Bikepacking through Time in the San Rafael Swell

On a bike trip in the San Rafael Swell, four women find desert blessings after bonding through unexpected challenges.

Written By Sofia Jaramillo

San Rafael Swell   |  Sofia Jaramillo

The sound of our bicycle cassettes tick faster as we ride down after the first climb of the day. I'm reminded again of the freedom of bikepacking. "Oh yeah, this is why I love this sport," I think. Our cell signals dropped hours ago, we're miles away from civilization here in southeastern Utah's San Rafael Swell, and we carry everything we need on our bikes. This is the type of adventure I've longed for, a trip that reminds us of our self-worth, resilience and how little we actually need to survive. 

It's my first time visiting the Utah desert, and I am mesmerized. Like a hug from a good friend, the warmth of the sun is immediately healing. The majestic scenery, solitude and warm color palette rejuvenate our souls. 

Going to the desert in the winter is an annual pilgrimage for those, like me, who choose to live in mountain towns. So when my good friend Franny Weikert invited me on a bikepacking trip with a few other women, I didn't hesitate. After a record-breaking snow year and months shoveling my driveway, I figured this trip would be the perfect escape. After figuring out a plan to travel safely, Franny, Torie Lindskog, Suzy Williams and I hit the road. It’s easy to social distance when we’re sleeping under the stars and biking in the open air. 

From Green River, we drive about an hour east to enter an area of the San Rafael Swell called The Reef. Our mission is to bikepack a 75-mile loop (although through a wrong turn, we find a shortcut that eliminates 25 miles off the route). Franny found the route — called "A Swell Night Out" — on and was immediately intrigued by all its offerings. (Read: "Three Utah Bikepacking Routes for Beginners to Intermediates")

We start our journey and leave our cars near Temple Mountain campground. We’re already stunned by what we see. Huge rock cliffs tower around the cars, pictographs are carved into rock high above us and Temple Mountain stands tall next to our campground. In the morning, the orange-and-white sandstone spire is lit up by the sunrise. 

It’s just the four of us for as far as our eyes can see, meandering through this rocky landscape formed nearly 300 million years ago. The guy at the bike shop back home suggested that women aren’t supposed to travel to the desert alone. With his condescending advice and doubtful comments, he said it without saying it — we weren't fit for this trip. 

There are no convenience stores, no public restrooms, no hotel beds and no water sources along this route. We’re carrying everything with us on this self-supported trip. The weight adds an additional challenge to the already strenuous uphill climbs. 

Building bike chains and bonds.

Photo: Sofia Jaramillo

Miles away from civilization in the San Rafael Swell.

Photo: Sofia Jaramillo

Facing Desert Challenges

Within the first seven miles, we’re faced with a problem. We’re biking along the base of towering cliffs when I hear a loud snap. I fall behind to investigate and yell ahead to the rest of the crew. "Uh, I think I broke my chain!"

My travel companions immediately stop, bike back toward me and swing into action. Although none of us have ever repaired a chain before, we aren't discouraged. Before our trip, Torie briefly studied a video. She takes charge and we assist however we can. Franny holds the chain in position, Torie cranks the tool and Suzie keeps the bike in place. With some elbow grease and creative thinking, we restore the chain and put it back on the bike. 

Excited about our success and our collective power, we gleefully high-five each other as we hop back on our bikes. The moment teaches us that, together, we can take on whatever the desert has in store. That bond strengthens throughout the ride. (Read: "Visions of Grandeur: Heaven and Hell on Two Wheels")

We pedal along The Reef, an impressive geological feature that’s an upthrust of a variety of sandstones from different periods. During the Permian Period (285 million years ago), this area was a dune-filled seashore. I imagine prehistoric birds flying high above, riding the ocean's warm air and gigantic coastal dunes.

But now The Reef is something much different: a desolate and beautifully unforgiving desert. An arid landscape of sagebrush and sparse juniper trees meets humongous sandstone cliffs. Birds have engraved holes, "huecos," in the sandstone, creating a sculpture-like pattern in the rocks. Gigantic boulders balance carefully on the steep slope where the stone meets the ground, creating the area’s only shade. Some rocks display perfect wave-like patterns from the wearing of time. A parade of Glove Mallow flowers line the path and swivel back and forth in the wind, as if they are cheering us on.

Sunset in the Swell.

Photo: Sofia Jaramillo

An abandoned homestead along the route.

Photo: Sofia Jaramillo

Where sagebrush and sparse juniper trees meets humongous sandstone cliffs.

Photo: Sofia Jaramillo

When Time Slows Down

We've met our goal for the day and decide it’s time to stop. It's 4 p.m., and the heat of the sun furiously beams down on us, slowing us down physically and mentally. The last few miles of downhill deceive us into thinking we have more energy. We pedal on, desperately searching for shade. The grade gets steeper and we quickly find a solitary tree — a perfectly sized juniper growing along a dried-up creek bed about a half-mile off the road. Below it, there is a rock-walled fire pit full of the remnants of charcoal and good times had by others. Sparrows and small finches sing songs in the bushes nearby. We lay our sleeping pads out, stretch a bit and drift off into an afternoon siesta. 

Time is lost and for the first time in weeks, we have absolutely nothing to do and nothing to worry about. No work. No texts to check. No phone calls to return. As if we are transported back to when we were children, we're free to be ourselves without the hindrance of responsibility. Our mission is simple: take in our surroundings and exist. Being out here together, we have everything we need.

Later that night, unable to sleep, I am distracted by the density of the star-filled sky. The bushes whisper to each other as the wind fights to move through their dried branches. The howl of coyotes echoes from a nearby canyon. There is an eerie feeling to this night, but laying aside these three strong women, I'm not afraid. 

Traveling with a group of women is a unique experience. We support each other without judgment. We are all in our pursuit of the same thing: to learn about ourselves and the outdoors. We are free of the social and cultural restraints of what we're supposed to be. We are strong and powerful. Like the coyotes I hear, we've become a pack of animals too, surviving and moving through the desert as a team. (Read: "Women in the Wild: Transformation and the Outdoors.")


Wild horses graze the Utah desert.

Photo: Sofia Jaramillo

Without Looking Back

In the morning, we hop on our bikes for the second-to-last day of our trip. We ride past an abandoned homestead with a small dilapidated shack and the skeleton of an automobile from the 1950s. The car is partially sunken into the ground, as if the desert floor is slowly swallowing it. The elements have transformed the old machine into a desert masterpiece of iron, blue and brown colors. 

The road is forgiving, with subtle ascent and descents. After a few steep climbs the day before, now we pedal along blissfully, content to get lost in our surroundings. Off in the distance, we can see towering rock sculptures and a massive canyon. Small red and yellow wildflowers grow in the sagebrush. On the side of the road, we start to notice animal prints and droppings and we wonder what else could be out here. 

We arrive at a turn and stop to take a break and look at the map. That’s when Torie realizes we are off-route. The turn we were supposed to take is actually about four miles behind us. We are faced with a dilemma; turn back or carry on this road that seems to be a shortcut. We decide to give in to the unknown and stick with the path we are on. We feel liberated as we let our original plans go and allow the universe to take control. 

Without looking back, we pedal along, and that’s when we start to notice hoof prints on the road. 

"Do you think it could be horses?" Franny asks. Susie has seen horses in this area before but explains that they’re a rare sight. 

Soon we are rewarded with our decision to stay on the path. We round a corner and come upon a sublime scene. A herd of wild horses grazes about a half-mile away from us. I take out my camera to get a closer look. The horses look up to investigate and skittishly turn away. The horses run across the horizon with a surreal backdrop of towering rock features, as if a desert painting has come alive before our eyes. The horses' brown, grey, white, pinto and black colors blur as they ride further into the distance. 

After the horses are gone, we contentedly hop back on our bikes and ride toward the end of our route. What we thought would just be a quick winter escape turned into a transformative trip. The desert's challenges and beauty bonded us in unforgettable ways. With each issue we faced, we formed deeper connections to each other and learned lessons of our collective strength. 

We pedal off into the distance with inspired hearts, empowered minds and an appreciation for the blessings of unplanned adventure.


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