Exploring a new zone is the beauty of bikepacking. Being able to look at a map and connect a number of roads coupled with some neat surroundings is an exciting experience, one that I wish I could do every weekend of ever year. Doing it every so often actually makes it more special, especially in a completely unknown area to me, so the wait is ok.

A few weeks prior to this trip, I went on a trip north of Interstate 70 near the San Rafael Swell, a underrated zone Northwest of Moab in my opinion. Many people only see the area from the highway, but what truly lies in the washes and canyons is bikepacking bliss. 

So it was a no brainer for Lindsay and I to go back and explore the area south of I-70 and see what it had to offer. For us who live in Colorado, this would be a farewell to our planned desert riding season, before we take out the fat bikes and skis for the winter. 

Planning The Route
Some routes are easier to plan than others. This one proved to be a bit difficult. I had an idea of what I wanted to do, but what seemed to be the main issue was running into dead ends where steep canyon walls fall hundreds of feet to valley floors. After trying to work on the route with Strava and Garmin Basecamp, I found myself using the Gaia App to map and create the entire route. This system worked well, especially when my Garmin died and I needed a GOS device to navigate.

We discovered two main terminuses of the route, one on the north end and one on the south end of the loop. You could start at either end of the loop. What we did was drop water at the southern most portion, near Cainville, and started at the northern most portion. In total the route would travel 146 miles with roughly 8,000 vertical feet of gain. We traveled in a counter-clockwise direction. The route travels through sandy washes, super straight roads, tight twisty roads, desolate canyons and areas with big views. 



The Trip

The San Rafael Swell
We left from the trailhead just east of the Interstate 70 at the Moore exit (116). We left our car there for the three day trip with no issues. We decided to start here, as temperatures were a bit chillier up at higher elevations.
The majority of the route is quality road, but there is a hand full of sections that were sandy, Including Cat Canyon around mile ten of the our route.
The majority of the route is on quality road, but there are a handful of sections that were sandy – including Cat Canyon around mile ten of the route.
Plus size tires proved to be the superior tire size in the washes.
Plus size tires proved to be the superior tire size in the washes. 27.5+ on the left, 29er on the right.
Looking at the map it showed there was potential for water, but we planned around there not being any. This was south Salt wash, but in November, I would trust it most times of the year.
Looking at the map it showed there was potential for water, but we planned around there not being any. This flow was from South Salt wash (route mile 20). For it being November, I would trust this source most times of the year. (update as of June 2017, South Salt wash was not flowing. Do not trust as a water source)  A few miles down the road is Muddy Creek, another quality water source, just a bit silty (route mile 23).
This is seriously desolate country, We did not see anyone all day besides a bunch of cows.
This is seriously desolate country. We did not see anyone all day besides a bunch of cows and one truck with a father and son exploring the area.
Lunch stop!
Lunch stop!

the-san-rafael-swell-09351

For early November in this region, it was really nice, but the sun being out played a big role in us remaining warm in our tees.
For early November in this region was really nice, but the sun being out played a big role in us remaining warm in our tees.
More descending on open roads. We were waiting for hidden power climbs, but they were few and far between.
More descending on open roads. We were waiting for hidden power climbs, but they were few and far between.
the-san-rafael-swell-09391
As we started to approach Capitol Reef the views became pretty awesome.

the-san-rafael-swell-09405

As the night was starting to fall on us, the Moon rose, It would be close to a full moon, and it certainly looked bigger than normal.
Moonrise on night one as the temps dropped quickly. We were one day away from the super moon – what a great time to be out.

Have you heard of Good To Go Foods? Delicious bikepacking food.

Good morning Utah!
Good morning Utah!
The first day we made it roughly 56 miles and camped right off Cainville Wash Road. We saw two people in one car after the first 5 miles of the day.
The first day we made it roughly 56 miles and camped right off Cainville Wash Road.
Lindsay brushing the teeth getting ready for another big day on the bike.
Lindsay brushing the teeth getting ready for another day on the bike.
One of many awesome sights along the route, Temple of the Sun and Moon.
One of the many awesome sights along the route, Temple of the Sun and Moon.
the-san-rafael-swell-09505
Saying goodbye to Cathedral Valley.
We dropped water off Caineville Wash Road, right where the route turned off to head back north. We were happy we dropped water, but could have relied on a few sources on route.
We dropped water off at Caineville Wash Road, right where the route turned to head back north. We were happy we dropped water, but could have relied on a few sources on route. We accessed this road by taking HWY 25 into Caineville.
As the route took north, we would ride along the san Rafael Reef to our west and neat canyons formations to our south and east.
As the route took north, we rode with the San Rafael Reef to the west and neat canyon formations to the south and east.
Passnig Muddy Creek on the east side of the route proved to be a bit more difficult, no bridge. It was refreshing to say the least.
Passing Muddy Creek on the east side of the route proved to be a bit more difficult with no bridge, however, it was refreshing to say the least.

the-san-rafael-swell-09653

As we got close to Goblin State Park, we were surprised to ride pavement. It was a nice change of pace, especially as the sun was setting and we wanted to get to Temple Mountain Road to camp for the night.
As we got close to Goblin Valley State Park, we were surprised to ride pavement. It was a nice change of pace, especially since the sun was setting and we wanted to get to Temple Mountain Road to camp for the night.
The moon was a spectacle all night.
The moon was a spectacle all night.
We found a great campsite off of Temple Mountain road, another day in the books. (mile 116)
We found a great campsite off of Temple Mountain road. Another day in the books (mile 116).

the-san-rafael-swell-09782

Our first glance of temple mountain was truly stunning, and a surprise to say the least.
Our first glance of Temple Mountain was truly stunning, and a surprise to say the least.
When it warms up, it warms up. Time to shed the layers.
When it warms up, it warms up. Time to shed the layers.
Turning our back to Temple Mountain, stunning.
Turning our back to Temple Mountain, stunning.
Each and every turn shared a new view, a new experience, and an new challenge, Thats the beauty of making your own route. It leaves you with plenty of unknowns, which is a wonderful thing.
Each and every turn shared a new view, a new experience, and a new challenge. That’s the beauty of making your own route. It leaves you with plenty of unknowns, which is a wonderful thing.
We climbed steadily from Temple Mountain to Eagle Canyon. We anticipated more climbing since we experiences what seemed like endless descending on the front end of our trip. Right then was when we realized this was the direction to take on this route.
We climbed steadily from Temple Mountain to Eagle Canyon. We anticipated more climbing since we experienced what seemed like endless descending on the front end of our trip. Right then was when we realized this was the direction to take on this route.
the-san-rafael-swell-09920
99% of the route is on BLM land.
Eagle Canyon is a hidden gem, and a great way to end the trip.
Eagle Canyon is a hidden gem, and a great way to end the trip.
We knew we were close when we crossed under Interstate 70
We knew we were close when we crossed under Interstate 70.
One last hike a bike before the car. I was pretty impressed we were able to comple this route in the time we did. It was not easy, with the lack of day light, sand, and the unknown, A big thanks to my travel companion, Lindsa, It was an Awesome experience Bikepacking The San Rafiel.
One last hike a bike before the car. I was pretty impressed we were able to complete this route in the time we did. It was not easy with the lack of day light, sand, and the unknown. A big thanks to my travel companion, Lindsay. It was an awesome experience bikepacking The San Rafael.
Mile 146, time for a beer!
Mile 146, time for a beer and cold pizza!

17 Comments

  1. Great pictures.
    Looks like a great ride.

  2. Awesome Neal and Lindsay! Looks like a wonderful trip. I love the “off the beaten path” adventures that you rarely hear about. Love the pics!

  3. Excellent article and wonderful pics. I am from GJ CO and did not know of this being so close. Thanks and is on my list for May. Might try adding a couple days if water available.

    • Neil Beltchenko
      Neil Beltchenko

      Brad, you can go north of I-70 and do similar milage to tack on another 2 days. Shoot me an email and I’ll hook you up with more info.
      Best,
      Neil

  4. Georg Nevole

    Congratulation, awesome and very inspired article.
    Cheers from Switzerland

  5. Been to Moab, and environs. Never heard of this area, though. What’s the average elevation on that stretch? And, do you need a parking/camping permit to be out there? If so, who would I contact? This sounds like a great adventure. Oh, and when’s typically the best season to do such a ride? Thanks!

    • Neil Beltchenko

      Edwardo,

      Yeah, it’s a hidden gem. I think the elevation was around 7,000 feet of climbing, which is not that much considering the milage. No permits necessary. I would do it in the spring and fall, you will just want to make sure the weather up by I70 is good, that is where it is a tad bit colder because you are at elevation. We squeezed this trip out basically before winter hit in mid November. It would be nice to have a bit more daylight, but it worked out.

  6. I’ve been riding in the area both south and north of I-70 before. Greg Bromka had a book with some nice rides in the area. Tomisch Butte was a fun loop to the south of I-70, in the area you were in. To the north, San Rafael River campground is nice, Jackass Buttes is a good ride, and there is some singletrack on the north side of the San Rafael River that is maintained by locals.

  7. Bill Maylone

    Thank You- That looked like an awesome trip. The pictures were great.

  8. Great write up and awesome pictures, Neil and Lindsay!! I’ve done some hiking and biking in the SR Swell and that country is magical – and desolate. Your pictures captured this beautifully.
    We have a mountain tandem and this loop looks mighty intriguing…..
    Well done!

  9. John Howell

    Great write up, Neil. What tires were you and Lindsay using? Is that an issue considering the sand etc? Or am I overanalyzing it?

    • Neil Beltchenko
      Neil Beltchenko

      Hey John, I don’t think it’s that big of a deal, but I wouldn’t use a cross bike, thats for sure.

      I was using 2.35 Maxxis Ikons, maybe not the most ideal tire for sand but certainly reliable overall. Lindsay was on some 3.0 WTB Rangers.

      Cheers,
      Neil

  10. Pingback: Bikepacking in the San Rafael Swell: Part One – Into the Outdoors

  11. Some updates to those considering this ride. I rode the first part of this route with 4 other people over June 1st to the 3rd. We bailed out at the tiny town of Cainesville at the southern point of the route on Highway 24 (it’s not Hwy 25). Originally I had scheduled to ride this in April but moved the ride to the first weekend in June to coincide with Adventure Cycling’s overnight bike weekend. If you plan to ride this one, don’t ride it at this time! Way too hot-in the upper 90s. The roads were not in good condition, lots more sand and washboard roads than we expected looking at these photos. I am not sure if the roads have deteriorated but Cat Canyon was a hike a bike almost the entire way. The route is also very confusing with criss-crossing roads and most not labeled. We took a few wrong turns here and there even with a gps. South Salt Wash was dry as bone but we crossed Muddy Creek via the bridge which was silty and muddy but at least water. There was no crossing through running water-this was a dry wash. Lots more uphill on this first part than expected. The section near Cathedral Valley and the Temples was washboard alternating with sandy sections. It’s a beautiful ride but I recommend, to the regular rider, to cut the mileage down a bit and keep checking your gps! I would like to try it again in cooler weather and when the streams are running. Fat tire bikes would be highly recommended. Thanks to all the generous souls who offered us water during the last 7-8 miles.

    • Neil Beltchenko
      Neil Beltchenko

      Yikes, sounds like you had a rough experience. Certainly not worth riding anytime in June. It’s a beautiful route, hope you can head back once it’s more of an enjoyable temperature. Thanks for the heads up on South Salt Wash, I updated it in the article.

      Best,
      Neil

      • Thanks for all your trip reports, Neil, I get a lot of inspiration and ideas from your reports. I think of this ride as an “Epic” weekend and want to go back to ride it better the next time. And maybe in cooler temps 🙂 Thanks for all you do. Kerry

  12. Hey Neil & Lindsey,
    How much water did you carry? We are heading out next week to do this loop and I’ll be stashing water down where you did.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *