By Gabriel Tiller
Tackling the development of a route on the scale of Orogenesis is an overwhelming undertaking. We understood this limitation early on in the process and created the Orogenesis Collective—a loose conglomeration of ultra athletes, trail builders, event promoters, bikepackers, and ghost trail whisperers up and down the west coast. Their knowledge, ambition, and nose for sniffing out overgrown singletrack is what enabled the Orogenesis project to grow into a more or less uninterrupted line for 4,500 miles along the western lip of the North American Plate.
That being said, it’s hard not to focus on the few interruptions in this line: when you hit Wilderness boundaries, a chasm, a gate, or a river and are begrudgingly forced onto unexpected miles of pavement. In 2019 we attempted to refine the many alignment iterations into the preferred alignment, figure out where those gaps were, and try to identify solutions for them. We found about 206 miles of ‘gaps’ where we’ve deemed there to be no current suitable option for riders. That may seem like a lot, but it’s less than 5% of the entire route—all of a sudden we realized just how palatable this entire juicy ribbon of trail was. Could we fast track it for a soft launch in 2021?
Last year our collective—one hundred thirty-two strong—logged over 2,500 miles across three states and two countries while sussing out the hidden stories that trails tell us. One rider, Rick Ianniello, circled the Sierra from Bishop south to Kennedy Meadows, west to the Plunge, and north to Camp Nelson, Bass Lake, Yosemite, Pinecrest, Tahoe, and Downieville—over 1,000 miles all told. Another European rider traveled north from Tahoe, through Downieville to Oregon, and along the Oregon Timber Trail. In Washington, the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance introduced the Orogenesis concept to their state legislators, and Bikepacking Roots submitted comments on several land management changes that could negatively affect the route. The many trail organizations along the Orogenesis route understand the value of long-distance connectivity and have already begun poring over old maps and reopening historic trails with this goal in mind.
Now; instead of the project seeming dauntingly obtuse, its momentum is contagious and the speed at which the puzzle pieces are assembling themselves is unnerving. Replacing 206 miles of ‘gaps’ with dirt ribbons comes with a conservative price tag of $5.5 million in this day and age. Gone is the era of pack and saddle routes to fire lookouts (1910s), aggressive Civilian Conservation Corps trail system construction (1930s), and dreaming up the National Trails System (1968). Today, scratching an 18” wide enabler of joy into the duff so I don’t have to ride my bicycle next to speeding traffic is a frustratingly complex process. Years of stakeholder engagement and environmental assessment must be completed before a shovel touches dirt. These barriers exist for good reason of course, but when you dream on a scale as large as Orogenesis they compound on each other and rip wind from my sails on each tack. Luckily there’s a lot of us with sails up. A shared dream is collectively buoyed—and we’re building a giant raft—throw us a line why don’t you?
If you’re anything like me, 2020’s uncertainties and sorrows have made my usual priorities seem relatively unimportant. I turn 40 in a few days, which comes as a surprise because my personal path had not shown itself until recent years. At this path’s beginning a wise man’s observation stuck with me: “Trails are the oldest form of communication known to humankind.”
What exactly are we all doing here on this raft floating listlessly in unison? Let’s set our sights on the same old ground but with new eyes and fresh optimism. Dirt ribbons, holding us humbly together and closer to earth. What do you want to say—or maybe a better question is—what do you want us to hear?
So what does the future bring? Relationships and connections. We’ll be on the ground, riding trails, meeting each other, talking to funders, and figuring out where goals overlap with the passionate people already doing countless hours of trail advocacy across the West’s crumpled and mysterious terrain. Join us as we launch into this next phase of uncharted territory—creating the world’s longest singletrack bikepacking route.
OROGENESIS TRIALS PROJECTS - 2020 and beyond
PACKWOOD TRAILS PROJECT, WA: 28 miles, planning begins 2020. Estimated cost: $740,000
By Kaitlyn Boyle
In late 2019, Bicycling Magazine published an article highlighting the Bears Ears Alternate to our Wild West Route, part of a larger bikepacking network in development called the Bears Ears Loops. We intended to release the route network and its guidebook in early spring, but the arrival of the Coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent closing of much of southeast Utah’s public lands led us to withhold releasing the Bears Ears Loops. We're now excited to share the progress toward releasing the route!
As we stayed home looking forward to the opening of the Bears Ears landscape to visitors, we have been quietly adding the details and finishing touches to the Bears Ears Loops network and guide. The loops will consist of three loops plus an alternate to the Wild West Route and shorter point-point trips. The Confluence Loop is a 372-mile-long loop that circles the heart of the Colorado Plateau around the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers. The Swell Loop is a 436-mile-long loop that broadly encircles the San Rafael Swell over the Henry Mountains and Aquarius Plateau. The Plateau Loop is made by riding the outer periphery of the Confluence and Swell Loops for a larger 646-mile-long loop connecting the Wild West Route on the high plateaus of the western Colorado Plateau to a grand tour of Bears Ears and the Canyonlands Region.
This route network will be supported by GPS resources with hundreds of waypoints identifying the scarce water and resupply options. The Wild West Route mobile app from Bikepacking Guides will also be updated to include the Bears Ears Loops. A full-length guidebook will be available in digital or print formats to accompany the route and guide bikepackers through the logistics of planning and riding any of the routes. To help bikepackers further enhance their experience in the inspiring and sacred landscape that is Bears Ears region, a detailed landscape guide offers geophysical, biological, and human histories and perspectives of the area. The landscape guide weaves in a Navajo perspective on the sacred connection between landscape and culture and it gives a background to the ongoing National Monument designation issue.
If you’re looking forward to planning a bikepacking trip to the Bears Ears region, keep an eye out for the Bears Ears Loops network and guide to be released in early June! To support our work in professional and intentional route and guide development, please contribute to support more projects like this in the future - one of our current prizes is a night or two of lodging in one of Roam Industry cabins along the route, as well as shuttle support if needed for a point-to-point ride!
By Kaitlyn Boyle
I enjoy solo bikepacking, but generally I’d rather bikepack with people. For me bikepacking is a way of moving through a landscape at a pace that I can connect with the place and the people I’m with. Bikepacking with others forges new friendships, deepens existing relationships, and creates a shared experience. Inspired by our experiences bikepacking with friends and yet-to-be friends, we are excited to announce the first-ever Bikepacking Roots Rendezvous! This free, non-competitive gathering will take place in the mountains surrounding the Teton Valley in eastern Idaho and western Wyoming in late August.
The Bikepacking Roots Rendezvous is intended to increase access to the bikepacking opportunity, build community, and connect riders to local landscapes. We invite mountain bikers from the region to join us to try out bikepacking, ride a new route, and build community in an inclusive and welcoming group riding and camping environment. Those who join us will deepen their connection to the landscape by learning about the natural history, land management, and trail stewardship of the region that makes backcountry riding possible.
We invite you to join us at the Bikepacking Roots Teton Rendezvous for a multi-day group ride to experience the incredible backcountry singletrack that exists because of dedicated trail stewardship and advocacy. For this event, we've partnered with fellow non-profit Mountain Bike the Tetons, the local trails organization, to highlight the value of dedicated trail advocacy and stewardship for backcountry trails.
Details will be released with the registration page at the end of this month. The event, and all future Bikepacking Roots Rendezvous, will be free, encourage folks of all bikepacking experience levels to join, and facilitate a fun, educational, and inclusive environment that connects mountain bikers with other mountain bikers and the landscape through which we ride. Stay tuned for the registration and details!
And given the ever-evolving Covid-19 situation, we obviously may need to cancel the event. We'll only move forward with a small group event like this if travel at the time is responsible, if the local communities are welcoming visitors, and if the Caribou-Targhee National Forest is fully supportive.
by Heather J. Rose
How do you write a short post about a 1500 mile journey that took place almost two years ago? Looking through old photos and focusing on one or two moments that capture the essence of solo travel was key. In summer of 2018 I was fortunate to be one of the early pioneers of the Wild West Route (WWR) developed by Bikepacking Roots. I rode the northern half of the route from Eureka, MT to Park City, UT (segments 1-5); I rode with the first portion friends and segments 4 & 5 alone. Experiencing the beauty of a new place, and especially the shared experience of communing in camp with friends, is always rewarding; however, I have also done a lot of solo bikepacking and thrive in this environment.
The section of the WWR from Hailey, ID to Park City, UT is in many ways a transition between the northern mountains of Montana and Idaho and the Wasatch Range of Utah. Pedaling away from Hailey, alone for the first time in two weeks, everything shifted. Not only was I transitioning to the flow of solo travel, but the landscape shifted immediately to open plains and chaparral -- suddenly I had to be acutely aware of my water levels and resupply points. Additionally, I had to give the hot mid-day sun the proper respect and shift my riding patterns accordingly as I spent the next several days riding across the exposed Snake River Plain of southern Idaho.
It occurs to me that I am recalling the challenges and pleasures of the WWR during a time of transition for all of us. We are all trying to adapt to being quarantined in our homes (for those fortunate enough to have a home), and local communities, as the Covid-19 virus ravages the world and we do our part in reducing its spread. We are transitioning between what our world looked like before the Covid-19 outbreak and what it may look like after, with many of us hoping that we can leverage this tragedy into a more kind and just world. Personally, I had to cut a bikepacking trip in Oceana short to get home before international flights were reduced to nonexistent and more borders closed. What started out as a transition between a fulltime career and some yet to be discovered version of my life has now transitioned into an exploration of stasis. Transitions abound.
Long bike rides, such as the Wild West Route, are tools by which we learn more about ourselves. Riding the long, often hot, and exposed sections of the route between Hailey and Park City will help you explore your personal boundaries. How close are you willing to cut your water supply to save a few pounds? Are you willing to gamble on the unconfirmed stream on the map? Are you willing to set up your tent in an exposed location miles from anywhere with no hiding from the sun, wind, nor a passing pickup truck? Or do you hold out for a campground with the security of others, hopefully a family, nearby? These are all questions you have to ask yourself in this transitional zone of the WWR, especially as a female traveling solo. During these segments of the WWR (4 and 5) resources are much scarcer with water and towns farther apart. Often during the long summer days, I would start pedaling extremely early to beat the heat, carrying four or more liters of water and make large pushes from town to town because I did not relish the thought of spending the afternoon sitting in my tent in the middle of a field of chaparral with no shade.
For example, from Arco, ID to Blackfoot, ID you are riding through open country on remote dirt roads in the Snake River Plain with only the Big Southern Butte off in the distance for company (with an optional side trip to the top of the butte!). While the 63 miles between these towns may not be a huge distance to cover in one day, with temperatures regularly pushing well into the 90s that week in July, the section was intimidating. I was pedaling away from the KOA in Arco by sunrise and made it to a hotel in Blackfoot by early afternoon. Inside with AC was the only chance for respite from the punishing sun; however, in cooler weather camping alone on the plain with the Big Southern Butte in the distance and coyotes singing that high lonesome song would be an exquisite treat.
Leaving Blackfoot the next day I planned to camp at one of the designated campsites in my route notes, but they came too early in the day to stop, so I pushed on, planning to camp on one of the patches of BLM land ahead. However, as morning turned to afternoon, and afternoon to early evening, all patches of public land were heavily trampled by cows and covered in cow pies. Let’s just say I’ve had a bad experience with setting up my tent in a location that cows claimed as their own and none of these sites were calling my name; instead I pushed through the endless rollers and wind, finishing a 90 mile day in Soda Springs, ID just before the last restaurant closed. For the duration of the trip I only spent three nights in a hotel and two of the three were in this more exposed transitional zone to get respite from the heat.
After Soda Springs the route climbs into the Preuss Mountains. After passing through a huge mining area and being chased down the backside of the mountain by a sheepdog I started to look for water and a place to rest my head for the night. After cresting several more ridgelines with nothing but cows and dry chaparral I found nirvana! A sudden, and inexplicable, piece of alpine heaven surrounded by dry grazing land on all sides! I set up my tent next to Preuss Creek, surrounded by protective brush (safety from the eyes of folks passing by), pine trees, and a log to sit on – everything I could ever ask for in a campsite! As I headed toward Bear Lake the following day I skirted along the edge of the high plains of Wyoming, with views forever and a sky so big that Montana may have to give up its motto. At the gas station in Laketown I bought what were possibly the most expensive bag of instant mashed potatoes in existence and headed over to the state park campground for the night, but unfortunately the campground was full! This is where being a solo traveler comes in handy; there is always space for you. I started cruising the group sites for a friendly face and some open space; it didn’t take me long to spot the right bearded man with an open smile. This man turned out to be a fellow dirt bag down from Alaska and he was camping with his extended Mormon family for a reunion. He told me to go ahead and set up my tent in the back corner and he would go explain to his father. The family welcomed me to their huge dinner and that night this vegetarian ate the best sloppy joes of her life! While being a solo female traveler does introduce some risk, or at least perceptions of increased risk, the payoff is that people are incredibly open, kind, and protective of you on the road.
Coming off four months of solo international bike touring and being locked into one (relatively) urban place for an unknown number of months is quite the challenge of its own, but as someone who has trouble staying in one place I am trying to take advantage of this forced opportunity with daily Spanish and banjolele practice and, of course, fantasizing about where I will ride as soon as it is safe again. I don’t know about you, but I think the Orogenesis route tracing the western edge of North America, currently being developed by Bikepacking Roots, is calling my name. Let’s keep working together to protect our public lands so that we can continue to enjoy these explorations of self and place. Now please excuse me while I go tend to my sourdough starter!
Written by Kaitlyn Boyle
For over 95% of Americans, we’re weeks into state-issued stay home orders and federal social distancing instructions. For me, I’m hunkered into the transition season in the Teton Valley, Idaho. Snow is melting, precipitation falls as a rain/snow mix, and trails are many weeks away from being rideable. So like so many, I too, am beginning to feel restless with cabin fever as I wonder when I’ll be able to load my bike up to travel and pedal freely again.
Concurrent with lay-offs and furloughs from Coronavirus, Americans nationwide have demonstrated how valuable America’s public lands and recreation opportunities are. People who are looking for fresh air, movement, social interaction (often under the parameters of social distancing), and vacation have flooded recreation destinations from the closest urban trailheads and parks to the gateway communities adjacent to America’s most coveted landscapes. Our last blog post shared the needs and requests of small gateway communities. In summary, mayors of gateway communities have publicly requested visitors stay home and wait to visit their tourist town once the pandemic crisis has settled. But as states are starting to discuss the process of reopening local economies and lifting restrictions, how do we determine the responsible and appropriate ways to expand our personal recreation opportunities?
With these discussions happening in our federal and local governments, I’m advocating for the communities and landscapes that bikepackers impact. How state and local governments start to lift stay home orders will vary from place to place. Let’s wait and continue to listen to small communities. If you’re thinking of going somewhere as your state opens up, reach out and learn if those communities are ready to have visitors again. Just because local businesses open won’t mean that communities are at the same time open to visitors quite yet.
Curious for a broader understanding of the impacts of Coronavirus on recreation spaces, I’ve asked Board members at Bikepacking Roots who represent various regions of the country to share how their home communities are trying to flatten the curve in relation to recreation, travel, and land management. Here's what they shared:
These examples illustrate the concurrent marked value of access to fresh air, natural spaces, and recreation to this nation and the challenges that small communities and land management agencies face in protecting the health and safety of their community members and employees during a pandemic. As we begin to contemplate resurfacing from the lockdown, I ask that as a representative of the bikepacking community, you proceed in seeking recreation with the selfless perspective of the individuals, communities, and landscapes you intend to engage with. To us at Bikepacking Roots, responsible recreation in the foreseeable months looks like seeking the stances of local communities on outside visitors before traveling to or through them and diligently practicing the hygiene, social distancing, or group size guidelines asked of by the locals communities. And of course, local and solo riding is, now more than ever, an opportunity to explore your home while recreating responsibly.
-Kaitlyn Boyle, Program Coordinator
Hello fellow bikepackers,
From the Board of Directors and staff at Bikepacking Roots, we hope that you and your families are remaining healthy and are navigating the adversity and uncertainty of the Covid-19 pandemic as smoothly as possible. Our hearts go out to all whose health and livelihoods have been and will be compromised as a result of this health crisis.
Our mission at Bikepacking Roots is, in part, to advocate for the landscapes through which we ride. But at this time, we need to be advocates for all the communities that also make our adventures possible, and right now, those communities are who we’re listening to. And they’re asking that we all respectfully refrain from traveling for outdoor recreation or accessing the backcountry away from home.
During this critical effort to flatten the curve, it is imperative that recreationalists do not further stress the residents of small, rural communities by increasing their contact with the broader population or adding pressure to their already limited health care resources. Stay home and responsibly recreate locally. Furthermore, once we’re on the other side of this pandemic and recovering, those small communities will need us! So please, start dreaming and scheming of the adventures to come once we have moved past the threats of Coronavirus.
"Right now, what we and other gateway communities need is space and time," says Jonathan Houck, Gunnison County Commissioner and Bikepacking Roots Board member. "And when we're past this crisis, communities like ours will swing our doors wide open, and we'll need you."
Please take 2 minutes to listen to Jonathan's message for the bikepacking community:
Gunnison County is one of Colorado's popular rural tourism destinations including Crested Butte and sections of both the Colorado Trail and the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. Gunnison County has also already been hit hard by Covid-19. Gateway communities across the country are closing their doors to visitors and asking us to not recreate in their local front- or backcountry areas to protect residents and focus all their resources on their own fight in this crisis. So let's save our adventures for when they’ll benefit the economic recovery of small communities all across the country.
Here at Bikepacking Roots, we will be delaying the release of new routes, such as the Bears Ears Loops, until we’ve received word from small communities that they’re excited to welcome us back. In the meantime, we’ll be working hard behind the scenes on route development and educational projects.
Kurt, Kait, and everyone at Bikepacking Roots
Kurt Refsnider, Executive Director
Kaitlyn Boyle, Program Coordinator
We’re a month into the new year. Here at Bikepacking Roots, we have been working to implement organizational growth to fulfill our mission. A cornerstone of that mission is to conserve the public lands and landscapes through which we ride. As we look ahead into 2020, we’ve asked ourselves what do we anticipate advocating for, and what should you as a bikepacker be aware of to join us in protecting the quality of the bikepacking experience and the landscapes we value? After taking an inventory of the current land management and policy issues, here is our big picture forecast of what to look out for.
Keep Public Lands in Public Hands: National Monuments
At the end of 2017, President Trump slashed protections of two iconic National Monuments in Utah. National Monuments offer high levels of protection to preserve cultural, archaeological, and ecological resources for historic and future value. Designated through executive order under the power granted to President Obama under the Antiquities Act, President Trump’s Monument reduction was unprecedented and illegal. His action is currently being litigated, and in 2020 we will see progress in the pending cases as they move beyond an extended discovery phase. Meanwhile, under the Trump Administration, the Bureau of Land Management has moved forward with revising the management plans. A protest period occurred in 2019, during which Bikepacking Roots and some of our members submitted a second round of comments, and we are now awaiting the a decision on how the reduced status of these lands will be managed.
Our soon-to-be-released Bears Ears Loops are a network of bikepacking opportunities that bring bikepackers into the original boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument. Here bikepackers can experience the landscape that has earned a place on the 2020 World Monuments Watch, a newly awarded status that highlights the global significance of this contested landscape.
Bikepackers pause to admire the Bears Ears buttes, the namesake of Bears Ears National Monument.
Photo credit: Kurt Refsnider
Keep public lands in public hands: NEPA
Public input in the public lands process is a critical aspect of how land management policy can support and empower Americans. Early this year the Trump Administration announced intention to change guiding rules of the bedrock environmental law, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Since it was passed as law 50 years ago, NEPA has mandated that the government engage in a review of any potential environmental and public health impact of proposed decisions and projects before proceeding. NEPA ensures the federal government is transparent with the public on its plans and decisions, is methodical and researched in the consequences, alternatives, and methods of implementing the project, and brings public input into the decision making process.
The aim of the Trump Administration’s ongoing reforms of NEPA rules is to expedite development on public lands. This objective will be accomplished by limiting public input opportunity (Bikepacking Roots and some of our membership already submitted comments on this realm in 2019), reducing environmental analyses, and eliminating consideration of projects ramifications on future climate change. Fortunately, the Trump Administration is required to accept public input on these changes. We have until March 10 to voice our request to uphold NEPA’s foundational code, and as we have in the past, we'll share key concerns and recommendations to include in comments.
How to speak up: https://ceq.doe.gov/laws-regulations/regulations.html
The forests of the West evolved with fire, however wildfire size, intensity, and frequency is influenced by climate.
Photo credit: Will Stubblefield
Maintain and increase connectivity for bikepacking routes
Whether you aspire to live off your bike along from Canada/U.S. border to the southern tip of Baja or you value the opportunity to experience a shorter point-to-point trip or loop, connectivity of trail systems and mountain bike access is critical to bikepacking opportunities. We aspire to be a voice in maintaining current access and expanding mountain bike access to build connectivity of bikepacking routes.
Our Orogenesis project is an example of a long distance route project with potential for connectivity initiatives to expand access and opportunity. These trail connectivity initiatives can serve as an example in creative land and recreation management solutions for the future. Along the entirety of the 4,500-mile-long the Orogenesis Route, there are only 206 miles of “gaps” where no logical, legal, or safe connections can be indentified between existing route options. These gaps are opportunities for the bikepacking community to work with land managers and local trails and conservation groups to pilot bikepacking connectivity projects, restore historic trails, and work with land designations that protect or increase bike access.
The first step in these projects is initiating conversation with local organizations, groups and agencies. Support from our membership base will be influential in the process, and members of the local cycling communities will be helpful in implementing local trail projects.
The Continental Divide Trail through the Lion Head boasts world class singletrack that has historically been open to bikes and maintained by mountain bikers. Henry Fork Mountains, ID/MT.
Photo Credit: Kurt Refsnider.
Support public lands designations that protect landscapes and allow bike access
We are bikepackers and we are for the wild. We believe that through responsible bikepacker stewardship, bikes can coexist with wildness in places suitable for bikes. While we believe bikes do not detract from wilderness character, we also believe in protecting the environment for intact ecosystems, healthy and recovering wildlife populations, clean water and air, and a stable climate. We also know that it is through experiencing wildness first hand through recreation such as bikepacking that inspires a sense of personal responsibility to protect the environment. Because of this, we are committed to support creative land management designations that ensure environmental protections and allow bike access to trails.
An example of this is the upcoming release of the Custer-Gallatin National Forest (CGNF) Final Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement. The draft plan proposed designating the Lionhead Roadless Area (just west of Yellowstone National Park) as a Recommended Wilderness Area, which under this new designation would ban bikes from an incredible slice of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem that has historically offered mountain bikers unparalleled mountain experience in the largest intact ecosystem of the lower 48. We support the CGNF in adopting an alternative designation, a non-motorized Backcountry Area, that would still provide environmental protections while maintaining mountain bike access. You can directly keep tabs on the process here or stay tuned for an announcement from us that either celebrates the CGNF hearing the voices of the mountain bike community or calls for protests.
Problem solving connectivity requires vision, collaboration, resources, and support.
Photo Credit: Gabriel Amadeus, Limberlost
Bikepackers hold a unique position in that we rely on large swaths of landscape that provides connective bike access to wild places. Valuing bike access and preserved landscape gives us a voice at the table for creative land management solutions that protect the present and future landscape for all, including bikepackers and the environment. As the forecast unfolds into the realities of this year under the politics of election year, management plan revisions, heated access debates, we encourage you to use your voice to advocate for your values and join us in our effort to ensure the future for bikepacking and the landscapes through which we ride! And as always, please help us stay informed of local issues that could/will impact bikepackers so we can create a collective voice by submitting issues through our advocacy submission form!
Words and photos by Jan Bennett
The Pony Express Bikepacking Route was born of a desire to expand my comfort zone, push boundaries, and explore new places. What I hadn’t planned on were the intense emotions and rediscovery of self that caught up with me along the way.
After scratching from the Tour Divide in 2016, I found myself passing time scrolling through maps of the American West, an area of the country that had captivated me since my first drive down US-50, the ‘Loneliest Highway’, through Nevada a few years before.
The vast expanses of wide-open, uninhabited public lands spoke to my desire to disconnect fully from a world that constantly had me questioning my reality and searching for meaning amongst a life-long sea of confusion.
I wanted to go remote, on my own, and explore areas where the history of a place was still palpable. I quickly found myself drawn to a dot on the USGS survey maps labeled “Sweet Water Pony Express Station”. From there I discovered that many of the roads through the area came about because of the Pony Express and Pioneer trails. The Pony Express Route follows much of the same route as the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails. In some places, the wagon ruts left by those enterprising pioneers, and in one instance even the very wagon itself, can still be seen along the route. As Native Americans had discovered well before the first pony rider crossed those mountains, the land tells you which way to go.
In the mid-1800s, a call was put forth by the US Postal Service for a contract to deliver mail as quickly as possible to California from the east in an attempt to keep the new territory as part of the Union as the American Civil War was brewing. Entrepreneurs Russell, Majors, and Waddell hatched a far fetched plan to create a route of relay stations whereby riders would launch themselves on hearty mustangs at full speed for 10-15 miles at a time to the next station, only to dismount and remount in a matter of seconds on a fresh steed and head off to the next station, carrying valuable news and mail in a purpose-made saddle bag called a mochila across the American West.
The prospect of propelling myself on a bicycle across such a historic route fully captured my attention. I started to map the original stations and plot the route utilizing the National Historic Trails website. After driving and riding certain sections of the route I decided I would tackle it via mountain bike, on my own, in the spring of 2018. My main concern would be the vast expanses without available resupply. Four hundred miles from Salt Lake City, UT to Austin, NV without knowing for sure where the next water supply would be was daunting. There are no convenience stores, no grocery stores, no restaurants, and no shops along long stretches of the route.
A week before I was to head out on my ride I received news that my father had overdosed and died. After quite a bit of trepidation, I decided that I needed this trip. For myself.
At one point, as I crested a pass that led to an expansive view of low mountain peaks to the southeast of Casper, WY, I was overcome by intense emotions.
I screamed. I cried. I laughed. I sang. I danced. For the first time in my life, I felt a sense of freedom. Freedom from a burden that I had become so accustomed to bearing that I simply didn’t know any other way.
In that moment, on that dirt road in Wyoming, on a self-supported ride across half of the country on a route that no one had attempted yet, I discovered a new sense of self. As I hopped back on the bike to continue my journey I recognized the impact that the route had on me. The opportunity for healing and self-discovery I found along the way should be made available to everyone. I had found purpose in my struggles and wanted to do what I could to provide an opportunity for others to do the same.
The remainder of that ride and subsequent scouting rides allowed me to verify natural springs and identify supportive private landowners who agreed to passage for subsequent bikepackers and who were willing to share their water with other riders who would come after me. I rediscovered human connection and the good that still exists in a world of seemingly endless chaos. I found peace through the incredible interactions of those I met along the way.
Looking back now I realize that the Pony Express Route and the journey to make it a reality for others is precisely what I needed to give back to a community that has helped me grow in ways I thought unimaginable just a few years earlier.
Bikepacking Roots is excited to be supporting the final stages of development of the Pony Express Bikepacking Route, a vision and undertaking being driven by Jan Bennett. The route begins in St. Joseph, Missouri and covers more than 2,200 miles as it makes its way to Sacramento, California, crossing Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California along the way. 85% of the route is on dirt and gravel with a few car-free bike trails to get riders through major cities. But some sections, particularly in the mountains of Nevada, are rough, rocky, and are decidedly not dirt or gravel roads. History is alive and well along much of the route, with the remains of original Pony Express stations still visible in many places, and commemorative markers along the way denoting important landmarks, graves, and important information.
Interested in being one of our Route Scouts in 2020?
We are seeking adventurous, experienced bikepackers interested in being volunteer scouts. Although extensive reconnaissance of the route has already been conducted by Jan Bennett, we are looking for a cadre of veteran bikepackers who are eager to ride [some of] an ambitious new route, provide feedback, additional assessment and information about water and services along the way, share photos, and potentially help out in some other ways.
Click here to learn more about the Pony Express Route and how to get involved in 2020!
Professional, intentionally-designed bikepacking routes are time-consuming to develop – extensive scouting and collaborations with local land owners, land managers, communities, and test riders are critical parts of the process. Creating the accompanying navigational and educational resources like the 90-page Wild West Route guide and the mobile app make routes even more accessible and impactful. But all this costs money, and it is for that reason that we are running our “10 Routes. 10,000 Miles. $100,000.” year-end campaign. As we look ahead into 2020, we have 10 new routes at various stages of development to bring the bikepacking community 10,000 more miles of bikepacking opportunity – opportunity for the empowering, inspiring, life-changing experiences that we believe bikepacking can facilitate. Help us finish the development of these 10 new routes by making a contribution toward the $100,000 goal for supporting these projects!
Written by Kurt Refsnider, Executive Director
My bikepacking story began more than a decade ago when my mountain biking ambitions began to pull me toward bigger and bigger rides in unfamiliar landscapes or to connecting familiar but distant places. I spent hours pouring over print maps and fuzzy satellite imagery and enjoyed awe-inspiring trips with varying levels of success following the “routes” that I had created. But no matter the outcome of any particular adventure, I found myself absolutely enamored by multi-day mountain bike rides.
Early on, I shared some of these routes with other relatively new bikepackers who had seen my trip photos and wanted to experience those places for themselves. And with reliably unfortunate consistency, those folks bailed from my routes and sought more reasonable alternate tracks. It didn’t take me long to realize that where I opted to ride (or often push) my bike wasn’t necessarily about the riding but rather where I was riding. And that part of the passion often didn’t translate to other riders who more often expected where I had gone to have been driven by the search for great trails. That, however, wasn’t necessarily the case. A month-long solo trip across southern Utah in 2013 highlighted that for me as my focus was on conceptually connecting familiar parts of the desert landscape through the unknown country in between and trying to better understand the geologic relationships along the way. For me personally, bikepacking was a means for exploring and learning rather than seeking out as much great riding as possible.
This pattern culminated in 2014 when Bikepacking Roots co-founder Kaitlyn Boyle and I spent 30 days pedaling along the length of the Alps – L’Aventure Alpine. It was far and away the most arduous trip either of us had ever (or have since) done – 30 high passes, 320,000 feet of climbing, endless sections of above-treeline riding, countless hike-a-bikes of at least 3,000 vertical feet, and so much great trail. But despite the absolute magnificence of that 800-mile route, we never ended up sharing the data publicly because for most bikepackers, the over-the-top rigor simply wouldn’t be enjoyable. The same theme applied to long trips in Patagonia, Australia, New Zealand, and throughout the American West.
Subsequently, Kaitlyn and I devoted quite a bit of time to creating a series of 2- to 4-day routes on the Colorado Plateau and in the Central Rockies for Geology through Bikepacking, a Prescott College course in which we took groups of new bikepackers out on a series of self-supported trips and explored the diverse geology of the region. The impacts of the route development decisions are never more evident than while traveling with new bikepackers on those exact routes. Those routes and itineraries evolved from year to year, being honed by past experiences that went particularly well – or poorly.
It was through endeavors like those described above that I began to recognize the transformative power bikepacking experiences can have on individuals, and the vision for Bikepacking Roots as on organization began to congeal. On the route development side of our mission, the goal is to create professional and intentionally-designed routes with particular rider audiences in mind. Our initial offerings were varied in this way – the Colorado 14ers and Craters and Cinder Cones Loops are relatively short circuits designed for newer bikepackers seeking out singletrack and dirt road/4x4 track riding experiences, respectively. And the 1,100-mile Plateau Passage was created to offer experienced bikepackers a rugged, remote, and lengthy backcountry epic like no other.
The Wild West Route development was a whole different beast. The goal from the outset was to create a non-technical riding experience showcasing the wild and public lands of the American West – a place like no other on Earth. We sought to balance remote and immersive riding with regularly spaced services so as to make the experience as accessible as possible. And the physical demands of the route had to remain reasonable. Putting all this together resulted in a suite of criteria upon which the entire project progressed.
Scouting the Wild West Route took more than 8 weeks and involved more than 5,000 miles of driving on dirt roads, rough 4x4 tracks, and official Forest Service roads that really no longer were roads at all. In most areas, two or three parallel options for the route were scouted, incorporating input from local cyclists and land managers. For me personally, the scouting turned into a legitimate motorized adventure, allowing me to explore parts of the West that had been quite unfamiliar, but on a timeline that often dictated 12+ hours of driving for days on end. Dead ends, unexpectedly steep and blown out tracks, challenges associated with private lands, and completely annihilated “forest roads” turned me back on a daily basis. In Arizona, water resources dictated the alignment of the route in places, and I worked with private landowners in to offer additional water resources for bikepackers. On Navajo Nation in northern Arizona, I spent two years collaborating with their newly-launched Trails Initiative and the Navajo YES non-profit to envision, create, and institute regulations and a permitting process for the Nation’s first long-distance recreation route.
Upon completion of this extensive scouting, I set about determining how to best link up the sections that offered the most enjoyable and wild riding experiences while keeping the flow of the route on a broader perspective from becoming too taxing or remote. What I thought were the most stunning options that were scouted didn’t always make the cut for a variety of reasons. But the assemblage of sections that came together offered a consistent riding experience that met our criteria. By the summer of 2018, we had nearly 50 bikepackers ride some or all of the Wild West Route to provide feedback, help refine a few short sections, and build awareness of the new route in communities along the way. Personally, it was amazing to hear from these riders about how their experiences along the way were so closely aligned with the goal we set upon initiating the Wild West Route project. After incorporating the feedback from these riders, we released the Wild West Route in 2019 along with a 90-page route guide and an innovative new mobile app for bikepackers.
Since the Wild West Route was released, riders from across the globe have pedaled segments or the entirety of the route, and the appreciation voiced by these riders for the wild landscapes and public lands along the way has made my heart sing. A decade of adventures in route development, combined with input and feedback from literally hundreds of individuals, culminated in a route that will live on for decades. Hopefully one day I’ll have the opportunity to ride the Wild West Route, but for now, my attention has already been pulled elsewhere for other route development initiatives.
We have one more opportunity to provide input on the future of the lands of Grand Staircase National Monument (GSENM), a future that will include minimal protections to the landscape and natural and cultural resources if the newly-released management plan goes into effect. The reasons that inspired the initial designation of Monument status are congruent with the reasons we as bikepackers seek backcountry travel by bike through GSENM. The entire planning area is one of the most scenically pristine areas in the United States, including for nighttime dark skies. We value clean air to breathe, and dark skies to sleep under. Many of us live in parts of the country where this is not an option, and bikepacking across this landscape provides a rare and valuable opportunity. As bikepackers, we value the opportunity to ride through open, wild landscapes with minimal human development. GSENM as managed as a monument offers rare opportunity for solitude, remote travel, and healthy, minimally impacted landscape.
Last month, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released a plan to open nearly all of the lands removed from Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument (GSENM) to mining and drilling. President Trump’s unprecedented Monuments reduction cut 900,000 acres from GSENM, a decision that is currently being challenged in court. And just two weeks ago, the BLM released their proposed management plan for the remaining GSENM lands within the greatly reduced Monument boundaries, further undermining the protections granted by National Monument status. These plans threaten cultural and historical sites and wilderness qualities from increased mining and grazing leases, the prioritization of motorized travel and road development, and non-native grass seeding. The BLM chose the least protective version of the four draft plan options considered after a public comment period in the fall of 2018. Bikepacking Roots submitted our own commented at that time, and we urged members to do the same and provided a number of our concerns related to how the different options would potentially affect the bikepacking experience.
Why should we, as bikepackers, care about this? GSENM offers bikepackers a particularly remote and undeveloped high desert bikepacking experience on a network of 4x4 roads that traverse the wild valleys and plateaus of southern Utah. Our Plateau Passage and Wild West Route explore parts of GSENM, and the Cottonwood, Skutumpah, and Smokey Mountain Roads have long been popular with bikepackers and bike tourers. The quiet and wild experiences afforded in this Monument would be drastically altered by some of the changes we're likely to see should the protections of National Monument status be removed - coal mining, the chaining of native pinion and juniper forests to promote grazing, paving of some of the gravel roads, and more.
We strongly encourage other bikepackers to share their concerns with the BLM and to to advocate for greater protections for GSENM and the integrity of future protections granted by National Monument status. The most effective comments will cite specific sections of the management plan with specific concerns. To see our suggestions on what you might include in your own commenting, please see our annotated section references below.
Comments are due on September 23, 2019.
To learn more about the management plan, check out this concise article published by the Salt Lake Tribune. And just this week, the Department of the Interior’s Board of Land Appeals halted the BLM's plans to chain native pinyon-juniper forest and sagebrush stands in one large area within GSENM for cattle grazing range development (a process that generally involves two bulldozers dragging a large chain through the woodlands to uproot trees in their entirety). This highlights the level of protection, or lack thereof, being given to an area with designated National Monument status. The Southern Wilderness Alliance details here the implications of the Board of Land Appeals' decision and how you can support the continued protection of native habitat in GSENM.
To see the full plan and final environmental impact statements, visit the BLM's GSENM planning website and look for the "Volume 1: Chapters 1-4 of GSENM-KEPA Proposed RMPs/Final EIS" document.
To submit your own protest, follow this link to the BLM website, look for the "Volume 1: Chapters 1-4 of GSENM-KEPA Proposed RMPs/Final EIS" document, and then click on the "Submit Protest" button at right.
The overarching theme of the proposed plan is notably reducing protections on resources in GSENM. Thousands of additional acres are opened to livestock grazing and rangeland development (and some subject to native forest removal and reseeding for increased livestock forage), roads will be paved and/or further developed and greater OHV use will be permitted, constraints will be lessened on mineral leasing and mineral materials disposal, group size restrictions are reduced, and zero acres are managed for their wilderness qualities. These notably reduced protections outlined in the proposed management plan are acknowledged to reduce air quality, degrade wildlife and fish habitat, decrease soil, water and vegetation health, and alter, harm or destroy cultural and paleontological artifacts and sites.
In our initial comment submitted in November, 2018 and in the talking points we recommended including in public comments at that point, we raised a number of concerns. These were related to how the then-proposed alternative management plan options failed to address key concerns that would negatively affect the bikepacking experience and would harm natural and cultural resources. The now-preferred management plan alternative, Alternative D, offers nothing to mitigate our original concerns, and we strongly urge GSENM management to remain under the directive of the No Action/Current Management Plan. This plan, what GSENM has been managed under in recent years, offers far more extensive protections to the scenic, cultural, ecological, and human-powered recreation values.
Based on our original comments, we would like to clearly point out the following specific examples of how our original concerns have not been addressed in the new proposed management plan.
11.17.2018: Under 2-3.13, mineral leasing for oil/gas/geothermal, Alternative D (Preferred Alternative) opens nearly all of the lands removed from monument status by the president to oil gas and coal development.
9.19.19 protest: The proposed plan “places the fewest constraints on mineral leasing and mineral materials disposal in GSENM. 650,888 acres (of 861,538 total acres) in Kanab-Escalante Planning Area (KEPA) is opened to mineral development. Only 120,990 of these acres have major constraints; the rest are moderate. Opening these lands to drilling, strip mining, and underground mining would have incredibly detrimental effects on the largely undisturbed natural values of the greater GSENM landscape. These values are what draw bikepackers to this region – the opportunity to ride for hours on 4x4 roads without seeing other cars, to traverse large landscapes without traveling among mineral extraction operations and large-scale grazing operations. This is a rarity in the West, and it is one of the most unique values of the original GSENM.
11.17.2018: Under 2.3.71, when outlining management of vegetation, destruction of native piñon-juniper forest for range improvement to support increased cattle grazing (2.3.12). Increased cattle grazing will have a detrimental impact to the biological soil crusts of GSENM lands; reduced biological soil crust coverage will decrease air quality as dust is increased.
9.19.19 protest: The proposed plan opens up the most acres to livestock grazing in GSENM (991,874 acres), and prioritizes rangeland health. This increases emissions and reduces air quality in GSENM. Again, our largest concern with this is the chaining and destruction of native forests – uprooting tens of thousands of acres of native vegetation to support increased grazing should not be done within any National Monument. We acknowledge that GSENM is and will be a “working Monument,” grazing should be permitted only in areas where it will not damage remaining soil crust and with herd sizes that can be supported by the naturally-occurring native forage.
11.17.2018: Under 2.3.14, plan D opens up lands to cross-country off-road vehicle play and increases the number of legal off-road vehicle routes in the backcountry.
9.19.19 protest: The proposed plan opens 1,002,350 acres to OHVs, and there are only 1,464 acres of OHV closure within the Monument. Identified OHV routes are increased under the new plan. As mentioned earlier, solitude and seldom-traveled roads are among the most attractive elements of GSENM for cyclists. Increased OHV traffic will eventually lead to GSENM feeling (and sounding) like so many other areas in the West that are dominated by motorized recreation. This should not be the case within a National Monument.
11.17.2018: Under 2.3.5, the Preferred Alternative calls for allowing “casual collection” of fossils by anyone. This would legalize the removal of any fossils by anyone, opening up the risk of rare specimens being removed from GSENM.
9.19.19 protest: Although casual fossil collection is not permitted under the proposed plan, the plan will result in increased impact – disruption or destruction – of cultural and paleontological resources due to increased OHV access, lessened protective measures on resources and increased resource extraction and associated surface disturbance with mining, drilling, and road development, and a smaller area managed for the protection of wilderness characteristics.
9.19.19 Protest: Additionally, the proposed plan poses the greatest threat and likelihood for disturbing wildlife, fish and special status species by reducing protective measures such as increasing group size, reducing resource-specific protective measures that increase habitat degradation through surface disruption (ie: mining, grazing, drilling), and applying fewer restrictions on OHV use and competitive events. In the proposed plan, only four localized areas are managed within the already-halved GSENM with appropriate protection of a SRMA.
Ultimately, the proposed plan dramatically reduces protection of the resources integral to the health and future of the GSENM lands; this poses a notable threat to the future of this landscape and our bikepacking opportunity for generations to come. We strongly request that you do not implement a change in management until after the current litigations around the Monument reduction are settled, and once settled continue to manage GSENM and KEPA (the Kanab-Escalante Planning Area) under the directive of the No Action/Current Management Plan.
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Bikepacking Roots is the only non-profit organization dedicated to supporting and advancing bikepacking, growing a diverse bikepacking community, advocating for the conservation of the landscapes and public lands through which we ride, and creating professional routes. We value human-powered adventure and an inclusive, engaged, and informed membership (now 5,000+ strong) that makes a positive impact as we explore by bike.
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