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A Family Mountain Bike Expedition on the White Rim Trail

The legendary Canyonlands National Park mining road is bucket-list ride
Family Mountain Bike Adventure

“We’ve only gone five miles?!?” Anthony sighed and collapsed on a slab of red rock. Beyond him, a flurry of orange dust blew up and then disappeared over the edge of a rocky abyss.

I nodded with sympathy. On this, the first afternoon of a three-day mountain bike expedition, our group was already sapped of energy. What should have been an easy downhill cruise into the backcountry of Canyonlands National Park had become a battle against 30-miles-per-hour gusts. 

Day 1

Desert Squall to the North Star

Our wind-blown crew consisted of three generations of family and a single support vehicle. Jammed in the back of the truck was gear for eight people including the least likely members of the expedition: my 70-year-old dad and 4-year-old son. Falling somewhere between those outliers were my mom, husband, sister, two of her best friends, Shohaj and Anthony, and me.

Despite the differences in age and ability (and the maddening squall), we all fell into a comfortable rhythm as the afternoon wore on. My husband toted the little one, singing songs that drifted off into the wind. My mom and sister chatted insistently, as they always do. As for myself, I rode a bit ahead, enjoying the sense of solitude and the escape from city life.

Jammed in the back of the truck was gear for eight people including the least likely members of the expedition: my 70-year-old dad and 4-year-old son.

Some of us had explored the White Rim Trail before; for others, this was a new bike riding experience. Many visitors traverse the 100-mile rugged dirt road through Canyonlands National Park's Island in the Sky in high-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicles, but adventurers wanting a more challenging experience can tackle the route on mountain bikes. Hardcore athletes do it in a day; we did it in three.

Having survived the wind, we arrived at Gooseberry camping area and settled down for our first night in the backcountry. The sky turned pink, then red, and finally black as the clouds blew past and the stars emerged. Far from any city lights, grandfather and grandson huddled together. They marveled at the North Star, the Big Dipper, the satellites whizzing past. We crawled into our sleeping bags, exhausted but happy.

Meal on the Mountain Biking Trail

Day 2

Scenery Unfolds and Waves of Emotions

As we emerged on the morning of Day Two, the wind had disappeared. Stillness descended on our group, and we struggled to motivate ourselves to break camp. The only person with energy to spare was my little boy who searched for “dinosaur teeth” — small, smooth white rocks. In this prehistoric looking land, it was easy to let the imagination wander, to envision life before civilization as we know it.

Dinosaur teeth stealthily returned to the land, we shrugged off our lethargy and set off for another day of pedaling. Although many mountain bikers might turn up their noses at riding a dirt road for three days, the White Rim provides both an athletic challenge and a technical one. Over the length of the route, we climbed granny-gear switchbacks and descended steep step-like slickrock. At other times, the double-track was mild, providing an easy cruise for a young child and ample opportunity for the rest of us to soak in the great views.

Indeed, it was the landscape that made this a bucket-list trip. Each turn in the road revealed something new: rugged rock arches, the meandering waters of the Colorado and Green rivers, sprawling blue skies. At times exotic, and always expansive, the scenery provoked a range of emotion: fear, awe, peace.

At times exotic, and always expansive, the scenery provoked a range of emotion: fear, awe, peace.

On the afternoon of the second day we encountered Murphy’s Hogback, a challenging mountain pass that added to the trip’s whirlwind of emotions. I slogged up the steep climb, first in my granny-gear and then, in defeat, on foot. If the climb up generated sweat and tears, the descent over the other side produced giddiness. The rowdy and technical descent left us hooting and hollering as we flew off rocky drops and cornered tight switchbacks. Back in the support vehicle, Shohaj white-knuckled the exposed slope. By the time we reconvened on the flats below, he was smiling like a wild man, adrenaline coursing through his veins.

A few hours of pedaling later, we arrived at our final camp along the banks of the Green River. Potato Bottom Campground provided a green oasis in the midst of a red and dry desert. The kiddo scaled a cottonwood in the middle of camp; the rest of us lounged in its shade and enjoyed our hard-earned drinks.

Backcountry of Canyonlands National Park

Day 3

Quiet Life in the Backcountry

On the third day, our last in the Island in the Sky, we rode a little slower and took a few more breaks along the trail than the previous days. Nobody was in a hurry to get back to civilization. Life in the backcountry of Canyonlands NP is simple, quiet, and peaceful. There is nothing to do but bike and eat and enjoy the company of one another.

At the top of the Mineral Bottom switchbacks — the last big challenge of our mountain biking trip — we threw our bikes aside and high-fived. From old to young, the sense of accomplishment was huge. We had pedaled 100 miles; but more importantly, we had experienced nature through the eyes of a preschooler, pushed our bodies to their limits, and checked one off that good ol’ bucket list.

Begin planning your mountain biking trails Utah trip with these 6 Steps to a Family MTB Trip on Canyonlands' White Rim

Kristen Bonkoski

Kristen Bonkoski is an avid mountain biker and adventure-lover who shares her escapades in words and photos.  Her work has appeared in The Huffington Post, Singletracks.com, and VisitIdaho.org among other publications.  She spends all her free time mountain biking with her husband and son in Salt Lake City, Utah, and blogs about it at RascalRides.com and RascalsOnTheRoad.com.

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Pro Tips

  • Reservations and permits are tough to get. Pick out the dates and camp spots you want, and then pick an alternate plan B. Log in to the reservation system at exactly midnight on the day four months prior to the dates that you want. 
  • During inclement weather and high water periods, certain sections of the road may be impassible. Check with the park service a few days before your trip to ensure that the route is good-to-go. 
  • Cell phone reception is limited or non-existent. Plan on either sticking together with your group, or bringing along walkie-talkies to communicate.