“Remember: sea level is for sissies,” we call out, referring to a sticker we purchased the previous day as a nod to our North Vancouver home that sits across the street from the ocean. We repeat this mantra to ourselves and each other, forcing tired grins as we push our mountain bikes through the last remnants of snow on the Colorado Trail’s Rolling Pass. Glancing behind us at the talus and scree that has just replaced blankets of brilliant wildflowers, with the San Juan’s jaw-dropping 14ers in the distance, we both agree that this is the most beautiful trail we’ve ever ridden. Dark clouds loom over the pass, thunder rumbles, and sharp flashes of lightning cause us to quicken our pace as we gasp for oxygen at almost 12,500 feet.
We’re partway through the first day of a week-long journey from Durango, Colorado, to the mountain biking mecca of Moab, Utah. Though we’ve completed numerous bikepacking trips in the past, this is our first on mountain bikes and our first pedal-powered, hut-to-hut experience. Upon discovering that the San Juan Huts come stocked with food, a propane stove, and bedding, we immediately put this trip on our bucket list. There are two routes riders can take: Telluride to Moab or Durango to Moab, the latter of which is rated slightly more difficult. Each journey has a “standard” version that is predominantly service roads and Jeep tracks, and some assortment of more challenging and technical “alternate” singletrack routes.
Days 1 and 2: Singletrack Bliss
Prior to our departure, we spend considerable time and effort trying to determine whether or not the “alternate” singletrack route for our first day—which comprises a section of the Colorado Trail—is passable. The past winter’s snowpack was unusually high, and other events in the area including the Hardrock 100—a 100-mile ultramarathon—have already been cancelled due to snow and avalanche debris covering the trail. However, riders competing in the Colorado Trail Race have recently managed, which gives us hope and convinces us to attempt it, mentally prepared to slog through snow patches if necessary. We let San Juan Huts know and promise to send them an update through our Garmin inReach satellite device so that riders leaving after us will have a better idea of what to expect.
We depart Molas Pass a couple of hours later than intended due to shuttle issues, but our concerns of snow crossings and thunderstorms melt away as we’re immediately greeted by smooth singletrack, meadows of wildflowers, and sweeping views of the San Juans. The climbing, however, feels more taxing than we’re used to, and we quickly realize that our single day of acclimatizing wasn’t sufficient. Every gas station and store in the area sells oxygen, and we wish that we’d purchased a canister. We curse our sea-level home, repeat our mantra, and press on, motivated by the views.
As we approach the next pass after several hours, we encounter five or six short patches of snow—nothing too discouraging—and are lucky to get through the high point minutes before the skies open up with rain, thunder, and lightning. By now, we’re on a fast and fun descent and quickly out of harm’s way. We continue to cruise fun, flowy trails with wildflowers as high as our shoulders, only interrupted by punchy, rocky hills that force us off our rigs to hike-a-bike.
By the time we climb the last mile of Jeep track to Bolam Pass, with views of Lizard Head—a distinctive, 13,119-foot summit in the San Miguel Range—and our first hut, we’re absolutely knackered. Though the fresh food had been somewhat depleted by the time we arrive, there are cold drinks, including the can of Coke that Brian has been desperately craving. We indulge in a pasta feast, Brian chops wood as curious deer look on, and we light a fire to dry our wet gear. Thunderstorms rage through the evening, but we’re cozy in our lofty sleeping bags and quickly settle into an exhaustion-induced sleep.
On day two, we again opt for the alternate route, which begins by descending the last climb we completed the previous day (it somehow seems shorter on the way down). We soon duck into singletrack that weaves through aspens before entering meadows of wildflowers, and more views of Lizard Head push us forward. Bikes are not allowed in the Lizard Head Wilderness, but this route takes us as close as possible.
As the day wears on and the alternate trail rejoins the standard route’s gravel roads with over 17 miles remaining, we grapple with heat and altitude (Brian’s kryptonite). Interrupting long silence, we ask each other, “If someone were to drive by and offer a ride, would you take it?” It’s all rhetorical, of course, as we’re on our own and the opportunity never comes up. The last climbs to Black Mesa Hut are long and relentless, and we arrive slightly more exhausted than we were the day before. But to our delight, the hut has been recently stocked, and we now have bacon, tortillas, and some fresh cabbage and carrots to add to the evening’s menu.
Days 3 and 4: Changing Scenery
On our third day, as we leave the Uncompahgre National Forest, ponderosa pines give way to aspens and later to stunted juniper and sagebrush. Mountains become mesas, and alpine wildflowers are replaced by meadows of sunflowers. Having learned from our previous days’ experiences, we depart earlier in the morning, eat our lunch at the Miramonte Reservoir, and make it to the Dry Creek Basin Hut with the afternoon to recuperate, read the hut’s journal, and enjoy an appetizer of quesadillas. Thunderstorms and rain clouds dance in the distance, and the cloud formations create a spectacular sunset.
The recovery has buoyed our spirits, and we’re eager to start the journey to Wedding Bell Hut on day four. There are numerous alternate routes we can take, all of which seem to be designed to avoid mud on rainy days. But because we awaken to clear skies and no threat of rain, we stick with the standard route and enjoy the journey though Dry Creek Basin, where our biggest obstacle is dodging sunflowers. We want to preserve them, and they are surprisingly painful when they hit our shoulders at speed.
As the game of sunflower-dodging comes to an end, the roads become long and tedious and shade grows scarce. On the seemingly endless sections of forest service roads, even with our suspension locked out, our bikes are overkill with their 2.5-inch tires slowly plodding over loose gravel. Type 1 fun gives way to type 2, but we keep the pedals turning, reminding ourselves that this is all part of the journey. Juniper trees eventually reappear, and we find a shady spot to rest before continuing on.
Wedding Bell Hut is perched on the edge of the Dolores River Canyon overlooking the namesake river—arguably the best view of all the huts. Beyond the river and layers of mesas, the La Sal Mountains beckon in the far distance. Gazing at them from here, it’s almost impossible to imagine that we will be crossing through Burro Pass in the next few days. But for now, we wander around, stumble across a rattlesnake, befriend a particularly cute lizard, peer into the old abandoned mines, and are treated to one of the most spectacular sunsets we’ve seen.
Day 5: Sustenance
The journey to Paradox, Colorado, is beautiful. The sunrise and relatively cool air accompany us as we climb out of Bull Canyon to Davis Mesa. We’d read horror stories of rain and wet, heavy clay rendering bikes useless within miles of the hut and cyclists being rescued by chain-equipped trucks or simply surrendering and returning to the hut for the day. Thankfully, we luck out with clear skies and no precipitation in the near forecast.
However, the day’s ride is not without obstacles. Several hours in, a short trail (less than 2 miles long) drops down from the mesa into Paradox Valley. Though it has a reputation of being tough, an earthquake and subsequent rockfall earlier this year has added another level of difficulty. Brian gallantly carries my bike over piles of debris, ultimately stopping me from having a tantrum and throwing my beloved Mojo over the edge in exasperation. We later read in the hut journal that a recent group had created a pulley system to lower each bike, which took them over eight hours.
Immediately upon finishing the Catch-em-Up shortcut trail, we’re greeted by the tiny settlement of Bedrock, Colorado. The town’s single general store gained fame for being in Thelma & Louise, but it’s famous among riders for selling ice cream and cold drinks. We haven’t even unclipped from our pedals when we’re greeted enthusiastically by Anthony “Pie” Pisano, a Brooklyn transplant with a distinguishable New York accent and mannerisms. As we gorge on popsicles and guzzle ice-cold drinks, Pie entertains us with tales of celebrity sightings and stories of previous San Juan Hut riders as he waves at each car that passes. We soon come to understand why rumors swirl that Pie landed in Bedrock (population: around 50) through a witness protection program. Truthfully, it’s hard to imagine any other scenario in this ghost town. After reassurance that we’re Pie’s new favorite Canadians, we pedal through the stifling heat to the Paradox Valley Hut filled with anticipation of dinner, an outside shower, industrial-sized sinks to wash our clothes, and the promise of shade.
The air at the Paradox hut is considerably cooler than in the valley, and the shade allows Brian to tinker with some brake issues he’s been having. When we planned our trip, a package from the San Juan Huts included a page about the Paradox Produce Company, with an option to purchase a gourmet burger cooked by its owners. Knowing that we'd be hungry and craving variety several days in, we reserved a burger for tonight and had been looking forward to it since heading up over Molas Pass. At 5pm sharp, Marty and Greg arrive with a feast of organic salad, fresh corn, potato salad, and giant Swiss cheese and mushroom burgers. It’s hard to rave enough about the delicious of the food (the best sustenance we’ve ever tasted!), Marty and Greg’s hospitality, and our interesting conversations with them. Among other tidbits, we learned how the Paradox Valley got its name: paradoxically, the valley was not formed by the Dolores River, but rather by underground salt deposits that settled and liquefied, causing the land to sink.
Day 6: Up We Go
We wake up a bit apprehensive, keenly aware that this is a big day of climbing. In fact, Paradox Valley is the lowest point of our ride at 5,400 feet, and our hut for the evening sits high in the La Sal Mountains at almost 10,000. We set out early and are taunted by numerous false summits, but the views of the valley and across to Davis Mesa are worth it. Eventually, we top out in a different world of ponderosa pines. After a glorious stretch of descent, we eat lunch and fill our hydration packs at the Buckeye Reservoir before crossing the border into Utah.
We’ve already been delighted by the changing scenery of the day, and this continues as we’re soon surrounded by meadows of alpine flowers and aspens. We make our first wrong turn of the trip (completely our fault) and accidentally add an extra three disheartening miles to the day. Miles already feel very long to us kilometer-based Canadians, and they seem to get even longer on the climb up the rough Jeep track. But as we arrive at the Geyser Pass Hut with the La Sal Mountains seemingly close enough to touch, we feel accomplished. Just as we settle in, thunderstorms roll in and we revel in the cooler air. We enjoy our final hut feast of quesadillas and tacos and fall into the best sleep we’ve had in days.
Day 7: The Whole Enchilada
Any rider who has been to Moab (and many who haven’t) has heard of the Whole Enchilada—it’s the quintessential, epic Moab ride, and for good reason. This network of trails starts high in the La Sal Mountains with Burro Pass and ends at the Porcupine Rim along the Colorado River, with over 8,000 feet of descent and 2,000 feet of climbing. Though this is the alternate route and there are easier ways to finish, this ride alone draws many avid riders to Moab, and we aren’t going to miss it. We ascend to the top of Burro Pass at over 11,000 feet and realize we’ve finally gotten used to the altitude. Then—stuffing our seat packs into our backpacks so that we can lower our seats more easily—we begin the long and wild descent.
It’s difficult to put into words the many ecosystems that we experience between the snowy mountain alpine and Moab’s desert, but traveling by bike is definitely the best way to see it. It’s almost surreal to witness the contrast as we pedal through meadows of alpine flowers with Utah’s iconic red rocks in the distance. By the time we reach the Colorado River, both out of water and exhausted, it is 104 degrees. The 5- or 6-mile journey into town feels like the longest section of the entire ride, and we lament the fact that we’ve booked a hotel at the end of the main strip. We stop for celebratory margaritas and congratulate ourselves for no longer being sea-level sissies. When we finally arrive at the hotel, we immediately enjoy showers and a swim. Feeling refreshed, all memories of hardship melt away, and—as is always the case after a big adventure—we’re left with only recollections of fun and beauty.
A Final Reflection on our Bikepacking Journey
There are arguments to be made for “cherry-picking” trails by riding only the best and top-rated. However, groups like thru-hikers and bikepackers will agree that there is a joy and satisfaction that comes with covering a point-to-point journey. On this trip, there were hours of monotony, grit, and determination interspersed by fun, laughter, and stretches of sheer beauty and awe. In the end, our bikes carried us over two mountain ranges, across mesas, through a paradoxical valley, and everywhere in between. In our experience, this “everywhere in between” is a special place that’s often discounted. These expanses build character and allow the mind to wander aimlessly. But at the same time, they force you to become acutely aware of and connected to your immediate surroundings. As we reflect, we agree that the “everywhere in between” is what made this trip truly special.
Details on the San Juan Huts Trip
The huts are the highlight of this trip. In Europe, hut-to-hut hiking, biking, and skiing are very common, but the system is much less developed in North America, making the San Juan Huts legitimately unique. Each hut sleeps eight, though we were fortunate to have only the two of us. If you encounter another group, plan to get to know your hut mates well over the six nights—we heard stories of strangers becoming close, but that’s not always the case. If you’re concerned about the tight quarters, consider planning the trip with a larger, eight-person group and renting the whole hut.
San Juan Huts has acquired special use permits from the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management and also has agreements with several private ranch owners to operate the huts along the route. As expected, all of the locations were standout. The three mountain huts—Bolam Pass, Black Mesa, and Geyser Pass— are painted green to blend in with the environment and include woodstoves and warm sleeping bags. The desert huts are tan and feature additional ventilation. All are simple but contain more than the basic necessities.
Food and Amenities
Each hut is stocked with food (you can see a full list here), but keep in mind that the variety depends on when it was last serviced. You also get sleeping pads and sleeping bags, and all huts include two propane lamps, a propane stove with two burners, and sufficient pots and pans, utensils, and dishes (the selection varied by hut but always met our needs). A selection of beer—which includes a cider and cans of chardonnay—is also available for an additional $44. Finally, although the variety of food in the huts is impressive, rewarding ourselves with a home-cooked meal at the Paradox store after five solid days of riding was very worth it ($40 per person).
The huts provide water to be used sparingly for cooking and drinking, but this cannot be used for showers or bike cleaning. As a general rule, we carried 3 liters of water while riding and also brought along a Sawyer Squeeze filter to top off our bottles along the way. Most days, we came across numerous water sources and could have easily shed some weight by relying more on them. However, days five and seven were less reliable: on day five, we augmented with cold drinks from the Bedrock store. On day seven, we knew that filling up at the stream along the Burro Pass trail or at Warner Lake were our only two options (there are no water sources after) but still ran out of water.
The route from Durango to Moab totals around 26,000 feet of climbing over 250 miles. San Juan Huts provides maps and directions for each day as well as GPS tracks—we highly recommend downloading these and knowing how to follow them. The number of turns onto unmarked roads is mindboggling, and depending on the snowpack, there could be times when the trail is not discernible. It’s also worth noting that the GPS tracks are a bit messy and the miles aren’t true to scale, but we found them to be extremely reliable nonetheless. In the end, we made only one wrong turn, and it was completely our fault. If you’re planning to do the alternative routes on day one or seven, it’s a good idea to have Latitude 40 maps, as well (Southwest Colorado Trails and Moab East Trails).
If you don’t have a friend or family member to shuttle you after your ride, make sure to book a shuttle back to Durango in advance (if you plan to leave your vehicle in Moab, you can also book the shuttle for before your trip). The shuttle service costs around $400 and is slightly cheaper to Durango. While this might seem steep, the drive is roughly 3.5 hours, which means a full day for the driver. San Juan Huts provides a list of shuttle operators. We went with Porcupine Shuttle, and it was great.
As always, it’s a bit tough to rate the difficulty of this trip—there are a lot of factors that can contribute, including weather, your level of acclimatization, and the routes you choose (alternate or standard). For example, rain on day four or five can turn smooth, hard-packed clay into an impassable mud pit. Likewise, snow or thunderstorms in the mountain passes can force you to wait out inclement weather while shivering in the cold. We heard stories of both of these scenarios. Other than heat, we were lucky with our weather. However, although we’re relatively accustomed to exerting at high elevations, we underestimated the effects of altitude, which definitely added to the difficulty level on our first two days.
The package that we bought was six nights and seven days and cost $895 per person, plus the price of shuttles ($400 from Moab to Durango and $50 to the initial trailhead). San Juan Huts does offer discounts for group bookings of eight (eight for the price of six), and the Moab-to-Durango shuttle is per vehicle, so it would be less if split between group members. Other extras that we added on included dinner on day five ($40 each) and the beer package ($44 each). Put simply, the trip is expensive. Even without the fancy dinner and beer, it worked out to around $370 per person per night for our group of two. But given that there’s really no other way to do this on a mountain bike, plus the fact that the huts are located in stunning locations, the price was easily justifiable for us.
Where to Stay
Before starting our ride, we stayed at the Purgatory Resort north of Durango. Though the website indicated that there were no rooms available, we stopped by the front desk and they were able to accommodate us (it seems they reserve space for walk-ins). Durango or Silverton would also be good options: Durango has more lodging and restaurants, but Silverton wins out for its stunning location. There are also numerous camping options nearby. After we finished our ride, we stayed at the Big Horn Lodge in Moab. Admittedly, it’s our go-to spot when we stay in Moab, as we’ve learned that it’s one of two locally owned hotels.
Getting to the Trailhead
If you opt for the standard route on the first day, your journey begins at Purgatory Resort between Durango and Silverton. It makes logistical sense to stay at the resort the night before, but regardless of where you stay, you can leave your vehicle there during your ride (just make arrangements at the front desk). If you instead choose to ride the alternate route (the Colorado Trail), the start begins around 7 miles outside Silverton at Molas Pass. There is a shuttle from Purgatory Resort, which costs $48 for one person and $5 for each additional rider. And it’s important to note that the shuttle service does not start until 8am (ours was late and picked us up closer to 8:30)—this might mean that you have to hustle to get though the pass before thunderstorms roll in. Another option would be to stay in Silverton and ride to the start, but the aforementioned 7 miles are all uphill, and the day is already long.
Choosing Between Telluride and Durango
From what we gathered, both the Durango to Moab and Telluride to Moab options sounded fun and exciting. Ultimately, we opted for the Durango to Moab route simply because it was listed as slightly more difficult (we’re suckers for that sales pitch). Plus, the allure of starting on the Colorado Trail and finishing with the Whole Enchilada made the decision simple (the Telluride to Moab journey comes in partway through the Whole Enchilada, so you still get to explore the Porcupine Rim). There are also options for a five-day trip—which includes part of our itinerary and ends in the Paradox Valley—or a four-day gravel bike ride.
Other than the considerations mentioned above, it’s also important to think about temperature, conditions, and altitude before embarking on this trip. Traveling from high mountains to the desert meant that temperatures ranged from just above freezing to 104 degrees. In other words, you should be prepared to ride and sleep in a wide range. Further, thunderstorms are common (usually in early-to-mid afternoon), so it’s best to plan your rides so that you are not at the top of a mountain pass when they hit. Conditions are also variable. In 2018, forest fires raged in the area and caused significant re-routing, while 2019 saw a higher-than-average snowpack that rendered some of the trail impassable until late July. Finally, altitude along the route tops out at 12,600 feet along Rolling Pass on the alternate route or 11,420 feet at the first night’s hut on the standard route, so make sure to take time to acclimatize before heading out if you live at sea level. Usually, a few days is sufficient.
What We Brought
Bikes and Storage
We chose to ride our general mountain bikes for the Durango to Moab journey: a Yeti SB150 and Ibis Mojo HD3. On more technical days (one, two, and seven), they served their purpose well, but proved to be overkill for the remaining time which included a lot of riding on forest service roads. Bikes with less travel might have been better for those long sections, but then you risk missing out on a lot of the fast, fun descending.
To shuttle our gear, we each wore Ultimate Direction Fastpacks—Brian had the Fastpack 25 and I had the 20. We tried to keep our packs light, but with 3 liters of water each plus Brian’s camera and lenses, the bags ended up being heavier than we wanted. Other storage included Revelate Designs Terrapin seat bags (up to 14 liters) to carry our flip flops, spare clothes, first aid kit, and various odds and ends. We also had Revelate Designs Gas Tanks for the top tube, which were perfect for food, bug spray, and other small essentials that we needed quick access to. If we were to do this ride again, we’d likely also opt for a small handlebar roll to take more weight off our backs.
The huts do provide some basic bike tools, but the oil was empty at each. Regardless, we always carry a few repair basics when we’re going on long and isolated rides. These included spare brake pads, tire patches, tire levers, thread and needle to stitch a tire, tubes (we run tubeless), chain breaker, and all the Allen wrenches our bikes require. Several of the days were dry, so we also recommend packing some chain lube. The only major issue we faced on the trail was Brian’s rear brakes needing to be replaced—he did have an extra set of brake pads, but they were the wrong size. We were able to send San Juan Huts a message through our InReach and they delivered a set to the Paradox Hut. Greg and Marty at the Paradox store are also able to help if necessary and have been known to drive into Moab for bits and pieces (the list has included bike shoes and even an entire rental bike).
Other Miscellaneous Gear
The huts’ propane lamps are pretty dim and the outhouses are unlit, so you’ll want to pack a good headlamp (we had the Petzl Actik Core and BioLite Headlamp 330). We also advise bringing a solar panel or battery for charging items like a GPS or smartphone. If you have dinner at the Paradox store, you can charge items there, but keep in mind that this is not until the fifth night. Other miscellaneous items included silk sheets for sleeping (we like the packability and light weight), a Sawyer Squeeze water filter, chamois cream, sunscreen, and bug spray. Finally, you will be off the grid almost the entire time, so it’s a good idea to bring along a satellite communication device like a Garmin inReach or Spot. As we mentioned above, we ended up using our inReach to contact San Juan Huts and get extra brake pads, which were crucial.
What We Wore
As we touched on above, temperatures ranged from around freezing to over 100 degrees on our trip, and storms rolled in quickly over high mountain passes (afternoon thunderstorms are especially common in summer). In other words, you should be prepared for just about anything. We made sure to pack and layer appropriately and recommend checking the forecast beforehand and/or talking with your guides to determine what you’ll need each day. And a small but important note: we highly advise bringing extra socks. There were several snow patches and river crossings on the alternate routes, which soaked the pairs we were wearing. Here’s a breakdown of our other essential clothing:
- Hardshells: Arc'teryx Beta SL and 7mesh Guardian Jacket
- Down jackets: Arc'teryx Cerium LT Hoody and Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Down Jacket
- Helmets: Bell Helmets 4Forty and Leatt DBX 3.0 All-Mountain
- Bike shoes: Shimano SH-ME7 and Shimano AM9. Of note: the AM9s are super comfortable, but if you’re going to be pushing your bike at all, we recommend opting for something with more aggressive grip as these tend to slide in snow, mud, and shale.
- Bike shirts: 7mesh Desperado Merino Henley