Leaving Las Vegas, NV for the AZT

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Post-Interbike exodus out of Las Vegas.  While everyone raced to the airport on Friday night and Saturday morning, we met friends Skyler and Panthea at the baggage claim, arriving from British Columbia.  We assemble bikes, eat on the sidewalk, and roll into the desert for the night.  The following day, after some additional preparations, we leave town on a series of paved roads, bike paths, and BLM dirt tracks.  Our search for dirt only lasts a day until the 100 degree heat pushes us onto pavement in search of St. George, Hurricane, Colorado City, Fredonia and the AZT.  

There are some options for dirt routes between Vegas and St. George, and most of the way to the AZT.  A month later in the season might make it easier.  Some of the riding between Vegas and St. George gets soft and sandy, less of an issue on Skyler’s 29+ Surly Krampus and Panthea’s Soma B-Side+.  Anyway, the heat rules the day.  We’re excited for the pines of the Kaibab Plateau and the cool nights up toward the North Rim of the Grand Canyon at over 8,000ft.  

Riding to the start gives us the opportunity to acclimate to the heat, to the elevation, and to riding loaded bikes again.  All but Lael require this transition.  Now that she is fully recovered from her second Divide ride, she’s ahead of all of us and still goes running every day (and jumping rope, and swimming when possible, and she does planks and push-ups in front of the grocery store when I’m inside).  We’ve downloaded GPS tracks for the actual AZT race route on Topofusion.com, and have printed map sections from the Arizona Trail Association website, as well as current water data from Fred Gaudet’s site.  Be sure to join the AZTA and donate!

Reassembling bikes at the airport with Skyler and Panthea, Lael prepares dinner on the sidewalk.

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Camping 10 miles from the strip, about 200 yards from the nearest house.

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Out of Vegas.

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I-15 Travel Plaza, slot machines, fireworks, cheap cigs, booze, and snacks.

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Skyler cut a sidewall on his Gravity Vidar tires before leaving the city.  His tube seems magnetically attracted to the steel wires which litter the roadside, remnants of worn truck tires.  Lael naps.

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Into St. George, over Old US 91.

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Southern Utah towns are real nice– well planned and maintained with nice public spaces.

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The best available tire option for Skyler is a 29×2.5″ Maxxis Minion DHF, a great tire for this part of the country, although not quite the volume he is accustomed to.  He’ll try these for a bit, then mount some of the new Surly 29×3.0″ Dirt Wizard tires in Flagstaff.  We selected the 60tpi tubeless ready Dirt Wizard for a more durable sidewall.  The two tires share a similar tread pattern, although different volume and casing construction.  He is using an Easton ARC rim with a 45mm internal width, about 50mm outside. 

I left Anchorage on undersized used tires, remnants left from repairs at The Bicycle Shop, and quickly realized my mistake.  I find some 29×2.4″ Maxxis Ardent EXO tires in St. George. 

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Near Hurricane, UT we reconnect with Bill and Kathi Merchant, whom we first met at Interbike a few days prior.  Bill and Kathi have organized the Iditarod Trail Invitational since the early 2000’s and have hosted both a 350 mile race to McGrath and a 1000 mile race to Nome every year.  Bill and Kathi have lived outdoors for years in the Arctic, in the Southwest, and elsewhere.  

Kathi is currently organizing a Fatbike Expo to precede the start of the Iditarod Trail Invitational this spring in Alaska.  The Fatbike Expo will take place in Anchorage with an indoor exhibition at the Egan Center as well as a series of rides and other events.  Look for the Big Fat Ride which will include hundreds, perhaps even a thousand fat bikers riding together through Anchorage’s wide groomed trails.  The Fatbike Exop and the start of the ITI would be a perfect time to visit Anchorage.  Come enjoy local groomed trails and winter singletrack, check out the first miles of the Iditarod course, and if conditions allow, you can even ride to the Knik Glacier or over Resurrection Pass!

The Fatbike Expo happens February 26-28 in Anchorage and the ITI takes off on Sunday 2/28.

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Virgin River.

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Rockville, UT, just outside of Zion National Park.

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More soon on my new pink Meriwether frame and the RockShox Pike fork.  

Lael and I are each carrying standard mid-size backpacks on our handlebars.  It is legal to possess and transport a bike through the Grand Canyon, so long as the wheels don’t touch the ground.  Alternate routes around the canyon are long and complicated, and shuttling bikes and equipment is expensive.  When given the option of a 190mi paved detour and a 25 miles hike– with our bikes on our backs– we packed backpacks.  I’ve carried mine since Vegas, which I brought from Alaska.  Lael is borrowing one from Bill and Kathi, which we will return via mail from Flagstaff.

Okay, the paint is incredible, the details of the frame are nearly flawless, and of course, it fits like a glove.  More from Flagstaff once the bike has a few trail miles under its tires.  

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Green salsa and shade.  

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Lael and I have been joking a lot about the Tour Divide, mostly because I can’t keep up with her.

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Riding and pushing out of Rockville, we connect with a dirt route for a place to camp and to avoid the narrow paved climb out of Hurricane.

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Sleeping at the edge of a cliff, Lael calls this “Hollywood desert”.  The dirt is good, most of the plants are friendly, and there is shade when needed.

The forecast looks good for weeks and we’ve sent our tent ahead.  I’m sleeping on a 99¢ sunshade and Lael is using her XS Thermarest Prolite which she used on her two prologue rides this summer.  Nights are warm and dry.

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With a moment of sadness, we pass the turn to Gooseberry Mesa, a famous mountain bike trail system.  The day will soon be too hot and we continue on toward the cool pines of the Kaibab Plateau.

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Dead rattler.

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Off to Arizona and the AZT.  Flagstaff in a week.

Hope to catch up with James and Deja, Cosmic Ray, Stefan, Joe M., Nick from Rogue Panda, and anyone else in the area.

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To the Grand Canyon; to the AZT!

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In a summer full of planes, trains, and bikepacking routes of all kinds across Europe, our melange of southwest adventures thickens the summer’s stew.  Forced down from the mountains onto a circuitous paved route, we shoot straightaway to the south rim of the Grand Canyon.  From here, we hope to connect to the Arizona Trail (AZT), and the bevy of bikepacking routes between the Canyon and the Mexican border.  From initial routefinding missions online, I am coming to realize that the state of Arizona may be the single greatest resource for documented bikepacking routes in the country.  Paired with spectacular scenery and four-season riding, this place is a veritable bikepacking mecca.  We’re excited, and the GPS is brimming with route options.

As we ride around the southern portion of the Manti-LaSal National Forest, storms are still brewing up high.

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From one hardworking town to another, Utah is a unique slice of America.  Sailing on a reservoir at 6000ft in Utah in late October is one of many local curiosities.  Also home to the Great Salt Lake, unusual canyons and rock formations, and a national park called Zion, Utah is more than just a mecca for hikers, bikers, and Jeep enthusiasts.  More than any other state, this is Mormon country.

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The town of Blanding was established by Mormons escaping a threatened existence in northern Mexico, around 1910.

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No bars in town, but a one-room theater and a bowling alley stay busy as a result.  As Mormons don;t drink caffeine or alcohol, Utah is famous for beer with a maximum limit of 3.2% ABV, which may be part of the reason that Hayduke can safely operate a motor vehicle while knocking back brews.

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The local bank makes you want to don a bandana and ask for a bag of cash, politely waving a pistol.  

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And ride into the night.

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Road touring in Utah is a pleasure.  As almost anywhere in America, there are scenic rural highways to discover, with little traffic.  Finding these routes isn’t hard: don’t choose the shortest route, be willing to climb a bit, and always choose the road that cuts through the green shaded region on the map.  Around here, BLM land is more common than US Forest Service property– the former characterized by arid spaces, the latter, by shady woodlands.  Forest Service property is officially called ‘the land of many uses”, including timber harvest and hunting; BLM property is unofficially referred to as ‘the land of every use”, from oil, gas and mineral exploration, to hunting, off-road vehicle recreation, and camping.

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Through Comb Ridge on paved Highway 95.

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Down to Comb Wash Road, below.

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For a convenient 18 mile detour from pavement, along a sandy road just below the comb-shaped ridge.  

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Fatbiking trick #1: When in doubt, let air out.  Washing through soft sandy sections, we let our pressures down to about 15psi to float over the sand.  Incidentally, we find that the corrugations are more comfortable as well, and we’re actually traveling faster, with greater ease, at lower pressures.  My 2.35″ Schwalbe Hans Dampf is especially wide at low pressures, as the broad side knobs find a footing.  It might eb a good candidate for a 50mm Surly Rabbi Hole rim, or the new 45mm doublewall Velocity Dually.

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Back onto pavement, through a town called Mexican Hat, across the San Juan River, and onto the Navajo Reservation.  This is the landscape of Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner; properly, the land of the Navajo; and seasonally, lots of tourists.

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Life has changed rapidly for the Navajo over the past 200 years.  Currently, employment rates are low, jobs are scarce, and people are getting by.  Some Navajo still practice traditional ways– sheep herding is a traditional lifestyle.  Not much else grows out here.

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Monument Valley, on the reservation, is best known as the film location for some early Hollywood westerns.  Visitors flock to the region.  The government shutdown that recently closed the area’s national parks was kind to this region, increasing tourism dramatically.

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Handmade goods, such as jewelry, are frequently offered on the roadside, in season.  We’ve missed the season by a few weeks.

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The stillness of such a wide open space can be frighteningly beautiful.

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But the potential for windstorms across such open land is great.  Headwinds are the bane of the road touring cyclist.  This is something we had almost forgotten entirely, as much of our time is spent off-pavement these days.  On dirt tracks: routes are infrequently drawn in a straight line, there is often cover from vegetation, and one travels much more slowly.  Headwinds are like a never-ending hill, without a descent on the other side.   

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Lael’s solution in such a moment, as tourists blast past in rented RV’s, is to stick out a thumb.  We know YOU are going to the Grand Canyon.  So are we!  Great, let’s carpool.  In a series of three rides– with a Navajo leader, a Bostonian cowboy and wet-plate photographer, and a Baptist preacher from a town called Tuba City– we arrive inside the gates of Grand Canyon National Park, avoiding several days of riding into intense winds. The experience would have been valuable, but tiring. We’d rather spend the last weeks of the season amidst ponderosa pine on the Arizona Trail, if possible.

En route to the Canyon, we stock up in a grocery store on the reservation.  Spam is offered at Navajo eateries, of which there are few.

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Corn flour, and more recently, wheat flour, are used in both tortillas and breads.  

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Rendered porkfat, or lard, is also common.  I suspect tortillas and lard mark an influence from Mexico.  Spam, of course, is all American.  

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The area was once home to numerous Uranium mines.  Kayenta is currently booming thanks to a coal mine.  I’ve seen a similar sign in Grants, NM, along the Great Divide Route.

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Riding some of the final miles toward the Kaibab National Forest, still on the reservation, we seek shelter form the wind for the night above the canyon of the Little Colorado River, upstream of the Grand Canyon.  An unused shepherd’s cabin will suffice as a primary windblock.

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With no signs of recent use– no trash, no lock on the door, no beer cans or bottles– we set up our tent inside.  Even still, it is a windy night.

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Inside the park, we spot our first signs of the Arizona Trail.  The trail runs over 700 miles from the Utah border south to the Mexican border, and is in the final stages of completion and refinement.  It traverses the Grand Canyon.  On foot, this would be a prized section.  To the dedicated thru–biker or racer, it is possible to carry the bike through the canyon.  The bike must be disassembled, and the wheels must not touch the ground.  Dedicated purists have done it, such as Arizona locals and bikepacking superheroes Scott Morris and Kurt Refsnider, but it is not in the cards for us.  While there looks to be some nice riding north of the Canyon, it makes more sense for us to start our Arizonan adventures from the south rim.  Yes, there is a road detour around the canyon if you’d like, along mostly paved roads.  It is well over a hundred and fifty miles, to account for about 25 miles of walking trail between the north and south rim.

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On our first night at the Canyon, we run into our friend Wyatt from Albuquerque, who is working on a trail crew.  Another guy chases us down on a Surly LHT, with wide eyes and lots of questions.  Is your name James, by chance?  How is it that I know people I’ve never met, in a place I’ve never been, by the bicycles they ride.  James and Cass have traveled some of the trails that we wish to ride in the next few weeks. 

On our first night at the canyon, we camp in the backcountry with the Americorps trail crew.  We awake to snow.  Thanks to Wyatt and Kerri for inviting us to camp with them.  The campfire and company was essential on a cold night. 

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A propane stove in the morning is a treat.  Lael’s spindly fingers get cold easily.

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Pack up, and roll out to meet with James for coffee and routeplanning in the morning.  Of course, we bisect a herd of elk on a dirt road, on our way to a car-free paved road…

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…along the rim of the Grand Canyon!  Good morning Arizona.

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Over the next few days we’ll be riding the AZT from the Grand Canyon to Flagstaff, where we plan to meet Jeremy for a few days of riding.  You may remember Jeremy as the rider on the vintage mountain bike with a Wald basket, flying through the air at White Mesa, NM last fall.  More recently, he’s been touring and shredding trail on a Surly Necromancer Pugsley, which he picked up from Two Wheel Drive in ABQ while I was working there last winter.

From basin to range, Utah

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From the south end of the Lockhart Basin Road, I’d spotted a forest service route over the southern portion of the Manti-LasSal National Forest, connecting with Highway 95 down near the Arizona border.  Our expectations are for another day and half of cycling, up near 9,000ft, with a long descent to pavement down the other side.  With just enough food– and some good intel on water sources in the moutnains– it is a perfect plan.  But as we’ve learned over many years of cycling, especially in the wild places of the west, plans are meant to be broken.

Diving away from pavement of Highway 211, up the Bridger Jack/Beef Basin Road.  Continue onto FR 88/Elk Ridge Road, all the way over the mountains.  There are innumerable possible variations, but this is the simplest to navigate, with (most likely) the highest quality roads.

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Most signage around here is oriented to the hordes of climbers that stick to the canyon walls this time of year, like geckos soaking sunshine.  

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The west is still a bit wild.  Cattle still graze the highlands in summer, and someone has to call them home for the winter.  That’s what cowboys are for.

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We might have thought it was another decade up here, with the abundance of well-preserved cans along the road.  Clint Eastwood drinks Schlitz in the Dirty Harry movies.  As such, I’ve also had a soft spot for the stuff.  This one also has the patented SOFTOP lid– all of this is well before my time.

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In waning light, we climb towards 7,000ft.  Have I mentioned that this is my favorite time to ride?

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The dinner view– like the namesake formations of the nearby ‘Needles’ area of Canyonlands National Park.

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By morning, the light reverses itself, highlighting Cathedral Butte.  

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This will be one of the last nights in our Big Agnes Seehouse SL2 tent, which we’ve enjoyed through wind, snow, and rain over 5 years and about 700 nights.  Zippers are dying everywhere amongst our gear (not only on the tent), while the rainfly is torn from a midnight mishap.  While in the shop for repairs in Steamboat Springs, CO, Big Agnes has offered to send us a Fly Creek UL2, about a half-pound lighter than our current tent.  They’ve been great about repairing and replacing parts over the years, for a reasonable price.  In all this time, only the ground cloth remains from our original tent.  

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As we pack up and roll out, dark clouds are rolling in from the west.  Coming from across canyon country, they energize as they storm up the mountainside, rising 4000ft all at once.  These roads are no fun when wet.  Still, we hope for the best.  Our luck seems limitless.

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Looking out on Canyonlands National Park, the two air masses meet.  We are going the wrong direction.  Climbing, climbing, climbing…

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Until we can climb no more.  By now, we are all the way up the mountain, nearly half way to the pavement on the other side.  But it isn;t in the cards for today.  Unless we ware willing, or able, to carry our bikes for miles, the only choice is ride back the way we came. 

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Drink before thirsty, eat before hungry, says Velocio.  We’re already worked up an appetite.  A tortilla stuffed with cheese will hold us over until we ride out of the clouds, and out of the risk of tacky roads. 

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On the bright side, we look forward to a 3000+ft descent.  Lael picked up a new Revelate Feed Bag at Salvagetti’s in Denver, CO.  It mostly contains small portions of condiments stolen from gas stations, as apples.  Occasionally, it is filled with a liter of kefir, a habit she picked up in Ukraine.

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Out of the forest.

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Back amongst sage and ancient juniper, a herd of elk calling nearby, crossing the road a distance ahead.

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Down into the sun, where the memories of wet roads and rain are nearly forgotten.  From desert to forest, the weather also changes from 5000ft to 8500ft.  

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Finally, back near the road, we boil some water for coffee.  While filling up on clean water at reliable sources whenever possible, we either treat or boil a drink of surface water whenever we have the chance, to extend our range.  On an established route, it is common to know the distance to the next water source.  Without such information, it is a necessary habit to carry too much water.  Thankfully, water, like food, always gets lighter.

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The only choice now is a long paved route around the mountains.  There are worse places to be touring on the road.  Rural Utah is a treat, on or off pavement.

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Soon, a quick ride to the south rim of the Grand Canyon, then Flagstaff, Sedona, and beyond.  Anyone in AZ?  We are looking at riding some AZT, Cononino, Black Canyon, and whatever else we can find.  Route ideas?  Anyone want to ride?

Lockhart Basin Road, Utah

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Dirt touring routes south of Moab?  Surely, there are more than a few ways to figure it, but the Colorado River, Highway 191, and the LaSal Mountains make for some natural barriers.  Leaving town toward the south on the Lockhart Basin Road is an obvious choice.

The Lockhart Road is a Jeep track, or ORV route, one amongst a bevy of classic Moab routes.  Thankfully, all but the most technical of these rock-crawling Jeep routes are ideal for riding.  While the Lockhart Basin Route is signed as a “Most Difficult” route for motor vehicles, thanks to a few stair-step rock features scattered with boulders, the route is almost entirely rideable chunky doubletrack, with some fast dirt road riding in between.  From the center of Moab to Highway 211 at the south, the route requires one big day, or two leisurely days of riding.  Water is scarce– none is officially available on route– and even in cool October days, we were careful to watch our water consumption, choosing foods that do not require rehydration and sipping our bottles conservatively.  The total distance from Moab to Hwy 211 is about 60 miles, along some of the most scenic, accessible, legal riding we have found anywhere.  We left town with about 14L of water between the two of us.  If it sounds like the riding is getting better and better for us, that’s because it is.  Coming and going, via Moab, makes for some great riding.  

Thanks to Cass for the initial route recon, back in the fall of 2009.  That summer, he and I crossed paths for the first time at the Off the Chain Co-op in Anchorage, AK.  He visited our humble trailer along the banks of the Nenana River a few weeks later after riding south from Deadhorse.

Leaving Moab at dark, we shoot for some public land.  Camping in the west has spoiled us.

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We awake to the sounds of a small spring only several miles from Moab.  An early start is becoming more common, as food and water scarcity challenge us to keep moving at a healthy pace.

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Seemingly, it is 30 degrees in the shade, but 70 degrees in full sun.  Clear skies at 5000ft make October an excellent month to visit Utah.

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Our first climb reaches toward Hurrah Pass, less than 1000ft above.  Then, we drop down toward the Colorado River on the Lockhart Basin Road.

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Leaving the Kane Creek drainage, toward Chicken Corners.

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Up to Hurrah Pass.

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Since landing in Denver, I’ve done extensive work on our bicycles to get them back into top (well-used) condition.  Most notably, this includes new cables and housing, and some new drivetrain parts.  To replace worn chainrings on my crank, I ordered a new RaceFace Ride crank for about $100.  A new Shimano SLX derailleur was included to replace the uninspiring slop in the previous rear derailleur, which had been cobbled together from parts in New Mexico.  In haste, I ordered a newer 10sp SLX derailleur, which didn’t like my friction shifters and 8sp cassette and chain.  The system functioned, technically, although 10sp gear utilizes a different cable pull from the shifter (much like SRAM equipment), requiring a real big push of the thumb to access the climbing gears.  The eventual solution is a used $20 Shimano XT derailleur from Moab Classic Bike,  a hip little shop in a town obsessed with high-tech all-mountain machines.  The SLX unit is shipped home in a box with some other stuff.  The big ring — all 44 unnecessary teeth– is removed, in favor of: chainring to rock clearance, a shorter chain for crisper shifting, and a little less weight.  Works great, with less room for mud to hide when the trail gets thick.  For now, 32×22 rings up front, and an 11-32 8sp cassette in the rear.  That’s 16 gears!  

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The view from the top, near Hurrah Pass, looking down on Kane Creek.

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An unspectacular feat– the climb to Hurrah Pass is small change compared to the climbs on the Kokopelli Trail.

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The otherworldly vistas are unlike anywhere we’ve ever been, certainly a long way from Ukraine.  Note the broadly curving anticline, of the arch-like curvature of the sedimentary layers.

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This might be the best weather of the year.  Riding temperatures are perfect.  Nights are cool to cold, but we are well prepared for much colder weather. 

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Stick to the Lockhart Basin Road, as the route to Chicken Corkers cuts right, toward the Colorado River.

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This is where the trail gets tough.  Excepting these few pushes over chunky, rocky, boulder-filled slickrock canyons, the route is extremely rideable.  Just a few unrideable pushes in this section, before riding back onto something more like a ‘road’.

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A road in there somewhere…

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Rideable, once again.

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The route is easy to follow, especially as all two or three major junctions are signed– there aren’t too many places to get lost.  However, we were following a GPS track of the route, so navigation was a breeze.  A few rock cairns help locate the route along the way.

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The basin is a broad topographic low, adjacent to the Colorado River, characterized by canyons and valleys, and the resultant ridges and spires.  The route follows the edge of the canyon the entire way, hugging steep cliff walls for miles.

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While constantly undulating, the route hovers right around 4500ft.

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There is no shortage of chunky road to navigate, although most of it is fun to ride quite fast.  We’ve enjoyed these rides, like the Kokopelli Trail, that blend wide-open dirt roads and rough technical tracks.

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Shadows grow longer, for a memorable early-evening descent.

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Lael claims this might be her favorite ride ever!

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A six mile road leads down to the Colorado River, but to preserve our southward trajectory, we stick to the main road.  It looks like a worthwhile detour. 

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Ride until dark, camp, ride again.  Overland travel by bicycle in the west has a nice rhythm.

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Moments before dark, Lael laces up her shoes for a run.  Not a day passes that she doesn’t aim to go running, often for an hour or more.

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Sunset, and sunrise are worth a few moments of our time.  So are the stars, and the mornings, and afternoons, and evenings– never a bad time of day or night, this time of year.NicholasCarman0001 915

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In addition to rocky, chunky tracks, sandy washes are also best navigated on larger tires.  

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Back on Highway 211, we detour several miles to the west to pick up some water.  The Needles Outpost is a private facility near the entrance to Canyonlands National Park.  Water is available in gallon jugs for a price.  Free water is available inside the park, a few miles further, for a $5 entrance fee.  Riding east on Highway 211, you should encounter surface water in several places along Indian Creek, although cattle ranching in these parts mean a reliable purification or filtration system is necessary.  Not sure is these streams run dry mid-summer.  Water levels seem good this time of year, or perhaps just this year.  

At least the water is still cheaper than gas, which goes for $6.50 a gallon.  Edward Abbey, who was a park ranger in these parts, would be happy to see the price of fuel.  

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Continuing south, we have our eyes on Elk Ridge Road over the southern portion of the Manti-LaSal National Forest, which eventually connects to Highway 95.  From the end of the Lockhart Basin Road, the Needles Outpost is 4 miles west; the beginning of Beef Basin/Bridger Jack Mesa Roads (to Elk Ridge Road, FR 88) is about 8 miles east on Hwy 211, with a pit toilet and information board at the head of the road.  Monticello is about 45 miles from here.

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Lael devours the last few pages of her novel, Pretty Boy Floyd, by Larry McMurtry. to save weight in her pack.  She’s already carrying the replacement novel by Tom Robbins, purchased for 50 cents at the Moab Public Library.  She loves the Moab library.

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She leaves it on the message board at the head of Beef Basin/Bridger Jack Road, amongst notes from climbers and hunters.  The area is a very popular climbing destination.

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Into the mountains!

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Kokopelli’s Trail: Fruita, CO to Moab, UT

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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.     

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Above the Colorado River.

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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.

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With rain threatening, we keep an eye on our escape routes.  We are aware of the tacky potential of western roads and trails.

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However, the Fruita trail system is well designed and drained, mostly composed of rock and sand.

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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.  

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A thick layer of mud coats our shoes.

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Back on track, we enjoy a singletrack descent to clear our tires of clay.  

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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.  

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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.

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Climbing away from the river, pushing as much as riding on some rocky trails, we reach open desert plains adjacent to I-70.

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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

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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.

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All is well, until a change in elevation, through changing geology.

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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.

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Looking forward to a 300ft ascent on sticky slippery clay, we heft our bikes into a nearby meadow for the night.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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A brief portion of pavement leads back down to the Colorado River.  

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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.  

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These facilities are mostly aimed at floaters and paddlers on the river.  Campsites, pit toilets and fresh water are available.

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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.

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Loping near, but not next to the Colorado River, we encounter changing scenery and conditions.

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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.  

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A quick swim will suffice.

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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:

Back from WA and running shuttle for the Kokopelli Trail with Dave and Jonny!

 

I met Zachary by chance in Kremmling, CO last summer while riding the Divide Route, soon after he had bought his white Pugsley. I lent some Divide maps to him, and borrowed some local maps from him. Now I was following his tracks, as well as the tracks of two other fatbikers.

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Crossing the pavement.  I guarantee that our byway is more scenic than this paved byway.

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Just before camping for the night, we slither along slickrock until the trail become difficult to follow by natural light.

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This is my favorite place to be this time of year.

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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.

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Sandy slickrock trails are made possible by Jeeps and other motorized users.  

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Here signage for bicycles and motorized vehicles coexist, not that you couldn’t piece together routes from all of these resources.  

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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Another water source.  Clear, with only a bit of grit and grime.

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Up…

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…and back down.

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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.

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Recent rains leave more than just water in the streams.

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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.

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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.

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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

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Frozen fields at five or six thousand feet.

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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.

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Up toward the peaks, past six, seven, and eight thousand feet.

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From here, we look back on the first few miles of riding this morning.  A long circuitous route is often necessary in canyon country.

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Nearing the top of the route, we enter aspen ablaze for the season, and some remnant snow from an early-season storm.

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From the top of the route, we look forward to a big descent into Moab.

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Around the corner, dirt turns to pavement.  Surely, we didn’t climb all this way to descent into town on pavement?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Down into town by sunset.

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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.

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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!     

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Headed south, looking forward to places like Lockhart Basin, Bridger Jack, Cottonwood Canyon, Needles, Beef Basin, Elephant Hill, and Arizona!