For the past few months, I operated under the impression that I would — and could — ride a mountain bike up to 100 miles through eastern Utah over the course of two days.
The idea for the May trip was hatched in early February after several of us had enjoyed — or, in my case, suffered through — a couple of midwinter mountain-bike rides near Denver.
We needed something more than two hours on a Saturday or a guys' car-camping weekend in the high country. We wanted memorable.
Oregon and California were offered up (and dismissed as too far), as was the Buffalo Creek area near Bailey (rejected as too likely to be muddy in early May). Then someone chimed in with an excursion that, for a group of Denver-based professionals, was just over the hill, as it were: Kokopelli's Trail.
Comprising 142 miles of singletrack, four-wheel-drive and stagecoach road, the trail rolls across the high desert between Loma (about 15 miles west of Grand Junction off Interstate 70) and Moab, Utah.
I'd ridden the easternmost stretch of the Kokopelli in 2010 and was eager to bite off more of a trip that is on many a mountain-bike bucket list.
We wouldn't have the time to ride the length of the trail in a weekend, but we would try to cover more than half of it. An extra enticement: The trip would be guided, meaning experienced riders would serve as the support crew for our band of Front Range bikers, who range in age from 40 to 62.
Five months later, I've got a tale from Kokopelli's Trail — or should I say a tale from Kokopelli Country.
Over the course of a weekend I had my technical abilities and stamina tested, and my ego both bruised and soothed. I came home with new skills and confidence in my riding, an appreciation for group dynamics and a realization that guided mountain bike trips are a great investment — particularly when tackling unfamiliar terrain.
For a newbie to mountain-bike touring, a distinct advantage to taking a guided trip is capitalizing on the guides' collective experience.
Numerous tour operators based in Fruita and Moab can be found with a quick Internet search. One bit of advice: Find a guide company permitted by the Bureau of Land Management to avoid the prospect of being led astray by an ill-prepared, fly-by-night outfit. BLM offices in Colorado and Utah can advise you of an operator's status.
Guides also help with the gear. Western Spirit, the Moab-based outfit that guided our party, provided a pre-trip gear and clothing checklist with information on everything we would need to bring — or rent. Rental items included a fleet of bikes, tents, sleeping bags and pads. If you are not a regular camper, you'll appreciate renting rather than rushing out to buy your camping gear. I opted to bring my own bike, simply because of fit and familiarity. Still, many others in our party used the firm's rental bikes — Specialized Camber FSR 29ers — and had little problem after finding the right riding position.
Of course, the biggest benefit to riding with the pros, as I learned over the course of two days, is the guides' familiarity with the terrain and their skills as cooks, gear-haulers, coaches and companions.
Gathered in the parking lot at the airport in Grand Junction, our group of 11 riders listened closely as Western Spirit owner Mark Sevenoff put forward our itinerary. The original plan had been to ride from the Rabbit Valley in Utah to a campsite near the town of Cisco — 42 miles on fast double-track with a bit of technical terrain thrown in to keep us alert.
Instead, we learned that the leaders of our party had opted during a conference call with the guides the previous day to ride Fruita's stellar Road 18 area. I never really got a great explanation for the change, but I expect it was a nod to the epiphany that many of us had in the weeks leading up to the trip: Despite the training, two days of 40-plus miles would simply be too much for some of us — notably, the newspaper editor.
We reached the North Fruita Desert sometime after 10 a.m., readied our bikes in the Road 18 trailhead parking lot and headed out for a pre-lunch ride. A gradual climb to the base of the Bookcliffs left us at the top of the downhill Kessel run.
With its smooth singletrack, banked turns and rolling bumps, the trail evoked feelings of being in a bobsled or on a roller coaster. Sevenoff offered us some simple advice: Controlling your speed is wise, but don't brake in the corners. With that nugget of information tucked away, I hardly remember pedaling over the 4-mile course.
The post-lunch excursion featured more technical riding on ridges that splayed out from the Bookcliffs — and a couple of steep climbs on the Chutes and Ladders trail that forced several of us to briefly hike-a-bike. A notable highlight was a trip down a newer route known as Anne's Trail or PBR, which is short for "pumps, bumps and rollers." It's one of three trails opened in the Road 18 area in the past two years. If you like berms and jumps built into the natural flow of the landscape, you won't be disappointed with this downhill-only ride. (Another newbie featuring banked turns and jumps, dubbed MoJoe, opened in March.)
Sevenoff advised us how to tackle PBR by referencing another downhill pursuit, reminding us that our legs should absorb the bumps just like skiing in moguls. I vowed to keep both wheels on the ground as I worked my way through the winding course — and did so thanks to the mogul tip — but easily could have reverted to the airborne ways of my youth after another run or two.
As we loaded up the van that afternoon for the drive west into Utah, I had dispatched with any disappointment about reducing our Kokopelli trip to one day. The day's riding marked my first visit to Road 18 — and though tired, I was hard-pressed to remember a time when I'd had more fun.
After about 45 minutes of driving, we exited Interstate 70 at exit 22 in Utah. The destination was a camping site at the Bitter Creek Overlook which, in addition to prime access to the Kokopelli's Trail and other rides, was home to a pit toilet and — most important— stunning ridgetop views of the Rabbit Valley and the La Sal mountains off in the distance. A herd of sheep grazed in the valley some 400 feet below us, and their bleats provided comfortable background noise in the moments when our campsite was quiet.
Reservations are not taken, but our guides had stopped there earlier in the morning and pitched tents to claim a prime spot — a declaration I make based primarily on the views but also the proximity to a pit toilet.
As they went about setting up our camp kitchen and fixing dinner, our group set off on another ride — this one a leisurely 7-mile out-and-back. Though my first introduction to slick desert sand made for some awkward moments, it was a great way to finish our two-wheeled activity for the day, which totaled just under 25 miles.
We arrived back at camp, pitched our tents, and relished the cold portable showers that hung from the side of the van before slipping into clean clothes and gathering along the rocks to watch nature's paintbrush on the landscape as the sun dipped behind the La Sal's.
There were drinks, and then conversation about topics both silly and serious. With a daunting, longer ride on the Kokopelli on tap for the morning, I limited the beer intake, but enjoyed the camp-cooked pasta dinner.
A somewhat-less-than-merry band of riders emerged from tents, ate, prepped our bikes and were briefed on the day's planned route. We had initially envisioned the second day as something that would offer us routes of between 40 and 60 miles. But the itinerary that had changed from the day before also included the decision to camp in the Bitter Creek area and take advantage of numerous trails that branched off from the Kokopelli there.
We rode down from the ridge on Kokopelli's Trail, then linked up with a thrilling singletrack dubbed Trail 2 that dropped us for a midmorning break at Castle Rocks. This is a multi-use trail, and we stopped several times to let dirt bikes ride through.
Though the temperature was in the 70s, it was clear that desert riding would be demanding. And even with 100 ounces of water on my back and two bottles on my bike, I wondered if I would have enough. After a break we climbed back up an old Jeep road before dropping into the Western Rim Trail.
The Western Rim is made up of many slickrock cliffs, with incredible vistas of the Colorado River in the distance. We had packed lunches and broke to eat on a rocky overlook that offered little shade, but made up for it with awe-inspiring views.
With a couple of short, steep climbs approaching as we headed out after lunch, a guide advised that I should try to keep my weight over my back wheel when standing up out of the seat. The advice worked wonders, as I cleared a steep section that, on first glance, I figured would be another moment of humbling hike-a-bike. The next hill offered the same reward. As did a third down the road.
I was getting much more comfortable on my bike — though still found a few downhill ledges that led me to brake and dismount rather than just barrel over them.
By about 3 p.m., my water bottles were empty, and my backpack was less than half full. Faced with the choice of a steep singletrack that would require hiking from even the strongest riders in our group or a long ride with a final, hairy climb back to our ridgetop campground, I took the easy way out.
When we pedaled back into camp roughly an hour later, I was exhausted and had just sipped the last of my water. We'd chosen routes that were a bit more technical and demanding than some of what we would have seen on Kokopelli's Trail, even if they were significantly shorter. The easier ride home left us just short of 30 miles for the day, which was more than enough.
As I cleaned up and sat down to enjoy a day's-end beer, I was happy to relax and leave the job of cooking dinner to someone else. As we downed fajitas and drinks that night, there was markedly less energy in the group — but a remarkable sense of accomplishment. We shared stories about the day's high points — and turned in early.
As I climbed into my tent at about 10:15, I relished the 36 hours spent in the desert. Part of that was due to my riding companions' personalities, but a lot of it also was owed to the guides.
For as much as a middle-aged, out-of-shape mountain biker might like to think he can ride more than 80 miles in two days, an experienced guide knows to proceed with caution. That approach, coupled with the tips and insight our guides were more than happy to share, made the visit to Kokopelli Country a glorious experience, even in the face of lowered aspirations.
For my money, spring trips in the desert should be less about tackling a lengthy ride and more about enjoying the trails regardless of how long you have to spend on them.
If I can keep my mileage up with high-country rides in the summer months, I might just tackle the Kokopelli again this fall, when guided trips resume again.
Curtis Hubbard: 303-954-1405, email@example.com or twitter.com/curtishubbard
New trails in fruita
Three new trails have opened along Road 18, aka North Fruita Desert, in the last three months. They are:
-- Zip Off
For more information, visit:
The Colorado-Utah trail is 142 miles from Loma to Moab and offers eight camping areas (two-three campsites each) along the way, each with a toilet, some with picnic tables. Most do not have much shade. Visit blm.gov/ut/st/en/fo/moab/recreation/mountain_bike_ trails/kokopelli_s_trail.html.
Western Spirit offers five-day Kokopelli's Trail trips in April, May, September and October starting at $1,200 per person. The next trip is Sept. 23. westernspirit.com.
NEW TRAILS IN FRUITA
Three new trails have opened along Road 18, aka North Fruita Desert, in the past two years: PBR (aka Anne's Trail), MoJoe and Zip Off. For more information, visit fruitasingletrack.com, gjmountainbiking.com/fruita.html or otesports.com