Knobby Tired Nomads: Bikepacking the Utah High Country

Four days and 140 miles of unsupported backcountry adventure by mountain bike in Southwestern Utah.

Written By Kurt Gensheimer


We read stories about Grand View Trail, and they didn’t always end in superlatives of the landscape. Of course there were plenty of grand views, but somehow “Rugged Trail” or “Seldom Used Trail” doesn’t have quite the same romantic appeal. The first five miles of Grand View Trail were deceptively pleasant, especially for a bike loaded with 20 pounds of gear. The trail was cruisy, meandering through high desert terrain rich with the smell juniper trees and sage, flanked to our left by towering red rock cliffs. It was the perfect singletrack for bikepacking, but I’ve been on enough backcountry rides to know the easy going wouldn't last long. Visions of us pushing our bikes up steep, rutted, rocky and hoof-beaten trail soon turned into reality. (Read: "Visions of Grandeur: Heaven and Hell on Two Wheels")

But, as they say: “Adventure begins where certainty ends.”

The concept of adventure is lost in the modern world; folks are too focused on their busy lives instead of getting lost in the great outdoors. The excuses range from “I don't have time” to “I can't afford a vacation,” but excuses are like sweaty armpits, especially when your backyard is the state of Utah. So when professional mountain biker Eric Porter asked if I wanted to explore southwestern Utah with him on a four-day bikepacking trip, I said yes before he could even complete the question.

The nice 140-mile loop he selected covered some of the best backcountry terrain Utah has to offer. Navigating both the Markagunt and Paunsaugunt plateaus, the route's literal high point started near Brian Head on Sidney Peaks Trail at a dizzying 11,000 feet elevation. After descending Left Fork Bunker Creek to Panguitch Lake, the route continued to Thunder Mountain, south on Grand View Trail atop the majestic Sunset Cliffs, finishing at Navajo Lake via the iconic Virgin River Rim Trail. At least that was the plan. But since this was a proper adventure, nothing was for certain.

The Wind at Our Backs

Eric and I spent a half-day in Brian Head with check off gear lists, sorting and packing our gear; everything we needed for four days would be on our backs and bikes. And thanks to innovations in lightweight camping gear, clothing and the modern trail bike, pulling off a four-day bikepacking adventure has never been more attainable and comfortable. We used lighter-weight bike-mounted bags instead of the traditional touring cyclist setup of a rack and panniers. (Read: "How to Bikepack: Pro Tips for Planning a Multi-day Backcountry Ride")

Although the sun was shining when we hit Sidney Peaks Trail early the following morning, the wind was chilling; but not as chilling as the sound of creaking spruce trees above our heads. The high elevation Markagunt Plateau is a harsh environment, ravaged by years of erosion, volcanism and even glaciers. But the latest ravage can be attributed to the spruce bark beetle, leaving what looks like stands of toothpicks.

The toothpicks swayed in the ripping winds as we rode along what felt like the top of the world, looking down on Parowan more than 5,000 vertical feet below. We took Left Fork Bunker Creek off the ridge, escaped the winds and began a 3,000 vertical foot, mildly technical and fun singletrack descent to Panguitch Lake that served as a good shakedown for our bags.

At the bottom, aside from a few loose straps, everything was still secure; the loaded bikes navigated Bunker Creek well. The long and low hanging saddle bag only allowed a small amount of dropper post movement without rubbing the rear tire under suspension compression, but the overall added weight made an improvement in traction and rolling speed. Although it took a few miles to adjust, Eric and I jammed the remaining descent, having more fun than I anticipated riding on a bike loaded with bags could be.

The winds greeted us again, but at least it was a massive tailwind for the next 25 miles all the way to Thunder Mountain trailhead. We rode Forest Service Road 070 towards the town of Hatch amidst views of the majestic red rock Sunset Cliffs as well as a galloping herd of antelope. Our first day totaled 40 miles, and thanks to it being almost all downhill with a robust tailwind, one of the easiest 40 miles of my life. But numerous uncertainties lay ahead, including Grand View Trail, and we were mentally prepared for a tough couple days.

The wind ripped through the trees while setting up camp near Thunder Mountain that evening, but we found a protected pocket behind a ridge to pitch our tent. It was an eerie yet comforting sensation laying inside a calm nylon shelter as winds howled far above us, lulling us to sleep.

The next morning we stashed our bags and rode the 14-mile Thunder Mountain loop unloaded, allowing us to fully enjoy one of my all-time favorite trails. Not only did Thunder Mountain have otherworldly terrain running along knife edge ridges overlooking gorgeous red rock hoodoos, but the trail even without the views was also worth riding. The start was a gently undulating and flowing singletrack, but halfway through the trail became rockier, steeper and more technical. Even more impressive was how the trail alignment negotiated some rugged cliffside terrain, a testament to the skill and imagination of the trail builders.

After finishing Thunder Mountain, we refueled, strapped on our bags and headed south into the unknown on Grand View Trail. My hunch about Grand View came to fruition after the first five pleasant, cruisy miles. South of Proctor Canyon, the trail suddenly turned primitive, with numerous hike-a-bikes (where you hike while carrying your bike over terrain too rough to ride) followed by downhills ripened by a treacherous mix of loose sand and even looser rocks that required every fiber of skill and focus. Definitely not an ideal trail for bikepacking, but by this point, we were committed.

After yet another uphill hike-a-bike relegating us to only a couple miles per hour, darkness quickly set in. We were low on water, low on energy and weren't sure where to pitch camp. The canyon we were pushing up was narrow and steep. Not only was there not a flat spot to be found, but the drainage we hiked along looked like it had just flash flooded a few weeks prior. Not a good place hang around, so we pushed onward and upward hoping for a better stopping point. Purely by luck and serendipitous timing we arrived at a functional spring right at dark, the perfect place for the night. After nearly 30 miles of riding, half of it quite strenuous, we were more than ready for dinner.

Pleasant winter camping temperatures down south.

Photo: Scott Markewitz

Lighter means faster.

Photo: Scott Markewitz

Turning Calories into Propulsion

Cuisine on a bikepacking trip is more about stuffing your face with calories than it is about taste. Anything tastes good when you're ravenous. You savor every bite and make it last. Breakfast was oatmeal and dried fruit with a cup of coffee, lunch was tuna and cheese with tortillas and dinner consisted of tasty Good to Go dehydrated meals. Add in some Clif Bar goodies, jerky, chocolate and amazing Sopressata sausage from Creminelli, we had ample food for four days. We were still burning more calories than we took in, requiring metered efforts on the bike as well as refraining from pigging out just because our stomachs didn't feel full.​

“Oh man, as soon as we get done I'm gonna eat the biggest cheeseburger ever,” said Eric as we sat by the campfire inhaling our dinner from a pouch. “Maybe I'll have a couple.”

Two days in is when talk about food at the end of the ride starts happening. It's a great motivator, but also a great tease. As good as the dinner from a pouch tasted, at that moment, the thought of a cheeseburger made my mouth water. And when someone is eating something that you forgot to pack, you have instant envious regret. I neglected to bring little tuna packets, and although I don't usually crave tuna, if your mate is eating tuna, you instantly want tuna. I should have packed tuna.

Good Decisions Reap Rewards

The third day was by far the most difficult, but it was also the most memorable because it was start-to-finish filled with uncertainty. After a couple rugged downhills and a few hike-a-bikes, we looked closely at the map to see what lay ahead on Grand View. From reading the topo lines, the trail undulated in and out of canyons, so instead of repeatedly losing elevation, we stayed high on an ATV road.

Staying high proved to be wise; we were rewarded with incredible views and a towering cliffside lunch stop. We also discovered something that isn't totally apparent when bikepacking; whenever you can climb on an improved jeep road instead of singletrack, do it. Jeep roads are usually less rocky and steep and offer more than one line, whereas on singletrack, the combination of steepness, narrowness and rockiness limits line options, and when you're humping 20 pounds of gear, options are good.

The highlight of the day, and for me the entire trip, was discovering Pole Canyon Trail. Our original plan was to ride Grand View 30 miles south from Thunder Mountain, but we were behind schedule and located a singletrack off the ridge 10 miles short of our goal. We came to yet another majestic red rock precipice and looked off the edge, wondering where a trail could be in this impossibly steep terrain.

After 20 minutes of hunting, I noticed a faint track running over a knoll and found a blazed trail marker in a tree, indicating the trail. Much to our surprise, Pole Canyon was two miles of outstanding narrow and fast singletrack descending into a gorgeous, deep canyon lined with aspens. Pole Canyon completely exceeded our expectations, and after a long and tiring day, the stoke was high.

Day three was important because we made good decisions. Maintaining elevation and not giving up in our quest to find Pole Canyon saved us valuable energy and time, rewarding us with an incredible downhill payoff. Being able to read topo maps and make good group decisions was crucial in our adventure, because bad decisions in the backcountry have big consequences. Parts of Utah's backcountry have surprisingly good cell reception though, which could help matters in the event of an emergency. We camped that evening at the foot of the Sunset Cliffs with sweeping picture-perfect views of the Markagunt Plateau to the west, where we'd be headed for our final day.

Smelling the Cheeseburgers

After negotiating some pavement, we rode Virgin River Rim Trail from Strawberry Point north. Virgin River Rim started with a terrific descent, followed by several miles of rocky climbing. Baby- head-sized boulders bucked the bikes around, making matters tough on our fatigued bodies. The towering red rock cliffside views of the Virgin River canyon south towards Zion National Park were majestic, much like Grand View. It's crazy to say, but after seeing such remarkable scenery for so long, towards the end of the ride, I became jaded and more selective about stopping to take in the awesome beauty; in Utah there's just so damn much of it.

After another grin-producing descent, we hiked out to the headwaters of the Virgin River, a lava tube running several miles underground from Navajo Lake, emptying as a small waterfall out the side of the cliff we stood on. The end of the trip was near, and we could smell the cheeseburgers on the other side. We made haste back to the truck parked at Navajo Lake and bee-lined it to Brian Head Resort where our most gracious host, Mark Wilder, lined us up with dinner, a hot shower and a warm bed.

I’ll be honest; it was nice sleeping in the following morning without having to ride, especially considering the temperature in Brian Head was a balmy 15 degrees Fahrenheit. After breakfast, Eric and I shared a hardy high five and parted ways. As I drove all day across the Nevada desert back home to Reno, my mind was still in ride mode, reminiscing the last four days. By the time I pulled in my driveway that evening, I was already planning the next adventure (Read: "Three Utah Bikepacking Routes for Beginners to Intermediates"). Bikepacking really makes you appreciate all the simple pleasures in life while teaching you how to live with less. And once the art of bikepacking is understood, adventure becomes an obsession, especially when one the most geologically diverse places in the world is right in your backyard.

Start Planning

A quick list of pro tips to help prepare for your first Utah bike packing adventure

  • Do a couple local overnight trips to dial in your gear.
  • Have detailed, printed topographic maps and be able to read them. Don't only rely on digital maps or a smartphone.
  • Have a solid group of riders at or near the same skill and fitness level.
  • Pick a route that is realistic, doable and fun for the entire group.
  • Communicate clearly with the group and get a consensus before making decisions.
  • Always have a Plan B or Plan C in case Plan A doesn't work out.
  • Make sure the route has ample water supplies at least every 20 miles.
  • Watch the forecast and look for a dry, warm window of weather to make the ride more enjoyable.
  • Pack calorie-dense, flat food with minimal packaging. Think tortillas, jerky, tuna, cheese and oatmeal.
  • Mentally prepare to be a little hungry, especially in the backcountry. The first couple days are the toughest, but the body quickly adapts.
  • Resist the urge to pig out unless you are towards the end of the trip and you have extra food.
  • Put heavy items in the bike bags, not on your back.
  • Plan out meals and bring a little extra in case.
  • Divvy camp items like stove, filter and tent between multiple people to distribute the load.
  • Whenever you can climb on a jeep road instead of singletrack, do it, especially if the terrain is steep and rocky. Save the singletrack for descending.
  • Try to include a short, fun loop of trail where the group can hide bags in the woods and ride without them.
  • Make sure bikes are in perfect mechanical condition with new tires, brake pads and a relatively new chain. Adding 20 pounds of gear to a bike will result in extra wear and tear.
  • Bring tools, a first aid kit and items like duct tape, tire boots, chain links and zip ties for trail fixes.
  • Also handy are spare derailleur hangers and bolts, derailleur cable and dropper post clamp in case internals fail.
  • Let someone back home know your proposed route and stick to it so you can be found in an emergency.
  • Set suspension sag after loading everything with backpack on.
  • Calculate fuel needs for camp stove related to number of meals and drinks. Roughly 10 one liter boils come from one small fuel canister.
  • In areas with no cell reception, consider carrying a Spot beacon emergency transmitter.
  • Ride more conservatively than normal to prevent risk of crashing in the backcountry.
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