This sparse, unaltered landscape has long been a source of fascination for geologists, mainly because of its shape. Rather than charting a one-way course (as with most canyons), Unaweep, which bisects a portion of the sprawling Uncompahgre Plateau, instead flows out in two directions, with an elevated hump in the middle, like a hose with two openings.
This makes it ideal for road bikers, who see the bare, winding roads of Unaweep, and nearby Grand Junction, as an irresistible challenge. Since the 1970s, bike enthusiasts have latched onto Mesa County for its rich supply of trails. Just outside town, the Colorado National Monument makes for one of the most spectacular, high-altitude rides in America. (The 1985 Kevin Costner film, “American Flyers,” was filmed here.)
It is the latest project by the founders of the San Juan Hut System, which launched in 1987 with a set of five huts on the north face of the Sneffels Range in Colorado. Originally meant as an easy-to-navigate route for intrepid skiers, the DIY appeal of the huts soon expanded to bikers, who take over those same trails in the summer months. Today, the system commands a total of 16 huts, spread over hundreds of square miles inside Uncompahgre National Forest.
In May, just after this new trail officially opened, I was one of the first bikers to attempt this challenging route, accompanied by my friend, Joe, who bailed halfway through the first day. (More on that later.)
The remoteness of the trail is a double-edged sword: on the one hand, there are razor-sharp mesas and ghostly valleys, making for unforgettable scenery. But this being rural Colorado, the weather can be unpredictable. Heat makes the trail brutally uncomfortable in summer; the snow and ice make it impassable in winter. As a result, it’s only open for two months a year — May and October.
“These canyons are rough, desolate, harsh,” explained Zebulon Miracle, a geologist who leads dinosaur walks for guests at the Gateway Canyons Resort, an unexpected luxury outpost in the middle of the red rock peaks, 53 miles from Grand Junction.
But if humans have survived in these parts for a couple thousand years, then I should be able to manage for a couple days, right? And it’s not like I’d be camping out in the wilderness. Two huts, installed along the trail roughly 50 miles apart, would provide overnight shelter for the three-day, two-night journey. They are basic cabins, built of plywood, and furnished with bunk beds and a propane tank stove.
Best of all, they are fully stocked with food: bacon, eggs, tortillas, onions, canned food (beans, salsa, tuna fish), cheese, salami sticks, cookies, different kinds of dried fruit, coffee, tea and plenty of water. There’s even a cookbook to show how to make elaborate meals like curry or chicken parm. (We booked our huts three months in advance of our trip, on the San Juan Huts website: sanjuanhuts.com/gravel-grinder-tour-of-the-canyons.)
The cost for two nights was $199. (The “beer option” costs an additional $30 per person.)
Ahead of this trip, I had spoken with Kelly Ryan, a former ski patrol and the daughter of Joe Ryan, who founded the San Juan Huts Systemin 1987. According to Ms. Ryan, the Grand Junction-Moab route, though challenging, is “beginner friendly.” While this tour involves long days, the terrain itself is nothing a newbie — even someone who’s never been on an overnight cycling trip — can’t handle, she said. Plus, the relative absence of cars on this route makes things more manageable. Typically, busy highways represent a hazard for road biking. “You’re more likely to get hurt mountain biking, but you’re more likely to die road biking,” Ms. Ryan said.
This didn’t exactly inspire confidence, but then again, this wasn’t a road biking trip, per se. The route is split between old paved highways and sections of dirt, and because of that, the route is technically classified as a gravel grinder tour.
Gravel grinding, once popular in the 70s and 80s, is essentially off-road road biking, and it’s enjoying a resurgence lately. Shops like SloHi in Denver Rapha in Boulder are now renting gravel grinders and hosting group rides.
While mountain biking is often seen as too dangerous, and road biking has a reputation for being a little dull, gravel grinders offer a middle way. Their tires are thick, but more pressurized than mountain bikes, and they are more stable in their frames. Ms. Ryan called them the “Swiss Army knife of the bike world” — not as clunky as a mountain bike, but not skittish and thin like road bikes.
On a route like this, which involves long distances and rolling landscape on some unpaved roads, a gravel grinder can really shine. I opted to rent a Moots Routt 45 from a nearby Grand Junction vendor.
We were set to go.