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.