The idea of a true-to-form vacation, or holiday, is pretty foreign to me. As someone who’s spent their entire adult life living, breathing, eating, photographing bicycles 24/7, it’s hard to leave work, i.e. a camera, behind. A few years ago, right after Josh posted his Reportage from the Durango to Moab route along the San Juan Huts network, we put a reservation in for the Telluride to Moab route. Then the pandemic hit, delaying the trip indefinitely. We finally agreed upon a week this year and began planning. I hadn’t been on a week-long tour in years and with work seemingly stacking up, I was glad to disconnect with seven other riders touring across the Uncompahgre Plateau from the San Juan to the La Sal mountains. We all began packing, preparing, and the excited chatter resonated through my email inbox daily…
San Juan Huts: Telluride to Moab
Since 1987, the San Juan Huts have been the premier bicycle touring experience. This network of small huts placed on public and private land come stocked with food, cooking gear, bunk beds, sleeping pads, and water. These dwellings rely on propane for their lamps and cooktops, have wood-burning stoves, coolers loaded with food, and yes, even beer for anyone who wants a frothy at the end of the day.
These mountain bike hut-to-hut routes are as challenging as they are beautiful but drastically reduce the amount of planning required on a normal 7-day mountain bike tour or bikepacking trip. You don’t have to carry a tent or shelter, or a pad, and depending on the season, you can get away with a quilt or a bag liner in lieu of a sleeping bag.
Durango to Moab and Telluride to Moab are by far the most popular routes people pick and these routes are runnable throughout the entire summer as most of the huts are above 8,000′, high in the alpine. If traversing through various ecotones of the Colorado Plateau via a network of gravel roads, doubletrack, and singletrack sounds like a fun time to you, then keep reading!
New Riders in a Smokey Haze
There were eight of us all together. Kyle, Kim, and I are from Santa Fe, Shaun lives in Fort Defiance, Arizona, Alex lives in San Francisco, Josh and Bryan are from Phoenix, and Colin is from Bozeman. Like seemingly everyone, our rider group had a shit 2020 and were looking forward to a full week on the bike with nothing to do but pedal and soak in the sights and sounds.
Along the western edge of the Colorado Plateau lies the Uncompahgre Plateau, a unique uplift that consists of a Precambrian basement covered by a thick blanket of Mesozoic sedimentary rocks. This plateau averages 9,500′ in elevation, from the Colorado River at 4,600′ all the way to Horsefly Peak at 10,300′ and is contained by the San Miguel and Dolores Rivers to the west, the Colorado River to the north, and the Gunnison and Uncompahgre Rivers on the eastern side.
The word, “Uncompahgre”, comes from the Ute people and translates to “Rocks that make Water Red”, due to the red-rock sandstone spilling into the Colorado River at the northern edge. On the Telluride to Moab route, you ride clear across this beautiful plateau, many times through a tunnel cut through alpine aspen groves… the last day ends on the fabled Porcupine Rim trail and finishes in the town of Moab, Utah.
Reportage: Smokey Skies, Gravel Roads, Ripping Singletrack, and Herping
The West’s fire season is no longer a month or two. It consists of a year-round battle for local firefighters and leading up to this trip, the smoke map didn’t look good. Even the day we left, a haze blanketed the mountains surrounding the mountain town of Telluride, Colorado. As we ascended in the gondola, it was apparent we were in for a hazy trip. Luckily, the AQI never exceeded 80, or we would have had to cut our ride short.
This trip is bookended by ripping singletrack and the trails in Telluride are not to be missed. We took the Prospector Trail to Magic Meadows and down Sunshine before slogging up one of the largest climbs on the whole trip to the Last Dollar Hut.
There’s no better way to suss out the group’s dynamic than by pushing your loaded bike up to the alpine. We all lent a helping hand, expressed words of encouragement, and sat around cracking jokes whenever possible. If the mood is light, chances are, your bike will feel light.
Once our team reconvened at Last Dollar Hut, we began joking about how much of an ass-kicker the first day was. We began to wonder how many people turned back after the first day.
The next few days that followed made us all question our choice of riding mountain bikes. These routes are largely made up of forest service fire roads and while there are singletrack options, on this particular route, we opted to mostly stay on the gravel roads for the next hundred miles or so. Why? Well, in mixed-use OHV areas, motos tend to eat up and rut out the trails. We are also in mostly flat terrain, so the one or two trails we sampled tended to beat us up. We’re not here for meandering trails, so we decided to save our energy for the ripping “Ute Creek Trail” that would await us in a few days.
This left plenty of time to satiate that atavistic urge to play. Alex worked on his manuals, while the rest of us cracked jokes, took photos, and rode around in a daze under the grey backdrop enveloping our otherwise pristine surroundings. Bucolic fields ended at private property fences and clear-cut roads lined with aspen stands created a dreamlike scenery.
The most idyllic hut from those long days traversing the mostly-flat Uncompahgre Plateau had to have been day three. Unlike the other huts, the forest wasn’t as dense, allowing for plenty of time meandering through the aspen stand, observing the floral and fauna of the area. Meadows full of paintbrush, fireweed, delphiniums, mountain bluebells, and more enveloped our humble abode for the night, aptly named the “Columbine Hut” after a local flower. Ironically, we missed the Columbine blooms by a few weeks.
That evening was by far the most ethereal. Maybe it was the drugs – errr Kodachrome – or maybe this nirvana comes after a few days with any riding group. We were on the verge of denouncing gravel roads as a religion and on the brink of establishing a cult when things picked back up again.
We ride mountain bikes to ascend and descend mountains. We are gravity bullies. Mortals on the verge of summiting Mount Olympus. If our minds were tired from endless gravel, our souls awakened once we careened our loaded bikes down the fabled Ute Creek Trail.
Somewhere along the way, we began to notice a healthy plethora of cold-blooded friends, prompting Bryan to joke about this being a herping trip (short for herpetology – the study of cold-blooded animals.) This made me smile as I’ve long had a love of lizards and snakes. Greater Short Horned Lizards were in abundance but the real gem was this Common Collared Lizard, found skittering across the wash just outside Gateway Colorado.
Dropping off the Uncompahgre on day five was quite possibly the highlight of the entire trip. A ripping fire road drops over 4,500′ in just a few miles, with tight hairpin turns, wheel-eating ruts, and washboard corrugations that will leave your hands pulsing.
The scenery was the only distraction from the putrid smell of cooked Dot fluid and smoking rotors.
In the desert, you search for water. We tip-toed to find a suitable hole. Like cold rain on hot rocks, you could hear a faint sizzle as we soaked for a few minutes and gave our bikes a break under the shade of a cottonwood grove. Bryan had the right idea…
The desert in August isn’t the most hospitable place. Our hopeful oasis – a bougie resort with a bar and kitchen – was closed for a private party. Josh used his powers of persuasion to coerce the management to make us eight burgers we could devour under a nearby bridge while we waited for the triple-digit temps to subside. This is bicycle touring.
The fine folks at the Gateway General Store made a small fortune off our purchases that day. Lemonade, probiotic sparkling beverages, iced coffee, ice cream sandwiches, sour patch kids, and other sugary delights were on our collective tab as we watched the monsoon skies envelop the oppressive sun. We hoped for rain. Or just a mist. Anything to lower the temperatures for the following day.
Never have I ever slept in a film of my own perspiration before as I did that night. Our plan was to wake up at 5 am and hit the road no later than 6 am as the climb up John Brown Canyon lives in infamy. 3,000′ in just over 5 miles made for a wake-up call no one asked for. I headed out a bit earlier than the others, in the hope of some solitude and reflection. Sunrises in the desert are my favorite and as I ascended, the sun began to peek out over the sandstone slot canyons, cracking like an atomic blast as I cleared the final wall of the day. Resting in the grass at the top of the climb, I remembered why it is I love the desert so much.
Those few hours spent pushing my bike up to the La Sal reminded me of the stillness, the beauty, and the adaptation we must undergo to recreate in the desert during the summer. We must become nocturnal, existing in the shoulder hours of the day. Like a kangaroo rat or kitfox, we hide in the shadows waiting for the sun to slumber. Respice.
Vernacular markers reminded us of our journey and our destination.
The final day began with the awakening of a slumbering serpent. We had to climb out of two valleys before dropping into the fabled Kokopelli trail, which dumps into Upper Porcupine. The night prior proved to be too smokey for sunset photos and all morning my mind was hoping for a high-pressure system to push the smoke out of Castle Valley as the most photogenic backdrop of the trip awaited us.
At the Castle Valley Overlook, we were met with one of the most depressing visuals I’ve witnessed in all my years of visiting this place. A monotone oil-painted backdrop replaced the outstanding Navajo Sandstone red coloration. Suddenly, the air tasted of an old pipe, smelled of grandfather’s mustache, or your flannel after an evening of a campfire.
After six full days on the bike, Porcupine brought back memories of that first pedal in Telluride. This classic trail is a real hoot when traversing the rim fully-loaded. We jibbed, sessioned, and took in the muted views, commenting on how we, the New Riders in a Smokey Haze, had made it this far without a single mechanical or crash.
Shortly after this photo, Alex’s dropper post shit the bed. So much for that!
Milts awaited us, as did the cholesterol. As someone who cut back drastically on his red meat and dairy consumption, this felt like adultery. My sins were found in the form of a Santa Fe double burger, a salty caramel and a peanut butter milkshake. Not much was said during our feast. People’s phones chimed with alerts, or messages from loved ones. Our bikes displayed against the chainlink fence as a steady stream of side-by-sides and obnoxious Jeeps rolled past. Tourists gawked. One woman asked where we rode from. I said “Telluride”. She queried “Where?!”
Because we can’t sit still and even after a week of documenting this trip, we had to go to one of our favorite overlooks to see how bad the smoke was. It was bad. An ominous display of the new normal in the American West. Take it in while you can.
Epilogue: Notes on the San Juan Huts Telluride to Moab Route
Since sharing some sneak peeks on my personal Instagram account, I received a number of questions, which I’ll attempt to address here. As well as a few critiques of this experience. To be clear, we paid for this trip. It’s not #sponsored, so as with everything here on the Radavist this is my honest take on this unique hut-to-hut experience.
It’s great not having to carry your tent or pad or worry about water.
The huts are well-stocked with food.
Routing was easy with a GPS device.
The choose-your-own-adventure experience was amazing. Want to do all the singletrack? Or just some? The San Juan Huts team make that easy to navigate.
Just when you get sick of riding gravel, you get to ride the best trail from the whole trip. The Ute Creek Trail is not to be missed.
During the summer months, it’d be nice to sleep outside. The huts won’t let you take your pads outdoors. I wish I had brought a sleeping pad, particularly for the Gateway hut.
Some of the huts have shady places to spend the last hours of the day. Others do not. Simple shade cloths placed strategically, and better outdoor seating across the board would really go a long way. It’d also be nice if the huts had a bike corral to keep them out of the sun and the elements.
The huts feel dated. A simple solar array and a lithium battery would remove the need for coolers, ice packs, and finicky propane lanterns. You could literally power each of these huts with 500-1000w of solar panels and electric fridges.
Yes, you could ride a gravel bike or adventure bike on this route. You can, in fact, omit all of the singletrack if you wanted to. The only issues you’d run into would be gearing. Unless your bike has super compact, wide-range, mtb gearing, you’ll be walking a lot of the climbs. You’d also hate riding into Gateway, as the arroyo is filled with deep sand. That said, a hardtail mountain bike is plenty of bike for this trip.
In the warmer months, you can get by with a sleeping bag liner in lieu of a sleeping bag. I brought a down jacket and merino leggings and only got really cold on the first night with my bag liner (11,000′).
I wish I brought a lightweight hammock to spend the afternoons swaying in the breeze or to sleep in on the very warm nights.
You do not need to bring any food. The huts are stocked with snacks, coffee, and plenty of items to make your lunch. Unless you have particular snacks you like, we all found Fritos and PB&J sandwiches to suffice.
This is not a closed route. There are logging trucks, cattle ranchers, and other recreational vehicles that do not give a fuck about you and your merry companions. We almost got run off the road multiple times by trucks.
Study the pamphlet the SJH supplies. There are a lot of crucial notes, tips, and other minutiae that will make this trip worth the $$$$.
Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!
Have fun! It’s a beautiful experience.
Check out the routes, pricing, and availability at the San Juan Huts website!