Drop Your Ego, Carry Your Bike: Character Building in the La Sals

Lunch at Oowah Lake (Photo: Justin Hall)

Once upon a time, there was a group of mountain bike riders who loved to beat themselves (and their bikes) up with the most challenging versions of rides possible. I joined them for a ride in Moab last year.

This is the story about a ride in Moab that you probably haven’t heard of. A ride that carried eight of us all day through two dramatically different ecosystems; from high alpine and aspen-infused singletrack to bottom-dropping, four-mile-long unforgiving boulder fields. Because when in Moab, why would you ride where everyone else does?

Justin, my partner in fun and provider of photos, concocted a 32-mile point-to-point ride with 3,500 feet of climbing in-between that would take us from Moonlight Meadows to Schuman’s Gulch, along the Trans La Sals up to Geyser Pass, and finally over to Hell’s Canyon. I’ll be honest; I was a little tentative about venturing into an unknown route when we could be railing down Captain Ahab with the rest of the tourists and slinging slices back at Paradox Pizza by happy hour.

But even though I have no shame in being a tourist, I’m always up for trying something new, and turns out our group was too. With 3,500 feet of climbing and a ride unridden by all of us, we put on our big-kid chamois, packed hearty sandwiches, threw in some Sour Patch Kids, and hit the road at the ripe hour of 11 (I never said this group were early birds).

Going Where the People Aren’t

We began our ride at the same parking lot where the commercial shuttles drop off riders by the hundreds to plunge down the infamous Whole Enchilada. But instead of veering right to Burro Pass, we swung a left towards Moonlight Meadows for a fast, flowy descent with just the right amount of rowdy. “Those suckers on Burro Pass,” I thought. Smiles were had, fists were bumped, and stoke was high. After ripping by Clark Lake to Oowah DH trail, my apprehension had completely dissolved.

But as we all gathered at our first official rest break of the trip, I realized that not all had gotten off to a perfect start. One of our riders had crashed hard on his hand about 15 minutes into the ride. As he debated whether or not to turn back, he ultimately decided to continue riding, hang in the back, and just manage through it (he found out after that weekend that he broke his hand). Little did he know he was in for the most jarring and probably painful ride of his life. Needless to say, we saved most of the tequila for him that evening. Boy did he deserve it. And maybe HE should be writing this essay.

Aspen grove serenity (Photo: Justin Hall)

With our first descent a distant memory and nearly all of us without broken limbs, we made our way up the Ho Chi Min trail to start of Schuman’s Gulch. Schuman’s is popular with locals because it provides an escape from the tourists or heat, depending on what time of year it is.

But the trail is on the shorter side for such a long shuttle one-way, which is why tourists have probably never even heard of the trail. If you ever have the chance to ride Schuman’s, you’ll be rewarded with steep, tight turns, aspens groves, and rock drops, and a few creek crossings. In my opinion, this section of trail is better than the majority of the Whole Enchilada. Those Whole Enchilada suckers were probably pinch flatting on Porcupine Proper by now.

After two long, ripping descents in, I was in mountain biking heaven. Could it get better? No, it couldn’t, nor would it. In fact, it really only got worse from there. Little did I know but I was inching closer and closer to a hellish afternoon. From Schuman’s we headed towards Born Mesa via Trans La Sal, and up to Geyser Pass to La Sal Pass Road.

The road portion of the climb was boring, as all fire roads are, but looking back this really was only the calm before the storm. At the end of the road climb, we ate lunch at the base of a Oowah Lake, and where the trail took us up toward Geyser Pass. A fisherman and his son walked by our big group and laughed, “You’re not planning on biking up there are you?” I usually ignore non-biker commentary and I did the same here. But it turns out this outsider was onto something.

The first two minutes of our climb was ridable. The next few hours. Not so much.

Digging deep and approaching Hell’s Canyon (Photo: Justin Hall)

How do I put this without sounding like a baby… The La Sal trails are steeper than ideal for climbing on a bike. Like toss your bike over your shoulders. Hunker down and zone out until the person in front of you has found the top of that section. It’s not an intuitively planned out epic singletrack flow from start to finish (hence why people flock to rides like the Whole Enchilada).

What seemed like the entire afternoon, and probably edged toward the better part of 3.5 hours (but who was counting at that point?), we continued to trudge our way towards Geyser Pass. With each approaching portion of trail that appeared rideable, I hopped on my bike with a swift uptick of optimism. I finally would get to ride my bike again! Only to be shot down back to my miserable bike pushing state.

Now I felt like the sucker. I’ve been on some harder rides than my abilities allow for, so fortunately, I had become accustomed to hiking my bike during rides. It’s certainly not the ideal way to travel with my bike, but it has lead to some fun rides in the past. So despite the urge for me to throw out the rest of any good remaining attitude, I still had the hope that something beautiful awaited us at the top of the trail.

Dropping Down into Hell

We were inching (literally by the inch) towards to start of the Hells Canyon downhill. After arriving at an aspen grove close to the top, we regrouped and I felt a surge of energy overcome me. With the last few miserable hour, here I sat in the loveliest Aspen grove I’ve ever had the pleasure to almost bonk in. This was something beautiful.

Not your typical Moab backdrop, but this ride was anything but typical. Reeling in on the scenery (Photo: Sylvia Cei)

We were close and I was ready. Or so I thought. Turns out my surge of energy was only mental (or just delusional) and very much short lived.

Hell’s Canyon trail starts out easy enough through thick, windy brush and spits you out onto to a beautiful overlook. As I peered at the valley down below I realized that we had a long way down with not so many miles left in the ride.

If you don’t like bumpy, rocky, loose, and overall crazy rides, Hell’s Canyon is not for you. Littered with boulders of every size imaginable, it was, by far, the rockiest and chunkiest trail I’ve pointed my bike downhill at. Hell’s Canyon makes Porcupine Proper seem like a cruiser trail. The pitch was impressive too–especially taken together with the conditions. With an average grade of 18% and a max grade of 52%, having all your teeth intact afterwards should be considered an accomplishment. I admit, I had to walk down most of Hell’s Canyon. Because, I like my teeth.

After about half an hour of awkward maneuvering, nailing my crotch on my bike frame more times than I would have liked, slipping out, and several ego-destroying attempts at turns, I had made it out of Hell’s Canyon alive. So I didn’t kill the downhill by a long shot. I felt mildly ashamed that I didn’t attempt to ride more and disappointed that this was supposed to be the best part of the ride and that I couldn’t really hang. But I also accepted the fact that I just made it down and through the La Sal mountains on my hardest ride to date. And my teeth. They were all still there. I was good. I’d be better with a marg or three in me, but still good.

At the base of the canyon, we were spat back out on a road that lead us directly back to our condo in the Spanish Valley. The sun had just started to set and we squeaked into the garage as daylight disappeared behind us.

Finally wrapping our ride up with some smiles and sunset.

Adventure rides like these are the reason mountain biking will never get old. And they come in especially handy when conjuring up topics for mountain bike essays. And yes, we woke up the next morning and rode the Whole Enchilada with the masses.

Turns out, we’re all just suckers for a good ride.

Kelsey Bernius is a content marketer and writer based in Golden, CO. She discovered the joy of experiencing singletrack on two wheels (and later on full suspension) when she moved to Denver from Montana over five years ago. Now a proud Golden resident, she is grateful to call the trails of Jefferson County her home. 

This essay was a runner up entry in the #TrailTales contest.

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