The 2020 Utah Mixed Epic: Full Route Review
Updated: Aug 2
The objective of the Utah Mixed Epic is to build a unique and challenging traverse of the amazing state of Utah, utilizing community collaboration and a rotating route concept. 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 our first year route and you'd argue we could create new routes 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.
I suspect most people who have begun to dig into the workings of the 2020 route 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 smaller segments. 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. A good majority of this route runs through National Forest and BLM areas which see a varying degree of annual maintenance. Smooth to rough. Firm to very sandy. Fast into corners you thought were solid and then turn out being complete sand pits. Chunky ATV roads that might only see the likes of extremely modded Jeeps. Likely dry, but if wet in certain stretches it could stop you dead in your tracks. Potential for flashfloods in certain parts. 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 most important.... and with the grades around here, you'll probably be climbing out of the saddle a good bit and braking hard descending. 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. I wouldn't be surprised to see some tackling this with suspension.
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. Climbs could take anywhere from 1-3 hours. 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 go back and forth between flat bar and drop bars. I've ridden sections on both styles.
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. Early on, Alta and Snowbird resorts might have resort style bike shops operating, but it's very doubtful. After that, you're looking at Midway/Heber City. Maybe an outfitter here or there in Boulder or Escalante. 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 and into the morning hours. It's the end of summer and right on that tipping point to cooler temps. I would say plan for 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.
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, but not all.
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.
Wildlife.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, antelope and even 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.
Utilize LNT (Leave No Trace) practices. 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.
From here, 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 route 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 (113 miles, 16,000 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, utilizing a little bit of the Temple Quarry Trail to stay off the main road as much as possible. 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 in the early morning, 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 after Alta, and transitions into forest access roads on the backside of Alta, up to Sugarloaf Pass. Expect some pretty steep and loose terrain to get over the pass and into Mineral Basin. The Mineral Basin section is rough, probably the roughest on the entire route, and if you decided to ride the skinnier side of tires you may have a very challenging go of it back here.
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 route rides through Midway, which will prove to be a critical service stop. If you need any bike repairs at this juncture, shoot over to Heber City. Pushing south out of Midway, the route hops on the highway for a short period of time, curving around Deer Creek Reservoir, offering great views of Mount Timpanogos and the east side of the Wasatch Mountains.
Enter Wallsburg- a small community tucked into a small valley off the highway. There are no services back here, and the route quickly pushes through the town's farmland and back in National Forest. The section from Wallsburg to Tie Fork is seriously chunky business, and will take you much longer than you think to work through. Some HAB both down and up, depending on what bike you brought. The benefit of this is likely some quiet and secluded miles to enjoy.
The backside of Strawberry Ridge utilizes the Great Western Trail to descend into Tie Fork. This will be some steeper sections of single track, sometimes heavily wooded and possibly overgrown. While there are easier ways to get from Strawberry to Highway 6 (such as using the Wild West Route), this route reduces the amount of time spent on Highway 6 to a minimum. Highway 6 is a very dangerous mountain highway. Ensure you are extremely visible and move efficiently while on Highway 6 as you make your way over to Skyline Drive. The route is only on this road for a little over a mile, and it's mostly downhill.
I'm placing the end of this section at Tie Fork Rest Area, and if you've made it here on Day 1 you'll be contemplating how much further to go. You'll probably also be asking yourself "what the hell did I just ride through?" From here, the route will enter the Manti LaSal National Forest and shoot quickly back up to high elevation. In it's normal operating state, Tie Fork Rest Area should have water, a vending machine and possibly serve as a overnight rest stop. The latest intelligence (June 2020) is that Tie Fork rest area might be closed for water/vending, and should be checked very close to Grand Depart.
Section 2: Tie Fork Rest Area to Castle Dale (135 miles, 12,500 ft of climbing)
There are several segments of this section where the route holds steady above 10,000 feet (some above tree line, mostly on Skyline Drive). Luckily, it also descends down into towns for reasonable resupply points, and honestly you've probably had to pack pretty heavy on food from Midway to get to the likes of Fairview. 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 of this section (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 early glimpses of other worldly desertscape. 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: Castle Dale to Hanksville (116 miles, 5300 ft of climbing)
This is one of the flattest sections of the entire route, and where the desert of southern Utah really begins. 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 could 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).
The route will cross I-70 and re-enter the south end of the San Rafael Swell. At the time of writing this, I have not personally ridden this section of the Swell (I-70 to Hanksville), but I do know that it is widely bikepacked. I suspect more sand in this area, and less access to water. You should absolutely be resupplying in Castle Dale before hitting this stretch.
Here are links to a few different routes within the area, to help in planning:
The route will pass through Goblin Valley State Park for a much needed water resupply, and then continue through a bit more of the Swell before hitting Hanksville. Hanksville is a small town with limited resupply options, but you'll definitely want to resupply (and in large quantity) for what lies ahead.
Section 4: Hanksville to Boulder (182 miles, 19,000 ft of climbing)
What I would consider the hardest stretch of this route. If you haven't noticed that sharp set of mountains looming in the distance as you worked through the remainder of the Swell, that's the Henry Mountains. A small but rugged high mountain range planted in the middle of the desert. You'll appreciate heading up to some cooler temps at elevation, but it will be a long traverse across the range, working through several passes heading south. Fast moving storms and steep loose grades will make this a challenging section of riding for sure. Finally coming off the Henrys, the route reattaches to the Burr Trail (which was part of the original route), coming around the south edges of the Henrys and over to Notom Bullfrog road and back up to Highway 12, to take a little more scenery in from Capitol Reef (albeit from more of a paved perspective).
The only potential resupply point between Hanksville and Boulder will come from the The Gifford Homestead, but normal hours could be in jeopardy. I do hope it's open, to take advantage of some local pie and ice cream.
The route meanders south from Fruita, down a scenic drive route that eventually transitions from pavement and onto some 4x4 roads (which I believe are going to be rough) over to Lower Bowns Campground and Reservoir, which should offer up an opportunity to filter water. The climb up from the Reservoir onto Boulder Mountain is steep, putting the route back onto pavement on Highway 12 for a few more miles of climbing, and then descending quickly down into Boulder Town. Plenty of great camping areas up on Boulder Mountain if you'd like to camp in cooler temps than Boulder. Treat yourself at Hells Backbone Grill or the local market (really not many other options) before pressing on.
Section 5: Boulder to Parowan (202 miles, 17,500 ft of climbing)
Out of Boulder, the route will meander through Hells Backbone Road. It is a windy mountain road (some paved, mostly dirt) with amazing views and also some narrow passages with sheer drop offs. Best to tackle this during the day and not during a peak tourist time frame (although I saw very few people while out here on a holiday weekend). The pass descends via a very long and gradual descent into Escalante, another high desert mountain town but of larger size than Boulder. While Highway 12 between Boulder and Escalante is a common cycling route, and beautiful in scenery, there is a very narrow shoulder and traffic could be heavy during this time of year.
Escalante offers a few outfitters which might have some bike parts, but certainly would offer other outdoor gear in case you need it. Between Escalante and the outskirts of Bryce, there won't be much in terms of services.
The climb out of Escalante is on Old Escalante Road, which is a 14 mile grinder of a climb; hope that you're lucky enough to grab a good tailwind. I did this on 4th of July, about 10 am and ran into 3 cars. There's something about the Boulder/Escalante area that is much quieter from a tourism perspective than everything surrounding it.
The route descends to the intersection of John Valley Road, turning south on a semi-paved road for a few miles before re-entering the Dixie National Forest, heading west towards Red Canyon. Here you'll find Tom Best Spring, a large national spring about a quarter mile off route, which will be of utmost importance to make the stretch work. I really enjoy these miles between Tom Best Spring and Highway 12; they are quiet rollers and fairly good gravel. It's a welcome change from the "straight up/straight down" from the last 70 miles of riding.
Once back to Highway 12, there is a bikepath to utilize as you head towards Tropic Reservoir, with towering views of Bryce in the distance. That's as close as we'll get to Bryce, in an effort to steer clear of a majority of the national parks and tourist traffic. A Chevron and a small restaurant reside on this stretch, and should be capitalized upon (if you haven't picked up on the theme, there's really not many service opportunities on this route that you can just "skip").
After a short stretch of Highway 12, the route veers south towards Tropic Reservoir, utilizing a few less popular ATV trails to avoid the high volume traffic going to the reservoir.
Ample water access along with established camping options exist in the area, and as the route pushes further south into the Dixie National Forest, you will follow a meandering mountain creek. It's pretty serene, as long as the ATVs have packed up and gone home.
After leaving the Dixie National Forest, there is a stretch of road that borders a private ranch, which should be worked through efficiently. If planning to camp in the general area, make sure to stay up in the National Forest.
There is a brief section on Highway 89, and depending on time of day and holiday travel, this could be busy. I believe most of this was recently repaved with a reasonable shoulder.
The route turns off Highway 89 and climbs up a quiet canyon, Stout Canyon, which shows signs of a recent burn while also sharing some nice views of some red rock cliffs. Good road surface but you might begin to notice more sand on the roads.
Duck Creek Village is your next resupply point before entering a vast network of OHV trails (Utahn's love dirt motor sports) which will gradually climb you back up over 10,000 feet. There's a little bit of chunky lava to work in this area, but I wouldn't say it makes up the majority. I've ridden in this area twice: once over Labor Day weekend in 2019 with morning temperatures hovering 35 degrees.... and once again over July 4th weekend in 2020 and morning temperatures were about 45. It's gonna be cold up here! Remnants of a wild fire linger all over, with views of oranges and reds of the Cedar Breaks coming into view as you finally descend down towards Parowan. The descent down into Parowan is steep and loose until Yankee Meadow Reservoir, which affords another water resupply and some dispersed camping options.
Section 6: Parowan to St. George (104 miles, 5,400 ft of climbing)
Back down into the scorching desert. Well, almost. From Parowan to Cedar City, the route parallels the interstate for a little while, working backroads to avoid the hustle bustle of Interstate 15. Cedar City is a great place for fast food. It's where all the weary car travelers that thought they could ride 4 hours in a car non-stop from SLC to St. George stop to wet their whistle and relax from such an arduous journey. You will laugh at their weakness as you shamelessly stuff two big macs into your frame bag and pedal on. But you'll want to get the hell out of there quickly as it will be an abrupt reintroduction to society from what you've been experiencing for the past few hundred miles.
Views of a Kolob Canyons should come into view after coming through Cedar City, which are just breathtaking in the right light. Kannaraville has a little diner/motel, and New Harmony offers a Shell station. That's about it from Cedar City to Veyo.
The town of New Harmony pushes pretty far back from the interstate, so you'll need to commit to a reasonable ride after the Chevron station to get back into the Dixie National Forest. The first sections are a bit sandy and two track windy climbing, but once you get out into the valley around Pinto and up to Pine Valley, it's beautiful smooth dirt.
As you transition onto pavement at Pine Valley, that will be the end of the dirt.
Don't forget to stop for pie in Veyo to celebrate the home stretch. A few more highway miles (with a great shoulder and routine cycling traffic) before you soak in the magnificent descent through Snow Canyon to the finish. Take the road if you'd like to rip it in. Take the bike path in Snow Canyon if you'd like to soak it in. There is a fee to enter the state park, but I trust you'll think it's worth it.
Snap a picture at the Mustang Round-About for completion, which is at the bottom of Snow Canyon, and find one of the many parks in the St. George area to relax in while you gather yourself and contemplate what you just accomplished. Personally, I think this is going to tough as hell to finish. I'll be interested to see what you think!