7 Great Weekend Bikepacking Rides in the Southwest
Thanks to a fantastic trail network carved by the hard work of volunteers, along with acres of National Forest and BLM land prime for camping, the American Southwest possesses some of the best long distance bikepacking routes in the world. And for the very same reasons, it’s also peppered with amongst the finest long weekend escapes you could wish for, each one a compressed, time-friendly adventure just waiting to be savored.
So forget the Tour Divide for now: no need to punish yourself with days of sleep deprivation to reach a non existent podium. Out of time for that multi-week adventure? Then just go ride your bike and spend a few nights outside. Our advice? Slow down and delve deeper. Discover the real backcountry and find new trails. Pack your stove, pitch your tarp and soak up those starry nights. Go ride… and don’t go home.
With this in mind, here’s seven of our favourites – across Arizona, Utah and Colorado – for your consideration this upcoming season.
1. The Black Canyon Trail
Mayer, AZ to Phoenix, AZ / View Route
67 MI (108 KM) / 4,940 FT (1,506 M) climbing / 2-3 days
The Black Canyon Trail is a multi-use trail that provides the perfect introduction to bikepacking. Running from the small settlement of Mayer to the northern fringes of Phoenix, its 78 miles of sublime, flowing, desert singletrack are easily split into 2 days, with a convenient resupply point at Black Canyon City. The route is clear to follow and well signposted, and there are maps/gpx files available too. Plans are afoot to extend the BCT to Prescott, where an extensive trail network already exists in the surrounding Prescott National Forest – easily enough to tack on a couple of extra days to your roadtrip. With temperatures soaring in the summer, the Black Canyon Trail makes an ideal winter escape.
2. The White Rim Trail
Moab, UT (loop) / View Route
97 MI (156 KM) / 5,459 FT (1,664 M) climbing / 3 days
Don’t let the fact that the White Rim Trail is a jeep track rather than singletrack put you off. Set in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park – shaped by the mighty Colorado and Green Rivers – this 103 mile loop offers sublime camping potential and utter desert silence, under star-crammed skies. Its 3D jigsaw of redrock canyons, mesas and buttes rank it amongst the most stunning rides in Utah – and you can easily tack on some technical riding in nearby Moab if you’re hankering for more challenging singletrack. Most people ride the trail clockwise, from the Schafer Trail to the Green River. There are those who choose to speed across it in one long day. But to really make the most of Utah’s mesmerizing desert experience, we’d suggest spreading it it out over 2-3 mellow days – it’s guaranteed to recharge your soul. Camp grounds are space every few miles and there are a few respectable climbs to contend with; overall elevation gain is a modest 6,000ft. The best time to be in the area is in the spring and fall – mid summer is searingly hot. In the peak season, make campsite reservations early and remember that a permit from the National Park Service is required to ride the trail.
3. The Kokopelli Trail
Fruta, CO to Moab, UT / View Route
158 MI (254 KM) / 15,189 FT (4,630 M) climbing / 3-5 days
Crossing from Colorado into Utah, the 142 mile Kokopelli Trail is a classic route that uses the joint mountain biking meccas of Fruita and Moab as its start and end points. If you’ve made the long journey west, this means there’s no end of scope to add in several days of some of the most iconic trail riding in the Southwest. The trail is named after the mystic muse, Kokopelli; most of the route is relatively straightforward jeep tracks, intermixed with sandy and slabby sections, and bookended with a stunning section of singletrack out of Fruita – complete with knife-edge rim riding – before descending into Moab via the fabled Porcupine Rim Trail. The Kokopelli is raced in a day – the record being just over 12 hours – but mere mortals will enjoy it more in 2-4 days, making it another great introduction to bikepacking. Access to water can be an issue – ask at Over the Edge Cycles in Fruita about a water drop half way through the route at Dewy Bridge, as there’s generally plenty of mountain bikers shutting over to Moab willing to help out. Avoid this route straight after rain, as a high clay content in the soil means parts of the trail become incredibly tacky. Best time to ride? May, September and October.
4. The Vapor Trail
Salida, CO (loop) / View the Colorado Trail
126 MI (202 KM) / 16,418 FT (5,004 M) climbing / 3-5 days
Based out of Salida, the Vapor Trail is another endurance race that also makes an ideal multi-day bikepacking tour. Packing in 20,000ft of climbing, it’s brutally hard if raced within 20 hours. But split its 125 miles into a 2-3 day ride, and you’ll have time to really savour enjoy the whole route. And it’s a good one, linking in a portion of the Colorado Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, the Monarch Crest Trail – which includes 12 miles of glorious, high altitude riding – and the magnificent Rainbow Trail to top it all off. The highest point of the ride is a touch under 13,000ft, adding to its challenges if you’re not used to riding at elevation, and ensuring this slots into the summer-only category of bikepacking adventures. Be warned, there are demanding hike-a-bike sections, particularly the hour long hike up Canyon Creek. Salida makes a great base too, with an impressive range of bike shops and the local S-Mountain trails, straight across the rail lines out of town – perfect for filling in an extra half day of free time. Locals recommend starting at the most excellent coffee shop, Cafe Dawn, and finishing next to the Arkansas river at River’s Edge for good food and local brews. Due to lingering snow in Colorado, this route is best ridden from summer to late fall. Just watch out for the summer monsoons; high elevations are no place to be if a storm strikes. Oh yes, the record is closer to 12:45, which is just plain crazy.
5. Coconino Loop
Flagstaff, AZ (loop) / View Route
250 MI (402 KM) / 20,744FT (6,323 M) climbing / 4-7 days
The Coconino Loop uses the northern Arizona’s hip and friendly Flagstaff as its base. It’s a fantastic, challenging 235 mile loop that rolls out of town on the Arizona Trail, before spiralling down the Old Munds Wagon Trail and cutting across the trail mecca of Sedona – stop for a day ride, if you have time. There’s some big climbs to contend with, including winching up and over Mingus Mountain to reconnect with the Arizona Trail. By way of reward, the spectacular descent from the 9,200ft Snowbowl into Flagstaff is as good a finale as you can hope for, especially when resplendent in Fall colours. This is a ride with a real wealth of scenery, ranging from high elevation ponderosas to the towering red rocks of Sedona. With its mix of singletrack, rough jeep roads and 28,000 feet of climbing to its name, the Cononino Loop is best split into 4-5 days. Water is easily sourced and there are plenty of towns en route for resupplies. Keep an eye out on the weather if you’re riding it at the beginning and tail end of the season, as 7,000ft Flagstaff receives its fare share of snow. And be warned – it gets piping hot in Sedona come the middle of summer, making fall a great time to ride this one.
6. San Juan Mountains, Colorado Trail
Molas Pass to Durango, CO / View Video and Tips
80 MI (128 KM) / 8,500 FT (2,591 M) climbing / 2-3 days
If riding all 539 miles of the Colorado Trail sounds like too much, then zone in on the final 78-mile segment into Durango over 2-3 days. In doing so, enjoy some of the very best bikepacking on the CT – and Colorado, for that matter. The terrain in the San Juans is a deliciously lush, craggy, rooty and rocky melange, interspersed with verdant meadows rolling far above timberline. Views into the deepest folds of the La Plata Mountains, a subrange of the San Juans, are as bold as anywhere in the world, streaked and saturated with mineral deposits, and scarred with babyhead strewn scree slopes. The climbs are protracted and test the mettle of even the hardiest riders. The descents – endlessly long and loping – could well inhabit in a timewarp of their own. This is bikepacking at its very best; recent trail work means conditions are better than ever, with only short sections of hike ‘n biking required. Camping opportunities are excellent, and water points abound. With 8500ft of climbing and elevations topping 13,271ft, this is a challenging, summer ride only. Even so, watch out for rain and thunderstorms come the monsoon season; pack a full complement of rainproofs and layers for whatever time of the year you’re in the San Juans. Logistically, it’s easiest to shuttle out to Molas Pass Road, an hour’s drive from Durango, and ride back from there. Hermosa Tours offers a shuttle for $30, minimum 3 people). Another unique option is the historic Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge $104 pp), which will drop you in Silverton, just 13 miles north of Molas Pass for an alternative start point. When you roll into Durango, be sure to hang out at Bread, the best bakery in town and a magnet for local riders.
7. Gila River Ramble, Arizona
Kelvin, AZ (loop) / View the Route
101 MI (163 KM) / 10,548 FT (3,215 M) climbing / 3-4 days
If you don’t have time to ride all 800 miles of the Arizona Trail, then try your hand at the Gila River Ramble, which weaves together some of the very best sections in southern Arizona as its backbone. The main loop is around 80 miles in length, with various spurs and interconnecting trails to choose from. Set in the ever-craggy Superstition Mountains, terrain includes corridors of mighty saguaros cacti and stunning box canyons, spread over some 10,000ft of challenging climbing. The word ‘ramble’ is without doubt a modest definition for the steep, rocky grades involved, the lofty ridge rides, the precarious, whirligig switchback descents, and the endless singletrack alleyways that wend through forests of prickly choya cacti. Despite its mild-mannered title, think more along the lines of weekend epic than casual saunter… The Gila Ramble also straightforward logistically – the start and end points are Kelvin, near Phoenix. Temperature-wise, October to April are the best months. For wildflower action, ride this loop in the early spring. And don’t forget – running tubeless is a prerequisite here. Watch out for razor sharp rocks too.
And, to round it to an even dozen, here are five more southwestern weekend escapes worth noting:
- The Other Side of Nowhere – Big Bend, TX
- The Tombstone Shuffle – Tombstone, AZ
- Kane Creek and Pritchett Canyon – Moab, UT
- Billy the Kid and the Lincoln National Forest – Ruidoso, NM
- Caja Del Rio S24O Overnighter – Santa Fe, NM
New in plan/tips
- Oct 17, 2016A Bikepacker’s Guide to Mountain Weather Preparation
- Aug 15, 2016A Guide to Bikefishing, by Hansi Johnson
- Jul 20, 2016Big Bike, Little Person: Touring on the 29+ platform.
- Apr 12, 2016A Guide to Traveling Tubeless
- Mar 28, 20167 Great Weekend Bikepacking Rides in the Southwest