Imagine a crooked line running down a map of the United States, north to south, beginning at Montana’s border with Canada, and ending at Arizona’s with Mexico, tracing alpine spines and snaking through desert plateaus. Now imagine riding the whole line, 2,700 miles in all, on a bike, everything you need strapped to the handlebars, the frame.
If you’re a seasoned bikepacker, you may think that line would be the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, a legendary trail network established in 1997 that’s one of the world’s finest bike adventures. But, there’s another. A route more wild, more rugged, more difficult, more everything.
The Wild West Route. And it’s finally ready for all comers.
Envisioned and planned by Kurt Refsnider (we covered Kurt and how the WWR came to be back in AJ #10, which you can purchase here), the WWR is a testament to the kind of country one can see from long days on a bike saddle, and to the varied beauty of public lands in the West. Refsnider spent years poring over satellite maps of the area who wanted his trail to run through, connecting existing trails, connecting fire roads, and, the most difficult part, accessing stretches of Navajo Nation land.
The non-profit org Bikepacking Roots, headed by Refsnider, will be providing GPS navigation data, a smartphone app with offline information, and route guides to riders who plan to take the WWR on. A group of 40 or so test riders have been riding sections of the course the past year, Refsnider among them, and they’ve pronounced it ready to go.
We talked with Refsnider about what made him plunge into this project and what the WWR is all about.
AJ: Why a new long-distance route, and why did you decide to route it where you did?
KR: Bikepacking has never been as popular as it is right now, and the desire for truly epic, potentially life-changing long-distance routes is similarly high. Bikepacking Roots is committed to supporting the growing bikepacking community through projects like this and through advocacy endeavors, and based on our surveying of the bikepacking community, demand for a new cross-country route offering relatively non-technical riding was high. Although there are plenty of short routes being created by individuals, the development and long-term maintenance of intentionally designed routes of this magnitude is a truly massive undertaking – the Wild West Route project has taken nearly 3 years to complete. We also wanted to create a route that showcases the sprawling expanses of wild public lands in the West, and, really what better place to do that than through Idaho, Utah, and Arizona?
An additional unique element of this route development project is the collaborations that it took over the past 2 years to make the route a reality – working with land managers in the Forest Service and BLM, with private landowners for access and water in several key areas, and with tribal officials and community members on Navajo Nation as the route became a component of the Navajo Nation Trails Initiative.
Did you have a particular kind of bike in mind while designing it? Plus-sized adventure bike? Gravel grinder? Full-squish? Old-school hardtail?
The route was designed with mountain bikes in mind – a hardtail with front suspension and 2.2″ or wider tires will be ideal for most riders based on feedback from the 40-plus test riders we had out on the route last summer. Low gearing and big brake rotors will also be ideal for the long climbs and descents. Some of the rougher jeep road sections would be quite comfortable on a full-sus rig or something with plus-sized tires, but neither are particularly necessary. And although the route follows hundreds of miles of gravel roads, the gravel in these Western states is a far cry from what many riders think of as “gravel.” Leave your gravel bike at home for this route – bring a proper mountain bike.
What about a particular rider? Is this for the hardcore, sufferfest-addicted masochist? Or can a fit, casual rider handle this?
Riders who relish quiet, remote, and scenic riding on dirt roads and 4×4 tracks and who are comfortable being self-sufficient for 2-4 days between resupply points will love this route. It’s definitely rugged and challenging, but it’s not over the top – we did not design the route to be a sufferfest. In fact, we explored multiple parallel route options in many areas and then linked the best options together to create the most enjoyable riding experience possible. We tried to include mellower sections interspersed with more rugged mountain sections and tried to include resupply options in small communities regularly while still trying to maintain as remote a feel to the route as possible. In southern Arizona where water is much more sparse, water availability partially dictated where we placed the route.
Do you have a fave section?
It’s tough to choose just one fantastic section. The remote mountains of central Idaho are idyllic – wolves howl, small streams offer frequent water, and wildflowers add bursts of color to completely burned mountainsides. The desolate Snake River Plain in southern Idaho offers a kind of solitude and expansiveness that’s tough to find in the West. The 100-plus miles of rough riding at nearly 10,000 feet elevation on Skyline Drive in central Utah is incredibly memorable. And the diversity of landscapes in my home state of Arizona is unparalleled. There are just so many amazing miles along the length of the route!
If people want to utilize what Bikepacking Roots offers, how should they take advantage?
We’ve created a suite of extensive navigation, logistical, and educational materials for riders planning to explore the Wild West Route. We have GPS tracks and 1,500 waypoints for navigation purposes available at no cost to Bikepacking Roots members (and membership is free!), and we developed a logistical and educational guide with overview maps that’s nearly 100 pages long, available in return for a $20 donation. We’ve also collaborated with Knobby Guides to create a navigation-ready smartphone app on which riders can easily post updates or comments about any water source or other waypoints along the way. The app will also allow us to easily share unexpected detours if needed with rides en route. That will be released in just a few weeks. All this can be found at our website.
Has the feedback from riders since you first plotted the course caused any changes or updates?
Feedback from the riders that rode some or all of the route last summer was invaluable in tweaking a few sections of the route and for developing a more comprehensive listing of bike-friendly resources in communities along the way. One section in northern Idaho was severely washed out from flooding to the point of being potentially unsafe for cyclists, so we re-routed that and have been in discussions with the local Forest Service recreation planner about possible solutions – they’re not planning to rebuild that road, but it is the only way through the absolutely stunning Cabinet Mountains. And in communities, the test riders handed out informative postcards about the route, and that led to countless offers from individuals and businesses excited to help future bikepackers on the route.
How long would you expect a full ride of the WWR to take?
My best assessment is that most riders will cover between 40 and 70 miles per day, with the latter being a big day in the saddle for much of this route given how much elevation gain is included in many of the segments. That daily mileage translates to 40 to 70 days of riding to cover the full length of the Wild West Route.