Mountain Biking the White Rim Trail: 100 Miles through Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park in southern Utah is a huge swath of land consisting of high desert vistas, an intricate maze of deep canyons, sheer red rock cliffs, and the mighty Colorado River. It’s got a real rugged feel compared to many of the other national parks, and much of its territory is only accessible by a 4WD vehicle, bike, or by hoofing it.
Last October, my friends planned a four-day vehicle-supported mountain biking trip on Canyonland’s White Rim Trail – a 100-mile jeep road that travels through the park’s Island in the Sky district. I had never been on a mountain bike before, but I knew this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I was told the White Rim Trail had some steep uphill pushes but was not an overly technical trail. Plus if things got really rough, I could always hop in the truck, blast the tunes, and enjoy the scenery from the passenger seat.
So I went out and got myself a bike and some super sexy padded bike shorts and crossed my fingers that I would survive.
**Spoiler alert** I made it…and what a cool trip! Yes, there were times when my legs felt like cement, but the burn was totally worth it….plus with the support vehicle, you can camp in comfort and have those ice cold beers to look forward to at the end of the day.
The White Rim Trail offers something for all levels. For the beginner, it’s a challenge. For the experts, it might be smooth sailing. But either way, the views, the camping, and the general camaraderie on the trail make it worth adding to your bucketlist. And with fall in full force, it’s the perfect time to head to the southern Utah desert.
In this post, I share the details about planning your own trip on the White Rim Trail.
About the White Rim Trail
The White Rim Trail is a 100-mile semi-loop that can be ridden in either direction. We started at Mineral Bottom and ended at Shafer Hill. The advantage of starting at Mineral Bottom and riding counter-clockwise is that you get the long (and least scenic) section riding along Mineral Road out of the way at the very beginning and the scenery (in my opinion) got better every day. The disadvantage of counter-clockwise is that you have to ride (or walk) up Shafer at the very end…and believe me, it’s a bitch. On the elevation profile you’ll also see that counter clockwise appears to have some longer uphill sections.
On the White Rim Trail map and elevation profile below, I marked our campsites each night and a few points of interest along the way. You can click on the map for a larger version
In total, the White Rim Trail gains about 7,500 feet of elevation. Going counter clockwise, there are two major climbs – Murphy’s Hogback at the approximate halfway point and Shafer Hill on the last day. These two climbs are tough, and I ended up walking my bike up a majority of these sections….which is nothing to be ashamed of by the way.
How many days does it take to bike the White Rim Trail?
Most people take 2-4 days to complete the White Rim Trail. Some people might consider four days to be more of a booze-cruise sort of pace – and for most of my friends I think it was. But as a beginner, 4 days seemed perfect. Most of the elevation gain is gradual, but 25 miles of dirt is still a lot of ground to cover. Four days meant we had plenty of time to take breaks and explore our surroundings and still arrive at camp with a couple hours of daylight. We also took our mornings slow, not getting on the trail until about 10 or 11 every day.
That said, people do it in less….in fact, some people do it unsupported in a single day, which would definitely be a slog. When planning your trip, you need to consider first and foremost how good of biking shape you are in and then what type of pace you want to keep.
Your White Rim Trail Support Vehicle
The White Rim Trail is a moderately rough, but decently maintained 4WD jeep road. There is no potable water anywhere along the trail, so unless you are a stellar biker who can confidently bike the entire 100 miles in a day, it is best to be accompanied by a 4WD support vehicle. That way, all of the food, camping gear, and extra water can be transported by the vehicle, and you don’t have to carry any gear on your bike. For our group of 7, we had one Toyota Tacoma that we were able to cram all of our gear in. You’ll also need a very study bike rack that can hold two bikes. That way if someone gets tired, they can hop in the truck and keep the driver company. For more on gear, scroll to the bottom of this post.
A couple of things to keep in mind…the person driving the support vehicle should have some experience with 4WD drives, especially if it’s been raining and the road is slick or muddy. Most of it is pretty mellow, but there are a few tricky and steep parts where you’ll want someone experienced behind the wheel. Secondly make sure you stop in Moab and top off your tank of gas. You’ll want a full tank before starting the trail.
Best Time to Bike the White Rim Trail
The best time of year to mountain bike the White Rim Trail is fall and spring. Summer is unbearably hot and dry and there is ZERO shade. Sounds pretty miserable to me.
In late October, day time biking temps were ideal – 70s, warm and sunny – and nights were chilly. The key thing to remember is the weather in the desert can change instantly so no matter when you go, you should be prepared for the elements.
White Rim Trail Permits and Camping
The White Rim Trail has a total of 20 designated camping sites that each accommodate up to three vehicles and 15 people. Each campsite has access to a pit toilet, which may or may not be shared with another nearby campsite. No water is available at the campsites. Reservations must be made using the advanced permit process on the Canyonlands National Park website. The fee for a permit which is good for 3 cars and 15 people is $30.
Permits become available four months in advance. To reserve a permit, start at this page. For the Activity, choose “4WD/Mountain Bike Overnight” and enter your desired start date. On the next page, choose “Island in the Sky” as your destination. Then on the next page, you need to choose your desired campsite for each night. If the campsite is already occupied, it will say “full”; otherwise you have the option to “reserve.” Note that the campsites in the reservation system and shown below are listed in the clockwise direction starting at Shafer Hill, which is the opposite of the direction we went.
Our White Rim Trail Itinerary and Photos
Day #1: Mineral Bottom Road to Potato Bottom (33 miles)
The trail starts off on Mineral Bottom Road. The first 12 miles are a smooth gradual downhill, and it’s a good chance for the newbies to get comfortable on the bike before the terrain gets rougher. At mile 12 you reach the steep switchbacks that descend down into the canyon where you meet up with the Green River.
Photo: Justin Martin
I don’t have many pictures from the first day since I was focused on my riding, but the trail is pretty much what you expect for an old jeep road. Rocky in places but overall there weren’t too many obstacles. The most challenging thing about the trail was every so often you’d run into some deep sand that could really throw off your momentum and balance. So you had to keep an eye out to make sure you didn’t hit one of these sand traps unexpectedly.
Photo: Justin Martin
We arrived at our campsite at Potato Bottom right on the Green River earlier than I expected. The sites at Potato Bottom are the last campsites near the river. In October the water was definitely too cold to swim in, but it provided a nice backdrop for our afternoon hangout and bocce ball session.
Day #2: Potato Bottom to Murphy’s Hogback (22 miles)
Despite being significantly shorter than the first day, day 2 kicked my butt. It was all uphill with a pretty steep climb up to Murphy’s Hogback at the very end. If you are looking to take a shift in the support vehicle, this might be the day to volunteer.
Luckily we didn’t take our day too seriously. It was Halloween, so we donned our costumes and got into the spirit. Just call me disco bunny biker babe.
Around lunch time, we arrived at the entrance to Holman slot canyon which is shown on the map above. This is a great place to stop for lunch and explore. The slot canyon heads down towards the direction of the Green River and can be explored until you reach an unpassable obstacle. When we were there, there were a few tricky spots where ropes had been installed, but they didn’t appear permanent. Remember that every drop-off you go down, you will have to come back up. So don’t get yourself into a situation where you can’t get back to the top. Also, if there is a chance of rain, don’t head down into the slot canyon.
After lunch my legs were feeling heavy and by the time we got to the hill at Murphy’s hogback, I knew there was no way I was going to make it. There was already a passenger in the support vehicle, which meant I was going to have to get up the hill one way or another. I pushed as long as I could but didn’t make it far before I got off and started walking. This is the view when you finally make it to the top.
Photo: Justin Martin
I felt so happy when I learned that our campsite was no more than a 100 yards away from this lookout, and I was even happier when we realized just how awesome our spot was.
Now it was time for the real fun. One of our friends decided to bring some pumpkins to carve, and we had a blast sipping on cocktails and carving away while watching the sun set.
Day #3: Murphy’s Hogback to the Airport (26 miles)
Day 3 was the most scenic and the easiest in my opinion….yet for some reason I spent most of the day riding in the truck. I felt kinda lazy (and I was), but my legs needed a little recovery time after the previous day’s climb. My friend Beau and I cranked the tunes, stopped and took a ton of pictures, and enjoyed the views as the canyon started to appear more intricate with lots of arches and mind-boggling rock formations. Turns out riding in the SAG wagon is pretty dang fun.
We again arrived at camp with plenty of time to soak in the scenery. We played a serious round of bocce and watched the clouds transform with storms forming in the distance. One of my friends also brought a professional kite which provided an hour or two of solid entertainment in the strong winds.
Day #4: The Airport to the top of Shafer Hill (19 miles)
On our final day, we were back to the uphill. I can’t say I was looking forward to it, but I wanted to try and push myself so I was committed to getting to the top without the help of the truck. The day started out nice and one of the biggest highlights of the whole trip happened just after hopping on my bike. My friend Adam and I were riding along when we looked to the right and saw a big horn sheep with giant horns galloping no more than 30 feet away from us on the very edge of the rim. We continued cruising along, and he continued running next to us for about 5 minutes. I wish I could’ve snapped a picture, but I knew that if I stopped to get my camera out, he would’ve been gone. It was a magical moment that I will never forget, photo or not.
Shortly thereafter, we hit some rain, which is a reminder that the weather can turn very quickly in the desert.
Luckily the storm passed quickly and by the time we reached Shafer it was a comfortable temperature for our climb. Like I predicted I didn’t make it too far before I had to start walking, but my friend Beau stayed behind with me and kept me company.
At times the switchbacks seemed endless and when things finally flattened out at the top, we realized just how far we had come. Even though I walked quite a bit, I was still pretty proud of myself for keeping up as well as I did. I also felt much stronger and more confident by the end of the trip than I when I started.
White Rim Trail Gear
The White Rim Trail is car camping at it’s best. You’ll want to bring a roomy tent, a plush sleeping pad, and a warm sleeping bag. In addition, there are a few additional gear considerations that will make your trip as comfortable as possible.
I’m definitely not an expert when it comes to mountain bikes, but I purchased a REI Brand women’s 29″ Madrona Hardtail for my first mountain bike. I bought this bike because it was relatively inexpensive, got good reviews, and if after four days on the trail it wasn’t working out, I could always return it thanks to REI’s return policy. The purchase also counted towards my 10% annual dividend, which meant a good chunk back in store credit at the end of the year.
** Update: It looks like REI no longer carries the women’s model online. If you are looking for information on how to choose your first mountain bike, this article breaks in down into simple terms.
In addition to the bike, make sure you bring a few spare tubes, a pump, chain lube, and the necessary tools to fix your bike if something goes wrong.
- Shorts: Bring padded bike shorts. No joke. You may feel like you are wearing a diaper but that’s better than a bruised ass and serious chaffing. Unfortunately bike shorts can be pretty pricey. Check out Sierra Trading Post or Backcountry for the latest deals.
- Gloves: The trail can be rough on your hands and cause major calluses. Some people like wearing gloves, others don’t – but it’s worth bringing a pair just in case. Here’s an option for women / men.
- Warm Clothes: Outside of summer, nights in Canyonlands can get very cold. Make sure you are prepared with a warm down or synthetic jacket, a rain coat, some long johns, a hat, and gloves – basically the same kind of clothes you would take on a backpacking trip. To see the clothes I bring on my outdoor adventures, check out this post.
- A good cooler: To make sure your food doesn’t spoil, you need to make sure you have a solid cooler that can keep ice for the duration of your trip. We had a couple of Yeti Coolers on our trip. Yes, they are an investment, but they keep ice better than any cooler out there….And nothing results in a trip gone awry more than your food gone bad.
- Camp Stove: Having a support vehicle means you can eat gourmet. This two burner Camp Chef camp stove is only $99 and is large enough to cook for the whole group. For pots and pans, I like to use pre-seasoned Lodge cast iron. Not only is it super easy to clean, it also gives the food some delicious flavor. I’d also recommend prepping and pre-cooking as much of your food at home as possible. Then package it using vacuum sealer and throw it in the freezer until you depart for your trip.
- Water jugs: Make sure you bring plenty of water. The National Park Service recommends at least one gallon per person per day and more if it’s hot outside. You can pick up reusable 5 gallon jugs at your local Army Navy store or on Amazon. Everyone should also carry a day pack with a water reservoir for easy access to drinking. I like the 3-L hydration bladders made by Platypus or Osprey.
There’s a few fun items we brought along that provided their worth in camp entertainment.
- Portable gas fire pit: You can’t have a wood fire on the White Rim Trail, so a portable gas fire pit with a bit of extra propane was a great substitute. It gave off plenty of heat, and without it we probably would’ve been in bed by 8 o’clock.
- Glow in the dark bocce ball set: I swear, glow in the dark bocce is the best camp game ever. Especially in the desert when it’s pitch black and there are all kinds of rock obstacles. Just watch out for cacti if you are roaming around at night.
- Camp chair: You are going to want something to rest that tush in at the end of the day. I’m obsessed with my Helinox Swivel Chair and thought it was perfect for this trip. When folded away, it’s super compact…plus it swivels and you can’t beat that. See my full review here.
Well that just about covers it. If you have any questions related to the White Rim Trail, feel free to shoot me an email. Now go get your permit and start planning!
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