Geology Through Bikepacking
Photos and words by Locke Hassett
As humans, we seek exploration of new places and the lessons that such exploration may bring; self-discovery, physical challenge, humility, solitude, community, and unforgettable views to name a few. We refer to this as recreation, which comes from the term “to re-create”. These endeavors are valuable, perhaps necessary, to the self. But, if we only learn about ourselves, the amount that we can give back to the world that allows us the privilege to explore can be limited. Ever so often, we must explore for reasons beyond understanding and re-create ourselves. We must explore with intention and inquiry. If the intention is set to learn not only about ourselves but about the landscape; it’s natural history and current state, we just might be able to become stewards of its future.
The Geology through Bikepacking course offered at Prescott College explores the geology, geography, and ecology of the Colorado Plateau through 3 different bikepacking trips over the course of a month. This course provides an opportunity to learn about a landscape by traveling through it. It uses the bicycle as a means not only for recreation, but for education. This is the story.
Our first route would take us from the edge of the Grand Canyon to the San Francisco Peaks, near Flagstaff. Standing on the rim of the Canyon, listening to wind and crickets, bats and breaths of my classmates, I began to feel an anxiety build within me, of insignificance in the face of time. How can something so massive, so incomprehensibly ancient, be explained by the objective analysis of subjective observation? I suppose this questioning is what got me here.
Fortunately, having as grandiose a whiteboard as the Grand Canyon helps demystify. The principle of superposition lays a basis for understanding the reading of a schism, not unlike rings in a tree. Sheer cliffs and crumbling slopes tell a story of deposition based on rock type and their relative competence. A story of shallow seas and sand dunes sets the stage for our ride forward into time, towards the much more recent volcanism that created the vast San Francisco Volcanic field.
We depart during a warm afternoon, flowing over sharp limestone of the Kaibab formation. Ponderosa pines provide shade and scent, and despite the ratcheting of our freehubs, Kaitlin and I share conversation for some time. I become more aware of the composition of the rock in contrast to the soft, organic soil as large, jagged pieces poke out from under litter and duff. A viewpoint offers a peek at the edge of the Grand Canyon, a hole in the ground, the end of the Earth, a surprise horizon. All we can see from this point is Kaibab limestone and its grey-yellow outcroppings. The Moenkopi is all but gone from this landscape, and reminds us of the impermanence of structure in a universe bound for chaos.
On day two, we transition to dirt roads that are much more forgiving on a rigid bike than the chunder of Kaibab singletrack. Though still riding on the “tear-your-pants” limestone, the roads’ pulverization by graders, tractors, and trucks makes the going much smoother. Midway through the morning, the San Francisco peaks come into view, and tower over us. They would not leave our view for the remainder of the trip. One of our group learned about the importance of staying hydrated in the desert, and another learned that eating a jar of peanut butter is not a sufficient lunch, and in fact, is detrimental to one’s ability to pedal.
Our final day is spent climbing towards the 9400’ saddle east of Humphrey’s Peak. Dirt roads gave way to beautifully carved tan and red singletrack that grips tires with joyous voracity. Pines give way to aspens and ferns, and I wonder to myself: am I still in the desert?
Hidden Gems of the San Fransico Peaks
Our final descent into Flagstaff is a dynamic trail made of decomposed igneous, with large chunks protruding to keep us on our toes. I wish for suspension in places, but I’m having far too much fun to be resentful of rigidity. Another student and I hoot and holler to each other with elation and a tone is set for the trip. It settles in that we are to be confounded, amazed, and filled with gratitude to be able to experience the dichotomy and marriage of the flow state of mountain biking that defies time, and landscapes that narrate it to the n’th degree.
Morning at Bonita Tank
Our next trip would be in the Chuska and Lukachukai mountains of Navajo Nation.The geologic and social history of this region has a visceral effect on those who visit it, and a much more deeply felt effect on those who live there. It is impossible to ignore the geology of these mountains.
Looking West from the Lukachukai
A significant portion of our route would be on the Chinle formation, which, along with the Morrison, is known for being rich in Uranium. These layers tell a story at the intersection of geology, geography, and society. The effects of Leetso, the Navajo word for Uranium, are still felt to this day. The community of Cove, and surrounding communities and homes have been affected dramatically by the uranium mining since the 1940s. From mine tailings contaminating the water supply, to homes being built with the radioactive dirt, to tailing piles blowing in the wind.
Fortunately, while we were there, we were informed that the route that we were riding may be very different in the future, due to road improvement projects in an effort to assist the EPA and other environmental agencies in remediating the uranium mines. That road improvement may also remove the 2 mile horizontal hike a bike traverse of a sand dune covered road that Kurt, one of the instructors and the man who mapped our route, is secretly quite fond of.
Horizontal Hike A Bike
The Chuska and Lukachukai ranges are some of the most ecologically and geologically diverse landscapes in the Southwest, which is impressive given their relatively small size in comparison to other ranges. We began our ride on Chuska sandstone, which virtually only occurs in these mountains, as it is the only place where it has yet to be eroded away. The decomposed layer made for sandy riding, and those of us with plus sized tires were thankful for our choice. We rode through firs and pines, which are relatively rare in this part of the American Southwest.
Much of our ride through the Chuskas was along dirt roads and doubletrack, with our high point reaching just over 9,000’ at the top of Roof Butte. We traveled through high desert meadows lush with aspens and sheep, filled water from stock tanks, and chatted with locals about a feral bull that they have been chasing for years. Luckily, and yet to my chagrin, we never saw this bull, but instead caught a fleeting glimpse of wild horses.
Our last evening of riding took us through the radioactive layers and eventually onto a slickrock playground made of Navajo and Wingate formations, which excited Kaitlyn to the point of sprinting the final half mile and proceed to ride giddily around a pothole, transforming it into a sandstone velodrome[a]. We finished the ride by flying over slickrock “roads” and through dried river beds into Cove, and then met with a local grade school class to discuss our trip and attempt to understand their sense of place. One girl lamented watching a cougar in her backyard, and another child related to our masochism by telling us of his daily commute to school on two wheels.
Our final leg of the course began somewhere between Gunnison and Crested Butte, Colorado. This portion of the trip would be the physical crux, as we had multiple passes over 10,000’. We would ride up and over the Reno divide, into Taylor Park, then over Star Pass into Crested Butte.The riding would reflect the tumultuous nature of the Laramide Orogeny (which is a great band name), and the subsequent glaciation. The dichotomy of the ancient actions of mountain building, and the recent glacial grinding, would set a theme for this leg: expect the dramatic.
We pushed ourselves through elevation and exhaustion. This was the first portion of the course where we dealt with rain. As we descended into Taylor park for the night, the sky opened up. We set up our shelters in a soaked rush, and as I set water to boil, I found myself grinning with gratitude. Gratitude for the opportunity to be wet and cold, and to be warm again. Gratitude for sil-nylon and the smell of rain and lemongrass tea, but mostly gratitude to share this experience with 6 others who had never camped off of a bike before. My peers, who just a few weeks beforehand had never touched a frame bag were now wondering at what point it would be reasonable to re-lube their chains after the storm.
The following days brought 12,000’ hike-a-bikes, glorious ribbons of singletrack through alpine meadows, and sunrise sending of buffed out moto trail into Crested Butte, where we would relax ad recuperate before an optional day ride. Our goal was to leave camp by 7am to beat the noontime rains that would surely turn the Mancos Shale that most of our route was made of to an un-rideable muck. The route was a scenic tour of Paradise Divide, near Crested Butte.
Water break heading into Taylor Park
Climbing up on dirt roads, descending through Schofield Basin, and finally climbing the twisty singletrack to the top of the classic 401 trail.
Morning Climb to the Paradise Divide
This spur was an optional day ride for our group of 9, and five of us chose to use that day to recuperate from the previous weeks of riding loaded mountain bikes. If it weren’t for the dogged stoke and determination of two of my other peers, I just might have used that day to rest as well. I respected the desires of my new friends to climb nearly 3,000 feet in the morning by choice, but I respect the honesty and awareness of personal needs and well being that most of us chose even more.
We began to climb in the cool morning light, and, between words, watched the angle of the sun change on barren peaks. I ate my oats while riding and had to backtrack to retrieve a fallen spork. We chatted about our experience in the field up to this point and lost our breath in conversation and altitude.
The reward of descending the 401 was well worth it. Smooth lines through a glacial valley, bermed corners and just enough weeds and roots to make it feel less like a local classic but a gem of singletrack hidden among mountain roads. The perfect end to an already incredible course.
Approaching the 401
This course was riddled with picturesque landscapes, fast lines, heavy breathing,cold oatmeal and gritty coffee. Of course, as bikepackers these are the things we dream of. We catalog the pieces of perfection in our minds and on our social media. But to be truthful, the hard breaths on the roads and trails, and the humility brought by the struggles they bring will stick in my mind longer.
Classic 401 Views
Sure, I got to ride my bike for a month, and that’s all well and good. What I found to be more important was the fact that I was able to witness a sport and a machine that had previously brought me the joys and pains of recreation bring education, and sense of place to myself and my peers. Watching that humility streak smiles of self-actualization across the faces of 8 other human beings for the many miles we shared will remain in my mind long after memories of berms and jumps fade. We are not here to shred, but rather to interact with the landscape, and in doing so, let it teach us. It holds true that defying gravity can provide temporary pleasure, but intimately interacting with it, understanding it, and ultimately respecting it? That grounds us. That will last a lifetime.
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