Canyonlands National Park

Bikers on White Rim Road in Canyonlands National Park
Bikers on White Rim Road in Canyonlands National Park (National Park Service)

Canyonlands is a high desert with elevation ranging between 4,000 and 6,000 feet. With its range of slick rock, dirt roads, and forested trails, Canyonlands offers cyclists a range of remarkable riding experiences.

The riding season begins in March and ends in November. Spring and fall are the best times for extended trips since hot summer days discourage riding.

For Your Safety
Mountain bike riding in a national park requires extra care to protect yourself and the natural and cultural features. All routes are on existing unpaved and four-wheel-drive roads. Riding on foot trails, closed roads, or cross-country is prohibited. Pets may not accompany bicycles. Up-to-date information on weather, water availability, and road conditions can mean the difference between life and death. Stop at a visitor center, ranger station, or park office for current information.

Fragile desert soils and plants are easily damaged by off-road hiking and riding. Do not disturb the black crusts on top of the soil. These "cryptobiotic crusts" are living plants and protect the desert from erosion. Leave your bike along the road while hiking to viewpoints. Do not ride off-road to avoid sand or mud.

Biking The Maze

All the Maze bike-tour companies follow the same general five-day itinerary, although there are variations in trip start and finish points and time spent hiking in the Maze itself. The cycling routes generally start at the Hans Flat ranger station and proceed down the Flint Trail to the Maze Overlook. After hiking down into the Maze, riders pedal south to a campsite at Teapot Rock, from which there's an out-and-back day ride to Standing Rocks. The last day is a long, smooth, "cruisy" ride down to the dusty hamlet of Hite. Total distance covered is about 120 miles.

The route Kaibab Tours takes is slightly different from the others; instead of riding from the Maze Overlook to Standing Rocks, you'll get there by walking through the Maze itself. The bikes are transferred by pickup truck. In three days of riding, you'll cover about 75 miles. The itinerary of Nichols Expeditions includes only a half day of hiking in the Maze. Trip participants meet in Hanksville. Riders with Rim Tours meet in Moab or Green River and proceed by van to Hans Flat, where the riding begins. A six-day option adds an extra day of hiking in Horseshoe Canyon.

What to Expect
You'll ride 25 to 35 miles per day over dirt roads that, at times, are quite rough. Terrain is generally rolling, with some short steep sections, but there are no long, grinding killer hills. Hot weather can make this trip far more grueling. If you get totally exhausted, the four-wheel-drive pickup support vehicle and "sag wagon" is always available.

The pickup truck carries all the food, water, and gear. You'll carry only a light day pack or small pannier. All meals are prepared for you, but you'll be responsible for putting up and taking down your own tent, and washing your dishes. Outfitters typically provide full mechanical support-spare tires, parts, and such.

The weather is highly changeable, especially in the fall. Temperatures can range from blistering to bone-chilling. Rain and high winds are possible. (On my trip, a 60-mile-per-hour gust blew down a couple of tents and sent the lunch awning flying.)

Minor injuries—scrapes and bruises—are common among aggressive riders. A serious mishap would require a long, slow, bouncy evacuation. Saddle sores are a common malady of the unprepared.

The Maze route is a more technically challenging trip than, say, the popular White Rim Trail in the nearby Island in the Sky district. Although much of the route follows smooth dirt roads, parts are quite technical. (The entire trip is on dirt roads; there is no singletrack.) You should be adept at rapid shifting, picking a line, weight transfer, and lifting the front wheel over small obstacles.

Raw mountain-bike beginners probably shouldn't take this. With some off-road experience, basic technical skills, and a modicum of courage, you'll do okay—although you'll often find yourself walking your bike for short stretches. Riders with intermediate technical skills will find this trip a bracing challenge and skill-builder. Advanced riders will rarely be challenged but will have a lot of fun.

Maze trips run in April, May, September, and October.

Recommended Reading
Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey. An account of a lonely but rewarding year Abbey spent as a ranger in Arches National Park in the 1960s, when it was primitive and rarely visited.

In Brief
Kaibab Tours, 800-451-1133, 4 days
Nichols Expeditions, 800-648-8488, 5 days
Rim Tours, 800-626-7335, 5-6 days
Western Spirit Cycling, 800-845-2453, 5-6 days


Island in the Sky

White Rim Road
Estimated time: 102 miles, 3-4 days
Level of difficulty: Moderate to difficult
Trail description: Road surface varies

A very popular ride. Support vehicle (4x4) and reservations recommended. Has cliffs along rim. Tour the northern rim of the park on this trail that winds 2,000 feet above the Colorado and Green Rivers.


Colorado River Overlook
Estimated time: 14 miles, 4 hrs. round-trip
Level of difficulty: Easy to moderate
Trail description: Rough slickrock

Water in season. Gorgeous scenery all along all the trail, especially at the Overlook, 1,000 feet down. The advice, then: Don't rush the ride; rather, enjoy the view.

Elephant Hill Access Road
Estimated time: 6 miles, 1 hr. round-trip
Level of difficulty: Easy
Trail description: Graded gradually

Start at Squaw Flat campground. This is the easier of the Elephant Hill trails, though there are some sandy, rocky sections. No water.

Elephant Hill 4-Wheel Road
Estimated time: +/-20 miles, 5 hours to 2 days
Level of difficulty: Difficult
Trail description: Rough, steep

Some sand, no water. There's scenic rewards and backcountry access on this route. Watch for one-way sign.

Beef Basin Loop
Estimated time: +/-100mi, 2-5 days
Level of difficulty: Moderate to difficult
Trail description: Muddy after rain

Start at Cottonwood Canyon. Water in season. Goes over Elephant Hill.

Salt, Horse, Davis, and Lavender Canyons: Not recommended. Deep, soft sands.


Panorama Point, Cleopatra's Chair
Estimated time: 21 miles, 1+ days
Level of difficulty: Easy to moderate
Trail description: No water. Scenic views.

Horseshoe Canyon East Entrance
Estimated time: 44 miles, 2 days
Level of difficulty: Moderate
Trail description: Steep, sandy sections.

Rough descent into canyon. Sand in bottom. It's 1.5 miles to fascinating rock art.

Maze Overlook
Estimated time: 40 miles, 2 days
Level of difficulty: Easy to moderate
Trail description: Steep descents and steep sand

Don't drink even treated water in big Water Canyon. The Maze experience at its purest: nothing but desert and rocks.

The Doll House
Estimated time: 50 miles, 3+ days
Level of difficulty: Moderate to difficult
Trail description: Slickrock, deep sand

Start at Flint Trail. Slickrock in Teapot Canyon, deep sand in Waterhole and North Flats.

Standing Rocks
Estimated time: 78 miles, 3+ days
Level of difficulty: Moderate to difficult.

Start at Ranger Station. Slickrock in Teapot Canyon, deep sand in Waterhole and North Flats.

Most Maze District rides cross Canyonlands National Park, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management. Different regulations apply in each area. Check at the Hans Flat Ranger Station for specific regulations.


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