Saturday, April 27, 2013

Zion Curtain Loop - Southwest Day 2

With a rapid warm-up in the weather forecast for the coming days, Dave and I decided to do one of our longer rides on Saturday. We're staying in Grand Junction, CO for two nights before heading to Moab, UT to meet up with three other New England riders. Dave and I have ridden the popular Kokopelli and Bookcliff trail systems on prior trips, so I scouted out some terrain a little more off the beaten path. Riding further out was also important because this weekend is the Fruita Fat Tire Festival, where untold mountain bikers converge on Fruita. Crowded trails were not what we were looking for.

Starting out by closing the loop on north side of I-70

We parked near the Utah border just off I-70. It was still crisp at 8:30am. A climb right from the parking lot insured we would not be cold. 4WD tracks took us up, west and into Utah. Crossing under I-70 in a wash, the real riding began on the Zion Curtain Trail. We encountered a lone rider here, the only person we'd see for the next two hours.

The riding was not easy. Most of the trails in this area are open to motorized trail bikes. We encountered a couple during the day, but by and large most of the tracks were from MTBs. The trails were honest singletrack most of the time. One thing about riding moto trails is they often don't follow modern IMBA trail building guidelines. They go directly up and down fall lines. Heinously steep fall lines. It didn't take long before we capitulated on a couple climbs and hoofed it up. Nothing monstrous. Many pitches were just doable, taunting you to not give up. Motos have a way of chewing up the trail tread too. Lots of squirrelly looseness.

This spelt trouble. First, taking repeated, deep digs for 10-15 seconds at a time has a way of cutting you down. Second, our pace was going to take a big hit. It was getting warm and I worried about having enough water.

On Zion Curtain Trail. La Sal Mtns just visible in distance.
Super chunk on Zion. We both brought 26" bikes. 29ers would've made easier
work of this. I almost brought my 29er hardtail. Wicked glad I didn't.
A brief buff moment on Zion

We climbed and climbed, hitting the high point of the ride on the Zion Curtain. The views up here on this pristine clear day were stunning. Kind of took your mind off the super chunk surface you were riding on most of the time. I thought a 10mph average for the ride might be possible, but our average speed was plummeting below that. Surely from this high point we'll get some flowy, speedy descent, right? Yeah, right.

Not all hike-a-bikes are up. We nearly slid down on our asses on this one.
This near vertical plummet had pucker factor
The initial descent was quite harrowing. No hands-off brakes bombing. More like death grip on brakes. So much for flowy payback for all that climbing. We connected with Overlook Trail, another rim following trail with killer views of the La Sal mountains in the distance. A freaking wall of a climb brought us up to Overlook. There was a conga line of riders walking their bikes up it, no doubt part of the Fruita MTB festival. Of course, Dave and I could not let this climb defeat us with witnesses. My legs were already getting funky 2hrs in on top of the peaky 1.8hr ride we did the night before (have to catch up on this one later). Going this hard was not smart this early in a long trip and in a long ride. It took deep anaerobic effort to clean the beast. Must have passed 20 riders walking. Stupid, but satisfying at the moment.

The Overlook Trail contoured for many miles. At times there was a pretty serious precipice to the left, but no fear of death kind of stuff. We stopped for a bit to eat. There was zero wind. No sounds of cars, motorcycles or ATVs. No airplanes. No animals. No humans. Holding our breath, there was absolute... dead... silence. When was the last time you experienced that?

Crossed paths with a couple other riders on Overlook who took this photo for us.
Probably on Westwater Mesa Trail.
La Sal's with Colorado River
Overlook flowed into the Westwater Mesa Trail, the furthest out point of our ride. This went out on a mesa and looked cool in Google Earth. I had visions of contouring slickrock. Again, nothing was easy about this ride. Westwater turned to out suck. The first half of it was mostly moon dust, a term given to the sandy/clay mix soil here that has been powderfied by human powered and motorized cycles. It had the consistency and density of baby powder. It sucked the life right out of you. We were now hemorrhaging pace. It was getting hot and I pretty much accepted the fact I was in for a full-on death march ride.

We couldn't get off Westwater soon enough. The back half did ride much better than the first though. The plummet of the mesa was pucker inducing. A good adrenaline rush for sure, but as we learned on this ride, no good descent goes unpunished.

By now our drivetrains were fully depleted of lube by conditions as dry as the moon. I heard sounds coming from my chain that should never be heard. Ever hear traction chains dragging under a snowplow or tow truck? Imagine a hundred chains dragging on pavement. That's what my chain sounded like. I looked down, fully expecting to see sparks coming off it. I should have brought the lube with me.

Next on the agenda was the Western Rim Trail. I didn't know much about it either, other than it looked cool in Google Earth just like the sucky  Westwater trail did. Western Rim actually shared nothing in common with Westwater. There were massive numbers of riders coming the opposite way, probably an organized ride from the festival again. Western Rim contoured almost perfectly, often on slickrock. I took a crazy number of pictures. The oncoming traffic was a bit of a hassle, but I was blown by this point and didn't mind stopping frequently. This was probably the highpoint of the ride for me.

Heading towards Western Rim on the right half of photo
Contouring on Western Rim Trail
Dave on Western Rim. Multi-hundred foot free-falls here

More Western Rim rock formations

All good things come to an end. My track I stole from Strava had us continuing on a bit more of the Mesa, but there did not appear to be a legit trail there. Nothing but area closed signs and no clear rideable path. No biggie. Our planned four hour ride was going 5+ hours. This was going to bury me going into next week.

A mix of doubletrack, ATV trail and singletrack took us back to the car. There were multiple parking areas that were full. Probably over a hundred cars and many more riders than that out there on this day. Glad we had most of the ride to ourselves getting well off the beaten path.

The ride back from Western Rim

We finished with 45.3mi, 5200ft climbing, in 5.25hrs on the Garmin. What these stats don't show was how punchy this ride was. There were very few "easy" miles. The non-stop deep digs did damage. Creating this post many hours later, if I move my legs wrong, my hamstrings immediately seize up. I almost had one completely lock up on me. Yeah, that must have been a good ride. Not sure what is on the docket for Sunday. Maybe Bookcliffs.


David Penney said...

Dougy, Tell Dave to put the moment you describe below in a special place in his brain and to never forget it! Mine is 120 miles southwest of Santa Fe on top of the rim of a HUGE caldera off some unforgiving old jeep trail with the wind howling, the setting sun, and the craziest thunder storms across the valley . . . Peace!

"There was zero wind. No sounds of cars, motorcycles or ATVs. No airplanes. No animals. No humans. Holding our breath, there was absolute... dead... silence. When was the last time you experienced that?"

Michael Scott Long said...

Some of the scenery reminds me of the Painted Desert in Arizona, but with trees.