How hard could it be?
If the Mormons could do it with wagons and horses in 1880, our group of six college friends would find the route a breeze with state-of-the-art mountain bikes and lightweight rafts. Right?
Led by Colt Fetters, the program coordinator for Outdoor Pursuits at Fort Lewis College, we planned to bikepack and packraft a section of the Emigrant Trail: the San Juan-Escalante Loop along the Old Settler Road. We figured we could accomplish the trek in a week.
Bikepacking combines backpacking and bike touring, while packrafting includes using an inflatable boat that is light and compact, yet durable. For the trip, the packrafts would carry us, our mountain bikes and other gear, down the San Juan River and across Lake Powell.
Our trek would begin at Clay Hills Crossing on the San Juan River. After 20 miles of paddling, we planned to exit the river and hike out of the canyon. Once on the plateau, we would locate the road that joins the historic route, where we would begin our first bike leg. Ending at the shore of Lake Powell, we planned to paddle across to Hole in the Rock, where Mormon pioneers built a road to exit Glen Canyon.
From Hole in the Rock, the plan had us back on bikes for an 80-mile cross-country ride on twisting dirt roads to asphalt, and then 15 miles to Boulder, Utah, where we would resupply. If all went well, we would complete the journey with a nearly 200-mile ride back to Clay Hills Crossing.
Excited to launch our expedition, I struggled to sleep. It had been a while since I slept under the stars, and the vast expanse of space drew my gaze upward. I couldn’t stop watching as the Milky Way spilled across the sky.
Day 1: Launch
Morning came. We inflated the rafts, strapped the bikes and other gear on top and launched our rafts onto the San Juan River. I stared nervously at my bike precariously perched on my pack. The load weighed 80 pounds, all piled into a 4-pound inflated raft. I was top-heavy, which had me wishing for more than one dry bag. My camera would stay dry in a capsize, but that would be about it.
With the wind to our backs, we floated steadily toward our destination 20 miles downriver. Just a few miles in, the rapids quickened. My heart skipped a beat when I nearly lost control and almost flipped my boat. Before the current took control of our packrafts, we jumped into the water and dragged our loads to the riverbank where we stood at the edge of Fatt Falls, a 12-foot waterfall that spanned the length of the San Juan River.
We portaged the falls without incident, and paddled several hours before arriving at the take-out. Here, we dumped the water from our boats and began to pack up. When I looked at my backpack, the top resembled a water balloon. All my gear was soaked.
As the group began to make their way over the cracked dried up riverbed, one of the guys sank into sludge up to his knee and cursed with frustration. Like any good friend, I grabbed my camera to capture his dismay. In an effort to get a better shot I, too, sank in quicksand up to my waist. The more I struggled, the deeper I sank. Fearing I would go the way of the dinosaur, I held my camera high above my head; at least it could live. After frantic struggles, I finally slowed down and painfully crawled out of the mud. But the damage was done. An error message flashed across my camera screen. At least my iPhone was still alive.
After rinsing ourselves of mud, the group began to hike-a-bike up the sheer loose canyon face when Fetters announced, “OK, I found a way out, but it’s not going to be easy.” Understatement of the century.
“I’m pretty sure Colt is trying to kill me,” bemoaned one of us during the climb out, a 2,000-foot ordeal that would take us the better part of two days.
As we scaled the cliff wall, I could feel my mind slipping with my feet. Luckily, I caught myself from tumbling 800 feet with a mountain bike strapped to my back. I pushed forward, I readjusted to prevent my bike from digging into my left calf muscle with each step.
When we finally made it to the top, I crunched through some half-cooked mac and cheese before lying down to close my eyes. Even the Milky Way could not keep them open tonight. Moments later, bumblebees bombarded my dreams, waking me to the sunrise.
Day 2: Hike-a-Bike
We packed the boats, bikes and gear and continued our trek up the miserable, loose gully to camp. To ascend, we split up. Three carried bikes and gear from camp up the steep ledges, while the rest of us climbed an exposed cliff face to the midway point.
It took 5 hours to finish the climb. My feet, sunburned from the day before, were completely raw. Even the smallest step felt like a dozen needles to my feet.
At the bottom of the desolate canyon, an expanse of giant boulders blocked the way. We studied a new way around using a downloaded Google maps route.
With cracked lips and cottonmouth, I sucked down my last sip of water – which was more than the other guys had. The outlook was grim, until Fetters discarded his bike to hike up an old sandy gully, where he found a couple holes in the rock filled with cool water.
We finished the hike over the neverending ridge of boulders by scouting ahead on foot and pushing the bikes up game trails to reach the dirt road. Fetters said that we had been lucky to make it to the road that “easily.”
We mounted up, grinning, and pedaled mostly downhill for an hour to a water source, where we took a break before tackling a steep climb.
We finally called it a day at a spot off the Immigrant Trail at the Hole in the Rock Road. In a blur of exhaustion, I slept through the night like a sticky, smelly baby, and woke up at dawn to the familiar sound of swarming bees.
Day 3: Sufferfest
The sun rose with a vengeance. The rocky road petered to a sandy stream in a deep valley called Cottonwood Canyon. We followed cattle-carved routes up and down loose silty hills near the trickling river. With each step forward we slid half a step back. Group morale was at an all-time low as we wandered like cattle, taking wrong turns, before opting to stay near the river bed. Then the lake appeared.
We leapt into the water fully clothed – the coolness soothed our sunburned bodies and gave us the energy to inflate our rafts and paddle across Lake Powell to Hole in the Rock. We paddled hard in an effort to make up for lost time; but the breeze on the open water pushed back. A couple of motorized boats drove by, staring curiously at the masochistic paddlers with bikes strapped to their rafts.
Ahead, we faced another climb, one none us of looked forward to. When the Mormons blasted the trail out of 1,000-foot walls with dynamite around 1880, they built it wide enough to get wagons with 223 women and children, and 83 horses to the plateau. I expected a steep road – something difficult, but rideable. In reality, the steep incline punctuated with bouldering problems gave my legs flashbacks to Day One.
Our research showed a 90-minute hike from bottom to top, and we needed to do it twice to get all our gear. We hauled the loads while navigating massive boulders and squeezing under rocks.
“The thing about bikepacking is that you have no choice but to keep going,” one of the guys said with his bike strapped to his backpack. With his arms spread like a starfish across a cliff, he said, “if you lean against the rock like this it feels better.”
When we reached the top of the Hole in the Rock, generous people offered us food, water and beer. We were so grateful, we could’ve kissed them.
It took us about an hour to regroup from the climbing sufferfest, but then we were back on the road heading to Boulder. We spent the next three hours pedaling into the dusk.
Day 4: Foodfest
We gathered around a tiny camp stove boiling water for oatmeal; our minds wandered to what lay ahead. After a couple hours of riding we flagged a truck down to ask for water. My legs burned, this time from pedaling against strong headwinds. The views were incredible but I could hardly enjoy the sights while trying to avoid the misery of brake bumps.
When we finally made it to the pavement, we took a break. I used my pack as a pillow while eating the last 10 sour gummy bears that had morphed into a gelatinous glob. As temperatures dropped and storm clouds encroached, we rode up to Kiva Coffee House and binged on baked goods before continuing on the final stretch.
We climbed the last 15 miles over a mountain pass to Boulder, and descended into town. Our group wanted a hotel and hot showers, but was turned away from every place we checked. So we turned our attention from a hot shower to eating well, splurging on $30 dinners at the only open restaurant.
Under the threat of a storm, it would be too dangerous to finish our initial route. We opted to camp at a local park instead and wait for a ride the next day. Rain started to blow in and my sleeping pad went flat. But after almost 70 miles of riding with 6,730 feet of elevation gained earlier that day I slept anyway.
Day 5: Heading Home
We woke the next day with soaked gear. Stopping for breakfast burritos at Magnolia’s Street Food truck, we loitered around Anasazi State Park until our ride arrived. Hot showers beckoned in Durango, yet we were hesitant to end the journey — a sufferfest, sure, but also a precious story of camaraderie and perseverance.
Our unforgettable backcountry adventure to follow the Mormon Emigrant Trail, which remains as it’s been for the last 140 years, was a fitting memorial to those incredibly hardy pioneers who first pointed their wagons west across the Colorado River.