Day 5: Graham Ranch hut to the Gateway Canyons resort

Starting elevation 8,240′
Ending elevation 4,470′
Total ascent for the day 2,100′
Cumulative ascent 9,860′
Total descent for the day 5,870′
Cumulative descent 14,140′
Distance for the day 32.48 miles
Cumulative distance 144.50 miles

The last few miles into Graham Ranch the previous afternoon had been a treat, as much as gravel can ever be a treat: three miles or more of downhill on one of the better roads of the week. By Tuesday morning, though, I’d forgotten just how long that downhill had been as I backtracked the three miles up Divide Road to the intersection with Uranium Road:

Divide Road between Graham Ranch and Uranium Road

Divide Road looking in the direction of Uranium Road, about a mile from the intersection.

Uranium Road, formerly the route to nearby uranium mines, initially looked to be an improvement, with a smoother surface and less incline. However, I almost immediately bogged down in dust-like, red dirt, and I couldn’t get moving fast enough on the uphill to stay on top of it, so again I walked, then rode for a while, and walked some more for another five miles. The one consolation was that Uranium Road was little traveled, so I could walk or ride in the middle of the one-lane road without worrying about traffic.

As I crested Massey Bench and started descending from Uncompahgre Plateau, I came upon a winding-road sign and laughed. How could anything that involved a downhill be worse for a biker than eight miles of uphill and sometimes-unridable dust? Bad idea, asking questions like that. Experienced mountain bikers who’ve ridden this road will call me a wimp, but the next several miles of switchbacks were, for me, a four- or five-mile-an-hour chore, sometimes riding the brakes to prevent speeding out of control on steep, rough gravel, sometimes riding the brakes while navigating the ridge between tire ruts deep enough to high-center the average 4×4. OK, it was a downhill, so it was still better than walking uphill, but not by as much as I’d hoped.

Winding-road sign

The downhill started in earnest just past the curve.

At first, the road was still in forest, so I stopped for every break in the trees to get whatever view shots I could.

La Sal mountains from Uranium Road

The La Sal mountains, this time from Uranium Road.

Rock formation

A closeup of the rock formation in the right foreground of the previous shot.

Another view of the La Sal mountains from Uranium Road

A closer view of the La Sal mountains.

A couple of miles into the descent, I was standing at the edge of a switchback taking more pictures of the La Sal mountains when a United States Forest Service pickup came up the hill and stopped on the curve, and Mike Surper hopped out to greet me.

Mike Surper with the U.S. Forest Service

Mike Surper with the U.S. Forest Service.

I suppose it’s Mike’s job to check up on the goings on in his territory, and I reckon he was sizing me up to determine whether he’d have to rescue me later in the day, when temperatures would hit the 80s or low 90s, but he was a good-humored, personable guy who was still a great pleasure to talk with regardless of whatever professional interest he had in me. We talked some about what I was doing out there and about a single-track trail that I could have branched onto while I was still up on the plateau. He said most bikers took the trail, but he also acknowledged that, were he riding alone, he’d likely take the road, too. (SJHS describes the trail as intermediate to advanced, and Hlawaty describes it as challenging; none of these descriptions matches my mountain-biking skill level.)

We talked about the town of Gateway, at the end of the day’s ride, and he confirmed that Gateway has a hotel. (I’d first heard about the hotel from either Kristin the bartender or Hans the mountain biker at Telluride Bistro.) By this time, the idea of spending a night in a hotel, having running water and electricity, having dinner and breakfast at a restaurant instead of out of a box or a can, and having a shower on a second consecutive day had utterly captured my imagination. Mike noted that a large group of motorcyclists had been in Gateway that morning, so the hotel might be sold out, but I knew then that I’d at least try to get a room.

We talked about the route ahead of me, and Mike described more downhill, some uphill, and then another big downhill into Gateway. Drivers often underestimate the length and grade of an uphill for a biker, and Mike proved no exception.

We talked some about his job and about where he lived, and then he had to be off because he had an appointment up on the plateau. Before he left, he offered to take a shot of me, the only photo I have of myself for the week except the few that I took of myself with the camera held at arms length.

Shot that Mike Surper took of me with the La Sal mountains in the background

Shot that Mike Surper took of me with the La Sal mountains in the background.

For a while, the road leveled off some and improved, but I still couldn’t completely let go of the brakes and barrel down as fast as gravity would take me:

Uranium Road in the direction I'd come from

The road behind.

Uranium Road and the La Sal mountains

The road ahead. These are some of the less challenging ruts; on the more challenging ruts, I was too busy holding on to stop for a picture.

Then irrational exuberance caught up with me. I’d been thinking, “Downhill to Gateway!” Wrong. The SJHS queue sheets give you a starting elevation and an ending elevation for each day, but they don’t list the total elevation gain and loss each day. Their website has the information, but I’d forgotten to print that page and bring it along. The Hlawaty book covers only the optional trail for day 5, and I speculated that the elevation profile for the road and for the single-track route would be similar—almost entirely flat or downhill after the crest of the plateau. Nope. From the top of Massey Bench, at over 8,800 feet, I bottomed out at around 6,500 feet and started up a hill that turned out to be six miles of sometimes-deep gravel and 1,300 feet of climbing, mostly in the first four miles. More intermittent walking ensued.

The uphill ended at the intersection of 10 and 8/10ths Road and 6 and 3/10ths Road, at around mile 22 on the day. The queue sheet said I had about 10 miles left, and I knew that the single-track route had rejoined the route on the SJHS queue sheets a couple of miles back, so I could again refer to Hlawaty’s elevation profile, which showed several thousand feet of descent and some flats between there and Gateway. I was down to my last quart or so of water, but the descent made me cavalier, or maybe stupid, and I stopped repeatedly for pictures on the way down despite my continued slow progress on the steep road and the likelihood that I’d run out of water.

The intersection of 10-8/10ths Road and 6-3/10ths Road

The intersection of 10 and 8/10ths Road and 6 and 3/10ths Road.

View to the west from the intersection of 10-8/10ths Road and 6-3/10ths Road

The view to the west from the intersection of 10 and 8/10ths Road and 6 and 3/10ths Road.

Another view to the west from the intersection of 10-8/10ths Road and 6-3/10ths Road. The road ahead is in the lower left corner.

Another view from the intersection of 10 and 8/10ths Road and 6 and 3/10ths Road. The road ahead is in the lower left of the picture, behind the pine tree.

A rock formation to the west of the intersection of 10-8/10ths Road and  6-3/10ths Road.

A closeup of the rock formation in the left center of the previous picture.

A closer view to the west northwest from the intersection of 10-8/10ths Road and 6-3/10ths Road.

A closeup to the west northwest from the intersection of 10 and 8/10ths Road and 6 and 3/10ths Road.

A curve in the road

More than once, I had to grab the brakes and skid to a stop because I’d been paying too much attention to the view and not enough attention to the road. Here’s an example of why.

A rock face to the east.

The views behind me, uphill, were almost as photogenic as the views of the valley.

A closeup of a rock face to the east.

A closeup of the rock formation in the left center of the previous picture.

Well into the descent, I passed a road grader and puzzled over when they’d get around to using it. Just as the road leveled out, I learned why it was here: deep, freshly graded sand spanned the width of the road, and there was no shoulder to escape to. For the next half mile or more, the sand was sometimes shallow or packed enough that I could ride on it, but mostly it was deep enough that I sank and was again forced to get off and walk.

Shortly before I reached the road that would take me into Gateway, the batteries in my GPS died, and as I replaced them, I finished off the last of my water. No matter, I was almost there, and the rest of the route was paved. A stiff headwind cooled my enthusiasm some, and my first view of Gateway chilled it to an Iowa winter night. Ramshackle houses, a trailer park, something that might be a general store or maybe a bar, but no hint of a hotel. I stopped on the side of the road to ask a nice woman who was walking with her boys where I might find a hotel in Gateway, and she pointed south, past the rise that was the bridge over the Dolores River.

On the other side of the bridge, I started passing a large complex with expanses of grass and a scattering of, what, low-rise office buildings? Condos? Retirement housing? I deduced that this was my hotel when a small sign pointed toward guest parking. I pulled in, found the side door that was really the front door, leaned my bike against a wall, and hoped that a doorman wouldn’t materialize to shoo my bedraggled self away. The lobby was empty save for a cheery desk clerk. Aware that I looked like I’d been wearing the same clothes on the trail for five days, I said “I realize that I don’t look presentable, but if you have a room for the night, I have clean clothes with which I can make myself so.” He laughed and let me have a room in spite of my condition.

As I filled out paperwork and paid dearly for my last-minute arrival without a reservation, I explained what I was doing, and we talked some about mountain biking. Richard, who is a mountain biker, too, said he’d met other bikers who were doing the same ride and who also had spent the night at the hotel instead of in the nearby hut. Finally, I uttered the words that I’d been pondering for a day or more: “I’d like to find someone to give me a ride to the next hut, 22 miles that way,” as I pointed where I thought west was. I had looked ahead at the queue sheets for the rest of the ride and had studied Hlawaty, and there was no way around it: day 6 was going to be worse than day 1. I was looking at 4,000 feet of elevation gain (compared with 2,800 feet on day 1) and an elevation profile that offered three short downhills starting at mile 16 but that otherwise was all uphill. Even the downhills just meant that I’d have to regain elevation that I’d already climbed. Hlawaty also noted that “…loose gravel roads, along with rutted and sandy sections, make the climb to the La Sal Hut tough.” The predicted high was around 90 degrees, and I was plumb out of enthusiasm. I also really wanted to enjoy the ride into Moab on the last day, including the only single-track trail that I’d ride all week, and I was afraid that if I rode day 6, I’d roll into Moab crumpled up in the bed of some good Samaritan’s pickup truck.

“I can give you a ride,” Richard said. He went on to explain that all of the bikers he’d met had done exactly what I was proposing to do: catch a ride with someone and skip 22 miles of brutal climbing. I was saved.

Dinner that night at Paradox Grill, the tonier of the two restaurants at the Gateway Canyons Resort, was a fresh salad, buffalo meatloaf (when would I have another opportunity?), mashed potatoes, black beans, corn muffins, a fresh chocolate chip cookie, ice cream, and a good, hoppy IPA from a brewery in Durango, none of which (except the mashed potatoes) could I have had at the hut. Regrets? Not a one.

Rock formation in Gateway

The butte (or is it a mesa?) across the street from the Gateway Canyons Resort.

On to Day 6: Gateway Canyons resort to La Sal hut by Jeep Commander

Back to Day 4: Columbine hut to Graham Ranch hut

Back to Mountain biking (and walking) from Telluride to Moab