Three-and-a-half years of planning, training, failing and learning from our mistakes have come to this moment. My vision is reduced to the gravel road directly ahead, sweat is dripping in my eyes. I can barely hear the crickets above the sound of my lungs struggling for air at this high altitude. My nose is filled with the smell of the pine forest, and the slight tailwind pushes me up the hill and cools me off. All that matters is to keep peddling, keep moving the bike forward, up the hill to the next hut.
Colorado and Utah are well known for their mountain bike single-track trails. My husband and I are weekend warriors who have ridden multi-day mountain bike trips such as the Kokopelli Trail and the White Rim Trail. But these trips were supported by a vehicle. We were interested in a more self-supported bike trip, to get away from civilization. San Juan Huts was the ticket, with two different hut-to-hut routes. Both routes are 215 miles long, split between 7 days of riding, but we chose to go with the Durango-to-Moab route for the bigger challenge.
Each day there is the main route to travel between the huts, with alternative single-track trails to challenge you. Day one of the Durango-to-Moab route starts at Purgatory Mountain Resort, 25 miles north of Durango proper. In 2013 we decided to start in Silverton to take the alternate route, climbing over 5 miles on our bikes via the highway to the trailhead at Molas Pass.
The cool August drizzle in Silverton turned to a consistent rain with 40 degrees F at the Little Molas trailhead. For over 10 hours we followed the Colorado Trail for 20 miles as it crossed the Continental Divide over Rolling Pass, never descending below 10,000 ft elevation. With at least 6 major creek crossings, and hours in the saddle, our bodies and spirits were destroyed. We arrived at the first hut after dark, with all our gear soaking wet.
After a sleepless night filled with rain, we decided to call it quits and ride back to Durango (over 45 miles away, but mostly downhill). It was a tough decision, as we still had to get back to Moab where our vehicle was waiting. Fast-forward to 2016, the year we would again attempt this trip – this time better prepared, and only attempting the alternate routes if we had good weather and fitness.
When you call San Juan Huts to make a reservation, you are reserving space in six huts in succession, depending on when you start your trip. Part of the adventure is finding out who you will be spending the next 7 days with on the trail and in the huts. Dave and I wondered who we would meet at the first hut. Our fellow adventurers arrived in the late afternoon on that first day, after riding the single-track alternative route on the Colorado Trail. They were tired but happy to be at the first hut. Joe and Jason drove out from North Carolina for their adventure of a lifetime. Thankfully we all got along and had plenty of space in the hut to spread out our gear.
SJH placed their first hut in 1987, but it looked like most of the huts in this system were installed in 2005 or later. They are made of two ‘tuff-shed’ sections on towable trailers, placed on site, leveled and then finished out together.
Inside you will find food storage, 8 bunk beds (four pairs), and a minimalist kitchen. Those huts at higher elevations have wood-burning stoves for heat, and only one hut has a kitchen sink. Each hut has a composting outhouse a few hundred feet from the hut. Each hut is placed far enough from the main roads for privacy while giving the best view from the kitchen windows.
SJH stocks the huts every three days during the busy season. There is plenty of food to snack on, and to make decent meals. Fresh food such as butter and eggs is kept in the large cooler. Water is kept in those blue 5-gallon jugs commonly used for car camping – SJH requests riders ration their daily water intake to two gallons per person.
Calling this trip a ‘bikepacking’ trip is generous. Each night there is a warm, dry shelter to call home. Granted, they aren’t very big, and you have to share space with up to seven of your now closest friends, but each day you are looking forward to getting to the next hut. They are a beacon in the wild landscape. Each morning you close the hut to say goodbye, and each afternoon arrives to unlock the door to come home.
One lesson learned from our ill-fated trip in 2013, was to use gear made for bikepacking. This year I purchased a seat bag to carry the heavier stuff (extra food, tools, etc), while the new handlebar bag would hold the lighter-weight clothes. It’s essential to keep the weight off of your back so your bottom doesn’t get sore. I had to rearrange my gear to take the tools out of my backpack because my seat was uncomfortable.
During the trip, I was amazed at how well my body adjusted to pedaling the extra weight up the hills. Prior to the trip, I had switched my bike gearing from a 3×10 to a 1×10, and removed my dropper post and heavy leather saddle, to reduce the weight of the bike. The 1×10 worked well in the long run, but I regret having switched to a very uncomfortable lighter-weight saddle. By the last day of the trip, I was looking forward to the downhill so I could stand!
Additional and essential bags included the two ‘mountain feedbags’ on either side of my stem – one to hold snacks, and another to hold an extra water bottle. Rounding out the gear was the top tube bag I used for maps and more food storage.
Dave had an additional, custom-made frame bag for his hard-tail bike (made by Dirt Bags in Laramie, Wyoming). He was able to carry the extra bike parts and keep the weight low on his bike.
Whether you are trying to get away from it all or looking for your next adventure with close friends (or soon-to-be close friends), the Durango to Moab hut-to-huts is for you. Each day we saw beautiful scenery – the overlook on Bolam Pass on day 1 with a view to Lizard Head Peak. The more time we spent away from ‘civilization’, the more we felt in touch with the schedule of the sun – watching the sunset before going to bed, and waking to the first light. Some days were harder than others – the 18 miles, 5,000-ft climb to the last hut in the La Sal Mountains forced us to dig deeper than we thought we could. Some days tested our navigation skills and trust in each other – route finding in the lands of the Gas Roads while trying to avoid the mud on the main route. A majority of our memories will be of the happy moments while on the bike, pedaling one circle at a time, and watching the world roll by.
Taking a vacation like this allows you to step out of your current reality and take an assessment of what really matters in life. I find myself appreciating the little things I see every day – the butterflies and bees harvesting the pollen from the blooming rabbitbrush at the trailhead, the sound of crickets behind the office building, the quiet of the forest as I ride my bike up a dirt road with the sun beating down on me.
“Congratulations you rode the San Juan Hut Systems’ Durango to Moab Route, and that ain’t no small task! We hope you enjoyed the hot, cold, ups, downs, laughs, views, trails, adventures and misadventures along the way. Remember, some days you have fun, others you build character, we hope you did both between here and Durango and will be back for another bike, ski, or hiking trip with us!” – San Juan Huts