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Big Day in Beef Basin

Looking at maps and dreaming up routes is one of my favorite things to do in my free time. Scrolling around on a map one day, I fixated on Beef Basin, an area just southwest of the Needles District of Canyonlands. Its dirt roads, archaeological ruins, and remoteness captured my curiosity. I couldn’t find much information on the area, especially when it came to conditions for bikes, and the unknown appealed to me. So I mapped a route, originally thinking I’d do it as an overnighter on my fat bike due to the potential for lots of sand, but on a whim this week, Andrew and our friend Scott said they’d be up for checking out the route on a big day ride. 

We contemplated the potential sand situation and decided it would probably be fine based on…pretty much nothing. None of us are strangers to hike-a-bike-heavy routes and we were optimistic that even if it was sandy, we could handle it. So rather than the overnighter approach, we decided to take a chance on the fast and light massive day ride approach. Andrew and I both rode our Senderos (his singlespeed and mine 1×12) with 2.6” tires, loaded with a full day of food and 6 liters of water. We were fairly certain we’d have a spring-fed cattle trough to top off water a little over halfway, but wanted to make sure we had enough just in case the water wasn’t there or looked gross. 

6am was about the earliest we were willing to leave our place to head to the ride. Our friends Scott and Richard joined us, camping in our clearing the night before. With bikes packed up in the van, we drove to the end of Bridger Jack Mesa Trail where we’d start and end our ride. We opted to get the 8 miles of paved riding done first thing both to limit our driving and have less traffic from folks driving from Moab to visit the park. 

We needed permits for the portion of the ride that went through the Needles District in Canyonlands on Elephant Hill Road, a gnarly 4×4 road limited to 24 vehicles and 12 bicycles per day. When we arrived at the Visitor Center to request permits, the ranger said generally he tries to dissuade people from riding Elephant Hill, describing it as “a ride for people who like to suffer,” but since Scott and I had both ridden the road before and knew what we were in for, the ranger administered the permits without trying to convince us to change our plans. 

Permits in hand, we continued our ride to the Elephant Hill Trailhead and up the steep, technical climb only to go right back down. The chunky, steep, sandy road is fun and engaging on a mountain bike and I certainly can’t imagine trying to drive any vehicle on it!

Eventually, the ledgy, technical road gave way to a sandy two track, Devil’s Lane. The 4×4 road surrounded by unique rock formations is one of the most spectacular places I’ve ever ridden a bike.

As we approached the edge of the park, the rock formations became more sparse and the terrain opened up into wider valleys between canyons. We dodged tumbleweeds stuck in the wheel tracks with maybe a 90% success rate of not picking them up in a wheel.  

So far, we were making good time, so when we came to our first decision point – taking the more established Ruin Road or continuing onto a sparsely traveled road to gain a view into Imperial Canyon, we decided to take the more adventurous route. Until this point we were pleasantly surprised at the lack of, or at least rideability of the sand so far. That all changed as we descended the “Impossible Hill,” as it’s labeled on the map. We peered into the valley, noting a big wash with lots of sand. The next portion of the route dipped in and out of the wash (though it felt like we spent more time in the wash than out of it). We proceeded to mash through the sand until it became too deep or we ran out of steam and had to walk. When we finally made it to the Imperial Canyon lookout, the view into the massive canyon and a peek at the Colorado river in Cataract Canyon made the effort worth it. 

We continued up and down, in and out of washes, fighting sand, going up little rock ledges, making for an engaging, but draining next few hours through the heat of the day. When we finally connected back with Beef Basin Road, we were optimistic that the conditions to follow would be a little faster. We made a small detour to get to Stanley Spring, a reliable source according to Michael Kelsey in his Canyonlands book. In Googling water beta, we also came across a blog by Brian Lucido, who wrote about riding a very similar route. It was encouraging to read that someone else had been out there on regular mountain bikes and had a good time! To our surprise, the cattle troughs were clear and the water dripping from the piped spring tasted great.

When we came to our next turn, I remembered a section from Brian’s blog that strongly recommended NOT taking F-16 and instead staying on the main Beef Basin Road. While I’m usually pretty tempted to ride roads that someone says are too hard, this time, we figured we’d take the advice to hopefully make it back to the van before dark. While I’m skeptical that the 1,000 foot climb and several extra miles on Beef Basin Road actually took less energy than the F-16 shortcut would have, getting up to 8,200 feet with big pine trees overlooking Salt Creek Canyon was a highlight of the ride that we wouldn’t have experienced staying a bit lower on the shortcut. 

Once we made it to the top of that climb, our elevation profile for the rest of the route looked pretty darn friendly, trending downhill all the way back to the van. We turned off of the county maintained Beef Basin Road onto Bridger Jack Mesa Trail for our final descent. It was a punchy, chonky ride right on the edge of the mesa with massive views into Salt Creek Canyon. Despite being a road big enough for a jeep, the exposure riding on the edge of the mesa with a massive drop wigged me out a bit, but I didn’t have too much time to think about it trying to hang with Andrew and Richard on our race against sundown. When we finally made it to the valley floor, we had another 5 miles or so of cruising right at sunset.

Overall, the route was 91 miles with 6,000 feet of gain, however those numbers certainly don’t tell the whole story. The rocky, sandy terrain of the seldom traveled roads made this a massive day. I’d definitely like to go back to Beef Basin. Next time, I’d skip our adventurous route to the Imperial Canyon lookout and instead take Ruin Road to check out the ruins. The effort required for the Imperial Canyon route made that road a one and done thing for me! I’m also curious about the F-16 “shortcut.” It’s always a special day when a route with several unknowns exceeds expectations. And we even finished before dark! Thanks to Scott and Richard for sharing the day with us!

2 thoughts on “Big Day in Beef Basin”

  1. What a great loop, spectacular scenery!! We did it over two days, yesterday and today, and found Stanley Spring to be completely dry.

  2. Oh wow, the cattle troughs there were full just a few weeks earlier with a good trickle coming from the pipe. I’m surprised it was dry based on the Kelsey’s description, but things can dry up quick in the desert.

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