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Home » Adventures » Moab » Day 3

Sunday April 22 — Porcupines Hurt

With my scheduled whitewater rafting postponed a day, I filled this unexpected gap in my schedule with additional mountain biking. The last minute change did not afford any opportunity for advanced planning, and I resorted to browsing a topographic map to find a suitable trail. There were a plethora of routes from which to pick, but my perusing eventually led me to settle upon the Porcupine Rim Trail. I could depart from the Colorado River, head through the desert’s interior, and finally loop through Moab on roads to arrive back at my original starting point.

Day 3 route

Route I Traveled This Day
33.7 Miles Biking (Blue)
5.2 Miles Hiking (Red)

The only information I possessed on the Porcupine Rim Trail was what my limited cartographic abilities could gleam from the map. I went ahead anyway and within about 100 feet of actually hitting the ground immediately discovered the trail’s difficulty was far above my skill level. Being already so deeply committed though, it was far too late to turn back and alter my hastily made, foolhardy plans. Reality getting in the way was no reason to quit.

Climbing up from the river valley, the trail was technical single track and extremely narrow. It zigzagged through boulders and along steep cliffs. With the demanding trail, lack of mountain biking experience, and riding solo, I was extremely cautious and walked my bike whenever the trail became even slightly challenging. For the first several miles, I had to walk my bike more than I rode it. When I could actually use my bike in its intended manner and turn my pedals, the rocks and ruff surface made it difficult to keep any momentum or a smooth rhythm. I crawled forward having to fight for every foot.

Nonetheless, I kept climbing and pushing onward. As the sun rose higher in the sky, quite a few riders passed from the opposite direction. During my ten minutes of trail selection the prior evening, I failed to realize that most people traverse the trail riding the other way. Using the more popular route allows riders to enjoy mostly technical descents, instead of relentlessly scaling difficult slopes.

Still Climbing

Although my progress was painfully slow, many of those riders who passed me were skilled mountain bikers that could carry extraordinary speed across the rocks. Although fit, I lacked the finesse and abilities mastered by those dominating these trails. Other riders, though in the minority, wore full BMX-style helmets and shin guards. The extreme protection was easily justified. Anyone riding aggressively that made a mistake would require such safety gear — the trail did not look very forgiving. (And I would later learn first hand it was not.)

Colorado River

Colorado River viewed from the Porcupine Trail

After struggling through the initial scramble up from the river, the path eventually leveled off and was within my riding abilities. “Leveling off” was a relative term though, as the climbing still continued, just not quite as steep. Even so, I could still only barely hammer up the inclines in granny gear. For added misery, the bare rock and boulders made travel very difficult. This type of terrain was new to me, and I learned as I went, making only very slow progress in the process. These slow, difficult climbs continued relentlessly and each time I thought I reached the peak, turning a corner revealed another ridge high above.

Throughout this ordeal my legs were not exactly refreshed, but they held up better than expected considering that twenty-five mile race the prior day. My woeful lack of riding skills hindered my movement much more than a lack of energy. Through mainly being too stubborn to give up, I eventually crested the zenith and started descending. Although now assisted by gravity, my speed remained constant because my inability to gracefully cover the terrain precluded me from going any faster. I could not safely use the downward force to my advantage.

In fact, I walked my bike down many of the rocky sections and went extremely slowly on the rideable ones. The descent was very precarious because retaining control during downhills was much harder than when climbing. The physical exertion required was much less, but at least as much mental fortitude was needed. I did not have much time to enjoy these descents though, and relatively quickly reached the trail’s end. At that parking lot, I found the lawyer-inspired warnings of the difficulty, length, and copious time needed to complete the trail. My starting location lacked such signage, although I would have ignored them anyway had any been posted.

Crash Test Dummy

View from Porcupine Trail

Although my ride would be a loop course by taking paved roads back through Moab, I had not grown weary enough of battling the difficult single track and continued along a jeep trail instead. I assumed the unmaintained road would be at least a little smoother than what I had just conquered, but how wrong I was. The path was wider, but the undulating terrain was just as difficult as anything encountered up to that point. It was remarkable that four-wheeled vehicles could even cover such obstacles.

With my couple of hours experience on these hardcore trails though, I developed a false sense of confidence. I began to barely understand how to approach the downhills and actually hit good lines through a couple of them. Shortly after I thought I knew something though, the trail gave me an education and put the flatlander back in his place.

Sailing along another rocky descent, similar to what I had been on for over the past hour, I took the wrong path and encountered a big step that was larger than I could handle. I was actually going to slow when my front tire flew over the edge, so it dropped abruptly. I followed as my bike led and crashed over my handle bars.

This face plant was my first on a bike since age five, but I still thought coherently and clearly laying on the ground intertwined with my mountain bike. I kept repeating to myself to remain still and calm. After realizing that the world was not spinning and nothing hurt too bad, I slowly sat up and assessed my situation. All my major body parts remained in the right place so I moved to check my bike. Thankfully, the worst damage incurred was an ejected water bottle that landed a couple yards down the trail. My helmet also received a very small scratch but was still solid. I was blessed to have landed on dirt instead of the abundant rocks. Even on the relatively soft dirt though, wearing a helmet prevented me from ending up in a much worse situation. Especially since this jeep trail was much less frequented than the main Porcupine Trail.

Time to Go Fast

With everything still working, I continued forward, but now with a little more conservative approach to my endeavors. The crash and hours of bumpy rocks satisfied my appetite for trails, and I headed towards paved roads. I had to carry my bike up a nearly vertical sand dune that stood in the way. I was actually very fortunate to have gotten sick of the trail then. With my expert orienteering skills only glancing at the map, they missed that not taking this turn would have dropped me at a dead end a couple bumpy miles later. Although aware of that trap, I failed to realize having already reached the point of no return. Pure coincidence prevented me from making a major, time-consuming mistake down the wrong path.

The elevation I fought so hard to earn quickly disappeared coasting along Sand Flats Road. I easily hit 30 m.p.h. flying down steep hills even while riding my brakes. That was a little faster than I felt comfortable on a mountain bike as I held on for dear life on the roller coaster. At least the frightening descents made the trip back to Moab short.

Actually pedaling through Moab was a neat experience. In this Mecca of mountain biking, three-fourths of the cars have bikes or racks atop them. Nowhere else had I seen such a densely concentrated multitude of cycling enthusiasts. People donning Lycra outnumbered those in dockers. After passing through town, a couple easy miles on pavement finished my return trip to the Porcupine Trail’s start on the Colorado River.

My total time pedaling was five hours, fifteen minutes, during which I covered almost thirty-four miles, averaging a whopping 6.4 m.p.h.

Although I was forced to sacrifice a day backpacking, including an extra day of mountain biking was a wise change of plans. My mountain biking opportunities were pretty limited, and I never have access to this caliber of terrain at home. The black diamond trails at Sugar Bottom barely compare to the easy trails in Utah. Since I backpack relatively often, exploring something new was a nice change of pace.


Morning Glory Natural Bridge

Morning Glory Natural Bridge

Not wanting to leave well enough alone, after parking my bike I embarked on a desert hike through the well-marked Negro Bill Canyon which led to Morning Glory Natural Bridge. The trail was not difficult, but my legs were already shot from my race and the just completed biking. I slowly followed the meandering path along the stream that had carved this canyon. With the abundance of water, “normal” vegetation thrived in this chasm — trees, green leaves, bark, etc. The occasional cacti still dotted the riverbank though, as a reminder of the harsh environment. The trail crossed the shallow river several times along its route to the bridge. Steep rock walls enclosed the theater which made it difficult for even me to take a wrong turn.

The trail concluded at the base of Morning Glory Natural Bridge, which was wedged between two rock walls a couple stories above the canyon floor. The bridge was long, thick, and secluded at this chasm. I would not have expected the elements to have carved a bridge at this unique location, but I did not take many geology classes in school either. After admiring this natural wonder, I turned around for the trip back. With my late evening start, a flashlight and other equipment necessary for safe travel after sunset came along for the trip. Of course the one time I was actually prepared, I still made it back with plenty of daylight remaining.

When sunlight finally disappeared, a strange phenomenon enveloped the darkened canyon. A truck towing an extremely bright spotlight drove slowly down the road, enlightening the rock walls. Permanently installed signs warned drivers of the illumination, so this event was a regular occurrence. The bright lights confused me — what they were doing…searching for WMDs, exterminating gremlins, signaling aliens? A much more mundane explanation solved the Mystery Inc. worthy conundrum though, as the search lights belonged to part of a tourist trap evening river cruise on the Colorado River.

As I finally went to sleep that night, the sensation of the Porcupine Trail’s rocks jarring and bumping still reverberated throughout my now resting body. Why do all my trips end up like that?