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The Trails of Moab, Utah

Written by  October 31, 2004

It’s fall in Kansas City. The days are getting short, and the nights are getting crisp. It’s the promise of winter and the threat of the period known as “post riding-season stress-disorder” that prompted me to plan the annual pilgrimage to eastern Utah with my son, Jeff. Early October is a good time to visit the desert. The days are warm and calm, the nights cool and clear. In short, it’s a perfect time to play hard, visit with friends, enjoy a campfire after a day of adventure and take in the stars. Remembering past trips prompted me to phone friend, Dan Bertsch to invite him to drive down from his home in Salt Lake City to meet us in Moab, Utah. Sharing many common values, Dan and I have been meeting in Moab with our sons for 10 years. Early adventures found us mountain biking desert trails, but with the addition of 10 years we gravitated to 4-wheel drives, mostly because of our waning stamina. With a plan to meet Dan, we loaded the camper on the Super Duty and Jeff’s Jeep Wrangler on a trailer to head for Moab. Now before you criticize me because this is a motorcycle magazine, you could imagine my excitement when Dan phoned to tell me his son Scott would be able to make the trip and that he had arranged to bring two Honda CFR450R motocross bikes in addition to their Jeep. These Honda’s are strong, fast bikes. Their broad power band and close ratio gears make short work of desert trails.

Leaving Wednesday afternoon, we drive west on I-70 from Kansas City to eastern Utah, then south 32 miles on US-191. With a camper and a trailer, we have a 17-hour drive from Kansas City. Moab is located on a collapsed salt dome beneath the Manti-LaSal Mountains next to the Colorado River between Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park. For the road biker, there’s great scenery along the Colorado River, in the mountains, and in the National Parks. But it’s the off-road areas that have kept our interest for so many years. This area is well known for public access to spectacular canyon country. It’s difficult to describe the raw beauty of the seemingly unchangeable and unforgiving environment. But as any motorcycle enthusiast will attest, there’s an added luster to any area you experience by living on the calculated edge of safety.

Moab caters to tourists. There’s plenty of choices for those who prefer motels, fully equipped campgrounds, primitive campgrounds and even backcountry camping. We’ve never failed to locate a place to stay. Recent years have found us ten miles outside of town in a favorite canyon campsite along the Colorado River.

Jeff and I met Dan and Scott on Thursday morning. We have three days together before we force ourselves to head home on Sunday. Thursday afternoon Dan and Scott take the Hondas west along the Colorado River, then southeast through Kane Creek Canyon where remnants of uranium mines are still visible. Near the end, the trail crosses and re-crosses the wet creek too many times to count before ending at the Hole 'N The Rock on Highway 191. Most stream crossings are filled with round river rock or sand, but there’s one particular mossy stream crossing over solid rock at the bottom of a steep rocky climb that’s humbled every one of us who’s attempted the crossing. No matter how experienced we think we are, we go down in water. Aware of the hazard, we are able to avoid breaking parts. This is a fun trail with only one technical challenge that most off-road riders would enjoy.

Friday, we park the Hondas to give them a rest and to rebuild our confidence. Instead, we spend the day exploring the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park in Jeeps. After showers and dinner, we return to camp to enjoy a fire, the stars in the Milky Way, and good conversation with good friends until the wee hours of the morning.

We agreed to meet friends who are staying in town late Saturday morning, so Scott and I get up early to ride the Shafer Trail on the Hondas. It’s 42 miles from camp to the top of the mesa in Canyonlands National Park. This is the same backcountry trail we completed on bicycles back in the '90s. Once at the end of the trail, at the Island in the Sky District, we stop for water and the great view into the Canyonlands.

Remembering our arrangement to be in Moab at 10:30, Scott asks, “How much time do we have?” “We should have turned back 10 minutes ago,” I reply. “I’ll get us back on time,” Scott declares, and he disappears in a cloud of dust through the switchbacks and down the shelf road. Once off the mesa, I catch up to Scott. As if to add insult to my insecurity on the exposed ledges, he’s sitting at a fork in the trail with the engine off. We’ve descended over 700 feet in a little more than a mile. Scott’s intimately familiar with his bike, but it’s only the second time I’ve ridden the big Honda and I wasn’t overly comfortable on the steep, exposed switchbacks. I’m not a beginner to dirt riding, but this is the same trail where Thelma and Louise took their big plunge. And these are the cliffs where Tom Cruise was hanging in the opening scenes of Mission Impossible 2. But those were movies and this is real life, and the desert is unforgiving of the unwise and those less skilled.

Reality sets in when I remember this trail is not too many miles from the canyon where Aaron Ralston was trapped by a rock for a five days and had to amputate his own arm to escape. I had no intention of making a permanent mistake on the switchbacks of Shafer Trail. However, once we’re off the shelf road, it’s another game, and we both fly off the little ledges, through the dry streambeds, across loose rocks, slide through the corners, and down the last 500-foot exposed cliff to the Colorado River. Then it’s an easy ride back to camp. Scott and I have ridden 42 miles across the desert in 55 minutes to be on time. But Jeff and Dan didn’t wait for us and left early. So we load the Hondas and change out of our riding gear. The Shafer Trail is a non-technical 4-wheel drive road that can be ridden fast if you don’t mind missing a lot of great views. Plan on stopping frequently and by all means, bring a camera.

There’s an uncommon thrill to riding long trails in canyon country on a big, powerful dirt bike. My off-road guide lists 50 “favorite” trails in the area. You’ll find us back in Moab next March trying new trails. If you’re interested in great views either on-road or off, preview the Moab area.

Story by Bob Grapengater

Photos by Bob Grapengater, John Crossley, Falke Bruinsma and Dan Bertsch

© 2004 by Voyageur