The Utah Backcountry Discovery Route travels almost 900 miles through some of the state’s most scenic and remote landscapes utilizing a patchwork of dirt roads, 4×4 trails and a few short stretches of blacktop. It begins in Monument Valley, winds through Cedar Mesa, then passes over the Abajo and La Sal Mountains before heading north through the San Rafael Swell, into the Wasatch and eventually ending at Bear Lake on the Idaho/Utah border. It was developed and originally ridden by a group of adventure motorcyclists although the entire route can also be driven in a well-equipped four wheel drive.
I originally planned to ride it in September with a good friend from Colorado but those plans fell through. Rather than let the route antagonize me for another year I made a last minute decision to ride it solo. I had four days to plan the ride, get all my gear together, download GPS tracks and prep my bike – all while maintaining my regular work schedule. I’d have six days to do the ride, which eventually became five when I was unable to leave on time due to my persistent inability to finish packing in time.
I headed south out of Moab on Saturday, August 5, arriving in Monument Valley two hours later. I gassed up, ate a cheap plate of tacos at Goulding’s and turned around to begin my adventure on the Utah BDR. Mexican Hat came and went, and I soon found myself turning on to the first leg of dirt road at Valley of the Gods. I haven’t ridden much this year and my dirt skills were less ninja, more sumo. Luckily, it’s nearly as smooth as unkempt tarmac – perfect for building confidence. Valley of the Gods is much like a miniature version of Monument Valley, but without all the regulations governing where you can and can’t go, what you can and can’t do and where you can and can’t camp. Near the end of the dirt road I caught up with Rick and Norm, who were riding big BMW GS’s. Even before we stopped to chat, I knew we were BDR brothers. After a quick chat, we agreed to ride on together.
Back on asphalt we headed north, climbing up onto Cedar Mesa via the unpaved Moki Dugway. A short distance later we began tackling the first challenging terrain on Snow Flat Road. A storm was brewing on the northern horizon, punctuated by flashes of lightning and the distant rumble of thunder. Immediately upon turning off the pavement we found ourselves riding through a fine, powdery sand just deep enough to cause our bikes to wiggle around in a perpetual battle for balance. Multiple signs issued ominous warnings of “Road is impassable when wet” – not exactly what I wanted to read with a thunderstorm bearing down on us. The road alternated between long stretches of silt broken by short stretches of bumpy slickrock and, here and there, small patches of mud. Not just any mud, mind you – clay mud. Slicker than ice and stickier than sap, it’s a motorcyclist’s nightmare. Rick and Norm had already gone down a few times in the sand. The mud claimed another victim. We rode on, dropping off small slickrock ledges, one of which ripped off the kickstand kill switch on my bike. Rick went down again and after we got his bike upright, he and Norm told me to continue on without them as they didn’t want to hold me up. I debated whether I should leave them but with an impending storm and several miles of clay, sand and rock ahead of us, I decided to carry on by myself.
The official route leaves Snow Flat Road and travels north on Butler Wash Road. Remember that word: wash. I rode into Bluff for a cold drink and to check the weather report. While enjoying a cup of chocolate ice cream at the delightful Comb Ridge Coffee shop, I consulted The Weather Channel on my iPhone. Weather advisory: torrential rain of up to 1″ per hour north of Bluff with flood advisories in effect until 4:00 PM. Not wanting to be swept away in a flash flood, at worst, or ride for hours in clay mud, at best, I decided to detour around Butler Wash and pick up the next leg of the route off Hwy. 95 west of Blanding.
Having ridden all day in the heat of the desert I was excited for this next stretch as it travels over the Abajo Mountains through a cool and shady forest of pine and aspen trees. The road is generally easy riding, alternating between hard pack with a few stretches of smooth, fast slickrock. I passed several idyllic campsites nestled in the trees as I was intent on pushing onward. I wanted to get as many miles as possible under my knobbies on the first day so I wouldn’t be quite so rushed on the remainder of the trip. This turned out to be a bad decision.
I’d been riding for 11 hours and over 300 miles when I encountered the first stretch of sand. I remember thinking, “Are you kidding? Why is their friggin’ sand in the mountains?!” I made it several miles through the stuff, which was deeper and more difficult than anything I’d already ridden down in the desert. And then, on a curve, the inevitable happened – I ran out of luck, skill and speed. The bike came to a stop, I tried to put my foot down and found nothing but air. The bike tipped over in slow motion as I hopped off to avoid being caught beneath it. I took a couple photos of the Tiger taking a nap, then set about trying to pick it up. At about this time I felt a burning sensation on my side, opened my jacket and found a bee shoving his stinger into my skin.
One of the unwritten rules of adventure riding is that you will drop your bike. When you do, you should be able to pick it up. On your own. I’ve dropped it before and I’ve been able to pick it up before. This time, the cards were stacked against me. The bike was on a slight decline, which is a worst case scenario because it requires you to work even more against gravity. And, I was in sand, trying to pick up a 550 pound bike, with nothing firm underfoot for the soles of my riding boots to grip. Every time I’d get the bike halfway up my feet would slip and it would fall back down again. This hell started at 7:00 PM. At around 8:00, I was exhausted and was planning on spending the night in the middle of a lonely dirt road. About 15 minutes later a truckload of hunters rolled up. They jumped out, all decked out in camouflage, and strolled over to give me a hand. After we righted the bike they pointed out a set of large bear tracks in the sand that passed right by the spot where I’d crashed. At least I’d have had some company had I spent the night there, right?
Off I rode, until just around the next curve I ran into more deep sand. I was tapped. Physically and mentally, I was shot. My front tire washed out in the sand and again, the bike and I toppled over. The hunters again stopped, helped me pick up the bike, and very kindly offered to follow me into Blanding. I hadn’t planned on detouring into Blanding but it seemed like the only logical option. Off we went into the night, me on my bike and the hunters trailing behind in their pickup truck. I still had 20 miles to go but luckily, the road turned to hard pack almost immediately and then, 15 miles later, to pavement. I was riding well below the speed limit when a deer darted across the road and came to a stop directly in front of me. Ever heard the term “deer in the headlights”? She was transfixed by mine and clearly wasn’t budging. I grabbed a big handful of brakes and let the ABS do it’s thing. As the distance between me and the deer quickly closed I braced for the impact. Then, at the very last millisecond, the deer leapt out of the way. If I’d had my wits about me I literally could have reached out and smacked her in the ass as I went past.
I stopped at the first hotel I saw in Blanding: the Four Winds Inn. Fifty bucks a night and vacancy. Sold. I collapsed on the bed and quickly passed out after a hasty dinner of beef jerky and trail mix. On Sunday, I made the difficult decision to cancel the rest of the trip. I was sore, my confidence was lacking and I didn’t feel safe riding the remainder of the route alone, much less in only four days. After a huge plate of huevos rancheros I headed north, riding a short section of dirt road off Highway 191 and then over the La Sal Mountains on the Geyser Pass Road before dropping into Moab.
Making the decision to abandon the remainder of the Utah Backcountry Discovery Route was tough. Really tough. I rarely make the decision to quit in the face of adversity but this time, for whatever reason, I just didn’t feel like karma was on my side. The route will be there next year, and so will I.