Hut-to-hut mountain biking comes of age. It also comes with 200 off-road miles and 27,000 feet of climbing—and a cheeseburger at Milt’s.
Story and photos by Dave Cox
“I dropped my GPS.” I hope Dennis means our group’s only digital navigator—with all the huts pinned-—is scuffed but working fine. We all brake to a stop. Nope. Gone. A discussion ensues: Do we double back and help Dennis look, or do some of us continue on? Clap! You know you’re too close to a lightning strike when thunder sounds less like a drum roll and more like a wet hand slapping Formica. CLAP again. Did I see a flash before I heard that one? Noticeably cowering now, I inform the group that I don’t want to hover above tree line at 12,000 feet—with more vertical still to climb—this late in the day.
We are only about eight miles into a 20-mile ride, and Dennis, a finance guy from Grand Junction, Colorado, speculates that he dropped his well programmed Garmin a couple of miles back at our last rest stop. No need for all of us to double back, he says, he’ll retrace our route and catch up.
I only just met Dennis this morning at the trailhead. He has the tall lean look of a Grand Tour GC contender. On the mountain bike he’s silky on the downhills. “Good plan,” I squeak. Another of my new velo-comrades on this trip, Jeff “Honeydew” Wise, quickly volunteers to join in the search. Think of Honeydew as the Polka Dot jersey contender of our five-person group, always ready for more climbing. So it’s agreed. Elisa, another fit Grand Junctioner, myself, and my good friend—a Canadian of dubious character and documentation who I will only refer to as the Other Dave—will continue on. The gazelles will bridge the gap.
We split up on the Colorado Trail just a couple of hours from the trailhead on Molas Pass. I’m starting to think this journey will be more entropic than epic. The first whiff of chaos comes only eight miles into a 200-mile fat tire odyssey that will take us from Durango, Colorado, to Moab, Utah along a hut-to-hut route bookended by the high peaks of Colorado’s San Juans and Utah’s La Sals. It’s punctuated with nearly a Mount Everest of net gain: 27,000 feet spattered over seven days.
In the years following its creation, the San Juan Huts route has changed some. What was once a series of waypoints linking doubletrack and gravel roads now offers what our itinerary describes as multiple “singletrack options.” Naturally, whenever we get to a singletrack fork in the road, we take it. The Colorado Trail to the first hut is such an option, and Elisa, Other Dave, and I bear down on it. The rapidly closing Dennis and Honeydew, however, don’t make the clearly marked turn and drop back down Engineer Mountain to Purgatory where they must repeat the climb—a few thousand feet. Finally released from purgatory, they arrive to the hut late. Over dinner we all agree that for the rest of the trip, if anyone encounters a fork in the road, we’ll stop and wait for the rest of the party.
By day three of our ride I start thinking of the San Juan Hut point-to-point as a stage race complete with three mountain days, two relatively flat stages, and then two more days in the mountains. If Dennis is in Yellow and Honeydew is in Polka Dots, then I’m the Green Jersey guy of the group for sure. I descend with the grupetto and make myself known on the flats. I’m sure to remind the rest of our small peloton that I’m carrying two camera bodies, four lenses, and a tripod. I think I remind them of this a few too many times in fact. Some days are tougher than others. On day three, dropping a vertical mile out of the San Juans and onto Colorado’s Western Plateau, my trail bike gleams. But day six, when we earn back that mile back climbing Utah’s La Sals, not so much. I suffer to hang with the group. But good company and cold beer are always to be had at the dimming of the day.
And somewhere beneath the setting sun sits the town of Moab, where the day-riders are already guzzling milkshakes at Milt’s—as their burgers fry on the griddle.
If You Go: San Juan Huts, the organization that strung this network together, likes to say the trip includes all the fun, but none of the weight. Meaning each hut is well stocked with food, water, beer, padded bunk beds, and sleeping bags. All you need to bring are your clothes, spare tubes, and tools. Know this: If you’re envisioning tongue and groove Alpine chalets, you’re in for a letdown. The huts are Fenway Park green or Desert Storm brown (depending if it’s in the high country or the desert), particleboard and 2×4 shelters mounted on trailers for mobility. Fortunately, they all seem to be located at the top of a long climb so you start each day descending. Each comes complete with stunning views—and a cooler full of beer and bacon. sanjuanhuts.com
From the Summer 2015 issue.