2020 Utah Mixed Epic- Sections 1-4.
The objective of the UME 1000 is to establish a collaborative journey in creating and building a unique and challenging traverse of the amazing landscapes of Utah. This is my small contribution back to a bikepacking community that has provided so much for me. It is a suggestion from which I'd love to see the community build on in subsequent years. How do I see this evolving in the future? I have lots of ideas, some probably grandiose for sure, but I would like to see varying routes across Utah each year and the community involved in the selection of those adjustments. Just look at a map of Utah in comparison to the route and you'd argue we could create a new route 15 times over to explore what this route doesn't touch. Different sections could be spliced together in new ways to create a totally different feel and experience. This first iteration doesn't even touch the west desert of Utah, which I believe is one of the most untapped destinations for really remote riding. To keep the route stagnant year over year seems like a terrible crime against bike exploration in this state. How that is accomplished, we'll see with time.
I suspect most people who have begun to dig into the workings of the 2020 route and are starting to notice a few things. It's steep, it's an solidly wide mix of surfaces and it will be quite remote in sections. With a first year route, it's recognized that general beta isn't yet available to consume via the internet to help with preparations. In consideration of that, I've pulled together some high level thoughts in a few key areas, to help in the planning, gear selection and the training process. I'll also take a swing at breaking the route out into digestible segments, some I'll cover here and the back half I'll hit in another post. These are thoughts, and should be taken only as such, and you should apply your own experiences, logic and rational thinking to them to make your own decisions and then build them into your own ride strategy. Whatever decisions you make from this information, just understand that it won't be ideal in some areas, and you may end up cursing my name.
Utah dirt isn't the kindest dirt. That's probably the first point to get out of the way. With the variation in ecosystems across the state, the surfaces undoubtedly follow suit. Smooth to rough. Firm to very sandy. Fast into corners you thought were solid and then turn out being complete sand pits. Likely dry, but if wet in certain stretches, it could stop you dead in your tracks (clay based sections). It's not about planning to a specific type, it's about planning for all types.
Traction and control on loose over hard surfaces, especially at steep grades, will be quite important.... and with the grades around here, you'll probably be climbing out of the saddle a good bit. Rocks can be sharp around here; whatever tread or tire you go with, ensure good sidewall protection. A reasonable amount of tire volume will also prove useful for smoothing out some of the rougher sections of gravel.
Another reason not to come with tubes-search the internet for "goatheads"- they can be quite prevalent in the northern sections of this course and will immediately pierce the best of tires.
If you don't love to climb, you may be in the wrong place. Utah mountains are fairly steep and your gearing should reflect that. Spinners are winners.
Drop bar vs. flat bar. Either can be ridden on this route. It's really about what you're comfortable with. Personally, I am leaning towards a flat bar as I appreciate the leverage climbing, and the confidence descending. But that's just me. I've ridden sections of this with a flared drop bar and it was fine.
Water Availability. Summers in Utah are extremely dry, and the amount of water available in mountain streams/lakes is typically driven by the prior winters snowfall. High elevation areas, in the northern quadrants of the route, will be the most likely to have water availability through streams and rivers. It will be important to have appropriate filtering supplies and analyze the route to identify potential water sources and undoubtedly pack additional water in case those sources are no longer viable. Being able to "flex" in water storage within your equipment setup will be most beneficial.
Services. A good majority of the route will have large gaps between services, and the time between those gaps are a puzzle to figure out given the unknown purity of terrain and taxation of climbing between them. Dependent on your pace and goals, there will likely be full days between services. Utah services can also have odd hours, depending on the town, meaning you could roll in on a Sunday and the entire town is closed. Keep this in mind.
Bike repair services will be minimal in most sections of the route, but extremely dense in a few. Early on, Alta and Snowbird resorts might have resort style bike shops still operating. After that, you're looking at Midway/Heber City or Moab. Moab is littered with bike shops, and with high end parts to boot. Maybe an outfitter here or there past that. Again, assess the route for yourself and plan accordingly.
Weather. "Prepare for it all" is the best advice for this route. It will be guaranteed that you will be riding through quite hot conditions during the day, which could lead to some very pleasant and mild evenings... or pretty brisk conditions at night. It's the end of summer and right on that tipping point to cooler temps. I would say plan for right around freezing to absolutely roasting. Humidity is low across Utah, so 40 degrees in Utah feels much warmer to ride through than 40 degrees in an average humidity environment. High elevation poses your typical risk of quickly forming storms, and in some instances the route will go above tree line. This, in addition to the aspect of large windows between services, should induce a need to have emergency shelter situations in order. The moderate desert nights will coax you into a minimalist shelter, but the high elevation passes will have you reconsidering the need for something of substance.
As the route progresses south, the temperatures will get hotter and the distance between services gets longer. By September, most of the extremely hot days are in the past, but you never know. A night riding regimen could become a strategic play to avoid heat complications. Your web traffic to the 10-day weather forecast come race time will be astronomical.
Extraction. It is your responsibility to be prepared to deal with unforeseen circumstances and extract yourself accordingly. Assess the route and understand where emergency resources reside, which may be behind you or off route. Have a plan. Bring a first aid kit. Most of the route is accessible with a high clearance, capable 4WD vehicle. In addition, the route is never more than a days drive from St George or Salt Lake City.
Hunting. The course will traverse through areas with active hunting. This is typical in any western shared recreation area, and we as bikepackers have an opportunity to exhibit good co-recreating measures. In these areas, the route is on forest service roads, no different than what a car or truck can traverse so don't feel as though your presence is obtrusive. Plan for high visibility clothing (as will be mandatory to participate in the grand depart- see rules). The route uses main arteries of forest service roads, and it is illegal to hunt across roads. Most hunters will park on these roads and then traverse less traveled areas from there. It is also illegal to intentionally disrupt a hunt, so be respectful and keep noise to a minimum. For example, blasting a bluetooth speaker on your bicycle through an active hunting area is to be frowned upon.
The route extends through remote areas, whether it be national forest or BLM land. In the national forests and higher elevation, you may observe bears, big cats, moose, elk and wabbits. Plan accordingly. Herds of cows grazing on BLM land will be very common, and possibly a few flocks of sheep. When encountering sheep, pay close attention to the whereabouts of the sheep dogs. They are large and can be very aggressive in protecting the flock. Make sure to close any gates you have to pass through.
Leave no trace
Respect our public land. Pack in/pack out. Understand where your campground and pit toilet options are. Bring a collapsible trowel. There will be lots of dispersed camping opportunities within BLM lands. Avoid creating new campsites where ones already exist.
I'll try to break down various sections along this route as I see them in my mind. Some of the sections correlate to changes in environment (ex: high alpine to desert), others are cut up by available resources. You may chose to think about the sections differently. I'll also note that I have not ridden every single mile of this course as I write this. I probably won't either before the inaugural grand depart. I like a good surprise just like you. Keep that in consideration- this is a source of information, but not all the information.
Section 1: Salt Lake City to Tie Fork Rest Area (135 miles, 18,000 ft of climbing)
This will be the most densely populated area of route, starting in downtown Salt Lake City and working through the metro valley south to Little Cottonwood Canyon (LCC). Expect to bike along road traffic on par with any city of size, albeit with a well defined bike lane. If you've forgot anything, there will be gas stations and even an REI right off route in the first 20 miles. The mountains will be looming on the left and you'll be guessing which canyon you'll be entering.
LCC begins a steep 10 mile road climb into the Wasatch mountains. I suspect this is where the grand depart group will begin to spread out, and people will realize if they brought the right gearing. While it still should be cool outside, you'll quickly get an appreciation for how stagnant the air can be on these long climbs, and will be thinking about how you might manage a long climb like this in the middle of a hot day. (Read: ventilation strategy). The route leaves pavement and transitions into forest access roads up around the ski resorts of Alta and Snowbird. Expect some pretty steep terrain to get over Mineral Basin, maybe a few small stints of HAB and some rockier sections.
The chances of grabbing water from mountain streams in these parts are pretty favorable, and you'll certainly need it. The dry mountain air and large amounts of climbing on a heavy bike will have you starting to feel the effects if you're not staying on top of fluids. The first 70 miles of this route gains over 10,000 feet of climbing.
Heber City has all the fixings, and possibly a smaller chain ring if you flubbed up and didn't heed warning. If you find yourself behind schedule, it's probably best to restock here-the route then hits a gradual 20 mile climb back up into the mountains, and then flattens out for a bit of forest roads and paved roads around Strawberry Reservoir. The Strawberry Reservoir area has a surprising amount of pavement, however it is a large recreational destination. You may even find resupply options at the visitors center. Folks in Utah like their boats, big trucks and large campers. I suspect over Labor Day weekend the campgrounds here will be bustling.
I've placed the end of this section at the intersection of Highway 6, which ends up being the Tie Fork Rest Area, and if you've made it here on Day 1 you'll be contemplating how much further to go. From here, the route will enter the Manti LaSal National Forest and shoots quickly back up to high elevation. Tie Fork should have water, a vending machine and could possibly serve as a overnight spot if conditions are bad. A note about Highway 6- be extra cautious on this highway, traffic can be moving extremely fast on this mountain road. Ensure you are extremely visible! The route is only on this road for a little over a mile, and it's mostly downhill.
Section 2: Tie Fork Rest Area to Ferron (124 miles, 11,800 ft of climbing)
There are several segments of this section where the route holds steady above 9,000 feet (some above tree line, mostly on Skyline Drive). Luckily, it also descends down into towns for reasonable resupply points. This section is likely where you will encounter any hunting on the route, so be cognizant of your surroundings.
There are several resupply points in this section as it drops back down into the valley to the west- Fairview, Mt Pleasant and Ephraim. Water will likely be available in the high mountains here (but specific locations should still be scouted). At this point, all the climbing fatigue from day 1 will be building, slowing pace as the route takes on two significant climbs:
First Climb, from Tie Fork up onto Skyline Drive: 11 miles and 3,200 ft
Second Climb, from Ephraim back up to Skyline: 20 miles and 5,000 ft
One of my favorite parts of this section is the descent off of Skyline down in Ferron. This is where the scenery gradually changes from high alpine mountains to other worldly desert scape. If you're able to descend this at sunset or sunrise, you are in for a real treat.
There's a small campground at Millsite State Park as well, just before hitting Ferron.
Section 3: Ferron to Moab (148 miles, 6300 ft of climbing)
This is one of the flattest sections of the entire route, and where the desert of southern Utah really begins. Ferron up to Castle Dale is quick maintenance on a 2 lane paved highway. From Castle Dale to I-70, through the northern section of the San Rafael Swell, it's just absolutely mind blowing beauty and where I would go to ride bikes all the time if I could. As you slowly transport into another planet, surfaces beneath your two wheels will change as well. The introduction of clay and sand can quickly stop you dead in your tracks if wet, so pay attention to current and past weather. When it's dry (and it should be in September), it can roll fast (until you hit a patch of sand).
Green River affords a resupply point and lodging options (if you so desire) before the next stretch into Moab.
Section 4: Moab to Blanding (122 miles, 11,500 ft of climbing)
Definitely restock in Moab! The first part of this stretch leverages the Lockhart Basin Trail and the Hurrah Pass area. There is plenty of intelligence online to help you gain an appreciation for these sections (watch a dash cam from a OHV on YouTube). In some portions of this stretch, you will be riding across down and up rock slabs, and will likely encounter ATVs and Jeeps trying to find ways to destroy their vehicles. This is where you will probably enjoy having some tires with good volume.
This stretch would be a hell of a lot easier if the route stopped in Monticello, but it doesn't so there's that. You can always jaunt over and resupply if needed. If you look at the elevation profile, it's going to be a slow slog to work up from the Lockhart Basin/Indian Creek area up to the tall peaks of the Abajo mountains. Hope for water should increase as the route begins to lift back up to the high elevations, but that's just hope. Nizhoni campground may offer potable water and pit toilets as well, but you're now pretty close to the hustle and bustle of Blanding. This is hands down one of the bigger stretches to analyze and plan water and food for.
Take a moment to kick your legs up in Blanding and celebrate the half way point of the 2020 route! 2nd installment will hit on these sections.
Section 5: Blanding to Boulder (188 miles, 15,500 ft of climbing)
Section 6: Boulder to Parowan (198 miles, 17,000 ft of climbing)
Section 7: Parowan to St. George (98 miles, 3,600 ft of climbing)