Insider’s Guide to Biking Utah’s White Rim Trail in CanyonlandsDecember 9, 2022
By Susan Munroe
Utah’s White Rim Trail is a classic human-powered adventure. Get into Canyonlands National Park—on a bicycle. Ride beneath massive, open skies and within beautifully sculpted rocks on a perfectly defined white sandstone esplanade. Pedal around the edges of deep, monument-studded basins at a pace that lets you see the world in greater detail. Holiday’s fully supported three- and four-day White Rim trips make it easy for you to carry yourself deeper and farther into the wonders of Canyonlands National Park.
Perfect for: cycling enthusiasts, active adventurers, people who like to earn their turns, stargazers, geologists, groups of friends (custom charter trips available with 8 to 12 people).
White Rim Trail Highlights
The White Rim Trail accesses some of the best scenery and terrain in the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park. The Island in the Sky is an elevated wedge of land that rises above the Green and Colorado rivers, and the White Rim is the bench of white sandstone that all but encircles that wedge. The trail can be ridden either clockwise or counterclockwise (depending on camp assignments); either way, the ride begins with a thrilling descent, following steep switchbacks that drop 1,000 feet from the top of the Island down to the White Rim, and ends with a climb back up a similar set of switchbacks. Other than the start and finish, the trail largely rolls along at the same elevation, with the exceptions of Murphy’s Hogback and Hardscrabble Hill: steep (but short) climbs that reward you with incredible views.
Constructed by the Atomic Energy Commission during the uranium boom in 1950s, the “trail” is actually a four-wheel-drive road, and its mix of sandstone and graded gravel make for fun riding and easy sightseeing (Holiday’s trips are fully supported, with a 4×4 non-passenger van that carries food, water, and camping equipment). The entire trail is a scenic overlook, with views that encompass the countless spectacular canyons that give this national park its name. Watch epic sunsets while sipping post-ride refreshments from beautiful, open campsites, and sleep under the absolutely enormous, clear skies of an International Dark Sky Park. Take three or four days to fully enjoy Utah’s classic multi-day mountain bike ride.
Only on the White Rim:
- Airport, Monster, and Washerwoman towers, red sandstone monoliths popular with rock climbers.
- White Crack, where ranchers used dynamite to open up a route for their cattle between the White Rim and lands below.
- Candlestick Tower, perched on the edge of Soda Springs Basin.
- Upheaval Dome, where steeply uplifted rock layers create something that looks like a massive crater: a geological enigma that may have involved a salt dome or a meteor strike, or both!
- Bike along the Green River where the White Rim runs into Stillwater Canyon.
- Small group sizes: maximum is 12 guests (with 2–3 guides).
Best known for:
The White Rim sandstone, a thick and highly localized layer of marine sandstone deposited 240 million years ago.
The Holiday Way: The Bike-Raft Combo
What’s better than a bike trip or a river trip? Combining both! Spend three days biking around Utah’s White Rim Trail, gazing down at the canyons of the Colorado and Green rivers, then hop on a raft and float downstream through those same canyons for another four days. When ridden clockwise, the White Rim Trail gradually descends into Stillwater Canyon, and the last dozen or so miles of the trail are at river level. Our rafts meet us trail-side, and the guides take care of the logistics.
Holiday has always been driven by a passion for the outdoors and activity. We love the relaxation that only a river trip can provide, but we aren’t afraid of some good, honest physical exertion, too. The bike-raft combo was designed to appeal to people like us, people who like to settle in to their vacation with a satisfied sigh, knowing that the rest has been well-earned.
The White Rim has some fun hiking options for those who still have energy to burn. Although the biking is the primary focus of both our three- and four-day trips, the four-day pacing is more leisurely and there is often more time to stop and do short hikes during the day.
- Musselman Arch, a short leg-stretcher to a delicate rock arch hanging above Musselman Canyon.
- Lathrop Canyon, an eight-mile round trip hike (or side ride) through a narrow, winding canyon that emerges at the Colorado River.
- Black Crack, a short walk from the road reveals an incredible view of the Green River and Turk’s Head. What makes it even more fun is that to get to the view you have to step or jump across a seemingly bottomless crack in the White Rim sandstone.
- Holeman Canyon, a short but sweet scramble into a sinuous slot canyon.
- Granary walk: pick your way through loose shale and climb to a rock structure just above the trail and learn about the cultures that made their home in this landscape 800 years ago.
- Fort Bottom, a two-mile round trip hike to an ancient Ancestral Puebloan lookout tower above the Green River.
Starting and Ending Points
Meet at Holiday’s warehouse in Green River, Utah, and hop in our vans for the 90-minute drive out to the top of the Island in the Sky. Most commonly we begin at the head of the Shafer Trail, and ride around the White Rim clockwise, ending with one last climb out at Mineral Bottom. Occasionally we’ll start at Mineral Bottom and ride out the Shafer Trail. Either way, the ride starts with a fun downhill and ends with a good climb. Our passenger vans will pick us up for the 90-minute ride back to our Green River warehouse.
- 77 miles from the top of the Shafer Trail to the top of the Mineral Bottom road
- April–May, September–October
- Required, administered by the National Park Service.
- Camps are assigned by the National Park Service and include enclosed, outhouse-style toilets. Holiday carries all of the water that we’ll need for a trip, including more than a gallon per person per day for drinking, plus everything for cooking and washing. We even provide solar showers for rinsing off at the end of each day.
White Rim Trail Weather
Things to Know for Maximum Enjoyment of Your Bike Trip
The White Rim Trail is a spectacular experience for bikers of most ability levels, but there are a few crucial details that you should know in order to set yourself up for success.
- White Rim trips are true, human-powered adventures. This means that you must power yourself around the trail. Our support van cannot carry passengers except in emergencies. If you don’t feel comfortable riding up or down a particular section, it is perfectly acceptable to hop off your bike and walk until you reach a place where you feel okay about riding again. Most people with mountain biking experience find the White Rim trail to be a great, fun challenge. You will be tired at the end of the day, but for most people, the satisfaction that comes with that tiredness is its own reward. Consider a four-day trip: give yourself an extra day to cover the same amount of miles as a three-day trip.
- Know your ability level. Recognize that there is a significant difference between riding 20–30 miles a day on a road bike on pavement vs. a mountain bike on a rough, rocky dirt trail. Be sure to prepare for the trip by getting out and riding dirt roads on a mountain bike. If you are a beginner when you book your trip, you should not be a beginner by the time you show up for your trip.
- If you’re a trip organizer, know the ability level of everyone in your group. Groups have more fun if everyone can ride at more or less the same level. For safety reasons, it’s our guides’ job to try to keep our groups together while riding. You don’t have to ride right next to each other, but we don’t want people spread out over five miles of trail, either.
The White Rim Trail is a non-technical double-track mountain biking trail with plenty of rough, rocky sections. Although we’ve had guests who’ve ridden it on rigid-frame bikes, we feel pretty strongly that having at least front suspension makes for a much more enjoyable ride, and that rear suspension will make your, um, rear thank you. Ditto for wide, knobby, mountain bike-specific tires. This is not a trail for road bikes or skinny tires, and probably not for that old Schwinn that’s been rusting in your garage for the last 10 years, either. Holiday’s rental fleet consists of full-suspension Specialized Stumpjumpers with 29- and 27.5-inch tires. There’s a lot of terrain to cover out there, and bigger tires roll better and faster.
Susan Munroe is a reader, writer, traveler, and river guide. She moved to Utah from New Hampshire for the mountains, but it was the allure of the desert and its rivers that have truly kept her transfixed. More than eight years after she first came to work for Holiday River Expeditions, she still can’t get enough of life on the water. Susan spends her winters skiing and working in Salt Lake City, Utah, with frequent trips to southern Chile to run the Río Baker and support the work of the educational kayaking exchange program Ríos to Rivers. See more of Susan’s work here: www.susanmunroe.com