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I Took a 100-Mile Vehicle-Assisted Mountain Biking Trip to Canyonlands National Park

A few weekends ago, I went on a 100-mile mountain biking trip with my fiancee and a few of our friends along the famed White Rim Road in Canyonlands National Park. I also brought along a 2019 Nissan Titan Pro-4X to serve as the support vehicle. I’ve written an off-road review of the Titan posted on Autotrader to compliment this write-up, but for now let’s talk about exactly how we planned this epic, vehicle-supported adventure.

Canyonlands National Park

One of the larger of our country’s national parks, Canyonlands consists of two districts: Island in the Sky and Needles. Island in the Sky is a massive plateau with paved roads frequented by tour buses and large groups, while the Needles is a little less accessible and is filled with sandstone spires. Our trip took place in the lowlands surrounding the Island in the Sky plateau.

The White Rim Road

Running through the Canyonlands backcountry is the famous White Rim Road. Built by the federal government in the 1950s to promote uranium prospecting during the Cold War, the White Rim Road is technically 71 miles long, but factor in the additional mileage required for accessing it on either end and it rings in at an even 100. The route meanders along the Green and Colorado rivers, through valleys, over spines, and along cliff-sides that don’t offer a lot of room for error. The verdict is still out on which direction is "better," but we opted to bike the trail in the counter-clockwise direction.

Planning

Permits are required for anyone venturing onto the White Rim Road, and they need to be secured three months in advance. For our trip, we had to secure a permit for a specific campsite for each of the three nights we planned to spend on the trail. Due to the high demand for these sites, this meant staying up until midnight in front of the computer three nights in a row and fervently clicking on the campsite we needed for each day with the hopes that we were faster than the other people trying to reserve it. The process is pure chaos. We came up short on several attempts until we were finally able to get the needed spots for a long weekend in October, which luckily, happens to be the best time of the year to go.

The Titan

The 2019 Nissan Titan Pro-4X we used as our support vehicle proved to be a great trail companion. A pickup is pretty much essential for a trip like this, and even in its 5.5-foot short-bed configuration, the Titan offered a number of advantages. Power comes from a 5.6-liter V8 making 390 horsepower and 394 lb-ft of torque, put to the ground through a 7-speed automatic. The Pro-4X also offers a Bilstein suspension, all-terrain tires, a chin-mounted skid plate, a locking rear differential and hill descent control. All of this comes together nicely to make a very capable truck, and not once was the Titan held up by an obstacle along the White Rim, which has its fair share of steep climbs, rocky surfaces and rutted out areas. To top it off, with our bikes thrown over the tailgate and some orange mud on the tires, the Titan Pro-4X fits the off-road aesthetic — crucial for those Instagram posts.

The Gear

This trip required more planning than your average mountain bike outing due to the sheer remoteness of the White Rim Road and the restrictions put in place by the National Park Service. Below I’ll discuss some of key items we brought along with us.

  • A Tailgate Pad. If you have a truck, the easiest way to transport a bike is by throwing it over the tailgate. All you need is a tailgate pad that keeps the bike frame and fork from scratching the tailgate. Companies like Thule and Yakima are the big names in tailgate pads, but I borrowed the one we used from a local Salt Lake City company called Cache that’s working on a new, lockable modular design that can be fitted with stadium-style chairs and a cooler, turning your tailgate into a cool place to hang out. And hang out we did. Learn more about Cache here.
  • A Bike Rack. Five bikes proved a little much for one vehicle, so we attached my trusty Thule T2 hitch rack to the back of my friend’s 4Runner to transport a pair of bikes to and from the trailhead. The nice thing about universal bike racks like the venerable T2 is that they hardly ever drop in value provided you take good care of them. I bought mine used for about $200 a few years ago, and I’d probably list it for the same price if I were trying to sell it today.
  • Bikes. My personal mountain bike was getting pretty old, so I went ahead and invested in a new one for this trip. It’s a gently used, full-carbon 2017 Santa Cruz Bronson. It’s got front and rear suspension, 11 speeds and knobby off-road tires. It’s geared (literally and figuratively) more for downhill riding, and I found it to be a little slow on the long and flat compared to my friends’ bikes that were more balanced for cross-country travel. But I had more fun on the downhills than they did.
  • Bike Tools and Parts. It’s also crucial to have a good bike tool kit and a few extra parts with you, especially an inner tube. You’d hate to be 45 miles into a 100-mile ride and have to pack it in due to a punctured tire. Luckily, none of us had any bike issues.
  • A Gas Fire Pit. Wood campfires aren’t allowed on the White Rim, presumably to keep the pristine ecosystems of the park free of old ash and burned up logs and trash. This necessitates the purchase of a gas fire pit. These cost between $100 to $150 and attach to your standard propane tank, the same kind you’d use with a grille in your backyard. I’m not sure when I’ll use this thing again, but we were sure glad we had it as the desert gets pretty cold once the sun goes down.
  • A Camp Stove. Given that we couldn’t have a true campfire, a camp stove was essential for cooking. We used a 2-burner Coleman model. These are powered by propane as well, but run off of a smaller container than the fire pit. Camp stove-sized propane tanks are available at just about all outdoor stores.
  • Good Coolers. The length of our trip combined with the remoteness of the White Rim meant that ice placed into a cooler on Thursday morning needed to last us all the way until Sunday. For this, we needed multiple good coolers, and we ended up packing three of them into the bed of the Titan. There isn’t really one brand here that’s objectively better than others. The only trick we discovered was to designate one cooler for ice storage only, and open it only when absolutely necessary. We didn’t finish the weekend with a lot of ice, but we still had enough to keep our refrigerated items from going bad.

Day 1

Day one started with a long, flat downhill along Mineral Road. It was here that I realized that my new-to-me, fully carbon fiber, full suspension mountain bike was better tailored to jumps and banked turns than it was the long and flat, as my friends on their hardtails and more balanced cross-country bikes cruised along while I had to huff and puff to keep up. After the relatively tame start, we came upon some switchbacks where we dropped about 1,000 feet in elevation over no more than a mile. From here, we cruised along the Green River, which somewhat surprisingly, is actually pretty green. After a challenging climb where I had to pull the mirrors in on the Titan a few times, followed by a fun, twisty downhill section, we arrived at the Potato Bottom campsite, about 100 yards from the banks of the Green River, where we’d be spending our first night.

Day 2

Our second day of riding was probably the most challenging from both a mental and physical standpoint. The first half of the day was again spent along the Green River. A few miles into the ride, we came upon a slot canyon that served as a nice break in the day. After climbing around in the canyon a bit, we had a quick lunch around the tailgate of the Titan and then got back on the road. Lots of rocks and uphill riding lied between the slot canyon and our second night’s campsite, Murphy’s Hogback. It was also on this day that I learned what the term "Hogback" means: "a long narrow ridge or series of hills," as our campsite was at the top of the steepest hill on the whole trail. The Titan’s locking rear differential even got a workout on this tough climb to end the day.

Day 3

Day three started with a long fast descent down the hogback and consisted of pretty smooth, mostly downhill riding. On the start of the day, I got to test out the Titan’s hill-descent control, which functioned exactly as should, modulating the brakes to bring the vehicle down the hill in an extremely controlled and restrained manner. The highlight of the day was a visit to what’s known as "White Crack," a mile-and-a-half long spur trail leading out to a series of rock plateaus. These rocks, which seemed to float in the sky, reminded me of levels in Super Mario 64 where you have to jump between floating islands or well, you die. That was more or less the case here. See the picture below.

I was glad to get back on the road after so boldly taunting gravity. After White Crack, the terrain opened up and things got pretty scenic the rest of the day, with long flowy downhills as we made our way north up the east side of the road. Our campsite for the evening was in a broad, open area at the base of what’s known as the "Airport Tower," my favorite spot on the trip.

Day 4

By the morning of day four, the end of the road was in sight. We started off with more of the same — a healthy balance of long, flowing downhills supplemented by gradual uphills, this time along a cliff side above the Colorado River. While we enjoyed the early part of our day, we all knew the hardest part of the trail lied ahead: the Schafer Switchbacks. You’ve probably seen pictures of these. They link the Island in the Sky Mesa with the Canyonlands Backcountry. They’re steep, long and ominous, especially when viewed from below. The climb was probably the most rewarding part of the whole 100 miles, and served as a great way to cap the whole trip. After a seemingly endless ride along the asphalt to get back to the car, we were done. We had conquered the White Rim.

This trip represents one of the most intimate experiences one can have with any of America’s national parks and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. To anyone out there with questions regarding planning their own White Rim adventure, feel free to drop me a note on Instagram.

Chris O’Neill grew up in the Rust Belt and now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. He worked in the auto industry for awhile, helping Germans design cars for Americans. On Instagram, he is the @MountainWestCarSpotter.

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