A Gravel Grind Misadventure Through the Utah Desert

We’ve all looked at a map and wondered what it’d be like to go from here to there on two wheels. Brendan Leonard and professional adventurer Brody Levin found out.

The tumbleweed flying at my front tire was coming in hot, an insult.

It was just a tumbleweed, but I was pedaling uphill leaning into a 25 mph crosswind, on a fully-loaded bike, on a sandy road, on too-narrow tires (a slight oversight in planning… oops). The afternoon had become a game of trying to keep the bike straight and moving—a Sisyphean battle with the wind, which wanted to blow my rear wheel into deep sand, throwing off my tenuous balance or, better yet, stopping me completely dead.

As the tumbleweed hit my downtube, I kept cranking, crushing it to bits with my rear wheel as I rolled away. It’s the small victories that keep you going sometimes.

Brody Levin enjoying some Type 2 fun | Photo: Brendan Leonard

The idea was simple: Coax a buddy—I chose professional freeskier and adventurer, Brody Levin—into helping me establish a bikepacking route across Utah’s southeastern desert. I’d rambled around in my van between Moab and Boulder for years, exploring little pockets of the terrain from Canyonlands National Park, to the San Rafael Swell, to Capitol Reef, but I had always wondered… What would it be like to explore it by bike, on dirt? Because on a bike, you move somewhere between walking speed (3-4 mph) and driving speed (60 mph). And if that’s not a happy medium, I don’t know what is. It’s slow enough to see it all, like when you’re backpacking, but without spending all day having your spine compressed by a heavy pack.

* * *

We weren’t trying to be the “first” or “best”—we just wanted to plot a route that other people might want to do. And in order to do that, our route could not suck. We could not, for example, die of thirst while attempting it, or fail, or ride through heinous terrain for long periods, especially if it was not scenic. Good scenery is imperative on a bike tour. Otherwise, what are you touring, your own capacity for suffering? That’s no fun. You might as well ride a stationary bike in the gym for a week.

As is common with most great adventures, things didn’t exactly go as planned. Wind, deep sand, flowing creeks, and a few bushwacking exercises conspired to challenge our progress. 

Long story, short? We took 10 days to develop a 5-day route. In one early slog, I said to Brody, only half-joking, “I am only going to apologize for this idea once a day.”

“Don’t,” he said, and that was that for the rest of our disjointed—though ultimately totally satisfying—trip.

Real MTB, or–dare I say it–plus size tires would have been a better option | Photo: Brendan Leonard

During the first three days of our route, we rode north from Moab to Green River, passing Arches National Park and the Islands in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park on the way up UT 313, a mild climb between red canyon walls and bleached-white domes. From Green River, we headed to the top of the San Rafael Swell, cut down into the winding canyons of Buckhorn Draw, crossed the San Rafael River, and climbed back up the Swell past Navajo sandstone towers. Eventually, we found ourselves coasting past Temple Mountain and into the Mars-like hoodoos of Goblin Valley State Park.

Across the bottom of the Swell, we passed the entrances to the famous slots of Little Wild Horse and Bell Canyons (totally worth a three-hour side trip to hike them both) before turning south through a wash where we eventually decided to camp.

Brody enjoying the descent through a Mars-like landscape. Photo: Brendan Leonard

Our Day 4 brought us up and out of the wash and on a rough road winding through red-and-white dunes of the Crack Canyon Wilderness Study Area, the 11,000-foot-tall peaks of the Henry Mountains and the fluted sculpture of Factory Butte on our horizon.

Brody and I turned our bikes onto UT 24 to ride pavement for six miles into Caineville, Utah, where I’d reassured him there was a convenience store and a hotel. Brody got ahead of me during our 45 minutes of pedaling into the headwind (did I mention he’s an athletic beast and has ridden across the country before?), and I caught him as he leaned on his bike at the end of the driveway to the Rodeway Inn in Caineville, whose lobby also contained a small store, advertised as a “Convenient Store” on the sign.

“The map says the town is another thousand feet or so to the west,” Brody said.

“Oh no, this is the whole town,” I said, having driven through Caineville several times previously. Other than Green River, which we hit at Mile 55, this was our only opportunity for some supplementary calories after 209 grueling miles. In all, we dropped $23.50 on frozen burritos, small bags of Doritos, Snickers bars, and M&Ms. Another small victory.

* * *

At this point, things got a little adventure-y: We spent a couple hours in a wash pedaling where we could and hopping off to push when the sand got too deep. We carried our bikes across a mid-shin-deep creek and bushwhacked for a couple hundred yards to find the road on the other side of the creek. Then, the wind started to pick up. First, 20 mph, then 30 mph, and that never goes well unless it’s coming from one direction (your back). But we muscled on because stopping would’ve meant camping in the middle of a Mad Max-style windstorm.

The wind died down as we cranked up a couple final hills on our way into Capitol Reef National Park, picking up the asphalt Notom-Bullfrog Road through a light rain shower. As the evening sun dipped under the last rain clouds, golden rays popped through–straight across the valley and over the Waterpocket Fold–to light up the Henry Mountains for 15 more minutes. We pulled off behind a rock formation on BLM land and pitched our tent.

It’s amazing how peaceful this looks, in hindsight. Photo: Brendan Leonard

There were shards from broken beer bottles on the ground in the lee of the rock, and dozens of dry, hardened cow-shit pucks everywhere. We swept the sand with the bottoms of our shoes to clear the poop and shattered glass, and after putting up the tent, we had an almost Instagram-worthy campsite. When we set out, I wasn’t certain what the point of the whole thing would be—I just know if you take a good friend out and travel for a few days anywhere remotely scenic, it usually ends up being great for one reason or another, and sometimes you don’t know why until you’re out there.

There are tons of long-distance routes to experience the desert on a bike: The White Rim in Canyonlands National Park, Lockhart Basin (AKA the “poor man’s White Rim”), the Kokopelli Trail from Fruita to Moab, and Arizona’s weekend-long Black Canyon Trail or weeks-long Arizona Trail. This route is different.

At this site, under a wacky rock on the side of a road, I figured out what this trip was about: The in-between canyon country. Just below the radar of the “Top 10” spots in the desert Southwest (Delicate Arch, Horseshoe Bend, the Grand Canyon, or a ride like Whole Enchilada), too close to the road to be in a backpacking magazine, and too easy of a ride to be atop a hardcore cyclist’s lifelist. What’s perhaps ironically built-in to places like this, the places arguably few want to go, is a true feeling of exploration. In my mind, this is a unique type of perfection. 

* * *

Toward the end of our ride, I wrote advertising copy in my head: “Do you have a motorbike? No? Well, do you have a week off work, an unsuspecting friend, and a bicycle you can load with camping gear and five days worth of food? Yes? Then you too can see a huge swath of desert terrain and burn thousands of calories a day–all in one week.”

The big climb on our last day was the Burr Trail Switchbacks, a series of six hairpin turns climbing 700 feet in about a half mile (as the crow flies) through an improbable notch in the almost-100-mile long Waterpocket Fold, the monocline or “warp” in the earth’s crust that splits Capitol Reef. Staring up at the switchbacks, I felt it important to decide if I was A) a cyclist or B) a bike tourist. After pedaling up to the first switchback, I decided on option “B,” and dismounted to push my bike up the road through all six switchbacks. Not saying this is how everyone should or will do it, just that sometimes some of us sacrifice a little pride in exchange for longevity.

The serpentine switchbacks of the Burr Trail | Photo: Brendan Leonard

At the top of the steep climb were more rolling climbs, all of which I had somehow forgotten from my previous car trips up and down the Burr Trail. Funny how that works, I thought to myself as I shifted my sandy drivetrain into its granny gear again, then noting that it wasn’t funny at all. The road turned to asphalt for our final 35 miles, alternating short climbs with whooping descents, and then a winding rollercoaster down, down, down into and through Long Canyon whose 300-foot-tall red sandstone walls whipped by in my peripheral vision as I tucked and cut the corners.

Pedaling our final few miles into Boulder, as the sun sank behind the 800-foot-tall white wave of Durfrey Mesa to our left, I hit a wall, wondering if I was really that tired, or if the road was slightly uphill all the way into town. Both were true—Brody’s GPS watch reported we had climbed 5,600 feet that day over 58 miles, almost a third of the total elevation of the entire route. He pedaled over every few hundred feet, holding out Peanut M&M hand-ups for me.

We made it, just before dusk, and I remembered one final planning mistake: Boulder is a small town (population 200), with only a handful of businesses that stay open year-round. Because of a slight adjustment of the dates of our trip, we’d miss the opening of two of the best restaurants in Boulder, the Hell’s Backbone Grill and Magnolia’s Street Food, by two days. Not gonna lie; Much like our trip, that hurt a little. But that’s the nature of an adventure, and we’re better for it.