Biking the Aquarius Trail in Utah
It took 20 years of planning to open the new 190-mile Aquarius Trail bikepacking hut system in southern Utah’s spectacular wilderness, sandwiched between Bryce and Zion national parks. Stephanie Pearson saddles up for a wild ride.
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Death or serious injury by my pink crocs would have been an embarrassing way to go. I’m in southern Utah, on my mountain bike, with my partner, Brian Hayden, and two old friends, Jen Judge and Aaron Gulley. We’re navigating the tough and disorienting Cassidy Trail, which is named after Butch Cassidy. According to local legend, the outlaw used it to evade an angry posse after he got in a fight over a woman at a dance in his nearby hometown of Panguitch.
It’s the end of September, and we’re riding at elevations higher than 10,000 feet, so I’m loaded down with a few necessities: bike tools, clothing layers, two EpiPens (I’m allergic to bees), a full-size bottle of sunscreen (cancer-prone Scandinavian genes), Crocs to wear in camp after riding. I have enough snacks to survive for a week if we get lost, which is highly unlikely, considering that we’re also carrying cell phones, a Spot tracker, and sophisticated GPS units to lead us to our destination each night, one of five backcountry huts made from shipping containers, most of them located in the two-million-acre Dixie National Forest.
Each hut is stocked with fresh water, energy-food staples like peanut butter and M&Ms, a fridge full of front-country food like filleted salmon, the occasional guitar, and 1.5 beers per person—just enough to celebrate the day’s accomplishments, but not so much that we get sloshed.
The Crocs are clipped to the rear pack on my dual-suspension cross-country mountain bike. Despite a 25-pound gear load, the carbon bike has operated heroically for the first 80 miles of the 190-mile, six-day trip. The singletrack on the Cassidy Trail is a good test. It isn’t part of our official route on the Aquarius Trail, but the guys were intrigued by comments on Trailforks, the app we’re using, such as: “Probably one of the most scenic trails you’ve never heard of, likely due to its difficulty in the steeper uphill sections.”
The more punishing it is, the better for Aaron. A writer and former editor at Outside, he’s survived some of the toughest bike races in the West, including the 800-mile Arizona Trail, the 500-mile Colorado Trail Race, and multiple Leadville 100’s. Jen, who is married to Aaron, has a professional résumé that includes photographer (she took the shots for this story), hunting guide, and founder of Wild Encore, a company that teaches clients how to sustainably harvest and process animals. She has also raced road bikes, bike-toured throughout South Africa, and won all sorts of 12-hour mountain-bike races.
Brian is the founder of the 350-kid-strong Duluth Devo Mountain Bike Program in Minnesota. A former Category 2 road cyclist, he’s raced the Almanzo 100 in southern Minnesota, which kicked off the gravel craze, and is a five-time finisher of the Unbound 200, held in Emporia, Kansas, keeping his suffering to the Midwest. Me, I’ve been riding a mountain bike since the mid-1980s and have dabbled in trail and gravel races, but I get the most joy riding free from the stress of competition.
The deeper we go on the singletrack, the more undulating and otherworldly the trail becomes, pushing up and over white limestone hoodoos sandwiched between Bryce and Zion National Parks. We plateau at 7,880-foot Brayton Point and stop long enough to admire the vast red canyon below us. In the far distance are jagged peaks lit up with bands of golden aspens. Above are billowing thunderheads. If I were Butch Cassidy, I’d have hung out here, too.
We push ahead. The steep downhills followed by punchy climbs are making me ornery. On one transition, the Crocs get lodged in my rear wheel and it seizes up. I lurch over the bars in a slow-motion, f-bomb-riddled crash. Thankfully, the only carnage is the mangled shoes.
“Now this is bikepacking!” Jen gleefully cries as I walk to the top of the climb.
At the end of the singletrack, eight bolts of lightning sizzle down from the bruised heavens. We pedal up a Forest Service road, top out on the wide-open plateau, and fly for miles down another Forest Service road, outpacing the storm. The last push is a five-mile ascent to the Pine Lake Hut. Just when we can almost taste the beer, Brian drops back and disappears. I wait for what feels like an hour as Jen and Aaron keep riding.
“All OK?” I ask, as he rolls into view.
“Uh, I found out why I might be getting a stomachache,” he says, showing me the bite valve on his pack’s bladder, which has green and black fuzz growing inside it. “I guess I forgot to clean
One last wrong turn sets us back about a mile. Brian and I finally roll into the hut at 3:30 P.M. It sits at 8,110 feet elevation, at the base of a monolith banded by red and white sandstone. Just as we enter the shelter, a hailstorm rips through, dropping pea-size pellets. They ping off the steel container that, with its propane heater, has been warmed like an oven.
“That was some riding!” Aaron says, stoked. “That’s more like what you get in an endurance race.”
“I’ve ridden 45 miles, climbed almost 4,537 feet, and shifted 372 times,” adds Brian, checking his Garmin.
When the hail stops, I return outside to find a barrel of sanitized hut shoes for guests. I toss the broken Crocs, which are marked with tire burns, into the garbage. Too lazy to unclip the packs from my bike, I unzip the rear bag and the contents spill out onto the dirt. I crack beer number one and ruminate over the First Rule of Bikepacking, which also seems an apt metaphor for life—carry less baggage.