Sept. 12-16, 2017
In 2016, we attempted a ride from Challis, Idaho, to Burgdorf Hot Springs. We had to go elsewhere due to a large forest fire. So, we tried again this year. I spent months planning and refining the route, only to cancel yet again because of fires and smoke.
Thus, this year’s Idaho trip ended up in southern Utah. We decided to explore the Boulder Mountains. I also wanted to include a few trails I have been wanting to ride for several years; such as Cathedral Valley, the Wolverine Loop, the Burr Trail, and the Rosebud ATV trail.
I only had one week to put the plan together, and luckily it turned out to be a great route. The original plan included over 600 miles of trail, dirt road, and paved road. Our actual route ended up somewhere around 440 miles. The route was challenging, but I think everyone thoroughly enjoyed it.
Day 1 – The Great Western Trail:
We started our ride at the Gooseberry staging area just outside of Salina. This is just a 2-hour drive from Salt Lake City, so it worked out really well. We rode south on the Great Western Trail (GWT) for about 50 miles. I didn’t have a detailed GPS track for the GWT, so I did the best I could with my GPS software (Garmin Basecamp) and GoogleEarth. Most of the route was on ATV trails, but I missed a few sections and planned in a few dirt roads to connect ATV segments. This turned out well because it gave us a change of pace, allowing us to ride a little faster on the twisty mountain roads than we could on the ATV trails.
The trail had a good mixture of easy, flowing trail, and a few rocky sections to keep you on your toes. We rode through Aspen glades, pine forests, and open meadows. The Aspen leaves were starting to turn, and the overall scenery was absolutely beautiful.
We started our ride at about 11:00 AM and stopped for lunch at about 1:30 PM. It started to rain and hail while we ate lunch. The higher elevations were completely covered in a light blanket of hail, but luckily the trails were not too muddy or slippery.
After completing the GWT, we rode some dirt roads to an overlook above Cathedral Valley. I planned on camping at Round Lake so Ross and Bob could fish. Since it had been raining, we decided to camp at lower elevation. Ross knew of a place near Meeks Lake at about 8300’. This was a nice camp, but there was not a fishing lake nearby, nor any great scenery.
Day 2 – Cathedral Valley & Henry Mountains:
Ross got up early and rode down to Morrell Pond to fish. The rest of us took our time eating breakfast and packing up camp. It was a beautiful, sunny day.
Ross knew of a trail that would traverse over to Round Lake, putting us back on our original track. Round Lake was 400’ higher in elevation, but it would have made a much nicer camp. It even had a picnic table and outhouse.
From there we dropped into Cathedral Valley and stopped at the overlook. Cathedral Valley is a bizarre place. We had been riding in mountain forests, and now we were in this strange desert environment.
It was a fast ride through Cathedral Valley, but we took our time to enjoy the scenery and the odd rock/dirt formations. We stopped to see Gypsum Sink, which Bob claimed was formed by a meteor. We also stopped at Glass Mountain, Temple of the Sun, and Temple of the Moon.
We had a light rain as we rode along Cathedral Valley Road. The rain felt refreshing in the heat of the desert. From there we took Hwy 24 to Hanksville for gas and a late lunch at Stan’s Burger Shack.
We stocked up on water, and then headed into the Henry Mountains. The road through the Henry Mountains was rockier than I expected. It wasn’t difficult on a dirt bike, but I wouldn’t want to drive it in an SUV unless it had good off-road tires. We saw several deer along the way, and at one point I had a small herd of deer running parallel to the road for several hundred yards.
It started to rain just as we reached Bull Creek Pass, at over 10,000’ elevation. Rain was becoming a major theme of this trip.
Rather than rush to try to keep to our original schedule, we decided to camp at McMillan Springs Campground, which is also at about 8300’ elevation. This is a beautiful campground and we were the only ones there until one Jeep pulled in later in the evening. The rain had stopped by the time we arrived at camp, so we were able to enjoy the evening and allow our gear to dry somewhat.
We logged about 112 miles of scenic, but fairly easy riding. It was a refreshing change of pace from the more rugged, but fun, ATV trail the day before.
Day 3 – The Burr Trail & Wolverine Loop:
Once again, the day started off clear and sunny. We packed up camp, and headed down out of the Henry Mountains. Just a few miles from camp, I spotted a small herd of buffalo. They entered the road, then jogged down the road for a few hundred yards, before turning off again. I quickly turned on the helmet camera, but didn’t get very good footage of them.
The ride from camp to the Notom Road was more interesting than I expected. In GoogleEarth is looks quite desolate, but it was actually fairly good scenery and a nice ride.
It started to rain again just before we reached the Burr Trail switchbacks. After climbing the switchbacks, we rode a side spur out to the trailhead for Upper Muley Twist. This was a fun ride down a sandy wash. We also took a short hike out to an overlook.
Our next adventure was the Wolverine Loop. My wife and I drove this loop a few years ago, and I remember thinking it would be a great ride on a motorcycle. I was right!
Rather than ride the entire loop, we took the “Cutoff Road”. I wouldn’t recommend this for stock cars or SUVs, but it was a fun ride on a dirt bike. It also followed a sandy wash much of the way.
Shortly after rejoining the main loop, I spotted a tarantula crossing the road. That was the first tarantula I have seen in the wild.
We stopped at the trailhead for the Wolverine Petrified Forest. We ate lunch, and changed into our hiking shoes (at least those of us that hadn’t lost a shoe off the back of our bike). My friend Dave Buckmiller said the good wood is about one mile down the canyon, so off we went.
At about ¾ of a mile, I climbed the side of the wash to see a large collection of wood. From that higher vantage point, I could see a huge storm moving in fast. I could tell this was much larger than the other storms we had encountered. But I had no way of telling the rest of the group, who continued on down the canyon.
The storm front hit just before we got back to our bikes. There were strong gusts of wind, and I saw it blow over Bob’s bike. Then it started to rain and hail, with lots of thunder and lightning. The only shelter we could find was a small Juniper tree at the trailhead.
It was raining so hard that small streams began forming all around us. As soon as the wind stopped and the rain let up a bit, we hit the trail and wanted to get out of that area.
I knew the road back to the Burr Trail crossed the wash a number of times, but eventually climbed out of the wash bottom. So off we went.
At first, there were small streams, maybe a few feet across, which we crossed repeatedly. But as we traveled down river, the streams combined and became a fairly significant stream. In some places, the entire road was a river. The only way I could tell where the road was, was by the berms along the side left by the road grader.
The river got deeper and deeper, and it was really quite swift. There were small waves all along the course. I hit a few places where the water was up to my front axle, so it was probably over one-foot deep. At one point the road left the streambed for a few hundred feet. Where it re-entered, it was steep and the waves were significantly larger. I did not want to ride into that with my bike.
Just behind us there was a flat area where we could camp if we had to wait out the storm. We watched the river continue to rise and wondered if the camping area was high enough to be safe.
Some wondered off, looking for alternate places to camp. Bob called me over to talk. He noticed that we had missed a turn about ¼ of a mile back, and we were no longer on the main road.
It turns out we turned onto the side spur to the Horse Canyon Trailhead. The stream in Horse Canyon was fed by the road we came down, and the road we should have taken. That is why it got deep so fast.
The river was too deep to ride safely back up, but we found a cow trail that led back to the main road, avoiding the deepest sections of the river.
After getting back on the main road, the stream got smaller and smaller as we moved north. We eventually left the streambed entirely and quickly rode back to the paved Burr Trail.
The rain had picked up again, so it was a chilly and wet ride down Long Canyon to the Deer Creek Campground. Deer Creek is a small campground near a swift stream. No one was camping there, but there were signs all over warning of flash flood danger. The storm was starting to subside, so we decided to stay. In fact, the sun came out about two minutes before it went behind the sandstone cliff. Deer Creek is in a fairly narrow canyon, so you lose the sun early, and don’t get it in the morning until fairly late. That is great on a hot summer day, but not so great when you want to dry out all of your gear.
We logged about 94 miles, plus the hike, and sitting out the storm for about an hour. Deer Creek is only 5700’ in elevation, which was nice since the storm brought in much cooler temperatures.
Day 4 – The Boulder Mountains:
We didn’t get packed up and ready to ride until about noon. We took our time getting ready, waiting for the sun to come up and dry out our tents. Once we were on our way, we rode in to Boulder to get gas and supplies.
We abandoned our original goal of exploring the Boulder Mountains – we were too far behind schedule and it was too cold at higher elevations. So, we headed north on Highway 12, up and over the mountain on a scenic paved road.
Since I prefer to avoid pavement whenever possible, we took a side road that paralleled the highway. I think it is called Big Ridge. It is road #180 and #169 on my map.
Just as we reached the turnoff for #180, I asked the group if they wanted to skip this since there was another large storm building to the north. Ross said we could easily beat the storm, so we pressed on. We almost finished Big Ridge before the storm hit, but we still had the Rosebud ATV trail and the road down Pleasant Creek to do. Once again, we all got quite wet before the day was done.
The Big Ridge trail is an old Jeep road. Some sections are fairly smooth, while other sections are rocky. Occasionally the trail would pop out of the trees with great views overlooking Capitol Reef National Park.
The rain hit before we finished, and it was coming down hard by the time we got back to the pavement. We rode north for a fraction of a mile or so, before turning off on the road to Lower Bowns Reservoir.
For years I have wanted to ride the Rosebud ATV trail, which parallels the road to Lower Bowns. It was raining pretty hard, but we stuck with the plan and rode the trail. I was somewhat disappointed. I had heard great things about the trail. It was quite rocky, and it wasn’t very long.
After finishing the trail, we stopped for lunch at Lower Bowns Reservoir. Luckily the rain had let up a bit during our lunch break.
After lunch, we started down the Pleasant Creek road (#168). It was a bit slippery in places, but most of it had enough rock content to not be too bad.
There is a fairly steep, sandy descent just before the trail crosses Tantalus Creek. When we got there, it was running fast and deep; a dark brown water from all of the rain. Bob and Ross were right behind me, but there was no sign of Ron or Danny.
Ross and Bob went back to find Ron and Danny, while I found a stick to measure the depth of the water. At the road crossing, it looked to be about 2’ deep, but about 10’ to the left was only about 8” deep. It seemed like we could safely cross it.
After making that assessment, I rode back to find the others. Danny noticed that his tent had fallen off the back of his bike. It must have happened while he was riding in the back, or someone in the group would have seen it. He went back to look for it, without success.
We considered our options and decided to stay together as a group and go back to the pavement and drive into Torrey and find a motel. Danny and Ross were sharing a tent, and with all of the rain, it would have been a long and miserable night without a tent. It was probably good that we didn’t cross Tantalus Creek because there is a much larger crossing later on after Tantalus Creek merges with Pleasant Creek and Sulphur Creek. It was probably be treacherous with all of this rain.
When we got back to the pavement, we decided to have Ross and Danny go back to the Big Ridge trail and ride to the gate. Danny closed the gate, and was therefore in the back during that stretch of the ride.
Ron and Bob and I hung out in the Lower Pleasant Creek campground while we waited for them. The sun came out for a while, which we soaked up as best we could.
Ross and Danny found the tent, but we decided that since it was now fairly cold and most of us were quite wet, we would stick with the plan of staying in a motel.
We slowly rode down to Torrey (Bob had a leaky rear tire), only to find that all of the motels were full. I guess all of the other campers also wanted to get out of the rain. But then the sun came out again, and brightened our spirits once more. We found a place to camp just east of Torrey. I guess this is a popular overflow camping area – there were tents and motorhomes everywhere. We logged about 115 miles that day.
I got my tent set up and then called my wife to check in. This was the first time we had cell service since leaving Salina. I also checked in a few times per day with my inReach satellite communicator.
I then cooked up my last freeze-dried dinner, and spent another long night in the tent. It got dark at about 8:00 PM and we never built any campfires, so the nights seemed fairly long.
Day 5 – The Great Western Trail:
We awoke to another beautiful clear day. In fact, this was the only day we didn’t get rained on.
Bob repaired his rear tire, and we headed back to Torrey for gas. We then rode north along another section of the Great Western Trail. I got a GPS track from Dave McIntire, which really helped because there were a lot of trail junctions in the first few miles.
This is really a rocky road. It wasn’t hard (at first), but it was rough. Ross commented that my kids would hate this trail. I said they could handle it fine, but my wife wouldn’t enjoy it. But then the trail got worse! Ross was right – my kids would hate that trail.
As with many of our other trails, this one occasionally broke out of the trees for some gorgeous scenic views.
I think this trail is about 12 miles long. The first 10 miles or so aren’t too bad, but as the trail climbs in elevation, it gets rockier and because of all of the recent rain – muddier. That last few miles are limited to 50” or narrower vehicles, and it is pretty rough ride. There were some long rocky climbs, and a few sections were muddy and slippery. There was one bog that had logs laid down for the ATVs. These logs were extremely slick on a dirt bike. I went down extremely fast. Ron and I had a hard time getting solid footing to pick up my bike.
We stopped for a break after one muddy climb, and then pressed on to the top where the trail meets forest road #206, which goes directly past Elkhorn campground.
From here, my plan was to ride easy roads back to the car. But because the weather was good, and the Great Western Trail we rode up on the first day was so fun, we decided to take the Great Western Trail back to the car.
The autumn colors were even better than before, and it was a great ride back along the trail. This is really a fun trail, going either direction.
We did, however, encounter more mud. We had to cross one pass at over 10,000’ elevation. There was snow along the side of the road, and the melting snow made the trail very muddy. I went down two more times in the mud, and a few others struggled as well. Ross did an amazing job manhandling his heavy KLR through the rocks and mud.
At just after 4:00 PM we decided we better bail and take the paved road back so we could get home at a decent hour. We logged about 80 miles on that last day, including maybe 40 or 50 miles of ATV trail.
Our entire trip came in at about 440 miles. It was really a great trip. I think everyone had a blast. The rainy weather even added to the experience. Although I prefer to ride and camp in better weather, it did create some interesting experiences and generated great memories and stories. It will be tough to beat this trip!