2020 was a challenging year for countless reasons, but here at Bikepacking Roots, we have continued to expand our capacity to have a positive impact on and for the bikepacking community. Here's a quick look back at just some of what we accomplished this past year with the support from our many members and business partners.
Creating the BIPOC Bike Adventure Grant Program
• We created this grant program as a first step to help address inequitable access to the bikepacking experience. Together with our members, we raised more than $50,000 for the grant fund.
• Hired BIPOC adventure cyclists for a panel to guide the application process and select the first round of recipients Nearly 100 applications were received for this first round.
• This program will continue to grow in 2021 with new initiatives.
Enabling More Kids to go Bikepacking
• We partnered with the National Interscholastic Cycling Association’s (NICA) to create an extensive curriculum for their new Bikepacking Camps program
• Camps will begin nationwide in 2021!
Release of the Bears Ears Loops Network
• 700 miles of exceptional riding through one of the Colorado Plateau’s most threatened landscapes
• Our 100-page route and landscape guide connects riders to the stories, culture, sociopolitical background, and uniqueness of the Bears Ears Region and confidently and safely experience the Utah desert
Continued on other Route Development Projects
• 40+ Route Test Team volunteers were out on the Northwoods Route providing feedback, building awareness of the new route in communities along the way, and identifying cyclist-friendly businesses
• The Orogenesis Route is entering a new phase of development to fill small gaps in the 3,500-mile-long route. That involves coordinating with regional mountain bike advocacy groups and land managers to resurrect old trails and build several new singletrack connectors.
• The Intermountain Connectors between the Western Wildlands Route and the Great Divide MTB Route are nearly complete!
• Jan Bennett continues with final refinements to the Pony Express Route
• We are supporting Navajo Y.E.S.' work on the new Chuska MTB Route on Navajo Nation with grant funds received from the Mountain Bike Association of Arizona
Advocating for Bikepackers, Public Lands, and Wild Places
• In 2020, we engaged in widespread advocacy efforts and contributed to maintaining backcountry mountain bike access to the Lionhead area of Idaho
• We also launched the Undivided educational advocacy column for The Radavist
Positive Impact Bikepacking Stewardship Campaign
• BPR launched this collaborative project with the Conservation Lands Foundation and the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, supported by Salsa Cycles
• Educational outreach to the bikepacking community begins in early 2021
We're Continuing to Grow, Diversify, and Engage the Community!
• Our first Go Bikepacking! event filled up almost immediately but was canceled due to the pandemic
• Let's Go Bikepacking! We have three Go Bikepacking! events planned for 2021, tentatively planned for Idaho, Arizona, and Arkansas: community, education, stewardship, and fun!
• Membership grew by approximately 50% in 2020 to more than 6,000 individuals
• We've added a small group of policy and cultural advisors
• Our Board of Directors expanded with an emphasis on increasing diversity; 50 applications were received!
Join or donate today! Help us continue to support the bikepacking community and the places through which we ride in 2021 and beyond . . .
We're excited to finally release the long-awaited Bears Ears Loops bikepacking route network - 700 miles of riding options through the high deserts and subalpine wilds of central and southeastern Utah. Their goal with these routes are to empower riders to confidently and safely immerse themselves in the remarkable but intimidating landscape, develop an informed sense of place, and experience some of all that is at risk to be lost if the Bears Ears region is not protected.
The 372-mile Bears Ears Loop, the eastern of two loop options, meanders through more than 100 miles within the original boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument. By helping bikepackers experience this and the surrounding landscapes and understanding more about the unique cultural history, geology, and ecology through the accompanying 100-page Bears Ears Loops Landscape and Route Guide, we are actively creating new advocates for Bears Ears. The 437-mile Swell Loop to the west connects with our already-popular Wild West Route, the Canada-to-Mexico epic.
The riding experience of this network has been intentionally designed as relatively non-technical, very manageable on a traditional mountain bike (fat bikes are not necessary, and gravel bikes are not recommended), and to be accessible for any mountain biker with some prior bikepacking experience. Most of the riding is on dirt roads and 4x4 tracks, and water resources along the way have been inventoried and scouted in different seasons to assess reliability. Bikepacking Routes also chose to not route the loops through the more seldom-visited areas of the Monument to avoid impacting their nature.
“The remoteness of this region, the scale and grandeur of the landscape, and the minimal development of any sort make this place the most powerful of anywhere I’ve ridden,” says Kurt Refsnider, Bikepacking Roots' Executive Director. “But the remoteness and perceived harshness of the area keep most bikepackers away. So we’ve created these routes and extensive planning resources to allow more riders to safely adventure through this region, to have immersive experiences here, to learn more about the landscape and its sacredness to Indigenous groups. That understanding and connection is what builds new conservation advocates.”
The designation of Bears Ears National Monument in 2016 marked the first time in U.S. history that a National Monument was created in response to the voices of the Indigenous groups who call the landscape home - the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni, and Ute Indian Tribe. Just 11 months later, the Trump administration reduced the Monument's size by ~85%. And in a direct affront to the request of the Intertribal Coalition, the southern unit of the reduced Monument was named the Shásh Jaa’ Unit (using the Diné name for Bears Ears). The Coalition had insisted upon the use of the English “Bears Ears” name for the Monument rather than in any one tribe’s language in solidarity and unity. The legality of the Monument reduction is currently being litigated in court.
"We often times hear phrases such as ‘land conservation’ and ‘protecting public lands’ in the outdoor industry which is heavily driven by preserving the ability to recreate in these places,” explains Diné (Navajo) conservation advocate and mountain biker Renee Hutchens. “We too advocate, but what drives our fight to protect our land is our belief that the land is us – our identity, culture, and way of life is held within Mother Earth. It is the same mindset you’d have if you were fighting for your own life or that of your loved ones."
More information about these loops, all GPS data, and the full 100-page Bears Ears Loops Landscape and Route guidebook (in digital and print formats) are available on our Bears Ears Loops page.
However, during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition is requesting that visitors refrain from traveling to the Bears Ears region given the severity of the health crisis in some local communities, particularly Indigenous communities. So now is the time for planning trips, not actually taking trips to this area - that’s how we collectively can best show respect and solidarity at this time.
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
At the end of 2019, we completed a Bikepacking Roots five-year strategic plan after a year-long process led by our Board of Directors. Our vision is centered around fulfilling our mission to support and advance bikepacking and the conservation of the landscapes and public lands through which we ride. To do this, we’ve identified our goals as:
We recognize that our goals are ambitious and require intentional, expertly guided strategic action. To strengthen our capacity for guiding and implementing action at Bikepacking Roots, we have sought the involvement of experts around the country. Our Regional Advisors bring passion, dedication, and experience to route development, advocacy, and stewardship around the country. They are folks who are tuned into and involved in their region and have volunteered to contribute their awareness, ideas, and guidance to Bikepacking Roots in advocacy related efforts and in route development. With our Regional Advisors, we are expanding our capacity to develop the highest quality routes, grow our awareness of local issues that affect bikepackers, build grassroots advocacy, and engage local bikepacking communities around the country.
Currently our Regional Advisors include Whitney Ford-Terry (Santa Cruz, Ca), Erin Carroll (Santa Barbara, CA), Troy Hopwood (Seattle, WA), Jessica Kelly (WA), Almer Casile (Coeur d’Alene, ID), Joe Riemensnider (Missoula, MT), Patrick K Hendry (Park City, UT), Dana Ernst (Flagstaff, AZ), John Schilling (Phoenix, AZ), Spencer Harding, (Tucson, AZ), Matt Mason (Las Cruces, NM), Jan Bennett (Santa Fe, NM), Sarah Swallow (Durango, CO), Steve Fassbinder (Mancos, CO), Greg Lessard (Minneapolis MN), Chris Tompkins (Danville, VA), Charly Aurelia (Asheville, NC), Karlos Bernart (DeLeon Springs, FL).
We will continue to expand the diversity and geographic representation of Regional Advisors. In the coming year these folks will be engaged in route development, community building, and fostering local bikepacking advocates and stewards.
To advise our efforts at advocating for bikepacking and the conservation of the landscapes through which we ride, we have formed a new Policy and Cultural Advisors group. These individuals bring diverse expertise and perspective to our organization and will help guide how we engage in and structure our advocacy strategies and communications. Currently this group is composed of
The ever-expanding Bikepacking Roots community is particularly inspiring during these challenging and uncertain times, and we are especially grateful to have this talented group of individuals supporting our mission.
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 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!
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
Words by Gabriel Amadeus 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, and bikepackers up and down the West coast. Their knowledge, ambition, and nose for sniffing out overgrown singletrack is what’s enabled the Orogenesis project to grow into a more or less uninterrupted line for 4,500 miles.
That being said, it’s hard not to focus on those interruptions: those times 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 those remaining gaps. There are 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—and 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?! That remains to be seen, but it highlights just how close we're getting.
Photos above courtesy of Gabriel Tiller, Rick Ianniello, Dan Stranahan, Dylan Vanweelden, and Evan Sollberger
Already in 2019, our Collective—132 strong—logged over 2,500 miles sussing out the best riding across these three states and two countries. One rider, Rick Ianniello, travelled 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 traveled from Tahoe north to Oregon and along the Oregon Timber Trail. In Washington, the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance introduced the concept to their state legislators, and Bikepacking Roots submitted comments on several land management changes that could negatively affect the route. The many trails organizations along the Orogenesis route understand the value of long distance connectivity and have in many places already begun reopening old 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. So what will 2020 bring? Relationships. We’ll be on the ground, riding trails, meeting y’all, talking to funders, and figuring out where goals overlap with all the rad people already doing countless hours of trail advocacy across the west. Stay tuned as we launch into this next phase of uncharted territory—creating the world’s longest singletrack bikepacking route.
Professional, intentionally-designed bikepacking routes like Orogenesis 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!
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.
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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 experiences and an inclusive, engaged, and informed membership (7,000+ strong) that makes a positive impact as we adventure by bike.
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