The 140-mile-long Kokopelli Trail has long been a desert test track for mountain bikers and bikepackers drawn to ledgy, technical, scenic, and remote Colorado Plateau riding. With more than 14,000 feet of climbing and elevations ranging from 4,000 to over 10,000 feet, there’s nothing easy about this route as it meanders from Moab, Utah, to its eastern terminus near Grand Junction, Colorado. For the better part of two decades, a small subset of Kokopelli Trail riders have chased fast times on the length of the trail. An unofficial Kokopelli Trail Race persisted for years in the early 2000s until it became a bit too popular for its own good. It faded away, but ambitious individuals would still occasionally time trial the route. A running stage race on the trail has been successfully hosted every Spring for nearly a decade, but a recent attempt to host an official mountain bike race on the length of the Kokopelli Trail failed dramatically as organizers underestimated the rigor and risks of the route. Although there’s not much singletrack along the way, 100-plus miles of rough 4×4 tracks are unrelentingly rough, steep, loose, and in places, sandy.
Rides on Kokopelli are generally relegated to the warmer early summer months as late Spring snow cover persists high in the La Sal Mountains until mid-May in many years. And by autumn, the few springs along the route that serve as important water sources have typically gone dry. That leaves the murky Colorado River as the sole option for refilling on water, water so thick it crunches subtly in one’s mouth. Afternoon temperatures in June often sore to nearly 100 degrees on much of the route, and it’s a rare treat to see any cloud cover at that time of year.
The landscape of eastern Utah and westernmost Colorado is one in which stunningly beautiful cliff bands, canyons, and slickrock domes stand in relative irony against the region’s endemic drought. Despite its role in the formation of these iconic landforms, water is scarce aside from in monsoonal bursts, brief snowmelt events, and in the desert’s few flowing arteries like the Colorado and Green Rivers. The summer heat can be absolutely oppressive, and winter storms turn the prolific clay-rich soils to expanses of impassibly sticky muck.
This is a desert that has captured my intrigue ever since moving West a bit over a decade ago. As a geologist, the stories this region reveals on its naked surface are riveting. I’ve bikepacked through here countless times, using the relatively slow but steady pace as a way to link together disparate geologic features within a mental map. I’ve brought wide-eyed groups of students here to learn. And I’ve had my own progress both on the bike and behind the wheel entirely stopped by cloudbursts and the ensuing mud, only to capitalize on it all as a chance to observe first-hand the erosional impacts of a single storm event.
Despite how I’ve reveled in simply sitting and observing the intricacies of this place, I’ve also been drawn to race my bike across it on the Kokopelli Trail. The challenge of moving as quickly as possible through such a harsh place, completely at the mercy of the conditions and terrain, isn’t about any sort of conquest. For me, it’s more akin to recognizing the realities of such a landscape and honoring that by being adequately prepared for pushing my own limits in a place that pushes back far more emphatically.
But my history of racing Kokopelli involves being humbled by the desert every single time and paying the consequences of pushing just a bit too hard through rugged terrain and heat, running low on water, and generally overestimating my own ability to thrive in such an unforgiving environment, even if just for 13 or 14 hours. And I know quite a few very talented riders who have succumbed to similar outcomes on this trail – it’s an incredibly challenging one to get just right. The fastest rides have been by experienced endurance racers like Jesse Jakomait, Rebecca Rusch, and Dave Harris with times in the 12 to 13 and half-hour range. More typical one-day ride times tend to take 15-18 hours.
Despite my checkered history with the route (or perhaps as a result of that history?), the desire to go back in search of a smooth and enjoyable run is always there. Last month, I was watching the Tour Divide race play out as a winter storm smashed into northern Colorado and brought most of the lead racers to a standstill amid fresh snow and show-stopping mud – in late June. And not surprisingly, I quickly found myself wondering what that meant for the weather along the Kokopelli Trail. Pulling up the Moab weather forecast, I held my breath as I saw rain predicted that evening, followed by highs in the upper 70s and calm winds for the following two days. I pondered for a few minutes. I was in great shape as I was deep in my training for the upcoming Colorado Trail Race. I had the freedom to leave the next day on the 8-hour drive to Moab. And my speeding heart clearly was excited at the prospect of racing Kokopelli.
With that, I set about getting my bike prepared and constructing a strategy. Given that it was just a few days after the solstice, I wouldn’t need lights, so I packed just a small headlamp in case I happened to get caught out after dark. And beyond my normal small backcountry repair and first-aid kits, I threw in an emergency bivy and a second extra. I’d start the ride in Moab with just a liter of water, grab another liter 2 hours in, get a couple more liters 4 hours in at Hideout Spring, and then fill 4 liters from the Colorado at the mid-way point of the trail. And I’d pack food so I could take in 350 calories per hour – a mix of nuts, cookies, crackers, a few bars, some chicken nuggets, and Gatorade mix.
The day before I wanted to start, the final day of unseasonably cool weather, I wrapped up my work in the late afternoon and hit the road. I slept in the back of my truck for a few hours after a midnight arrival to Moab, and then I was rolling out of town and toward the trailhead by 7 am. I didn’t need a particularly early start given the abundance of daylight just a couple days past summer solstice.
My strategy for the ride was to dig deeply on the first two climbs into the La Sal Mountains and then just try to hang on for the final “flatter” miles. It was without a doubt a bit of a gamble, but I wanted to capitalize on those first 6,000 feet of climbing while my legs were fresh. I launched into the first climb, eager, smiling, and basking in the gentle warmth of the sun as it rose over the reddish cliffs flanking the mountains. I dug, pacing aggressively and yet feeling like I was still holding back. I crested the first climb after a couple of hours and a full 20 minutes ahead of record pace. And I topped out on the second climb, I had gained another 5 minutes. The trail then got substantially rougher as the 4×4 track hugged a series of yellow cliffy slopes and plunged into a narrow canyon. Navigable options linking the La Sals to the canyon country emanating from Colorado River more than a vertical mile below were few and far between, and all the trails through this region are rugged.
I continued to feel like I was holding back, but at the same time, I could already feel a bit of fatigue in my legs from those first two long climbs. My solution to sensing fatigue has become instinctual – eat as much as my stomach will handle, so I pushed a stream of food into my mouth whenever the terrain eased. I garnered a cheer as I passed a couple of Jeepers paused amid a mess of ruts and boulders. I’m sure they had no idea of my mission, but they could clearly sense the commitment as I launched over the largest of the rocks, not wanting to scrub any speed. Half an hour later, I plunged into another rocky canyon and stopped to fill a bottle in the creek. I hadn’t expected water here, but I was more than happy to have a bit extra to drink. The late morning air still felt cool, but I was working hard for my speed, and I was going through water a bit more quickly than anticipated.
A steep, loose quad trail clung to the side of a narrow canyon, winding in and out of side drainages as I turned over my lowest gear. Popping above the rim, the Colorado River lowlands expanded before me. I glanced back, and the La Sals had shrunken considerably. Progress. A long, cobbly descent to the river gave my legs a reprieve as I slid and skittered through the sharp turns. But that reprieve also gave my muscles a chance to tighten up and realize just how hard they had already worked. After crossing the Colorado on a highway bridge, I turned off and began a gradual climb into the sandy, shallow canyons of the Yellow Jacket area. And my legs immediately protested. A sudden sense of dread overcame me – with more than 80 miles to go, I realized that I may have made the same old mistake of going out too hard. I stopped and ate a bar, pedaled a bit more, dismounted to open a ranch gate, and ate some cookies. And some coconut macaroons. And a couple handfuls of trail mix. It always gets better, I told myself. It always gets better.
A few minutes farther up the climb, I grinned as I noticed the bright blue sky reflecting and sparkling across potholes in a slickrock expanse. They were brim full after the recent rain, and temporarily, the desert felt so much more welcoming. I hopped off my bike, filled a bottle, drank it all, and refilled it. Continuing on, my legs still felt heavy, but I knew they’d come around if I just gave them a bit of time before trying to resume digging. So I enjoyed a more relaxed pace and focused on the large alcoves amid the sandstone rims, the old river gravels now stranded hundreds of feet above the modern Colorado River, and the fact that I hadn’t seen another soul in hours. The narrow canyons and rocky terrain soon gave way to riding along the floodplain and then into the barren shale badlands to the north.
As predicted, my legs came back to life before long, and after grabbing a gallon of silty brown water from the Colorado, I felt set for the final 70 miles of the ride. It was mid-afternoon, and the La Sals were now disappearing behind me, along with the toughest part of the trail. I was surprisingly still nearly half an hour ahead of record pace, so I just had to keep steady. I watched as old uranium mine workings passed by. My mind drifted a bit to the west with memories of a ride years before through an area called the Poison Strip where I marveled in awe at ponds formed in the mines and more dead cattle than I’ve ever seen in one area. I got lost in other memories of riding through even more contaminated areas on Navajo Nation and the ongoing health crisis as a result of the need for uranium during World War II and the subsequent Cold War.
A long, washed-out descent requiring my full attentiveness pulled my mind back to the present, and I realized that I had just drifted through nearly an hour of pedaling while lost in thought. I hoped that I hadn’t slowed too much, and as the trail leveled out in more badlands near river level, I resumed pedaling with renewed vigor. My body was feeling refreshed in the even cooler evening air. The final hours passed by quickly as I ate most of my remaining food and began to carefully gauge just how much energy I had left in reserve. Ninety minutes out, I hit the final singletrack and realized I still had nearly 30 minutes on record pace. I backed off just a bit – no sense in risking any consequential mistakes in the final technical miles. The trails wound along benches in the cliffy slopes high above the Colorado, the low evening sun glinting among the riffles and rapids. I paused to take a few photos before continuing on toward the end of the trail. Just a few minutes later as I sucked the final gurgling ounces of water out of my last bottle, I could see the final climb ahead.
Relief washed over me. Rolling into the trailhead parking lot, I stopped my watch at 11 hours 52 minutes, the first-ever sub-12-hour time on the trail. I was proud to have set a new record, but I was far more pleased to have executed a smooth run on such a demanding and harsh route. I was able to remain calm and refocus when my body was giving signs of being exhausted less than halfway through. I was treated to a cold juice and some water from a couple other riders returning to the lone car in the parking lot, and then I collapsed on a picnic table bench. Hitchhiking back to Moab would be a challenge for the following day (one of both sunburn and dehydration!). At that moment, I wanted to consciously soak in the remarkable feeling that arises when everything falls into place amid a sound plan, appropriately conservative confidence, and the utmost respect for one’s environment.