Our correspondent heads to Bears Ears National Monument to find out
“We’re not going to ride up there, are we?”
My eight-year old daughter, Pippa, pointed to a red-dirt road winding menacingly up the side of a mesa. You could see it snaking a long way, switchbacking until it disappeared out of sight. Far above the road, two nearly identical buttes rose like knobs over the desert. These were the Bears Ears for which the country’s most hotly contested national monument had been named.
It was late May, and we’d come to southern Utah for our first-ever family bikepacking trip. For years we’d admired the Bears Ears from afar, on a raft floating down the San Juan River, 30 miles to the south. But now that our girls were old enough and strong enough (we hoped) to move on their own power through the backcountry, we decided the best way for them to see the new monument was to explore it up close, on bikes. With Bears Ears’ federal protection up for review by the Trump administration this summer, the country’s newest national monument is at risk of becoming its shortest-lived national monument.
I studied the photocopied map in my hand and did a double take. I’d known, of course, that we were going to ride through Bears Ears, a 1.3 million-acre swath of mesas, canyons, and sacred Native American ruins and petroglyphs, but I hadn’t quite realized we were actually going to ride through the ears. The eight of us—two sets of parents and four girls, ages six to eight—would be riding that dirt road clinging to the mesa side, 2,000 feet above us.
Bikepacking is like bicycle touring, but instead of asphalt, you’re riding dirt roads or singletrack; instead of resupplying in towns en route, you’re carrying most or all of your gear. Burly knobby-tired bikes built to haul weight and a recent explosion of small gear companies are turning what was once a niche sport into a full-blown obsession, opening up long-distance routes through remote, unpaved, or roadless terrain.
Family bikepacking, however, is still relatively uncharted territory, and while it sounded great in theory, we had no idea how to pull it off. Our first issue was gear. Among the four adults, we’d have to haul drinking water (there are no reliable water sources in the Bears Ears), tents, sleep kits, food, cook gear, and clothing for eight of us. Even with our bikes fully rigged with frame bags, handlebar bags, and saddlebags, the water alone would crush us.
The next consideration was route. We wanted our inaugural trip to be a success, not a total sufferfest, so we needed relatively flat dirt roads at moderate elevations. Our girls ride to school and back two miles every day, and we’d been heading out on fun six-mile loops exploring town after dinner a few evenings a week. These were mostly paved or smooth dirt routes with minimal elevation gain, but still we figured the girls could handle 15 to 20 miles a day if we took plenty of time for snack breaks and weren’t slogging big climbs on technical trails at high altitude.
To help us with both, we decided to hire a local outfitter, Lizard Head Cycling, to map our itinerary and lug our stuff between camps. This would be bikepacking lite: We’d ride, and our gear hauler, Dave, would meet us with our stuff. Based in Telluride, Lizard Head guides adult trips through southern Utah, knows Bears Ears well, and is thinking about branching into family trips. This would be a trial run for all of us.
The first hill was worse than it looked: six miles long, with nearly 2,200 feet of climbing—nothing close to the rolling contours we’d imagined. It took us four hours to get to the top, employing every trick in the book and plenty more that we made up on the spot out of sheer desperation: frequent bribes with Gummi Bears, endless promises of lunch, loud and frequent cheerleading, and lots and lots of pushing. Despite the occasional tantrum (theirs and ours), the kids blew our minds with their stamina and grit. The eight-year-olds rode what they could and pushed the steepest sections. The six-year-olds pedaled while one of us walked beside, pushing them on their bikes with one hand and our bike with the other. At the top, on the saddle between the Bears Ears, at 8,000 feet, we paused to load the younger kids into the sag wagon for the final six miles to camp, take pictures, and raid the snack box for energy bars. No matter what came next, we promised them, it had to be easier.
And it was. The backside of the mesa was surprisingly lush and green, as though the Bears Ears were a portal from desert to mountains. The dirt road passed through high grass meadows and ponderosa pine forests. Long views unfurled east to the Abajo Mountains and north to the snowy peaks of the La Sals, near Moab. It was Memorial Day weekend, and the off-road traffic was steady with RVs towing four-wheelers and jeeps, swinging wide around us and waving as they went past. We arrived at camp in a wide, lovely meadow at Little Notch, a narrow spine of land straddling Hammond Canyon and Dark Canyon, where we found Dave setting out carrots and hummus and the two little girls playing on top of the van.
Even with the help of a guide, the trip had its hiccups, as all true adventures do. Some of the maps, which Dave gave us each morning after breakfast, were mismarked or hard to follow, if only because of route changes we made on the fly. At Dave’s suggestion, we herded the kids out for an overly ambitious pre-ride hike, trying to reach the remains of a Native American cliff dwelling at the bottom of Arch Canyon, but the last section was too steep and exposed to safely send the younger kids, so we turned and hiked 1,500 vertical feet up again in the midday swelter. By the time we got back to the van, we’d hoofed it six miles. The kids were spent, and their riding legs were shot, so we sent the six-year-olds ahead with Dave and the two dads in the van to meet us along the road once it leveled out.
Still, our first pseudo-bikepacking venture had just the right ratio of challenges and accomplishments. The high point came on the third and last day, when we rode out of camp and whooped down a long, gradual, five-mile descent, and then began climbing in earnest through 1,000 vertical feet and three miles of formidable switchbacks. I was expecting the sort of meltdowns we’d seen on day one. (And we’d long since exhausted our supply of M&M’s.) But the girls literally rose to the challenge, spinning upward at a steady cadence with shockingly few complaints. Far off to the west, the Bears Ears pricked up from the Colorado Plateau. It seemed unfathomable that we’d ridden that far in three short days.
We’d covered more than just 50 miles and 4,500 feet of vertical in three days. We’d moved through the snags and uncertainties of a new, wholly untested sort of adventure and adjusted to life on our bikes. By the last morning, the girls were moving through camp like old bike hands, packing their snack bags, filling their bottles, squeezing their tires to check the pressure. Now we’d figured out to strategize with Dave ahead of time about where to meet us in case the little girls’ legs needed a break before they bonked. We’d acclimated to the rhythm of the trip, and now it felt like we could just keep going forever, living on our bikes.
All too quickly it was over. The Bears Ears were at our backs as we dropped down from the final summit, back into the desert, losing elevation fast on the long, dusty descent. Even when Maisy, age six, jackknifed at high speed around a corner, she leaped back to her feet, wiped her palms, and hopped on her bike, tears streaking her filthy face, determined to wring the last few miles out of her legs.
“Can you believe you rode that far?” I asked Pippa as we took one last look at the Bears Ears before they disappeared from view.
“No,” she replied, shaking her head in wonder.
Had we pushed them too hard? Midway up that bear of a climb on day one and halfway through the hike into Arch Canyon, I would have said yes. But the girls showed us they could rally through the low points with grit and even good humor and be no worse for wear. No matter what came next—on bikes, at school, on the sports field, the river, or the ski mountain—our girls understood something they hadn’t before: They could ride, push, grunt, cry, or scream their way through the challenges. They could go farther than they thought, higher than they thought, push through the low points powered by Sour Patch Kids, and stick it out for the long haul.
If You Go
The first burly climb notwithstanding, Bears Ears National Monument is a terrific choice for an inaugural family bikepacking trip. A plethora of well-maintained dirt roads loop through the monument, many rolling across the 8,000-foot Elk Ridge Plateau. Our three-day trip started in Natural Bridges National Monument and ended at Dry Wash Reservoir, just outside Blanding. The camping in meadows, with views to the canyons below, is stellar, and because of its remote location, the traffic on non-holiday weekends is light. In late May, nighttime temps dipped into the low 30s, but the highs reached a manageable 75 degrees at 8,000 feet. (It was hotter in the canyons.) It would be easy to self-support this trip, driving your own sag wagon stocked with food and camp gear and bypassing the toughest ascents—likely our next step in our bikepacking education. Check out WhileOutRiding.com for other great kid-friendly routes.
Our mixed-age peloton rode a mix of bikes: four-inch fat bikes like the women’s Specialized Hellga, the kids’ FatBoy, and Trek’s youth Farley 24 rolled smoothly over rocks and washboards, chewed through deep sand, and didn’t feel like overkill on the climbs. Mid-fat, 29+ bikes from Surly, like the ECR and Krampus, are built to haul long distances, with relaxed geometry and lots of attachments for packs. Our youngest rode Islabikes’ superlight 20-inch Beinn, built with the same care and high-end components as adult models.
Even though we didn’t have to schlep our own food, sleep kits, or personal gear, we outfitted our bikes with a variety of packs to make hauling snacks, water, and backup layers for each day. Upstart company Oveja Negra makes a quiver of rugged bags from its shop in Salida, Colorado. The Gearjammer Seat Bag, designed for people who want to haul everything, is the company’s biggest carrier, with ample room for three rain jackets, spare tubes and pump, a mother lode of candy, and a variety of sweaters that we shed as the days warmed. The kids enjoyed having their own small Snack Packs that Velcro tightly to the top tubes and a Chuckbucket, which holds a 32-ounce wide-mouth Hydro Flask or a litany of necessities, like cellphone, camera, and Nuun electrolyte tablets. Being in charge of when and how often they refuel helps kids build independence, nutrition awareness, and endurance on the bike.
Hiring support makes for a low-stress, low-prep alternative to DIY, especially right out of the gate. Lizard Head Cycling Guides are the two-wheeled experts in the area and can customize multiday itineraries in Colorado and Utah to fit your family’s fitness and experience.