Fully Loaded Full Suspension for the FULL Enchilada

Fully Loaded Full Suspension for the FULL Enchilada

By Jessa Gilbert

“Is there such a thing as too much chamois butter?” I wondered as I tried to think strategically as I packed a weeks worth of bike packing gear into my frame bag. I went through the logistics one more time in my head - 215 miles, 25,000 feet of vertical, 7 days and 6 nights, and two mountain ranges in the late August heat. Was this a silly idea to do on my Wreckoning? Then again, the last leg of this ride would be The Whole Enchilada, and I certainly didn’t want to ride that on a gravel bike. It was already starting to get light out which meant we should be getting out on the trail soon. Screw it - more bike it is!


I’m not going to kid myself and tell you I did a whole lot of research on this ride with the San Juan Huts, a 7 day/6 night bike packing trip from Durango to Moab, but I recognize the stats on elevation gain and distance. It was going to be a lot of time in the saddle, but also offered up a healthy does of single track riding between the San Juan Mountains, where you start, and the La Sals, where you end. It’s been a bit since I took my bike away from my hometown of Squamish, BC, where we are so fortunate to have just about everything - slabs, jank, loam, single track, jumps, and more things to keep you humble than is probably necessary. But we don’t have riding at 11,000 feet, and we don’t have dry desert slickrock. So, I loaded up my 2008 Ford Ranger with my Wreckoning and heading south.


I was feeling excited on Day 1 as we approached the trailhead at Mojas Pass near Durango Mountain Resort. The air was thin, my tires were firm, and the sky was looking moodier by the minute. Starting out on the Colorado Trail was a stunning entry to this ride - mule ear growing up to about head high and alpine flowers scattered all along the trail. Fast, flowy, and a few punchy ups that reminded you that you live at sea level and you were a long way above that. Just as I was starting to get into the swing of things the sky opened up and blankets of rain came down heavy, thick, and cold. We had just begun climbing up towards Bolam Pass at about 12,000 feet and the sun had decided it was tired of shining down on this little lane in Colorado. My gloves were soaked, my feet were in puddles, and I kept laughing to myself about the lie I had read that Colorado has 300 days of sunshine a year. We got into the first hut soaked, muddy, and ready for a warm meal and hot wood stove.


One of the reasons I so quickly signed onto this ride was the promise that the huts were stocked with bedding and food, so you only had to carry your lunch and snacks along the trail. The food pantry did not disappoint. Bottomless bins of all the best snacks for athletes… peanut m&ms, Twix bars, potato chips, and, what became an odd craving for me, Coca Cola. There were electrolytes and dried fruit as well, but those were secondary selections. The body is a temple they say. For dinner we pulled out all the stops, and prepared a red sauce pasta with chicken from a can. I’ve been primarily vegetarian for over a decade, and I had my hesitations about eating poultry out of a can. That being said, I took down two plates and never looked back. 


We woke the next morning to a thick, low hanging cloud, but no rain. Perfect! Day two was full of flowy single track through more alpine. The trail bent and wove through endless terrain and, despite a handful of backpackers, we had the place to ourselves. Just when I was starting to trick myself into thinking I had acclimated in the first 24 hours we began to climb up towards the Black Mesa Hut. I think this was the day I had “Staying Alive” by the Bee Gees stuck in my head… so I sort of blacked out this part of the ride. I do remember, however, crushing a Coke the moment I stepped into that hut. Who was this person I was becoming!?


Day three we packed with the promise of riding single track into the high desert, which would hopefully mean a bit of a dry spell. The saturation level in my shoes had hit their max, and I was feeling ready to get out of my Goretex. We ended up getting a little off track during our descent, finding ourselves following a well travelled cow path that spurred off the bike trail. Just as we were finding our bikes back to our descent the sky opened up again with torrential rain and hail. We waited it out under the cover of aspen trees and then took back to the trail, and by trail I should really say ‘river of mud and cow manure’. Turns out this single track was also a well used free range cow area, and there were mines of cow patties everywhere. Thanks to the rain, everything ran together and flicked in our faces and we descended towards the valley below. I’m a mouth breather, so it was counter intuitive for me to keep my lips sealed this whole descent, but I was CERTAIN I would end up with Giardia otherwise. It was comically foul, and we gave ourselves full belly laughs by the time we reached the sun baked desert and all but ran fully clothed into a nearby reservoir on the way to Dry Creek Hut. I remember reading an article about how Coca Cola would kill most anything in one’s stomach, so I was beginning to trick myself into believing that Coke was medicinal.


Day 4 was when I thought I would regret having a full suspension bike, as this stretch was mostly flat through the high desert plateau with sage brush and juniper lining the double track and old forgotten roads we would be on. The Wreckoning proved me wrong - I locked out the rear and felt like I was cruising. Could it also have had something to do with this being the lowest elevation we had to date? Perhaps, but I also think (and I had many miles to roll this over in my head) that this bike is really a go-anywhere-do-anything kind of whip. Rather than wishing for a gravel bike I found myself smiling and thinking I FREAKING LOVE MY MOUNTAIN BIKE as we rolled into the Wedding Bell Hut (which may have been my favorite of them all). Perched above the Dolores River you could see the La Sals far in the distance across a seemingly endless expanse of brick red mud and canyons cracking through the landscape. An old car body from the 50s sat on a bluff near an old Uranium mine shaft overlooking the terrain. We sat together and watched the sun dip low while wild rabbits scurried around and coyotes started to sing in the distance. 


Day 5. We were now squarely between the two ranges, able to look back at the San Juans and forward towards the La Sals, both seeming way too far away to travel by your own power. But here we were, riding through the desert expanse towards the tiny town of Paradox, which got its name for the river running a counter intuitive direction through its valley. It became quite evident we were in the HIGH desert going to the LOW desert when we began a knife edge descent down into the valley on a trail called “Catch ‘Em Up”. Some riding, but mostly walking this loose, narrow, and near vertical trail full of loose head size rocks I wondered how much work it would take to make this ridable (for a mere mortal like myself that is). We learned later that THIS was how they got cows up into the high desert for grazing. I began to wonder how many cow carcasses were littered just below the trail, or if those heifers were the first Rampage riders.


Day 6. You know what they say, what goes down must go up? At least that’s what this day was all about - a 2,000 foot climb straight out of the valley bringing from Colorado into Utah. We gave ourselves a quick dunk in a reservoir along the way, lingering in the warm sun. “Oh look, more cows along the waters edge… isn’t that less than ideal for a water source?” I thought… but no-one was pooping their pants, so I guess I was over reacting. Apparently this area, Geyser Pass, is one of the largest operating ranches in the state, which proved to be full of cows looking from alongside the road at us outsiders. Their patties guided us to our final hut, and we all began to wonder how we went from dreading the next 6 days to never wanting to stop riding our bikes. I suppose that’s how these rides go - it takes a bit of time and effort to crack into the rhythm, but once you settle in you find your ease and look forward to getting onto the saddle. That being said, I wasn’t suffering from saddle sores like a few others in the crew, so maybe there were mixed feelings on that subject.


Day 7 - The enticing icing on the cake that drew me in in the first place - The Whole Enchilada! Ask any mountain biker what to ride in Moab, and they will likely tell you “The Whole Enchilada” is a must do. A truly iconic ride spanning about 27 miles with almost 8,000 feet of descent through the La Sal alpine down into the slick rock canyons of Moab. I was curious how a fully loaded bike would feel on this ride, but the last 6 days had given me confidence on how the bike would handle. 2 litres of water and a week worth of things made the bike handle like a downhill hog, and I felt like I was glued onto the rock (in a good way). We flew through this trail under a cloudless sky towards the Colorado River below. Epic vistas keep your attention the whole trail down, and by the time you get to the Porcupine Rim trail a few hours in you’ve all but run out of hoots and hollers.


We exited the trail feeling sunburnt and high on adrenaline to meet a group of friends who had picked up some recovery snacks and drinks (beers and chips). I ran myself right into the thick brown Colorado river to cool off from the beating sun and to take a moment to drink in the moment. Somehow I was feeling energized and ready for more, probably high on adrenaline and dehydration. Two mountain ranges with nothing but a mountain bike to move you - what a trip. I can’t believe I hadn’t considered a full suspension full distance fully loaded bike pack trip prior, as this was certainly one for the memory banks.

Read these too

View all
Example blog post
Example blog post
Example blog post