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Riding the White Rim Trail

The 100-mile White Rim Trail outside of Moab, Utah is one of my all-time favorite mountain bike rides. No one section of it is very difficult. The real crux of it is planning, pacing, and mental fortitude.

I’ve done it as a day ride about eight times and as a multi-day camping extravaganza twice, and each has its advantages. As a day ride, you don’t need any camping permits, sag wagons, reservations, tents, sleeping bags, or pads, which is nice, but you miss out on some of the most scenic campsites in Utah. As a multi-day camping outing, there’s nothing like kicking back in a camp chair after a moderate day of biking and watching the sun set at the White Crack, Murphy’s, or Gooseberry campsites.

The track itself is an old cattle trail which was later upgraded during the uranium mining boom in that area and more recently taken over by Canyonlands National Park. The White Rim name comes from the band of white sandstone that the trail follows when it’s not dropping hundreds of feet into the Colorado or Green Rivers.  It’s a well-maintained road and no problem for a high clearance 4wd vehicle and competent driver.

As a day ride, the plot thickens. In the spring and fall when the temperatures are in the 60s to 80s, there are quite a few people on the trail and it’s unlikely that a mechanical malfunction or personal implosion would be fatal, as you’re never too far from help.  But in the summer when the temps easily kick up into the 90s and 100s, the trail becomes a sizzling ghost town for good reason—there’s little to no shade, no water, and lots of sand and dirt, and each mile is hard won.

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The White Rim is regularly done as a day ride in the 10- to14-hour range, which includes some stops for food and rest. The speed record is commonly attributed to Jeremy Nobis (of skiing fame) and is under seven hours, although details are hard to come by. There are a few options and numerous interpretations regarding what it means to “ride the White Rim,” with the easiest involving a car shuttle and about 80 miles of riding and the hardest being a self-supported outing from Moab, which bumps it up to about 130 miles.

As a self-propelled outing, the White Rim has been done by just about any and every means possible. It’s been run, unicycled, hand-crank bicycled, with bike trailers, on hardtails, full suspension, 26ers, and 29ers. I don’t know if it’s been pogo-sticked, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Regardless of the method of travel, carrying enough water is almost always the biggest issue, due to the hot, dry climate.

For my day rides, I’ve been a fan of stashing some food and water at the top of one of the first big climbs (Shaffer or Horse Thief, depending on which direction you ride), then driving down to the bottom of the climb, stashing a car, doing the first climb in the dark by headlamp, then collecting my heavy gear and water and continuing on.  For this type of strategy, 1.5 to 2 gallons of water should do for the remaining 80+ miles.

Personally, I like to get as much weight as possible off of my back, so I use a seat-post rack to carry a gallon of water in a plastic jug and also a frame pack to hold all of my tools, pumps, and extra food. Between this, a 29er bike, and a small CamelBak, it’s a fairly comfortable ride, although I’m hardly breaking any speed records.

Probably the best time of the year to do the White Rim as a day ride is around October. This way you’ve had a summer of biking to get in shape, the temps have started to cool off, and there are plenty of other people on the trail if something should go wrong.

Mile by mile, there’s nothing much to riding the White Rim, but the sum of its stunning scenery, fun riding, and the long distances combine to make it a Utah biking classic.

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