I recently rode from Telluride to Moab with seven of my friends through the San Juan Hut System. Located throughout Southwest Colorado, SJHS offers a “premium minimalist” hut-to-hut experience for people looking for a self-guided ski, hike, or bike adventure. They charge $700 to $900 per person depending on the size of your group (there is an eight-rider-for-the-price-of-six discount), and provide the route, route alternatives, and huts stocked with food, water, cookware and bedding along the route.
There’s no tour guide: You just pay, get the GPS files and maps, and choose your own adventure while carrying the rest of your daily necessities. This experience sounded great to me, logistically and financially. I knew a hut-to-hut trip would be an ideal way to ease my cycling friends into bikepacking, especially since they had expressed interest in doing a trip with my husband Tom and me after we hit the road a year ago to do this full time. More people and a discount also sounded like a great deal to me, so I would just need to convince a lot more people to come along.
It took some time. Our friends may be serious road, gravel, and mountain cyclists, but most of them have never ridden from place to place, carrying gear. Friends who were willing to do this would need time off, a mountain bike that would hold up against thorns and rocks, and a full complement of kit. As August rolled around and we were one month from our scheduled ride, we finally secured our team.
When we met in Telluride two nights before our departure, I was impressed. My friends had borrowed, purchased, tuned, and dialed reliable bikes. We spent a little bit of time theorizing about why you don’t need to bring two pairs of shorts (because once they are both dirty, you’re carrying around two pairs of dirty shorts instead of just one), and how we absolutely need to carry gear for the most extreme weather. This route would take us high into the mountains and low into the desert, with a forecast calling for rain and snow the first three days. One third of the challenge of bikepacking is packing your bike. Once that’s done all you have to do is ride and survive. Soon, we were packed and ready to go.
We embarked on our ride from Telluride in the rain and opted for the singletrack alternative out of town, past a brewery where we enjoyed a beer at noon plus one to go. We also bought some last minute earplugs. The reality that we were all going to be sleeping near each other for seven days was setting in and everybody knew my friend Doug snores. We secured our buzz and earplugs and rolled onward along the route in a light drizzle.
“It’s only 20 miles,” we kept saying, suppressing the knowledge of the nine-miles and 3,000 feet at the end. As we climbed higher, the clouds cleared, and the road grew steeper. One by one, I watched my friends dismount their bikes and push a bit. Three miles to go. “So this is bikepacking?” they would say, as they stopped to gasp for breath in the thin air, taking in the view all around them. We pushed, we pedaled, and finally made it to our first hut at 11,000 feet, the Last Dollar Hut, just in time to catch a view of a double rainbow. So, this is bikepacking? Energy was high.
This first day set the tone for the following six days of riding and living together from hut-to-hut. D.A. was the cook with Mary and Rita as sous-chefs, Todd and Doug maintained bikes, and the rest of us stoked the wood stove fire, DJ’d, cleaned, and played Euchre. On the third day it snowed four inches in one hour, then stopped, then hailed. It was enough to make everything very wet and some people in our group very cold, but we kept going happily with the knowledge that there was a warm dry hut waiting for us at the end of the day. If we were camping in tents outside this would be a different story.
We traveled from the San Juan Mountains to the Uncompahgre Plateau into Paradox Valley over the La Sal Mountains and into the red rocks of Moab. I watched my friends react to rapid change in climate and geographic zones occurring in the relatively short distance we were riding. The change unfolds before your eyes, day after day. It’s one of the greatest things about the pace of human powered travel through a landscape and this particular route packs it in with a punch.
We finished our ride on the seventh day at dusk, dirty and out of water after a long ride climbing through the La Sals and descending the entire Porcupine Rim Trail. Not one of us had really bathed in the seven days. Over beers and wings at Woody’s Tavern we discussed what we all thought. So, that was bikepacking.
Photos by Sarah Swallow and Tom Swallow
Camp Notes is a big high five to the fun of sleeping outdoors and all that comes along with it. You know, camping and stuff.