Sunday, September 24, 2023

Even the Lows Become High on this Rocky Mountain Bike Ride

post by Corrine  Some photos courtesy of the other riders.

Oh, the things that can go wrong.

A week-long group biking trip can be tricky. Many dreaded things can turn it sour: personality clashes, riding inequalities, bad weather, bike breakdowns, injuries, illness, frayed nerves. As trip leader, I worried that any or all these things might happen on our adventure.

Eight of us met in early September at Purgatory Ski Resort, just north of Durango, Colorado, for a 225-mile, week-long biking trip that would take us into Utah. We would travel from the San Juan Mountains, down across the high Colorado Plateau, back up into the La Sal Mountains, and finally down, down, down to the city of Moab.

We would be following one of the San Juan Huts routes. This business stocks and maintains several huts in western Colorado and eastern Utah and has established biking routes in between each hut. The trip is a bit bikepacking and a bit bikeglamping. While you still must carry some of your gear (the packing part), you can leave behind your tent, sleeping bag, and food and drinks. The huts are spacious, the sleeping pads are thick, and the food includes bacon, eggs, and some fresh fruit and vegetables (the glamping part). The routes are a mix of singletrack, doubletrack, good and bad gravel roads, and even some paved miles. 

I had started planning this trip almost a year ago. Each hut holds eight people. If you don’t fill your trip with eight people, you either pay for the missing people or you risk having to share the huts with strangers booked by the business. Fortunately, I was able to get eight people lined up. Some were strangers to each other, but everyone knew at least two other people in the group. 

We all met at Purgatory in the couple days before the trip started. We shared a condominium, and everyone seemed to get along. That boded well for the trip. 


At Molas Pass ready to start our adventure

We were all strong riders and most of us had previous bikepacking experience. Each had unique talents that helped make the group cohesive. Half of the group was around 40 years old and the other half over 60. Five of us were from Fairbanks and knew each other well. Of the others, one was from Anchorage, one from Montana, and one from Canada.

Corrine (me, Fairbanks): The instigator and organizer. I took care of most of the planning and logistics. Of course, that meant if everybody had a terrible time, I was to blame. As a Type A personality, I also usually keep group trips moving along, but we had other Type A’s in our group, too, so I was just one of several.

(Kamloops, B.C, Canada): The oldest of our group at 72. He was our sous chef, cutting up vegetables for dinner most days. He was also our resident klutz. (Sorry, Fred!) He gave us equal doses of concern and comic relief when he took a couple of dramatic falls, both at the huts, including one in the middle of the night when he fell out of bed. Fortunately, his injuries were mostly to his pride, and he took some good-natured ribbing well.

(Anchorage): A last minute addition when a Fairbanks rider had to drop out due to medical issues. Luckily, he was able to make it work. He was our bike breaker (although Eric eventually gave him a run for his money). He needed his bike worked on several times! He also was the repository for all nerdy facts about land use, rights-of-way, government agencies, etc. He was able to entertain us with these facts while riding uphill when the rest of us could barely breathe and pedal. 

(Helena, Montana): Our oldest female at 69 and a much-appreciated bike mechanic. With help from a few other “assistant mechanics,” she fixed a variety of bike ailments, including a broken spoke (with a cool Fiberfix spoke), non-functioning brakes, and bent rotors. A head-scratching highlight included Linda finding a typical office staple in the ball bearings of James’s headset. Our bikes probably would not have made it without her.

(Fairbanks): Our co-chef! She made sure we didn’t just open cans of Chef Boyardee for dinner. Instead, usually with the help of Erica, she made amazing meals such as Chicken Curry and Salmon Pasta Alfredo. She was also one of our strongest riders and the second-strongest technical rider.

(Fairbanks): Our other co-chef! Also, the mom who got us out of bed in the morning. She was first up to start the water for coffee. As soon as we heard her stirring, we would all get going, too. By the end of the trip, we were packed up, breakfast eaten, dishes done, and ready to ride in just a little over an hour!

(Fairbanks): Our strongest overall rider, he powered up the hills. Tom entertained us by reading posts in the log books at the huts. He also was the most likely to just use the paper route instructions instead of following a gpx track. Yet, I don’t think he ever went astray. 

(Fairbanks): My husband was the eternal optimist and best technical rider. That all came together when riding in the rain on a tough singletrack on the last day; his derailleur exploded, making him laugh out loud. He turned his bike into a single speed, and then a little later broke his pedal and had to ride with one foot on just a spindle! Yet, he remained in high spirits. He also probably trained the least but remained a strong rider the entire week. That sort of made me mad, as usually I beat him up hills but this week I couldn’t!

While many of us started as strangers, by the end we were a well-oiled team. We found riding partners with similar speeds and skills and had nary an argument for the whole week. We really had an amazing group dynamic.


San Juan Huts has a standard, mostly non-technical route between huts but also offers alternative singletrack options. Most days include between 20 and 40 miles of riding. 

The first day we all chose to ride the alternative route: 22 miles of singletrack along the Colorado Trail. We knew it would be tough, but in wonderful weather the views are spectacular. We had great weather, so yeah! Still, it kicked our butts, both the technical stuff and the elevation. The trail starts at 10,000 feet elevation, climbs over Rolling Pass at 12,500 feet, and ends at Bolam Hut at 11,500 feet. The first few miles of the trail were in good shape and mostly rideable, but the second half was steep and rocky. We walked a bunch. Even the faster riders (i.e., the 40-year-olds) managed only a 4-mph pace. But it was well worth it. Alpine meadows, high mountain passes, babbling brooks, and even a herd of domestic sheep just below Rolling Pass. We were speechless, not just from the thin air, but from the magnificent Rocky Mountains surrounding us.

Rolling Pass

After day one, we broke into groups with some riding the standard route and others riding singletrack options. Every night we dissected the next day’s route and made decisions as to who was riding what. Nobody was ever left to ride by themselves unless they wanted some time alone. 

Most days the standard route was a combination of good and rough gravel roads with some single- and doubletrack thrown in. I mostly stuck with the standard route and was glad I did. I’m a wimp when it comes to technical trails and I prefer to ride, not walk my bike. Those who chose the singletrack options were always glad they did, even when there was a lot of hike-a-bike. 

Day four was interesting. It was mostly an easier day of riding with the least amount of elevation gain. We all did the first alternative singletrack, which was rated easy. Linda, wanting some time alone, told us to continue without her. Fred, James, and I split from the rest of the group to avoid a section of singletrack described as intermediate/advanced. Our connector back to the standard route was in some ways more challenging than the advanced singletrack! It followed a buried gas line up and over some steep hills. But once we got back on the standard route, we made good time and figured to be first at the hut. 

Pushing up a steep hill following a buried gas pipeline

But no, somehow Linda had beaten us there! She had taken a different, much quicker, connector, getting to the hut 90 minutes before us. The rest showed up around an hour later, raving about the awesome singletrack they had ridden. Having a variety of routes really made the trip interesting and fun.

Day five got REALLY interesting. It started with some great gravel road riding along a plateau. But then we had a mile-long, 1,000-foot descent on a rough, steep trail that seemed built for mules, not humans with bikes! (Is this really the Standard Route?!) Lots of exposure; not for the faint of heart! We made it down and celebrated by lunching next to the Dolores River, some of us going for a dip, before riding the final miles to the hut.

Day six was a steady day of climbing from Paradox Valley at 5300 feet elevation to Geyser Pass Hut at 9700 feet in just 20 miles. At least the morning was cloudy or else we Alaskans would have been dying on that climb. The last miles to the hut were steep and rocky. Most of us pushed our bikes to the hut. Rain caught us that afternoon, so we were really happy to have a dry hut for the night! That night and the next morning we were serenaded by bugling elk!

Over 5000 feet of relentless climbing in 20 miles

Cow in the mist at the last cabin

The last day, five of our group decided to do the Whole Enchilada, a classic 35-mile singletrack descent down to Moab. It starts in the mountains with steep, gravelly singletrack and eventually descends into desert slickrock trails with some scary exposed cliffs that offer beautiful views.

Meanwhile, Fred, Linda and I pushed our bikes through two miles of mud on the standard route, rode part of the Kokopelli Route, and then bombed down the Sand Flats Road all the way into Moab, stopping frequently to take photos. 

Peanut butter mud!

For the rest of the group, riding the technical trails was hard on loaded hardtails. After his derailleur exploded, Eric continued with the group, but then told them to go on after his pedal fell off, leaving only a spindle. He knew he couldn’t continue on Porcupine Rim, an advanced singletrack trail. The rest of the group forged ahead, but eventually grew tired of walking the technical portions and took the last bailout down Sand Flats Road into Moab.

But Eric slowly realized he could ride a lot of the technical sections even with his broken bike. He decided
to try to chase down the others. Eventually, he realized they must have bailed out (a text about milkshake and fries tipped him off), but he stubbornly continued, finishing the entire trail (and giving him the distinction of being the only one to do every entire singletrack option). But the single-speed spinning demoralized him when he hit the paved bike path and he called for a rescue just five miles from Moab.

Broken derailleur

Broken pedal


The huts are amazing. Most are at the end of a long climb, which is hard at the end of the day but also means spectacular views. We all agreed that the Wedding Bell Hut overlooking Bull Canyon on day five was our favorite. Incredible views and an old uranium mine to explore nearby.

Wedding Bell Hut - room with a view

Each hut includes four bunkbeds complete with mattresses and sleeping bags (you just need to bring a sleeping bag liner), a composting toilet, propane for the stove and lights, woodstove, and plenty of water for drinking and cooking. 

The huts have cabinets and coolers filled with food, pretty much anything you might crave: snack foods such as nuts, dried fruit, jerky, candy, cookies, chips of varying sorts. For dinner there is pasta, rice, quinoa, tortillas, cheese, mac-n-cheese, beans, tuna, chicken, roast beef and vegetables like potatoes, carrots, and onions. And lots of spices. 

Fred shows off the food choices

The huts also have fruit including apples, oranges, bananas, and, once, a cantaloupe! Dry cereal and oatmeal for breakfast, or bacon and eggs. To drink:  coffee, tea, lemonade and electrolyte mixes, and cold sodas and beers. There was no dieting on this trip!

Except for the first day, we got to the huts by mid-afternoon with plenty of time to relax. After claiming a bunk, we would get something cold to drink, grab some chips, and sit in camp chairs on the deck or at scenic overlooks chatting, reading, or just quietly enjoying the views. 

Relaxing on the deck in the shade with drinks and snacks

Sunset views

More sunset views

Around 5 p.m. we would think about dinner, and somebody (usually Nikki and Erica) would start cooking. Those who didn’t cook, would do clean up. By 9 p.m., almost everyone was in bed, exhausted from the day. Ear plugs were helpful, as some people (really most of us) snored, and there was always somebody going outside to use the outhouse. (And, of course, there was Fred’s fall out of bed. Sorry, Fred!) 

The chefs making dinner

Enjoying our chicken curry dinner

We started getting up earlier and earlier (finally settling on about 6:30 a.m.) to beat the afternoon heat. Erica would get water going for the coffee drinkers and soon we would be eating breakfast, packing up, and cleaning up the hut. James and Eric dubbed us the Morning Rush Hour Crew because no one dillydallied in the a.m. We would be on our bikes by 8-9 a.m. for another day of spectacular riding. 


Our timing was superb. We missed the summer monsoon season with its regular afternoon thunderstorms. We had minimal wind and mostly sunny skies with just a few very brief showers. The daily highs were only in the mid 80s (still kind of sweltering for us Alaskans). Some of us dragged a bit doing the long afternoon climbs in the hot sun, but it could have been much hotter. And a couple of days, we passed a lake or river around lunchtime where we would jump in to cool off (and get clean). Mornings were a little cool but never close to freezing. Perfect biking weather. Luckily, we had cloud cover for our biggest day of climbing, 5,000 feet elevation gain in 20 miles on day six.

Cooling off and cleaning up in a reservoir

We had a vigorous thunderstorm after we were settled at Wedding Bell Hut, but it passed quickly. Real rain caught us near Geyser Pass on day six. It rained most of that night and into the next morning. This did lead to a couple of miles of peanut butter mud for those of us who chose the standard route, but once we descended, the road dried up and the temperatures warmed. And even in Moab, the highs were only in the upper 80s. The week before it had been up to 100. Yep, nearly perfect weather! (I wish I could tell you I planned it that way, but really it was mostly luck.)

Day seven - Our only cold and rainy morning.  Notice Fred's rainwear. He forgot his rain jacket but found a poncho he could use!


We had a couple of days in Moab before heading home. We stayed at a rental house, that included a hot tub, and enjoyed some nice meals out. Some of the group hiked in Arches National Park and the last day several of us did another bike ride, the 40-mile Jug Handle Loop, which included part of the classic White Rim Trail, the site of the final scene in “Thelma and Louise,” a set of long switchbacks up Schafer Trail Road, and a blasting descent down Long Canyon. Everyone, no matter where they went, raved about the views.

Thelma and Louise point

Shafer Trail.  Yep, we rode up that, 13-18% grade for most of it

Overall, our trip was amazing. There were some lows but not many. We survived a bit of bad weather, some tiring days, and some broken bikes, but mostly it was outstanding. The views and trail experiences were awesome. But really, having the right people made all the  difference.  And we definitely had an incredible crew!

San Juan Huts
offers a wide variety of hut-to-hut options, even for hiking and skiing. If you want to experience an area far different than Alaska, consider a trip to the area. Just make sure to spend time thinking about putting together a good group. With the right people bad things can be survived and even made fun.

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Escaping the Smoke

Post by Corrine

Bike Red Rock Canyon. Check.

Bike Coal Mine Lakes Road. Check.

Hike to the Castner Glacier ice cave. Check.

Many of us have Bucket Lists. Epic things that we want to do before we die. Things like go on a bike safari in Africa. Hike in Patagonia in Chile. Or float the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon (we did that last year.) But I also have a list of several smaller, closer-to-home activities that I want to do. Call it my Little Bucket List. This past weekend, I got to check off a few Little Bucket List activities. Nothing epic but still satisfying. 

Photo from our Grand Canyon trip - a trip of a lifetime

Smoke helped provide motivation for this weekend’s trip. This spring our fire season had been record-level quiet. Then late July was hot. And windy. Wildfires blew up, especially in the Interior. Now we have fires north, south, and east of Fairbanks. Smoke rolled in and didn’t leave. Our air quality plummeted. No fun! So, I started looking for places to get away from the smoke. 

AQI reading from Purple Air website. Above 300 is hazardous!

South of Delta Junction, in the Alaska Range, looked to be less smoky for the weekend. The state cabin at Donnelly Creek State Recreation Site was available Friday and Saturday so I booked it. Eric, feeling pressure to finish some home and other projects, wasn’t sure if he would come. Plus, the weather and smoke forecasts for that area were iffy and changing by the hour. There was a good chance of rain in the Alaska Range. Heading down just to hang out in a cabin didn’t sound fun. And what if it was just as smoky there as home? I waffled all week. I considered canceling the reservation, but I waited too long and lost my chance. It was ours if we wanted it. 

Donnelly Creek State Recreation Site cabin

Then Eric changed his mind. He had made more progress on his projects than expected. On Friday the weather and smoke forecast looked OK for south of Delta Junction. Not great, but better than Fairbanks. Friday morning at breakfast we agreed to go for it. We hurriedly packed up our camping gear and bikes and took off by 9:30 AM. 

We saw a lot of smoke on the drive down, especially between Salcha and Delta Junction. That got us worried, but we were committed to at least checking out the cabin, one of the few road-accessible state cabins in the Interior we hadn’t stayed at (another first!). When we turned south on the Richardson Highway from Delta Junction, we saw skies clear of smoke! And it was mostly sunny! 

Very smoky skies out our car window on the drive down

We hadn’t planned any specific activities, so we talked about that on the drive. I had several things in that area on my Little Bucket List that I wanted to do. Since we were getting to the cabin just after midday, we had time for one in the afternoon. We dumped our stuff and the cabin and headed just 25 miles down the road!

Biking the Red Rock Canyon Mining Road

We decided on this activity first, since the weather was good in that area and neither of us had done it. Red Rock Canyon Road is the informal name for a mining road that heads east from the Richardson Highway at about Mile 213.5. It has been used by Fairbanksans and others for many years to access alpine country, the north side of Rainbow Ridge, and south side of Canwell Glacier, which had a nice, mostly gentle trail heading up the lateral moraine. We had been in the area a few times for different adventures. Then, quite a few years ago, a mining company pushed in a road up the lateral moraine, crisscrossing the old trail. People were sad about the loss of the trail, but it opened a new possibility: biking up the mining road. 

The road starts as smooth gravel as it leaves the highway, but when it heads into the narrow canyon (the whole canyon is not red, just some rocks at the eastern end) it gets really rocky. We knew about the stream crossing about 3.5 miles in, so we brought sandals. I walked the stream, but Eric tried to bike across and almost made it.

Walking through the stream on the way back down.  Eric rode through it.  It was very rocky.

After the stream, we changed back into shoes and socks and had to push our bikes up a couple of very steep, rocky pitches. But then the trail leveled out and we were able to bike a few miles along the lateral moraine of the Canwell. There you have unimpeded views of the glacier and into the heart of the Alaska Range. On the way up we met some friends from Fairbanks, who were backpacking into Rainbow Basin and happy to be out of the smoke. (On the way down, we ran into another group of hikers from Fairbanks escaping the smoke.) 

The trail was steep and rocky in places

After biking about 6 miles, the mining road forks. We chose the one heading east, but soon stopped at another stream crossing. We could see the road continue, zigzagging up the next hill, but it would be a lot of hike-a-bike. Instead, we dropped our bikes and hiked up the side of the stream. After about a mile we got to a nice viewpoint where we could see the head of the valley, rimmed with high, sharp peaks and sporting a couple of small hanging glaciers. We made a loop by coming down an old moraine. 

We dropped our bikes here and hiked up this side valley 

We hiked up from the stream down below

Heading back on bike was much faster than going up, and it was a great fun! This time Eric successfully biked the stream crossing! We raced some dark clouds back to our car, and only got sprinkled on. As we drove back to our cabin, the rain started. Perfect timing! 

Racing the rain clouds back to our car

Biking Red Rock Canyon. Checked off my list! (Though we can go back and explore more!)

Biking Coal Mine Lakes Road

That evening, while on a longish after-dinner walk along the Delta River dike that extends from the recreation site, we talked about Saturday and decided on Coal Mine Lakes Road (officially it’s just Coal Mine Road). Eric had biked it years ago, but I hadn’t done it yet. Eric remembered it being 11 to 13 miles long and all bikeable. (He was wrong on the first – it’s about 13 miles roundtrip – but right on the second.) 

We got going right after breakfast, since it was supposed to rain in the afternoon. We decided to bike from the cabin since the Coal Mine Road, which heads east from the Richardson at Mile 242.1, is only about 4.5 miles north of the Donnelly Creek State Recreation Site (though almost all uphill). The morning was beautiful though chilly, but the climb quickly warmed us. 

Great views while climbing uphill on the Richardson Highway

Coal Mine Road is much less rocky than the Red Rock Canyon mining road. However, it has puddles. Lots of them. Many took up the whole road. Fortunately, I had been ready for this and wore my waterproof socks. That was a good choice, since some puddles were fairly deep, and my shoes got very wet. Eric’s bike is a couple of inches taller than mine. He didn’t have waterproof socks but was able to avoid a complete foot-soaking, though his feet did get damp. 

One of many, many puddles on the Coal Mine Road

Coal Mine Road climbs steadily toward the foothills of the Alaska Range. At the beginning it goes under the Alaska Pipeline, then it passes by several small lakes (many that are stocked by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game) before finally breaking out in alpine country at the end. Years earlier we had camped at one of the first lakes with our kids. 

One of many lakes along the Coal Mine Lakes Road

As we biked up the road, the views just kept getting better. No wind, no bugs, no smoke, no rain, great views, what could be better?! This would be a perfect place for an overnight bikepack, especially if you wanted to fish. 

The road peters out about 6 miles in at the old coal mine. There’s not much left of the mine. A couple of old shot up vehicles. A few pieces of rusted equipment. Since we were almost at the end, we left our bikes so we could avoid a deep puddle. We bushwhacked around the puddle, then hiked on the road a bit and crossed a stream. On the other side we looked at coal from the seam that had been mined. A four-wheeler trail continues from there, but it stays low in a swampy saddle to cross over into the Jarvis Creek drainage. We didn’t have much desire to poke further, so we turned around.

Old machinery and vehicles at the mine site

The road peters out into a soggy, tundra 4-wheeler trail

There is still some coal left in the area

The return trip was quick and fun, though we didn’t do quite as well with the puddles. I took the wrong line through a puddle, got bogged down in some soft muck, and had to step off in the deepest part that went up to mid shin. Eric just laughed and took a photo. Then, just before the last of the puddles, Eric’s karma caught up. He was skirting a puddle when he hit his handlebars on a branch and crashed into the water! He skinned up his knee and soaked his gloves and one foot, but otherwise only his ego was bruised. The ride down the Rich back to the cabin was a fun, fast zoom and helped dry out our soggy parts a bit. 

I should've gone left!

Eric's knee gets a little skinned up from his fall in a puddle

Biking Coal Mine Lakes Road. Checked off my list!

Hiking to the Castner Glacier Ice Cave

After lunch, we still had energy, so we decided to hike to the Castner Glacier ice cave. Eric had been to it a couple of times years before. But I hadn’t done it even though it’s only a mile hike in from the highway. In the past couple of years, it has become very popular, especially in winter. It seems like everybody we know – and many we don’t – has been there except me. (BLM and DOT have put up signs and added parking to deal with all the people.)

We knew it wouldn’t be quite the experience that has been drawing flocks of people. This past spring, part of the cave collapsed. And in summer Castner Creek runs much higher and faster than in winter, plus the glacier is melting, so it’s not safe to go into what’s left of the cave. 

But I figured it would be a nice hike for the afternoon. Despite knowing about its popularity, we were still surprised how many people were there. A couple of the small parking lots were full, and we must have seen close to 25 people on our hike. That seems like a lot for an undeveloped Richardson Highway hike on a weekend with so-so weather. 

The cave is still interesting, but it’s clearly not like it was before the collapse. And in summer it’s gray and dirty, with mud, dirt, and rocks – some fairly large – tumbling from the top. Nonetheless, we were glad we had hiked back in to see it. The sky drizzled off and on during the hike, but it never turned to rain until we got back into our car. Once again, we really lucked out!

Stream-hopping on the way to the glacier

Hiking to the Castner Glacier ice cave. Checked off my list!

Calling It Good

Relaxing in the small, funky Donnelly Creek cabin

After getting back to our cabin and relaxing a bit, we decided that we would rather just head home that night instead of in the morning. We could have climbed Donnelly Dome in the morning, but we have both done that several times and the day wasn’t going to be glorious according to the forecast. We didn’t feel a need to sleep a second night in a cabin. Plus, according to Purple Air, the smoke had cleared out of Fairbanks and the air quality was good. And as a bonus, we could stop at the Buffalo Diner for dinner on our way home. Yum!

Our weekend wasn’t epic, but it was fun. (And I didn’t even mention the near total lack of mosquitoes! We never had to put on bug dope!) We escaped the smoke for a couple of days, and I got to mark a few things off my Little Bucket List! I still have a few things down there and in other places within driving distance of Fairbanks that are on by Little Bucket List. If the smoke comes back, I might check off a few more things before summer is over.