When routeplanning from afar– via internet and memory from Ukraine– riding Kokopelli’s Trail across the state line from Colorado to Utah stood out as a good starting point. In such wide open country with so many roads, routes and trails, a signed and mapped route such as this is a blessing. It builds confidence in the kind of riding found in the area to be able to follow a popular route for a bit. It reminds us how to carry four days of food and as much as 8 liters of water apiece. We’re a long way from Ukraine, Poland, Slovakia, Czech, Germany, Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands– it has been a good summer. For me, autumn in the cool dry air of the mountainous west is the capstone to a third consecutive summer. Sleeping under starry skies under a frosty tent amongst juniper and sage and aspen is starting to feel like home.
Kokopelli’s Trail, officially arranged by the BLM as a bicycling route from Fruita, CO to Moab, UT measures about 142mi in length. Several distinct sections exist: a dozen miles of singletrack trails leave Fruita, miles of high desert dirt roads with brief interruption of rougher jeep tracks fit in the middle, and a push up and over the LaSal mountains to Moab finishes the route in the E-W direction. The final section contains most of the climbing of the entire route, with several-thousand foot ascents and descents, along the canyons and ridges of the LaSal range. The middle portion, on the high desert plains, is subject to becoming quite sticky following precipitation, due to a high content of clay in the soil. Otherwise, it is fast and fun Divide-style riding The first miles out of Fruita are sublime, especially when consider as part of a longer-distance touring route.
For experienced mountain bikers, the concept of carrying supplies over several days may be a challenge, with great reward. For the experienced cycletourist accustomed to ‘roads’, the riding will likely be the challenge, a step up from the open roads of the Divide, for example. The scenery, for all, is unbeatable. For us, it is a happy welcome back to the country.
Our ride begins at nightfall. Within several miles, rain showers and precipitous cliffs send us dashing into our tent, illegally camping along the local singletrack circuit. At dawn, we quickly pack up to begin riding some of the most beautiful singletrack we’ve encountered. These trails are, let us not forget, central to the sport of mountain biking in the US. Nearby is Horsethief Bench, for instance.
Above the Colorado River.
Lael makes use of the backpack purchased in Ukraine. It has never been our intention to ride with a pack, but our hurried start left us with three full-sized bike magazines, part of a 12 oz. bottle of Stan’s sealant, about 16L of water, and four days of food. At the time, it was easier to load the pack with lightweight flotsam than to bother with framebag or saddlebag wizardry. We hate to admit, but a proper backpack could be a viable solution for someone looking to expand their capacity. It is much easier to accept a monkey on the back on a cold rainy day, than on a sweaty afternoon. There is something comforting about the extra layer on a cold morning. I still don’t think I could do it mid-summer.
With rain threatening, we keep an eye on our escape routes. We are aware of the tacky potential of western roads and trails.
However, the Fruita trail system is well designed and drained, mostly composed of rock and sand.
Except when we stray off route onto a jeep track, and push through clay until our bikes no longer roll. After a few minutes, we cover enough distance to make it apparent on my GPS that we have lost the route. I know exactly where we strayed.
A thick layer of mud coats our shoes.
Back on track, we enjoy a singletrack descent to clear our tires of clay.
Eventually, reaching a tributary of the Colorado River, we descend and cross a set of train tracks. With an eye on nearby 1-70, we consider the option of routing around potentially tacky roads ahead.
We break for lunch to reassess. Not much changes in this time– rain to the north, less menacing white clouds to the south. We continue.
Climbing away from the river, pushing as much as riding on some rocky trails, we reach open desert plains adjacent to I-70.
The roads we encounter are composed of sand and gravel, mostly, and make for fast riding. A tailwind reminds me that I also enjoy long days on open dirt roads– such as on the Divide. Chunky sections of trail have me dreaming of a Surly Krampus, but these roads lead my thoughts to a drop-bar Velo Orange Camargue.
I’ve been looking for a good piece of steel wire to repair my pot stand for my stove. Not much barbed wire in Ukraine, but plenty of extra in the US. This scrap will do nicely to repair my cook system.
All is well, until a change in elevation, through changing geology.
Dead in our tracks, no sooner than ten feet into this stuff! Unfortunately, once the bike doesn’t roll, it has become no easier to carry thanks to pounds and pounds of mud.
Looking forward to a 300ft ascent on sticky slippery clay, we heft our bikes into a nearby meadow for the night.
By morning, no rain has fallen. Clearer skies and some sun allow us to roll our bikes up the grade. At the top, we ride our bikes back and forth on dry, sandy dirt roads to release as much clay as possible. We clean and lube everything as best as possible, and ride on.
Lael has a new pair of tires. The rear, a 2.25″ On-One Smorgasbord looks like a cross between my Schwalbe Hans Dampf and the Nobby Nic she used this summer. The front, a 2.4″ Chunky Monkey is exactly as it sounds– chunky. Only sixty dollars for the pair–less than the price of one EXO Maxxis Ardent tire or a tubeless ready Schwalbe– this is an unbeatable price in a tire this size. The tires are constructed of thick rubber, making them suitable for use in rough country without fear of flimsy sidewalls. They set up tubeless without any troubles. I hope and expect that at $30 apiece, they are composed of an inexpensive, durable rubber. Funny how this works, but cheaper mountain bike tires often use longer-wearing rubber.
While Kokopelli is well signed, rock-cairns are user-maintained to help along the way. If nothing else, they add an element of discovery to the process.
A brief portion of pavement leads back down to the Colorado River.
We detour towards the Westwater Ranger Station in hope of finding fresh water. The river could be a water source, although it is a bit silty. However, the ranger station serves filtered water through an outdoor spigot. It is operational mid-October, even despite the government shutdown.
These facilities are mostly aimed at floaters and paddlers on the river. Campsites, pit toilets and fresh water are available.
Riding away across more open plains is a joy, even packed with as much water as we can carry. Almost all official resources state that there is “no water along the route”. This proved to be untrue more than a half-dozen times, although Westwater provided the only source that did not require treatment. A short 1.5 mi detour is nearly on the route, I say.
Loping near, but not next to the Colorado River, we encounter changing scenery and conditions.
Until at last, we are next to the river itself. One perfect campsite beckons, about it is an hour earlier than we have planned to camp.
A quick swim will suffice.
We encounter several curious fatbike tracks. Incidentally, some internet stalking had lead to these details an hour before starting our trip in Fruita. From Twitter:
Crossing the pavement. I guarantee that our byway is more scenic than this paved byway.
Just before camping for the night, we slither along slickrock until the trail become difficult to follow by natural light.
This is my favorite place to be this time of year.
Rounding the first corner in the morning puts our sights on a new goal– the LaSal Mountains. Moab is over and around those snowy peaks.
Sandy slickrock trails are made possible by Jeeps and other motorized users.
Here signage for bicycles and motorized vehicles coexist, not that you couldn’t piece together routes from all of these resources.
Back down to the Colorado, across highway 128 again. We could be in Moab this afternoon on the pavement, but that wouldn’t be as much fun.
Another swim, and another clean and lube at lunch before heading into the mountains. It is warm in the sun, and cool in the shade– just how I like it. Lael still talks about going to Mexico daily.
We expect a big climb to the top, and then a big descent into Moab. As we are mostly following trail signage and a GPS track on my tiny eTrex, we lose some of the perspective gained by a large-scale paper map. I overlook several thousand-foot descents and ascents while relaying upcoming trail info to Lael. Anymore, she doesn’t believe anything I say.
Another water source. Clear, with only a bit of grit and grime.
…and back down.
The erosional patterns in such a climate, though sedimentary rock, form deep canyons and ridges. Thus, the route climbs up and down several times before ascending over the mountains to Moab.
Recent rains leave more than just water in the streams.
From pavement, to roads that aren’t roads, Kokopelli is diverse. This looks more like a rockfall, included as part of the route, although Jeep tracks were founds all down the length. Needless to say, we carried our bikes. A proper mountain bike is a good choice.
Another night in the tent, which we are mostly using to stay warm. We love sleeping out under the stars in dry climates, although the tent retains 10-15 extra degrees. Our bags also stay dry and lofted throughout the night inside the tent.
Quickly, sun fades the memory of a cold night. This time of year, we are prepared with fleece gloves, long wool socks, and sleeping bag liners
Frozen fields at five or six thousand feet.
We encounter yet another water source listed on our GPS track near a remote campground. The water smells of sulfur, but looks clear. We picked up a USB-rechargeable Steripen Freedom in Denver. For now, we are putting faith into this little blue light. For reliable water treatment in the desert, I might still consider a physical filter, especially with an effective pre-filter for sediment.
Up toward the peaks, past six, seven, and eight thousand feet.
From here, we look back on the first few miles of riding this morning. A long circuitous route is often necessary in canyon country.
Nearing the top of the route, we enter aspen ablaze for the season, and some remnant snow from an early-season storm.
From the top of the route, we look forward to a big descent into Moab.
Around the corner, dirt turns to pavement. Surely, we didn’t climb all this way to descent into town on pavement?
Two thousand feet below, the routes turns up again, still on pavement. It climbs back to 8500ft, before turning onto dirt for the last time. Never underestimate the features in canyon country.
Turning onto a popular trail system outside of Moab is a treat. Now, we ascend to town, where pizza and beer, or some such delicacy, saves us from dining on the last of our peanut butter and pepper jack cheese for the night.
Moab is densely used by many. “Share the trail” is nearly as strongly encouraged as “Stay on the trail”. The desert is a fragile place.
Down into town by sunset.
Nearly, by sunset. Descending past BLM campgrounds into town, we ask about the possibility of finding a place to camp for the night. Wild camping is a challenge this close to town, and all the campsites are full due to the government shutdown and a popular Jeep Jamboree. A friendly government employee from Montana offers a place for the night in his campsite. It seems being let off from work for a few weeks has some perks.
For further information about the Kokopelli Trail, including a GPS file of the route, the Bikepacking.net website is an invaluable resource for numerous bikepacking routes. Thanks to Scott Morris, curator of the fine Bikepacking.net and Trackleaders.com websites as well as Topofusion mapping software, for helping with some last minute learning curves associated with Garmin software and my new eTrex 20 device. The GPS has become an essential tool for me, despite some initial frustrations. Check out Scott’s personal ride diary for a healthy dose of backcountry riding. His ride reports date back to 2003!
Headed south, looking forward to places like Lockhart Basin, Bridger Jack, Cottonwood Canyon, Needles, Beef Basin, Elephant Hill, and Arizona!