Mountain biking (and walking) from Telluride to Moab

There’s nothing even vaguely practical about a bicycling vacation from Telluride, Colorado to Moab, Utah, which I suppose is the point, if any, to writing about in on Think of this account as a detailed example of what practical biking isn’t.

October 2010

I almost quit before I’d finished the first day of a seven-day bike trip from Telluride, Colorado to Moab, Utah. I was pushing my bike up a rough trail strewn with loose rock; according to the queue sheet, the trail climbed 300 feet in the last quarter mile to the Last Dollar hut. I’d already endured 2,500 feet of elevation gain for the day, much of it on foot through sometimes-deep gravel, and 1,600 feet of it in just the previous three and a half miles of the day’s ride. I was hungry and thirsty (not famished or parched—let’s not exaggerate), I was exhausted, and the hut in which I was supposed to spend the night remained invisible somewhere in the trees above me. The combined weight of my bike and loaded panniers approached 75 pounds, and the uneven footing and steep incline had forced me to push the bike and haul the panniers up separately in short stages.

For a moment I broke. I laid the bike down next to the panniers, took off my pack, pulled out my cell phone, and hoped that I was still in cell-phone range of Telluride, where I’d started that morning, so I could call a friend back home in Seattle. No good could come of this. If I reached her, I’d worry her by asking her to explain to me why I should not camp right there, in a light-weight sleeping-bag liner and space blanket, on an exposed ridge at 11,000 feet, and why I should instead buck up and slog the last, at most, couple of hundred yards up to the cabin, where I’d find nourishment and a sleeping bag warm enough to stave off overnight lows predicted to be in the 30s. If I didn’t reach her, I’d be even more demoralized than I was at that moment.

Trail to the Last Dollar hut

The trail to the Last Dollar hut ends in the lower-right corner of this picture. Photo taken the next morning.

Technology failed me. I wasn’t getting the much-hoped-for peptalk, but, contrary to my expectation, my brain immediately started working again. I realized that, without considerably more food and water than I had with me, I was finished with the trip. The next morning, I’d have to point my bike back toward Telluride and, when I got home, I’d have to explain to everyone that I’d given up possibly as little as a two-minute hike from the end of the first day’s trek. It would also take me longer to dig gear out of my panniers and get situated on that rocky trail than it would take me to climb the rest of the way to the hut. Logic won, and I dragged myself, bike, and panniers up to the hut in another stage or maybe two. I might still be too drained to continue the next day, but at least I now had a chance.

Where the idea for an adventure comes from

How does someone who has never owned a mountain bike decide that a 200-mile mountain-bike ride through mountains and desert in Colorado and Utah is a good idea? I blame it on a cross-country trip and on the now-defunct National Geographic publication Adventure magazine, which wrote up the San Juan Hut Systems’ (SJHS) Telluride to Moab ride in October of 2002. When I moved to Seattle from Washington, DC, I drove through southern Colorado and eastern Utah, but I’d been on a tight schedule, so I didn’t have much time to explore. Years later, as I read the article in Adventure, I remembered both the beauty of the landscape and my regret over not being able to spend more time photographing it. The article said, “On paper, the journey may look intimidating—you climb more than 17,000 feet [5,180 meters] total—but it’s actually fairly easy, nontechnical riding on primitive dirt roads.” Primitive roads didn’t worry me—as a kid, I’d ridden a lot on gravel roads in rural Iowa—and the notion of spending a week photographing such striking terrain made itself at home on my list of vacation possibilities. Somehow I glossed over the bit about 17,000 feet of climbing, and I grossly underestimated what they meant when they said “primitive.”

Part of the appeal was in how the SJHS ride was set up. They have huts (small cabins, really) every 30 miles or so between Telluride and Moab. The huts are equipped with well-padded bunk beds for eight, sleeping bags, a propane stove, propane lamps, five-gallon plastic jugs of water, and plenty of canned and boxed food, trail mix, energy bars, cookies, crackers, bread, peanut butter, and jelly, as well as a small assortment of fresh foods that keep well for short periods. With the huts so well stocked, all you have to do is get yourself from one hut to the next. I could do that.

Plenty of preparation, not enough training

I wasn’t quite beginning at square one for this adventure, but close. For starters, I needed a mountain bike, and I had no clue how to choose one. Mountain-biking magazines proved to be shills for the industry (little useful information, lots of reviews of $5,000 bikes), so I went test riding and, with Jason at Montlake Cycles in Seattle patiently adjusting the fit and repeatedly swapping out handlebar stems, I ended up with a Santa Cruz Superlight full-suspension bike. A couple of classes through the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance helped me become more comfortable navigating over and around obstacles and rough trails, and for a while I regularly humiliated myself by riding at the Colonnade mountain bike skills park near downtown Seattle, but my progress was slow, and I decided my time would be better spent elsewhere, for example, researching and buying the gear recommended in the SJHS Bikers Bible.

A rear rack that would work on a full-suspension bike, panniers durable enough to survive a week of being bounced around by rough roads, a water filter for rendering water from springs or streams safe to drink, a CamelBak (a small backpack that holds a soft plastic water bottle that you can drink from while riding), a multi-purpose tool for repairs, a few spare parts (brake shoes, a rear derailleur), thorn-resistant tires and tubes, a headlamp in case I was out after dark, biking shoes that would be comfortable for walking (little did I imagine how much walking I’d do), water purification tablets in case the filter failed, a GPS, a snakebite kit, and many other bits and pieces found their way onto the bike or into the pile that I’d try to cram into the panniers. Countless after-work trips to REI cut into my training rides and added to the weight that I’d be muscling up miles of hills.

I set my training back further by pushing hard on two training rides over the 4th of July weekend and tweaking my left Achilles tendon, possibly by riding with my feet too far back on the pedals, according to a couple of websites on biking injuries. The pain wasn’t crippling, but the tendon was slow to heal, and I started to worry that it could become a problem on a weeklong ride with a lot of climbing, so I cut back as much as possible on training. Come late July, I was on the verge of calling the doctor to get a physical-therapy appointment when the tendon stopped hurting, and I was able to do a couple of 25-mile rides a week, but by that time I was doomed. Those hills were going to hurt.

A satellite phone (no) and a GPS (yes)

My friends know me as one of the more devout neo-Luddites of the 21st century. I have no tv or car, I own but rarely use a cell phone, and I only replaced my dialup internet connection with a high-speed wireless connection when I started this blog. However, in reading about the Telluride-to-Moab ride, I repeatedly saw the suggestion that I might encounter only a few cars a day, and I started to wonder whether some high-tech backup might be useful or at least reassuring. Because I’d be traveling alone (I’d signed up to start on a day on which no one else was starting) and because the distances were significant (too far to crawl with a broken leg, for example), I was mildly concerned about my safety. Not fearful, just aware of the possibilities. Initially, I pondered renting a satellite phone for the week, but the friend I tried to call on the first day of the ride pooh-poohed that idea, which jibed with my own sense of adventure. Next thing you know, you’re carrying a battery-powered blow drier. No satellite phone.

A GPS was a tougher call. Until I made my first payment and Nikki at SJHS sent me a GPS file of the route in Garmin format, I was leaning away from getting a GPS, too. SJHS provides both maps and queue sheets of the routes, so I’d have to be pretty inattentive to lose my way. I also had a copy of Mountain Biking Hut to Hut: Telluride to Moab, by Stephen Hlawaty, a skinny paperback that had one big advantage over the SJHS queue sheets: a more-or-less-accurate elevation profile for each day’s ride. Then again, the route as displayed on a GPS would give me a much more detailed view of my current location and what was around me, and, imaginative sort that I am, I could see how that might help me in a pinch. In the end, I bought a GPS and used it constantly throughout the trip, mostly to monitor the numbers (current elevation, miles traveled for the day, time in motion, time stopped, average speed), but also to follow my progress as I approached the next hut. Ah, good, the hut and I are on the same screen now. It’s almost dinner time.

Getting a bike to and from Colorado

My day-to-day bike is a Brompton folding bike, which folds small enough that I can take it onto buses, trains, ferries, and even planes with little trouble. A full-sized bike is a much bigger bother and expense to transport. Knowing that flying with a bike would be absurdly expensive, I made reservations to fly myself into Grand Junction, Colorado, assuming that I’d ship my bike by Amtrak and meet it there. I checked later and learned that Delta Airlines wanted $400 to toss my bike into the hold of the plane for the flight from Seattle to Grand Junction and back, compared with $286 to fly me in a pressurized cabin and to feed me peanuts and Coke. Amtrak wanted only $49 each way plus insurance to ship a bike from Seattle to Grand Junction, but estimates of travel time ranged from two or three days to seven to ten days, depending on which shipping agent I spoke with. Amtrak Express Shipping (yes, that’s what they call it) is low priority, so my bike might get stuck in an Amtrak station somewhere for a few days. Travel time notwithstanding, Amtrak won. To be safe, I shipped my bike nine days before I flew to Grand Junction. It arrived in three days.

The next trick was getting from Grand Junction to Telluride. Greyhound charged me $28 for my seat and $30 for the bike, but I was still ahead when compared with flying. The bus driver gave me a minor fright as he loaded the bike. There usually isn’t room on the bus for a bike box, he said. The bus dropped me at a gas station about three miles west of Telluride in a rain storm. As I unpacked and reassembled the bike, the rain eased and then stopped, the sun came out, and a rainbow appeared in the direction of Telluride. I rode into town just after sunset.

Rainbow in Telluride

About the distances and elevations

For each day’s ride, I list daily and cumulative values for distance traveled and for elevation gained and lost. The distances on the SJHS website, on the SJHS queue sheets, and on my GPS differed from one another every day, typically by a mile or two from the low value to the high. The queue sheets traded with the GPS for shortest distance except on day 2, when I missed a couple of turns and rode a mile or so longer than I needed to. (The queue sheet was clear; I just wasn’t watching carefully enough.) I chose to give distances from the GPS.

The elevations were similarly close and similarly inconsistent from two SJHS sources and the GPS. I give each day’s beginning and ending elevation from the GPS, but because the device doesn’t appear to provide cumulative elevation gain or loss (and because the Garmin documentation is so poor that I was never able to determine whether I should be able to display cumulative values), I relied on the SJHS value for total ascent for each day and then calculated the total descent: GPS starting elevation + SJHS total ascent – GPS ending elevation = total descent.

The journey

Each day brought new adventures:


6 comments to Mountain biking (and walking) from Telluride to Moab

  • Biddy One

    Wow….Kudos to you…a bit more advenurous than my 7 mile bi- weekly trek on my staionary bike while watching the last episodes of Dexter or Boardwalk Empire. (both TV shows for those of you that dont own one??? Is that even legal this day and age?)

  • Sandy Weuve

    I remember how upset I was when you decided you did not want to learn to ride a bicycle! Even then you had a mind of your own! And we both remember what happened when I finally cajoled you into at least giving it a try — you rode right into a barbed wire fence! You were not happy with me, and there were probably times on this journey that you wondered about a “muddah” that would trick her son into learning such a hazardous sport!

  • Kim

    Enjoyed reading about your biking adventure in the great Southwest! Beautiful photos – I felt like I was in that amazing landscape and living the experience without having to do all the hard work of getting there.

  • Phil

    Really enjoyed your site on the Telluride-Moad mtn bike ride. I’m thinking of doing this in Summer 2011 with my 13 year old son, so you log gave me lots of valuable information. Thanks for your time and effort to post this.
    St Marys County, MD

  • Jack

    So your mom got you in to this. I guess you showed her that you’re not that easy to get rid of.

    That was one hell of a first mountain biking adventure. Good for you keeping your cool and pressing on. When I was younger, I did 24,000 feet of climbing in a week on roads in the NW where the altitude wasn’t a big deal. What you did at altitude on dirt is amazing. Ouch! At least you got to experience that dry thin air. It’s the best natural buzz I know of.

    You found some of the best equipment with your Superlight and Old Man Mountain rack. That is a superb bike – especially when unencumbered.

    When’s your next trip? Happy Trails, Jack

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