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By Brooks Stevenson
Photos by Chris Watkins

Below and behind me, my five companions strained against the 20 percent grade of the remote desert track in John Brown Canyon, just west of Gateway, Colorado. To the golden eagle soaring high above our steep, narrow passage or the rancher rattling past us easily in his truck, we must have looked absolutely pitiful: Our bikes and bodies loaded down with gear, we hunched over our handlebars like decrepit old men, swaying back and forth in the saddle as we pedaled and sweated profusely – like mob bosses on the witness stand.

It was the sixth day of a seven-day mountain bike ride from Telluride, Colorado, to Moab, Utah, and we were plodding along on the toughest day of the trip – a 22-mile course that gains almost 5,000 grueling vertical feet and loses a disappointing 900. When we left Telluride, jagged peaks with lingering snowfields death-gripped on their flanks fractured the skyline at nearly every vantage point. Telluride sits in a box canyon among a surreal collection of treeless, rugged mountains begging to be climbed and skied.

The anticipation of riding 206 miles through the splendor of the San Juan Mountains seemed to mask the reality of how difficult this ride might be – that we might actually sweat and get tired over the journey.

Now it was real.

For the last five miles, the oil and gravel swath had teased and taunted, appearing to crest, only to dart left or right in a steep ascending coil of switchbacks that led to more quad-clenching grinding in my granny gear. Now as I peeked out from under the visor of my helmet, the road ahead seemed to level a bit as it approached a merger with the sky.

And for some sick and twisted reason, though I didn’t quite trust what I seemed to see, I found myself giggling with joy. Maybe it was the heat.

Finally reaching the apex of the first major ascent, 5.3 miles into the ride and 2,500 feet above where we started, I stripped off my pack and shirt and lay on a cattle guard (the most hospitable surface I could find not coated with red clay and the fine taupe-colored dust that lined the road) to wait for the others. I caught my breath and drank some cold lemonade, as my mind replayed the previous days’ rides – rides through thick aspen and pine forests, verdant fields of wildflowers, sweeping cattle ranches and wild wind-swept ridges.

Just you and your bike

Logistically, the San Juan Hut System from Telluride to Moab is fairly simple: You bring yourself, your bike, your clothes and any bike repair items you may need, and the hut is stocked with the rest (food, water, fuel, sleeping bags, mattresses and toilets). The route is almost entirely doubletrack forest roads, with optional singletrack soon to be available on 70 percent of the 206 miles, and only a few miles of pavement where you have to deal with traffic.

Just as we were about to begin the trip, Chris Watkins, Utah Outdoors’ staff photographer and my riding companion for a week, became surly about the weight of his pack. "We’re going to ride more than 200 miles with these things on our backs? Feel this pack! Is your pack this heavy? Mine’s heavier than yours. We’re gonna get worked!"

Our packs were a bit beefier than I had imagined (30-35 pounds), but it was too late now. As we cruised through town and began climbing on Last Dollar Road, conversation flowed, the scenery entranced and the weight of our loads seemed to lighten.

Last Dollar Road ascends 2,800 vertical feet to the first hut over a meager 15 miles, skirting around million-dollar homes and proffering views of the Lizard Head Wilderness, San Miguel Mountains and a smattering of named and unnamed peaks towering over 13,000 feet. For the meantime, ogling the vistas kept our minds off the riding.

The San Juan Hut System follows the San Juan Mountains through Colorado for most of the trip, before it drags you into the La Sal Mountains and dumps you spandex-over-Styrofoam into the red rock canyon country of Moab.

Our group of riders complemented the scenic diversity and unique nature of the week: Craig Pittman, a set designer for TV shows and an avid climber from the L.A. area; John Burke, a graduate student studying physics at UC Berkeley and one of Pittman’s climbing partners; Christine McFerson, an urban planner in Sacramento and former college basketball player; Mary McGuinness, a small-animal veterinarian in Dublin, Ireland, and McFerson’s feisty former college roommate; and Watkins and myself.

As I lay in bed the first night, listening to the mice begin their forage in our hut, one phrase from the San Juan Hut System’s Mountain Bikers Bible, provided by San Juan Huts owner and operator Joe Ryan, stuck in my head, "The route is remote… riders must possess survival skills." What might I have to survive? Bears. Dehydration. Altitude. Weather. Hutmates. Before I could decide what to worry about, sleep took over, and soon it was morning.

"God’s Country County"

We left Last Dollar Hut, riding into a deep, cool, pine-shrouded abyss, and leveled out 3,000 vertical feet below at a glorious series of ranches and fields teeming with wildflowers and divided haphazardly by clear mountain creeks, prompting Pittman to dub the region, "God’s Country County."

Towering ponderosa pine, quaking aspen, lodgepole pine, blue spruce, Douglas fir, Rocky Mountain juniper and heaps of sagebrush decorated the entire 206 miles, with a greenhouse variety of wildflowers and plants adding a smattering of color to the preponderance of greens and browns.

It was an incredible collection of vistas strung together, back-to-back, forming a sort of personal weeklong nature film. But beauty wasn’t the only attraction of the trip. Most of our group of six, including myself, were attracted by the self-guided system, lightweight travel, remote location of the route, and the chance to pedal at a moderate pace while absorbing the side shows going on around us.

"There are huge transitions from high alpine forests to desert sandscapes," Ryan had said. "We are the only system doing an A-to-B hut system and making it lightweight – there are no big loads to carry. We also emphasize low-impact travel and feel that the hut system provides all of that and more."

And that’s a welcome reprieve from the gear-schlepping life in the backcountry I’ve become accustomed to over the past 10 years.

Cowboys and snowstorms

After a spectacular climb through a green-walled maze, we reached a stunning view of the Colorado Plateau, the La Sal Mountains in the distance and the remote Henry Mountains where the skyline began to fade. The course description detailed the lookout as Windy Point.

Below us, the Dolores and San Miguel rivers wove a series of carving and twisting canyons we’d traveled through days before to get to Telluride. Above the river valley, desert mesas leveled and stretched into the distance, where we caught our first glimpse of the La Sals and the hazy outline of the far-distant Henry Mountains, the last range to be surveyed in the continental United States.

The road wound a continuous pattern parallel to the ridge, before abruptly climbing over fingerlings of it that jutted irreverently across our path. It was like a roller-coaster ride, only more predictable and painful. Each time we thought the wind might let up (the day’s ride had been through constant winds you’d only imagine near the gates of Hell) or the road might level off, another all-too-familiar climb would come into view.

Finally, after completing the day’s 37 rigorous miles, we reached the Graham Ranch, owned and operated by Tam Graham, his wife, Deana, and their son Dustin. Designated as the halfway point of our trip, it also marked the only luxury we’d have during the week – a hot shower. Graham leases a cabin on his property to the hut system and allows riders to use his showerhouse while at the ranch.

That night it started to rain. The next morning the reality of living and working as a cowboy on a plateau at 9,000 feet hit us like the blanket of snow that fell over the ranch. It veiled our romantic outlook of round-ups and rodeos and made us think twice about the 32 miles that lay ahead.

Donning rain suits, fleece hats and far too many layers of high tech underwear, we set out for Gateway, a small trailer park that posed as a town, where our next hut sat in a grove of cottonwoods adjacent to the Dolores River. Most of our group (me, Watkins, McFerson and McGuinness) had chosen an alternate route, to eliminate most of the day’s climbing and dirt roads. The detour added eight miles to our would-be 32 miles and involved 30 miles of road riding. But, it also kept us out of the high country, where lightning was an ever-present threat and the roads might become impassable. (The wet weather makes red clay and sandy roads about as much fun to ride on as a pile of manure.)

Later that night, as Pittman and Burke rolled into the corral that surrounded our hut, I overheard them express, in so many unrepeatable but colorful colloquialisms, utter disdain for day six’s official route (they had ridden the dirt road all the way and skipped the smooth asphalt).

So this was what Ryan’s brochure meant when it talked about survival and remote areas.

Caught in an updraft

Having survived snow, wind and most of the hardest climb, I peeled myself off the cattle guard, struggled into my pack and onto my bike and climbed higher into the La Sals. A few miles later and a few hundred feet higher, we stopped to watch an eagle that had caught our attention with its shrill cry. It slowly circled a small river gorge before spiraling higher in a fierce updraft until we lost sight of it completely. At that point I was wishing I were being swept away by an intense updraft… all the way to our next hut.

We finished the day lounging in a small grassy meadow in front of the La Sal Hut, reminiscing over the previous six days’ whirlwind of events. Chris somehow managed to not throw his bike off a cliff in exercise-induced frustration, and we’d stayed problem-free as far as mechanical issues went (not a single flat tire in our entire group the whole trip, as it turns out).

Bouncing down Sand Flats Road in Moab the next day, it was difficult to separate one day from another. The realization that I had just ridden 200 miles, climbed almost 17,000 feet, and was only now finishing off the last of the 21,000 feet of downhill, made my head spin. Or maybe it was the heat.

I’d seen an old John Wayne movie setting, raced elk as they paced us on a section of remote doubletrack, talked with a working cowboy while his son broke a horse, and watched a snowstorm in June.

We’d also passed an old outlaw hideout where we stopped to ponder the prospects of surviving this rugged wilderness without canned Spam, ravioli and chicken noodle soup. We were spoiled.

I found myself wishing I was back on that big climb, with my posterior throbbing from the pressure, sweat stinging my eyes, the sun scorching my neck, earning my passage with hard work and a little help from the huts.

Selective screwups

Carrying the proper tools, clothing, spare parts and personal necessities can be worth its weight in gold. It can also be a pain in the neck, or butt, if not done properly. Using a standard backpack often doesn’t allow much room for everything you might need, or want, and a larger internal frame pack is hard to ride with. My suggestion: use panniers or a pull-behind trailer to transport your stuff. Don’t make the mistake I did and try to put it all on your back. After about 100 miles, being bent over your handlebars will be greatly accentuated by the bulk of your load.

Make sure you’ve trained sufficiently before the trip and have practiced good hydration for a few weeks prior to tackling the altitude. Chris Watkins started the trek cold turkey, with no previous training to speak of save walking his dog. Although he performed well on the trip, this approach is not recommended. Not everyone is the man that he is.

And last, don’t bring too much. There is a fine balance between being sufficiently prepared and overdoing it. Keep it light, but keep it realistic.

If you go

The cost for a week in the hills with you, your bike and nature is affordable – $400 per person. Just be sure to make reservations a few months in advance. If you’re planning to take a large group, you may want to call earlier in the winter to ensure you can all ride together. The hut system operates from early June until the end of September, depending on the previous winter’s snowpack and route conditions: Be prepared for early- and late-season fits from Mother Nature as well.

If you have to stay the night in Telluride and are leaving a car there, find the campground at the end of town and don’t waste your money on summer hotel rates. If you do take a shuttle to town from Moab, stay at the Oak Street Inn, located conveniently on, believe it or not, Oak Street. They provide the most affordable lodging in Telluride and can be reached for reservations at (970) 728-3383. If all else fails, stay in Moab and try to get to Telluride before noon the next day. Day one is moderately difficult and should only take you the late afternoon and early evening to ride.

Here are a few tips about what to expect and how to prepare for seven days on a bike and six nights in a hut.

• Be in reasonably good physical condition. You have all day to get from hut to hut, but there are no aid stations along the way.

• Be prepared for anything. You’re riding in the mountains for most of the trip and in the heat of the desert for the rest. Anything can, and will, happen when you least expect it. Lightning, rain, snow, floods, bears, dehydration, feuding hutmates and broken bikes are most common.

• Make sure your bike is in good working order and that you can repair it yourself if it does break down. Bring the right tools and spare parts. The nearest shop is in either Moab or Telluride, depending on your location.

• Arrange a shuttle from Moab to Telluride so you don’t have to take multiple vehicles. Jim Ryan from Road Runner Shuttles is the best in Grand County and can be reached at (435) 259-9402 or on the web at www.moab.net/roadrunner.

Joe Ryan and the San Juan Hut System are the best source for answering questions about the huts and helping you to prepare for your trip. You can visit them on their web site at www.sanjuanhuts.com, or call them at (970) 626-3033 for more information.



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