The Plateau Passage: A Journey Across the Colorado Plateau (part 1)

For the past month or so, I’ve been winding my way west through southern Utah via back roads, forgotten trails, horse tracks, and some pavement in between.

The path I followed is called The Plateau Passage, a bikepacking specific route put together to highlight the major features of The Colorado Plateau.

I am not a geologist, so forgive this brief, and quite possibly incorrect, explanation of this amazing formation. The Colorado Plateau is a nearly 50 million acre piece of land that spans Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico. Over millions of years, many layers of varying sediment were layered upon each other. With the movement of the earth’s crust, the area was then uplifted, folded, eroded, and generally just mixed up from its original form (I like to think ‘mixed up’ is a technical term). In general, the area is a “flat” plateau rising to an elevation of about 7000’.  However, there are a number of mountain ranges cresting 12,000’ feet (The Abajos, Henry, and La Sal ranges) that were created from volcanic activity below. And of course, many deep canyons cut through the plateau…like The Grand Canyon.

Water has played a large role in shaping the formations we see today. Being a desert, water comes to this area infrequently–but when it does, there’s usually a lot of it. During spring snow melts and late summer monsoons, large amounts of water can rush through the drainages, cutting through the aforementioned layers of rock, and creating mesmerizing displays of contrasting colors in the canyons and cliffs that are well known today. Since the land has been uplifted, the water gains much energy as it runs downhill toward lower ground–cutting as it goes. Because of these unique set of circumstances, there are very few places in the world that resemble the diverse landscape that makes up The Colorado Plateau. It also makes for a great place to ride a bike.

So now that I’ve oversimplified the extremely complex and confusing creation story to this breathtaking piece of land, here’s a brief(ish) overview of the route I took from Ouray, Colorado to Las Vegas, Nevada.

Some stats:

  • ~ 1,100 Miles
  • ~110,000’ of elevation gain
  • Mostly unpaved
    • 30% 4×4 roads/ATV trails
    • 35% graded dirt roads
    • 20% single track trails
    • 15% pavement

The route technically starts in Durango, CO and climbs through the San Juan Mountains for a while before cutting west toward Utah. I skipped this section. For one, I had just ridden this area on the last days of The Colorado Trail and frankly, was not too excited to go back up into the snow and hail from which I had just come.

After a few days of rest and food at home, my parents graciously drove me to Ouray, from where I would start my ride west. After a night of good food, small mountain town vibes, and of course, a soak in a hot spring, I was on my way toward Vegas.

The first day hit me hard! After a good snow storm the day before, the steep switchbacks up out of Ouray were absolutely unrideable and almost too slick to push my bike up as well. I had enjoyed the comforts of home for the few days before so this was a shock to my system and pretty disheartening, to tell the truth. I missed my parents, my bed, and the ease of life I had just left again. However, after a hard, frustrating, demoralizing day, I was rewarded by an amazing spot to pitch my tent directly under the craggy face of Sneffels peak.

The next few days were spent on The Dallas Traill under the Sneffels Mountains, then north toward The Uncompahgre Plateau. Turning around, the image of fall colors contrasting against the snow-peaked mountains was both breathtaking and a warning that winter was quickly approaching. I looked forward to being in the desert soon.

And soon the desert came, in all its dry, warm glory. Following some rough and altogether forgotten uranium mining roads, I approached the La Sal Mountains from the east. On the other side lay all of southern Utah! I was following a route called the Paradox Trail which links the other two well-known routes in the area, the Kokopelli Trail and the Tabeguache Trail.  At this point, I needed to think more carefully about water. Depending on the area, sources could be 60 miles apart according to the route descriptions. However, due to the wet winter, I was finding water much more frequently than expected in stream beds, springs, and stock tanks. Thus, I was usually carrying a bit too much weight than necessary–but peace of mind and safety are key!

A few snow flurries and cold nights made the warmth of the desert on the other side of the mountains that much more appealing.

Climbing over La Sal Pass at about 10,000’, I dropped into Moab and promptly ate many a burrito, drank many a beer, and crashed in the backyard of some friends from college. I stayed in Moab for a few days among the local climbing/boating/skydiving community (who like to call themselves ‘dirtbags’). I had the opportunity to charge up, do some laundry, fix a few things on my bike, and get ready for the next leg ahead.

Out of Moab were the wonders of Canyonlands National Park. I followed an iconic four-wheel drive road called the Lockhardt Basin Road. I saw very few people in this remote area of the park (most of which were actually bikepackers!). 

Still being fairly close to home, my parents drove out and met me in one of the campgrounds around Indian Creek, an area well known for its world-class climbing. I hung out with them for a day or so eating lots of food, changing a tire on my bike, adding some water carrying capacity, and generally just enjoying the time spent with family.

Like I said before, leaving my folks has been getting harder and harder. However, the next day I was off toward the Abajo Mountains (also known as the Blue Mountains). It was one of those days where I started in the 75+ degree heat of the desert and climbed into the alpine environment of colorful aspens and mountain streams at 8k’ by nightfall.  

Lulled into a sense of security by the desert, I decided to sleep out under the stars like I had been doing for the past few nights in balmy Canyonlands. I woke up in the early morning to snowflakes hitting my exposed face–not a good sign. I quickly set up my tent, threw everything in, and promptly fell deeply back asleep. I woke up later than anticipated to a good bit of snow piled on my tent and bike. At first, it seemed like a lot more had accumulated then actually had in reality.  However, the 2-3 inches that were covering everything meant the trail which climbed up and over the mountains was going to be slow going, if not impossible. I still had to climb a few thousand feet to get over the pass and I assumed there had been even more accumulation up high. It was also COLD- good since the snow was light and easily brushed off but still uncomfortable. I decided to retrace my steps from the day before and use a road to skirt the mountains toward Monticello, Utah where I knew there would be warm coffee and a place to devise a plan out of the cold.

The ride down was freezing and my bike soon was caked in ice and not functioning very well. Eventually and thankfully, I reached Monticello and recharged with hot coffee and a breakfast sandwich. I learned the storm was supposed to blow over by the afternoon and I could keep going.  However, it was still brisk and windy by mid-afternoon and I was still a bit wary of climbing to altitude again just yet. So I stayed the night in Monticello, a rare treat!

The next day I was well rested so it was off toward The Bears Ears area. This was to be the longest section between resupply points and water was quite scarce. The first few days were spent high in the ponderosa forests of The Bears Ears plateaus and north of National Bridges. Then the route dropped into the remote, arid canyons heading toward Hite crossing at the northern point of Lake Powell.

And it was HOT! 

Luckily, the store at Hite was still open for the season (something I initially was not expecting) which served as a simple resupply. Otherwise, I would have needed to carry food for 5-6 days between Monticello and Boulder, Ut.  

Next, it was up and over the Henry mountains, an isolated eruption of rock between Lake Powell and Capitol Reef NP. Due to its remote nature, the range was the last mapped area in the lower 48–how cool is that? A steep loose road took me to the Bull Mountain Pass at around 10k feet.

The views from up high were breathtaking and frankly confusing. Looking down on so many canyons, ridges, plateaus, and distant mountains started to drive home the complexity and diversity of The Colorado Plateau. Up and over the pass revealed another view of more craggy rocks and canyons on the other side.

Rocketing down, I was soon riding along The Waterpocket Fold, the major geologic formation that makes up Capitol Reef National Park. The roads were good so I reached a cute, small campground early in the day, giving me enough time for a quick hike! The campground quickly filled and soon I was gladly sharing my spot with 3 other parties. Hearing of my path, a very kind lady on a retirement-celebration-solo-road-trip insisted on cooking me dinner–quinoa and lentil soup with ham and sweet potatoes! Another group started a fire and brought out the s’mores ingredients. It was a fun night full of stories and laughter.

The next morning I was up early and enjoying the amazing Notom-Bullfrog/Burr Trail roads that took me into Boulder, a quiet town with great food and a high concentration of beautiful people.

The rest of the route passed through some amazing country.  

That being said, I think this post is long enough as is–look for part two relatively soon!

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