Tracing Mesas: White Rim Bikepacking

Partially encircling Canyonlands National Park's Island in the Sky district lies 100 miles of off-road double track named the White Rim trail. So named because of a continuous ring of exposed white sandstone cliff, the trail traces a path outlining hundreds of finger-like mesas, occasionally venturing over steep knuckles when dictated by otherwise impassable terrain. Creases between these fingers lead water east into the Colorado River or west to the Green River. Mile upon mile edge of the abyss views, canyons,  rock towers, Martian geology, and billions of stars abound. 

Beautiful for certain, but not necessarily uncommon in this part of Utah.

What is uncommon is the accessibility to such a place. With a permit, the White Rim can be traveled by foot, bike, motorcycle, or 4x4 in a day or a week. Because of it's accessible rugged beauty, the White Rim is a popular destination for all of the aforementioned travelers; during spring and fall demand for permits often exceeds availability and solitude is ironically difficult to find in a place that exemplifies the word to many people. 

Wanting to experience what the White Rim offered, but not wanting to share it with a host of gas powered vehicles and all that comes with them, we got an easily obtainable permit for three days in late winter, a time of low use. We'd ride our fat bikes, carrying everything we needed for three days and two nights with us. We go hoping for warm days while packing for cold nights. 

Knowing that pedaling the White Rim was on Travis' list of really, really want to do's, we invited him and Amanda to join us.

And that's why we began our ride on a sunny, late winter's morning with goosebumps and numb fingers despite wearing puffy jackets, buffs, and gloves. For the first seven or so miles, we'd drop from the upper mesa to the Rim proper, losing around 1000ft in the process.  In the shaded segments of that initial descent, we coasted over packed snow and ice with feet dragging anticipating a sudden and painful stop that luckily never occurred. Once on the rim, any lingering chill was forgotten as we cruised along perfectly packed trail, blasting sand, admiring the views, and enjoying the ride. 

We had all of the ever appearing towers and arches to ourselves, we didn’t see another soul.

Despite a delayed start, we managed to reach our camp with an hour of daylight to spare. Keri and I packed in a beer each, knowing how good they would be after that first day of blissful riding. We weren’t disappointed. 

Travis and Amanda made themselves a hot toddy and we shared Fritos and bean dip while watching a classic desert sunset. That night gave us a chilling reminder that despite the day’s warmth, it was still winter. 

Morning came and we started again. Our trail led us from wide vistas back towards mesa tops where canyons narrowed to clefts and we could cross only to repeat the process again and again, yet never experiencing deja vu. Where no cleft existed the trail would go up, steeply. Bikepacking and hike-a-bike are synonymous, we’ve come to learn. At some point we passed a jeep heading the opposite direction. 

All day long, the riding was wonderful and it simply felt good to be pedaling in a beautiful place. 

Everything was perfect. Canyon shadows deepened as we arrived to camp. Keri setup our tent while I renewed our water supply.

Our only casualty, a water bottle cage. Repaired via hose clamp.

Never pass up a chance to explore a slot canyon
We managed to fend off the cold and fatigue, by watching satellites zoom across the sky until 8:30. We all slept better having learned to wear more clothing to bed.

We gorged ourselves before easing into the saddle (some more gingerly that others) for our last day. The rim dwindled into the Green River while easy miles passed beneath our tires. Then we turned right. There was some hesitation while looking at our route ahead. 

We rode uphill slowly, but as fast as we could. A BASE jumper passed us, walking up the road following his third jump of the morning. It just might have been easier or at least taken less effort to push, but pride prevented it. Keri and Travis made a sprint for the sign marking the journey’s end. Keri won by a sleeping bag.


  1. Fabulous ride! Brings back good memories of our trip a couple yrs ago. We went in April and also had very little traffic.


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