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Wild west wheels: across Utah on a bike

The Outlaw Saloon sits on a dusty lot off Highway 89 in Hatch, Utah, a Mormon outpost of some 140 people, tucked in a valley about 260 miles south of Salt Lake City. It’s a Monday, mid-afternoon, and for the past six hours I’ve been muscling a bike over the forests and meadows of the Markagunt Plateau that presses in from the west. I’m famished. They serve steaks. I mosey in.

The Outlaw is the only proper restaurant in town, and offers discounts if you cook your steak yourself. Even so, 3pm is a strange time to order a sirloin, and the Outlaw is dark and empty inside. There’s a long bar with saddles for stools and a small stage with a taxidermy bear where a country band might play a two-step.

In short, this isn’t the kind of place you’d ordinarily expect a Lycra-clad long-distance cyclist to rehydrate and refuel, but it is one of the very few contacts with civilisation I’ll have for days. And while the celebrated geological oddities of Bryce Canyon National Park are just beyond the next ridge, I’m headed somewhere wilder — deep into the Utah back-country on a newly established off-road route billed by its creators as “the greatest bicycle adventure in the American West”.

Today is day one of what is generally considered a six-day, 190-mile mountain bike ride from the ski resort of Brian Head to Escalante, a small town surrounded by the 1.9 million untamed acres of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The Aquarius Trail, which opened to the public in July, follows gravel roads and lonely single-track trails down into canyons exploding with tall spires of rock (called hoodoos), up airy alpine ridges and across high plains under vast skies. Best of all, five new, fully stocked huts sit strategically placed along the way, leaving me to ride light and free. A GPS map on my smartphone directs me right to their doorsteps. No guide required.

The Aquarius Trail is a mix of gravel roads and lonely single-track trails © Ryan Salm

“It was always a dream to have something like this where you could go for days and days on your own without having to carry all that gear,” says Jared Fisher, the founder of Escape Adventures, the Las Vegas-based tour operator that created and manages the hut system.

It had felt strange that first morning to be casting off alone on the initial 36-mile stretch to the Hatch Hut. I expected it to take about six to eight hours with stops. I also knew that monsoons can roll in quickly and turn the soft soil into a thick, chain-caking paste that would make riding arduous at best. Not being as fit as I may once have been, I’d opted for a burly electric bike — a Jeep, actually — with a brawny 1,000-watt motor and huge 4.8-inch-wide tyres. I would still have to pedal hard but I hoped such a bike might help me reach the huts dry and not destroyed.

I had spent that first morning riding past wildflowers and lava flows, the wind hissing through my spokes. I wasn’t alone for long. On a dirt road near Birch Spring Knoll I happened upon cowboys on horseback moving their livestock out of the mountains.

The exterior of the Outlaw Saloon, a timber building in Hatch, Utah. The bar’s sign shows a cowboy with a tray in one hand and a gun in the other
The Outlaw Saloon in Hatch: ‘One of very few contacts with civilisation I’ll have for days’

“You alone?” asked one of the wranglers, a woman in a white shirt riding a black bay quarter horse.

“Yes’m, I am,” I replied.

“Well, there’s — what? — six more of you just ahead,” she said. “I bet you’ll catch ’em.”

I did catch them, just up around a bend: Michelle and Joe Peltier of Carson City, Nevada; Cathy Sheehe and Mark Butler, also from Nevada; and Jeff and Pam Jurach, from California. They were all retired, music-loving, athletic types who’d signed up for the same hut dates as me. They were on electric bikes, too. “Way more fun,” said Jeff.

The seven of us rode along, chatting, Cathy pointing out the fresh red fire-retardant splattered over the trail to snuff a wildfire sparked less than a week ago. Hatch slowly appeared out of the pines. The others carried on a few miles out of town to the hut, I got waylaid at the Outlaw.

Lonely trails run through a landscape of towering rock spires . . . 
. . . under vast blue skies

When I finally roll up to the hut, I find it beside a gravel dirt road surrounded by rabbitbrush and sage. In the distance, a red rock escarpment crackles like a vivid sunset. “You again!” says Pam, jokingly.

When Fisher got permission to build the huts, it was on condition that they have no environmental impact. He installed solar panels for power and refillable cisterns and jerry cans for water. Foot pumps power the sinks and a (quite chilly) shower. The huts themselves are just repurposed shipping containers, which sounds unwelcoming until you see them.

The Hatch Hut, like all of the huts, has been retrofitted with extra carpentry into a sleek, almost Scandinavian work of efficiency, with an angular roof, pale hardwood laminate interiors and windows for lots of fresh air. The huts sit fairly high, between 7,200ft and 10,000ft, so nights are cool enough to warrant a light down jacket even in July. Three containers — two for sleeping and one for cooking — sit around a covered deck with a grill, a table and hammocks.

Getting bikes ready at the Hatch Hut, one of five on the trail built from repurposed shipping containers 

The huts come stocked with food . . . 
. . . and supplies for bike repairs 

A kettle of swallows buzzes overhead while I recharge the Jeep from a generator humming out back. Pam points me to my bunk, one of six in a container that I have all to myself, since the organisers put groups together and I am in a group of one. That seems silly, so Pam and Jeff jump at the offer to crash with me in my container.

 map - Utah

Inside, I find sleeping bags and soft pillows that stay with the hut — riders must carry with them the thin sleeping-bag liner and a pillow case that Escape Adventures has provided. The huts have no on-site host but come stocked with salmon fillets, fresh greens and even steaks for do-it-yourself meals — there is even beer. I open a drawer to discover spare inner tubes, patch kits and various tools for bike maintenance, all of which we are free to use. Full, tired, warm, I drift off to sleep listening to coyotes howling in the distance.

Morning comes fast and the day’s ride goes by even faster, partly because it’s shorter — about 28 miles — but mostly because I have good company. Powered by breakfast burritos, we climb dirt roads into the bizarre Claron formation, a 50-million-year-old wonder of iron and manganese that’s home to strange, endemic flowers like red canyon beardtongue.

We stop to eat turkey sandwiches in a lovely meadow surrounded by aspens. The ride down to the second hut, the Butch Cassidy Hut, named after the outlaw whose Mormon parents had left England for Utah in the mid-1800s, is fast, with S-curves of single-track racing through the forest. A barbecue that night has me fading into bed only moments after dark.

Mark Butler tends to the barbecue at one of the huts
Toasting s’mores on the hut’s campfire © Ryan Salm

As far as we can tell, we are among the first 100 people or so to ride the trail. The plan is for it to open as soon as the snow clears out of the high country, typically in late June or early July, and close again when the snow falls in late October or early November. Getting a reservation was no problem, but I wonder if that will last.

Interest in self-guided bike tours has skyrocketed since the pandemic hit, with outfitters in Australia, New Zealand, Scotland and the US all now offering self-guided options that they didn’t offer before. One company, Wilderness England, recently rebranded a slower-selling five-day cycling tour around Yorkshire as “self-guided plus”. A “soigneur” tunes the bikes, provides snacks and handles all the transfers but clients ride on their own. “It was probably the most popular new product launch we’ve ever had,” says Stevie Christie, a director. “People really like feeling like they’re doing something on their own.”

Riders on the Aquarius Trail don’t have to complete the full six days. Unsure of how well I’d hold up on such a long trip, I booked only three nights in the huts instead of all five. The further we ride, the more I regret that call and day three, my last, proves to be my favourite.

The best single track of the entire system sits right outside the door of the Butch Cassidy Hut — an exquisite 16-mile loop that includes eight miles on Thunder Mountain, a trail hailed by the US Forest Service for showcasing “some of the most spectacular red rock formations in the state of Utah”. The others have all ridden this before and most opt to skip it for a shortcut that slashes a 42-mile day in half. But Jeff, excited to see it again, convinces me to ride it with him. “I don’t feel right letting you ride that alone,” he says.

A rider pauses in Bryce Canyon Country © Ryan Salm

They call this part of Utah “colour country” for a reason. For what feels like hours we weave around cartoonish hoodoos and wobbly arches and over a pass with breathtaking views of a landscape collapsing into shades of red and gold. We blast around gnarled pines and roar across a dramatic backbone of earth set before sedimentary columns that remind me of a melting pipe organ. This one section alone would be worth a very long flight and, embarrassingly, Jeff says he can hear me giggling. We are alone despite the thousands of tourists buzzing around Bryce Canyon National Park only a few miles away.

That night, Jeff and I find the group at the Pine Lake Hut tucked away in the trees. We grill sausages and watch the sky unzip into a deluge. By morning, though, the trails are no longer muddy and a shuttle van fetches me for the trip back to Brian Head. The ride will seem dizzyingly fast after days of watching the land drip by at 13mph. Full of jealousy, I pause to watch the group spin out of sight.

A week later, back home in California, Jeff writes me an email. “You had three good days but you missed three more,” he gloats. “We’ll all be back for more. What a treat.” 

Tim Neville was a guest of the Aquarius Trail (aquariustrail.com) and the Utah Office of Tourism. Five nights accommodation on the trail, including food, costs $4,489 for up to six people, who share one container. Alternatively Escape Adventures run guided group trips, from $1,800 per person. The Jeep e-bike ridden by Tim Neville was provided by quietkat.com; Escape Adventures can rent bikes for the trail. The nearest airport is St George, Utah, but Las Vegas is only a three-hour drive from the start point

More off-road adventures

Riding the new King Alfred’s Way © Cycling UK

King Alfred’s Way, England Launched last year, the King Alfred’s Way is a 220-mile off-road loop though the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex. Starting and ending at the statue of Alfred the Great in Winchester, it takes in Stonehenge, Avebury stone circle, Iron Age hill forts, Farnham Castle and Salisbury Cathedral — allowing the creators to bill it as a ride “through 10,000 years of history”.

The charity Cycling UK spent three years creating the route, widening existing footpaths so they could be used by cyclists and so connect up existing bridleways and tracks. Most riders take between three and five days to complete the route, camping or stopping at inns in the many villages along the way. It is designed for self-guided riding.

Full route details can be downloaded from the charity’s website, cyclinguk.org. Rough Guide Ride offers supported trips, with luggage transferred each day, from about £195 per person.

Torino-Nice Rally, Italy/France Running through the Alps from Turin to the Mediterranean, this stunning route takes in about 300 miles of tarmac and 150 miles of high-altitude gravel tracks. Since 2016 it has been tackled by a group of like-minded enthusiasts every September (see torino-nice.weebly.com for details) but it can also be done independently, with route information downloadable from komoot.com.

Annapurna Circuit, Nepal The classic trekkers’ route around the world’s 10th highest peak is now being undertaken by cyclists. Numerous tea houses on the route remove the need to carry food or camping gear but stamina is still required: the trail tops out at 5,416 metres above sea level.

Pannier, which started out as a bikepacking journal but now runs tours, is organising a two-week Annapurna expedition in October 2022, tackling just under 200 miles in eight days of riding. It costs £1,895 per person, not including flights (and, of course, remains dependent on the Covid situation); see pannnier.cc.

 


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