Canyonlands’ White Rim in a day |

Canyonlands’ White Rim in a day

Mountain biking the Canyonlands Classic

Ted Mahon
Stuck in the Rockies
Approaching the Hardscrabble climb.
Ted Mahon

The White Rim Road is one of the premier features of the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park. The route winds through some of Utah’s most spectacular canyon country, following the curves of the local White Rim layer of sandstone — high above the Colorado and Green rivers and below some incredible desert towers, buttes, and mesas.

The road is popular with the jeep crowd, dirt bikers, and trail runners, though it might be the mountain bikers who make up most of the visitors. Riding the White Rim on mountain bikes, with a couple of support vehicles to haul all the food and camping gear, is a fun, popular desert off-season outing.

A complete loop of the White Rim is about 100 miles in length with around 6,000 feet of vertical gain. These trips are often spread over two to four days, using established campsites requiring advanced reservations. Overnight permits allow for 16 people and three vehicles, and, on any given day in the spring and fall riding season, there will be several large groups out on the route.

Those trips are really fun, and, through the years, I’ve ridden the White Rim in this fashion many times. But, the permits can be hard to get, and sometimes it’s tough to organize such a large group of riders on a multi-day trip.

That begs the question of those who ride a lot if it’s necessary to spend so many days on the route or if it’s possible to do it in a single push. While long, a one-day White Rim trip is a good outing for mountain bikers who are used to long days in the saddle.

I just returned from a one-day White Rim ride I made with two friends. We’ve done the loop in this style a couple of times now. And, while White Rim in a day isn’t too complicated, we’ve learned a few things that might be helpful for others who are considering riding it on their own.

If you’re planning for the fall off-season, early October is a great time to set out on this ride. It’s after the summer heat you might experience in September, yet not so late in the season that the amount of daylight is reduced.

A day-use permit is required (which rangers have inquired about while we were out on the route) and can be purchased online at for $6. There’s also a park entrance fee of $15 per person, which you can pay when you ride through the gate.

One hundred miles is a lot of ground to cover, and you should plan to be out on the route all day. Allow yourself to make periodic stops to see the sights, or get off the bike to have a snack and stretch. At that pace, we can cover the whole loop in about 11 hours, with around 8-9 hours of riding time.

You’ll need to pack some lights for such a long outing. We like to begin riding just before sunrise, so we need them to start. Depending on your pace or any unforeseen delays, you could find yourself in the dark at the end of the loop, and you’ll be grateful to have something to show you the way home. A heavy night-riding setup isn’t required. A small handlebar light should suffice.

There aren’t any services available, so all your food and water for the day has to be carried, which can weigh a lot. Use any bike-packing gear you have. The more weight you can get off your back and onto the bike, the more comfortable you’ll be.

Jared Ettlinger riding the White Rim Road along the Green River.
Ted Mahon

It’s also essential to pack a proper repair kit, a first-aid kit, and some extra clothing. Once out on the route, you are far from assistance, so be prepared to troubleshoot issues on your own. An inReach might come in handy in the event of an actual emergency.

The desert is tough on equipment, and mechanical issues can occur. Friends have reported everything from broken chains and spokes to irreparable flats and broken seat posts. A small hand pump is better than CO2 canisters, and be sure you show up with the bike in good shape to start.

First-aid emergencies are a real possibility, as well. On our most recent trip, I went over the bars on a relatively benign section of dirt road, and I managed to injure my ribs and collarbone. Thankfully, we were only a few miles from the finish and our vehicles, so it wasn’t too hard to get home.

As for route logistics, there are a few decisions to make. You can ride the White Rim in either direction and start and finish wherever you like. It’s also possible to stash some gear or water along the route in advance, so you don’t have to carry everything the entire time.

We prefer to go in the clockwise direction. The layout of climbs and descents is more familiar to us after years of overnight trips. We also like to start our ride with the Mineral Bottom climb, which allows us to get the steep uphill done right at the start when our legs are fresh.

The day before, we stash water and carrying bags near the Park Entrance, about 15-20 miles from our starting point. That allows us to ascend the initial Mineral Bottom climb and spin across the non-technical road to our cache with only a single water bottle.

Once we pick up all of our bottles, bladders, and food for the day, we ride to the entrance gate. We pay our Canyonlands National Park admission, descend the Shafer Trail, and ride the White Rim Road back to vehicles at Mineral Bottom.

Not to understate, but it’s just a long mountain-bike ride with some additional planning. If you’ve been riding a lot through the summer, it might be a fun goal to close out your bike season.

As they say, hope for the best but plan for the worst, and, with any luck, you’ll have a fun day out there!

Ted Mahon moved out to Aspen to ski for a season 25 years ago and has been stuck in the Rockies ever since. Contact him at or on Instagram @tedmahon.

Approaching the Washer Woman Tower on the White Rim Road.
Ted Mahon