Touring the Utah Desert on $800 Bikes

The distant Caineville Mesa inched closer with each pedal, textured grey ridges marching down the horizon like elephants in migration.

My companion Ian and I had set out for a week of experiencing Utah’s public land on our bikes, and we were topping the first small climb of day 1. Ian and I had both spent months walking on foot through public spaces like this, becoming intimate with each peak and tree we passed. As with most adventurous souls, we’d also spent hundreds of hours flying down “Scenic Byways” in air-conditioned automobiles, watching snapshots of landscape fly by at 65 miles per hour.

We’d (almost) never done anything like this before.

We were now experiencing the world at 10 miles per hour with panniers and frame-bags packed to the max.

Ian coasts between chossy walls of sand

Our goal was simple, to have fun riding our bikes through the mesas and slot canyons surrounding the Henry Mountains. While perusing blogs and forums for bikepacking beta, we both found a common theme: “the best bike is the one you have”. Though we both wish we could make the down payment on shiny new Surly’s, we concluded it was best to make due with what we had.


abandoned building utah bikepacking
Having a break with the many lizards taking residence in this abandoned house

For Ian, that was an $800 Rocky Mountain Soul 29 Mountain Bike he purchased in highschool; for me a $750 Fairdale Parser Single-Speed I’d been commuting on for the last year. Both were very different, and not exactly the touring dream-machines we had on our wish lists, but we made due.

Fairdale Parser Bikepacking
Trusty steeds awaiting their first mission

As South Caineville Mesa grew bigger, we grew closer to our first hike. A short and steep trail that meanders through textured grey ridges to the hard capstone on top. From there a little class 3 scramble brings you to the summit register, where apparently nobody had been for 3 months.

hiking caineville mesa
Gaining altitude amongst the elephants

We made it to the bottom, finished our goat cheese from Mesa Farm Market, and headed back to the highway.

caineville capitol reef highway 24 bikepacking
Topping out on one of U.S. Highway 24’s many grueling climbs
Bikepacking flat tire
The first of many flats, a less glamorous side of bike touring
US Highway 24 bikepacking
Approaching the ass-kicking hill dubbed “Big Mama”

By no means are either of us fast or experienced on a bike, so our pace reflected that. Eventually our goal of circumnavigating the whole Henry Range became out of reach. More important than our itinerary was our goal; to have fun riding our bikes through the desert.

Caineville mesa capitol reef
Looking back at South Caineville Mesa from the Waterpocket Fold

Once we dropped our fast-paced itinerary, morale instantly improved, (for some reason the flat tires stopped happening too). Each day we’d wake up and bike 20 miles to the next slot canyon, take a nap, then hike until sunset.

cottonwood wash capitol reef
Peering through the endless curves of Cottonwood Wash

The actual reef for which Capitol Reef is named also happens to be a ghost town compared to the “downtown” section. In 25 total miles of hiking, we didn’t see a single soul on the trail.

Notom Road Bike Packing
Navigating twists, turns, ups, and downs of the Notom Road

We made our way up and down the rolls of the Notom road, stopping in each wash to hike the slot canyon into the Waterpocket Fold. After a few days of dilly dallying through the Waterpocket District, we made the call to head back. It’s crazy how easy biking is when you finally hit the second wind (unfortunately not till 4 days in).

Fremont river fording bikepacking
Fording the Fremont River during a quick detour
Highway 24 bikepacking
Why are hills so much longer on the way up?
Fremont river - Capitol Reef
The most serene moment of the trip

What we learned:

  1. Bikepacking is 50% fun, 50% rewarding, and 50% flat tires.
  2. Next time you are in Caineville, stop by Mesa Farm Market (unless you hate goats and good food).
  3. Not all bikes are created equal, but neither are all adventures. We didn’t have the best gear or training, and we didn’t hit our objective, but we damn sure had a great time doing it.

In total we cycled 90 miles, hiked 25, patched 5 flats, and had an excellent introduction to the world of desert bikepacking.

If you have any questions about the route or photo licensing, drop a message in my inbox.

Photos and words copyright Douglas Tolman 2018. 

One response to “Touring the Utah Desert on $800 Bikes”

  1. Awesome pics!

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