly 50 miles apart, provide overnight shelter for the three-day, two-night journey. They are basic cabins, built of plywood, and furnished with bunk beds and a propane tank stove.CreditCaine Delacy for The New York Times

On a route like this, which involves long distances and rolling landscape on some unpaved roads, a gravel grinder can really shine. I opted to rent a Moots Routt 45 from a nearby Grand Junction vendor.

We were set to go.

On our first morning, we left our motel in Grand Junction a little after 8, stopping briefly at a Wal-Mart to buy the helmets neither of us had remembered to bring. Dressed in biking shorts and long-sleeve tops, we climbed on our bikes and prepared to hit the trail, planning on covering roughly 55 miles over the next seven hours.

Well, that was the plan. On our initial foray into the backcountry, which was a steep haul, Joe started to feel the effects of the high altitude almost immediately: the effects of the blazing sun and arduous uphill climb had spooked him. So, we decided on a new plan: he would go back to the Toyota 4Runner rental we’d left in Grand Junction, and shadow me as we made our way to our first overnight stop, as much of the route is accessible to both bikers and drivers. (Though not an expert biker myself, I ride every day in Los Angeles, where I defy odds by getting around without a car.)

But as I continued on, the weather was becoming uncooperative. Huffing my way up through the eastern entrance of Unaweep Canyon, the sun was bright, but by the time I got into the valley’s pine- and juniper-crested main thoroughfare, clouds were darkening overhead.

The remains of a lookout along Highway 141, paralleling the San Miguel River.CreditCaine Delacy for The New York Times

Nearing Unaweep Divide, the topmost point of the valley (elevation: 7,048 feet), I passed a rambling farmhouse with a burned-out tractor in the yard. Dogs barked at me periodically through the cottonwood trees. The road was smooth, and relatively flat. At one point, I stopped near a pond where a family of horses stood statuesque in the knee-high grass. As I munched an apple admiring the scene, a raindrop fell on my knee; then I felt another on the back of my neck.

The sky was getting ready to open, and I still had another 30 miles to go. The valley lay completely exposed, with no chance of shelter, or an escape route. Joe caught up with me near the horse pond, but I coolly waved him on, either out of bravado or stupidity. And anyway — what choice did I have but to keep going?

At the same time, it was exhilarating to be alone under that marbled sky. The charged air sparked my endurance, and even though my hands hurt, my rear end hurt, my thighs hurt (everything hurt), I could feel my resistance melt away.

Then the road pitched down, and rain started to pour from the sky in sheets. At the same moment, a thick border of maple and cottonwood trees sprung up along the edge of the road, offering a protective tunnel of leaves as I began hurtling toward the bottom half of the canyon.

At one point, a bearded gentleman in his 50s whizzed by me in a bright red rain jacket: “Just two crazy guys riding in the rain!” he yelled back at me and continued on.

The sparse, unaltered landscape of Unaweep Canyon, said to be roughly 1.5 billion years old, has long been a source of fascination for geologists. CreditCaine Delacy for The New York Times

In the freezing air (the temperature had dropped significantly since the rain started), my knuckles were bluish white around the handlebars. And, yet, I had to admit, this was fun. I’d wanted everything to be perfect on day one — the scenery, the trail, my travel companion, the weather. Instead, the wild unpredictability of the backcountry — of life — was asserting itself in the best possible way.

As the rain touched the earth, it unleashed a strange panoply of smells: sweet sage, cinnamon, tree sap, wet rock and an herbal, hay-like scent, all rose up from the underbrush. Picking up speed, I yelled freely at the trees. Every part of me was soaked. In the tumult of the half-storm, I found myself totally opened up and alive.

Pulling off Highway 141 that first afternoon, we rode down a long driveway of red dirt that led to the other side of a lush green meadow. There, in the flickering shade of some cottonwood trees, sat the hut. It was small, about the size of two garden sheds, and painted pink. There was no shower, but the outhouse (also pink) had an interesting setup. Built at the top of a staircase, and enclosed by large screened windows, the open-air toilet almost had the feel of a treehouse.

The meadow surrounding the hut ran up to the base of a thousand foot-tall red rock pyramid — Colorado’s version of a skyscraper — which dominated the whole landscape. There was a rushing creek, too. Before dinner (fusilli pasta with red sauce and some black olives and tuna), Joe and I wandered over and stared for a while at the swirling green-brown eddy, as if mesmerized. I left my shoes and bike shorts there, thoroughly soaked from the day, to dry off in the setting sun.

The weather in this part of Colorado can be brutally unpredictable.CreditCaine Delacy for The New York Times

In the Bikers Bible, a 28-page document emailed to travelers after the booking is made (in it, there are instructions on everything from what clothes to pack to how to use the propane tank), smartphones are discouraged, out of respect for other “hut mates” who might be seeking an escape. We didn’t encounter another soul during our stay, but in such an awe-inspiring place, the thought of checking my email or texts never even crossed my mind.

When I woke up in the middle of the night, responding to the call of nature, I strapped on my headlamp, stumbled outside, and then promptly switched it off. Above me, the stars were as crisp and detailed as the lights on a pinball machine. I stood there in a trance for what felt like half an hour, before recalling the real reason I’d come out, and then crawling back inside to bed.

The next morning, after departing the tiny town of Gateway, the road opened up into a vast avenue of towering sandstone cliffs and scorching red earth — “road runner country,” as the locals call it.

Parts of the route follow the Dolores River, a tributary of the Colorado. The water, which was recently melted snow, was absolutely frigid. Still, that didn’t stop Joe and me from tearing off our clothes when we came to a suitable pull-off, and wading in for a refreshing, albeit icy, dip. A few trucks roared by on the highway beside us, but mostly the traffic was nonexistent.

Driggs Mansion and Thimble Rock. CreditCaine Delacy for The New York Times

The next part got tricky, however. Having planned to reconvene at an overlook 15 miles ahead, I was left on my own to begin the arduous climb up from the river. By that point it was the middle of the afternoon — and it was hot. With the sun beating down, each new bend in the road made a fresh demand on my poor quadriceps and knee joints. I felt like I was barely keeping up.

The road rose up and wrapped along the edge of a massive red rock wall, which was candy-striped from centuries of water drippage. To my left, a rounded cliff with a hole carved out looked just like the head of a whale, and its kindly expression seemed to say: “You’re going to be fine.” Was I hallucinating from the heat? Hard to say. Either way, the spectral cetacean’s words had a calming effect, and I continued biking until, just past a lookout point over the zigzagging Dolores, the road finally started to slope downhill. What goes up must come down.

The day’s excitement was not over, though. After crossing an abandoned bridge over the San Miguel River, I descended into a narrow slot canyon filled, to my surprise, with grazing cows. Whenever I rode past them, they would take off running. The closer I got, the faster they ran. Suddenly, I was a cowboy, trailing a herd of panicked calves along the rocky river banks until I was finally able to pass.

Eventually, I emerged at the edge of an arid wasteland, spat out the other end of the wrinkled, sky-reaching mesas. I needed a refreshment, and luckily, 10 miles ahead, there was the Bedrock Store, where Joe was waiting, reading a paperback copy of Steinbeck’s “The Pastures of Heaven.” Like a time capsule from the 1910s, this roadside depot had creaky floorboards and soda in glass bottles. (The storefront was used as a filming location for “Thelma & Louise.”) My friend and I sat on the porch and devoured a bag of chips while a Bichon Frise named Ziggy curled up in my lap.

Greeting the sun as it begins its morning rise over Paradox Valley.CreditCaine Delacy for The New York Times

What’s impossible to control, especially in a high-altitude place like Colorado, is the weather. On Day 3, After successfully climbing 1,000 feet out of Paradox Valley, I hurtled down Highway 90, euphoric to finally arrive at the Colorado-Utah state line. We posed by the “Welcome to Colorado” sign and snacked on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches we’d made at the hut that morning.

Then, I got back on my bike, headed up Highway 46, and had a sense of foreboding as soon as I hit the saddle. The temperature was quickly dropping, the sky was leaden, and ahead of me was a nine-mile ascent, in the cold, with the likelihood of a storm breaking right over me.

Joe pulled up 50 yards ahead, and when I rode up, he lowered the window and stuck his head out. “Well?” he asked halfheartedly, nodding toward the back seat. Begrudgingly, I packed up my bike and got in the car.

It’s a bittersweet feeling to give up when you know your goal is unattainable. With a little more training, or some sunshine, I felt I could have tackled this final haul into Utah.

On the plus side, I knew I’d made the right decision. As we began to drive, now in the warm safety of Joe’s car, the road took a ruthless pitch up the back of La Sal Mountain, easily the steepest road I’d encountered so far. The curves were sharp, the shoulder was narrow, and most noticeably the rain was coming down hard.

Toward the crest, as we neared the 8,000 foot mark, still 20 miles from Moab, the view suddenly widened, and across some meadows we could follow the contour of Mount La Sal, almost within reach, to where its peak was wreathed in white wispy cloud.

So near and yet so far.

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