Challenging miles pay off with the second half of the Kokopelli Trail’s mesmerizing, isolated canyonlands
My feet push squarely into the pedals, and I stand over my loaded bike with bent elbows as we roll down the washboard. It’s bumpy. And the dust plasters my teeth, but it doesn’t matter — my mega grin is on. After days of preparation, my friend Karin Pocock and I have just been dropped off by a shuttle driver at the Kokopelli’s Trailhead off of Hawkeye Road, eight miles northwest of Fruita, Colorado. It’s our official start of bikepacking the Kokopelli Trail, a classic 145-mile route that ends in Moab, Utah.
As we drop down the dirt road, I look over my left shoulder at desert domes that descend into a sagebrush-spotted mesa. Hundreds of feet below, I see a huge bend in the Colorado River where it sweeps into Horsethief Canyon, which we’re heading toward. The blue-green surface shimmers, surrounded by a citadel of emerald Cottonwoods. Across the water, piñon pines cap the hills. Below them, sheer auburn-toned cliffs plummet to the valley floor, marking the northern edge of Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness. This is the Colorado Plateau.
Endless Lessons and Rewards
A toasty September breeze combs my arms and dries my throat. I feather my brakes for a righthand turn onto singletrack. Uh-oh — I forgot to adjust my rear suspension, and the lever is under my frame bag, I realize as my Specialized Stumpjumper, a full suspension mountain bike, springs up and down.
“I gotta stop for a minute,” I tell Karin, who is already firing up the rocky slope. She’s the one who catalyzed my interest in bikepacking two months earlier. She swings around and rides back. “Oh, your frame bag is on wrong!” Karin says and hops off her bike. My heart sinks. “Dang! I thought the setup looked weird,” I reply. She quickly pulls the velcro straps off and flips the bag around. It doesn’t fit. We’ll need to dump out the contents.
In my short foray with bikepacking, I love how it has allowed me to cover and explore vast landscapes. And I’ve learned self-reliance on a bike hinges on an ability to problem solve, adapt and be patient — even when moments are hard.
It’s 3:30 p.m. We need to cover 20 miles but aren’t sure how long the segment will take. Bikepacking routes can be a crapshoot — like, balancing through 10 miles of sand versus sailing over packed gravel. But the unknown is also what makes the adventure.
“Oh, shit,” Karin says. Several zipper teeth on the bottom of my frame bag are broken. We are 120 seconds into our multiday ride, and this could be Code Red. If we freak out or rush, the situation might get worse. “Let me try,” I say. I unload the belongings and carefully slide the pull-tab back onto its track above the busted section. Whew. We repack the frame bag and cinch down its lower belly with a ski strap. “If things don’t go ‘wrong,’ are you really bikepacking?” I say to Karin and laugh. “Nope!” she chimes in. We jump on our bikes and mount the bench. I relish the breathtaking views.
The Kokopelli Trail is the inaugural route developed by the Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Association (COPMOBA). The tour connects singletrack, gnarly four-wheel drive areas, smooth dirt roads and some pavement. Kokopelli is Hopi for ‘the humpbacked flute player,’ which is a symbol of dance, replenishment, fertility and mischief. After the debut of the Kokopelli Trail in 1989, COPMOBA has continued to create trails in the Colorado Plateau region, including Fruita’s primary areas: 18 Road and Kokopelli Loops.
The Kokopelli Trail starts in the trail-hive of Kokopelli Loops and traverses technical singletrack above the Colorado River and around Mack Ridge — often with bottlenecks from large boulders and a steep drop-off toward the water. Then, the journey ascends north to Sidewinder and Rabbit Valley Roads, around Rabbit Ear butte and across seemingly endless barren plains. Somewhere north of Wrigley Mesa, you cross the Colorado-Utah border. You venture past the periphery of Cisco, an abandoned railroad town, and into a deep, red sandstone canyon carved by the Colorado River. There, you find the old Dewey Road suspension bridge and former townsite. That’s the halfway mark.
I anxiously wake to my alarm at Dewey Bridge campground. We’re halfway through our ride, which, despite the heat yesterday, has gone smooth. But today, we plan to ascend at least 6,000 feet — more than I’ve ever tackled on a mountain bike in a single day let alone with a 50-pound haul. We start pedaling uphill and pretty soon, we’re fishtailing on Shura road. The weather is humid and warm. Dark, precarious clouds dance around us. My nerves are quiet, but I feel cranky. But then we pass Triangle Road and drop into Waring Canyon. Suddenly, I’m surrounded 360 degrees by orange-hued hilltops, canyon tiers covered in piñons and steep walls that plunge into ravines full of vibrant Cottonwoods. The remoteness and rough contours make me feel out there. And we are.
This is the high-density magic of the Kokopelli Trail — at least, for me it is. From here on, we roam through a wiggly network of rugged double-track past Cowskin, Line and Cottonwood Canyons. Around every corner, red-rock buttes, towers and fins feed my eyes, and magnificent tables fill the horizon from Big Pinto to Blue Chief to Sevenmile Mesa.
We pour out of Cottonwood Canyon into Fisher Valley via Onion Creek Road. The rolling descent makes me laugh, and the panoramic beauty doesn’t scale down. My jaw is dropped all the way to Moab. We pass farmlands then climb back into remote canyonlands via Hideout Canyon, where we circumnavigate Cowhead Hill, a gigantic mesa. The edge of Thompson Canyon appears — like a mini Grand Canyon — before we rise into the Manti-La Sal National Forest. Now, we are surrounded by spruce-fir, mixed conifer, aspens and shrub.
In the woodlands, we set up our final camp, slumber in cooler weather, and complete our climb the following morning. A grand view of Fisher Valley is gifted when we cross over Fisher Creek. From here on, the La Sal Mountains fill the foreground, which juxtapose the desert’s crimson and rose-colored rock formations: a rare sight. After a long, gradual plunge, we climb La Sal Loop Road, which is paved, with an incredible perspective of Castle Valley including Castleton Tower, Priest and Nuns, and Round Mountain. As we top out, a lookout abuts the famous Porcupine Rim, a jagged spine that’s part of the famous Whole Enchilada mountain bike route. We enjoy a super-cruise downhill to Moab. The second half of the Kokopelli Trail makes every mile worth the sweat and grit, in my book. And because I brought ski straps — which I highly recommend — my frame bag never bit the dust.
- Mileage: 140
- High point: 8,500-foot Fisher Valley Overlook, UT
- Ascent: 15,190 feet
- Descent: 15,695 feet
- Camp One: Rabbit Valley, which offers dispersed camping at designated (read: numbered) sites. Distance covered: 20 miles and 1,900 feet of ascent, including hike-a-bikes.
- Camp Two: Dewey Bridge campground ($20/night), along the banks of the Colorado River. Distance covered: Nearly 50 miles and a cumulative 2,000-foot climb.
- Camp Three: Dispersed camping in an established site in the Manti-La Sal National Forest, surrounded by pines near 7,500 feet. Distance covered: Approximately 30 miles and 6,500 feet of ascent.
- Final Day: We finished up with a 35-mile ride and 4,700 feet of climbing — plus 8,200 feet of descent.
*Our respective data trackers, as well as the GPX files we downloaded, all showed different distances and vertical. Take bikepacking beta with a grain of salt.
If You Go…
- Water sources are few to none: Plan a support vehicle or map out caches.
- Bug spray would’ve been celebrated at our Dewey Bridge riverside camp.
- Sunscreen and chapstick is a must.
- Ladies: Ounces be damned. Fresh daily undies feels nice and staves off chafing.
- Don’t forget your favorite anti-chafe salve. My choice is Squirrel’s Nut Butter.
- 2-3 daily Nuun tablets replenishes electrolytes.
- Menu: Pack a well-rounded variety of fresh, savory, salty, sweet, crunchy and sticky food (I was envious of Karin’s turkey-veggie-hummus wraps on day three).
- Calories: I organized 3,500 calories (in labeled bags) for each day.
- Wear a hat on uphill slogs.
- Carry a satellite communication device for messaging and emergency use. I use a Garmin inReach Explorer+.
- Test your weighted bike and bags on an overnighter with bumpy, technical turf before this trip.
- Put your bags on the bike before filling them up.
- For self-supported trips, book a private shuttle from Moab to Fruita. Ours cost $180.
- Rigid bikes are nice for stability under the weight, but a full-suspension can get the job done.
- I can vouch for a range of durable bags and cages, tested across hundreds of miles of mountainous terrain, made by Topeak and Revelate Designs.
- Training: I completed a difficult overnighter (60 miles, 8K feet of vertical) one month before this trip, which immensely helped me prepare physically, mentally, and logistically.
MORGAN TILTON is an award-winning travel writer specializing in outdoor industry and adventure coverage worldwide. When she’s not conducting interviews, researching or writing, you can usually find her trail running, riding, SUPing, splitboarding or doing yoga in the Gunnison Valley. Follow her journey and work at @motilton and www.morgantilton.com.