White Rim in a Day

Over the last few years I became increasingly interested in the White Rim route as a day effort. This 4×4 road loop in Canyonlands national park is typically done as a multi-day trip with a vehicle sag-wagon, with decadence akin to a rafting trip. While in the right context that sounds like a good time, after looking into setting up such a trip I was put off by the commercial outfitters, the cost, and the annoying permit logistics.

At the same time, SLC local Andy Dorais reinvigorated the route as an FKT loop in 2016 when he went under 6 hrs. Since then Payson McElveen, Quinn Simmons, and Keegan Swenson have swapped FKT bests and in the process created a consensus starting point and direction for the loop.

While I had no aspirations to come close to their times, I was interested to give the loop a go this year, as I’ve been riding more than running this summer (because bikes are fun) and this past Monday I finally lined everything up to give it a go.

Sunrise colors along Mineral Bottom Rd.

Route Stats: 100 mi even, around 7100′ climbing with an average altitude around 4800′. Desert 4×4 road with lots of sand, deep ruts, rock slabs etc. FS-MTB recommended, leave the gravel bike at home. No available water during times of year when the route is rideable.

Feeling fresh, 8am.

I left the Mineral Bottom Rd fork from Island in the Sky Rd right at 7am, headed counter-clockwise. It was barely dawn and around 43 degrees F. Mineral Bottom Rd undulates and descends to the Mineral Bottom switchbacks, and I made reasonable time, trying to take advantage of downhills to bank some pace without stressing my legs.

Mineral bottom switchbacks.

The sun still wasn’t on me when I hit the mineral bottom switchbacks and made the quick and committing descent down to the bank of the Green River. There you join the White Rim Rd proper, and it became immediately apparent that dry conditions meant widespread sand, with deep 2-3″ layers of moon dust laying thick over 100 yard sections of the road. Still, the sun was coming up, legs were fresh, spirits high.

Mineral bottom road down to the Green.
Soft, sandy road and early morning sun along the green river.

Through the late morning I made the short and rough climb over “hardscrabble”, a little peninsula of a butte. This gains access to the central portion if the White Rim Road, which follows the geological formation of the same name. Here the scenery is less dramatic but for those places that the road comes to the rim’s edge.

Coming down off the short hardscrabble climb.

Around 45 miles in I started to feel some early fatigue in the legs. The dust was also getting to my drivetrain, so I made a quick stop and lubed my chain before finally granting myself permission to use my earbuds. The middle hours passed reasonably quickly, and I only talked out loud to myself occasionally.

The rim, and my trusty Epic Evo.

The altitude profile of the ride is a bit tough. Uphill both ways is a fair characterization.

White Rim altitude profile. Mineral bottom switchbacks down (~13 mi), hardscrabble climb (~25 mi), Schafer climb (~88 mi)

I had it in my head that the middle, flatter section was more of a V-shape than the inverted V above. As I cruised through the 55 mi mark I was wondering when I would encounter the gradual, demoralizing uphill, not having realized that I’d already spun through it. I drank and fueled steadily, aiming for 200-300 calories and ~16oz water per hour.

Occasional dramatic vistas.

Much of the variability of routes among early FKT attempts centered around when to tackle the roughest climb of the day, the Schafer switchbacks. While Andy Dorais and Quinn Simmons opted to begin their rides from the bottom of Schafer to knock it out while cool and fresh, subsequent FKTs started from the more logical start point on Island in the Sky Rd and consequently tackle Schafer towards the end of the ride.

I knew it was coming, and I was nervous. I’d ridden the climb once while I was doing a training with the National Park Service in 2021, and I knew it was rough, loose, and exposed.

Schafer Switchbacks climb comes into view.

When I rounded a small corner and could finally see the switchbacks, I settled in and buckled down. You reach the 1300′ climb at around 88 miles in, but it marks the end of the dirt. Once up Schafer, it’s about a mile before you hit the highway around 91 mi, and it’s pavement back to the start point.

Schafer Switchbacks, photo from 2021.
Not so fresh any more on the Schafer climb.

Ultimately, Schafer wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Lesser grades, more shade, and good fueling to that point let me sit in my aerobic comfort zone and spin up, and I was up the core 1.25 mi of the switchbacks in about 19 minutes. Back on level dirt and smelling the barn, I picked up the pace to the road.

Here again my memory was wrong. I thought I got to go downhill… Instead it was a demoralizing series of rolling uphills over 8-9 miles with a 5-10 mph headwind. There was nothing to do but suck it up and get it done. As I passed the road to Horsethief Butte, I saw that my time was getting close to 8:45 and I made in an arbitrary goal to slip under. I hammered the last two miles at about 25 mph and eeked into the parking lot at 8:44:36 elapsed time.

My off-the-cuff guess was that I was going to land around 10 hrs, as I thought that a 10 mph average was probably where my fitness was, but having managed sustained higher speeds during the second half of the ride, I was very pleased to come in 1:15 faster at an average of just under 12 mph. I’m sure that with some concerted training effort and less enjoyment of the scenery that I could get down to 7-7.5 hours, but no thank you. The pieces came together for an awesome long ride without undue suffering, and I’ll take it.

Food: 2400 kcal divided in stinger waffles, Gu rocktane, stinger chomps, and one tube of shot blocks. Finished with 1 pack of stinger chews extra.

Water: 3.4L Gnarly hydrate electrolyte solution, 0.6 L gnarly Fuel2O carb drink, total 4L. Finished with about 2 oz extra.

-Specialized Epic Evo Mtb running Specialized Ground Control tires
-Rapha Pro Team Training jersey, powerweave bibs, gilet, Specialized thermal engineered arm and leg warmers, body geometry grail full finger gloves
-Specialized Recon 3 shoe, spd cleat for XTR pedal
-USWE Outlander Pro 2l pack with hip pouch, phone pouch
-Repair kit: 2x tubolito lite tubes, co2 x 1, tire boot, tire lever, small rag, tiny bottle chain lube, small pump, specialized SWAT concealed carry tool in head tube, dynaplug race tire plugs.

Category: Mountain Biking


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: