Loving Utah’s Lockhart Basin
May 18, 2012
LOCKHART BASIN, Utah – Old cyclists never die, they just change gears. That was the philosophy of me and my most frequent riding partner, Bob Ward, when we revisited Lockhart Basin in Utah’s canyon country the last weekend of April.
We have an interesting history with Lockhart Basin. When we were younger lads, in the mid-1990s, we rode roughly 51 miles one Saturday in May. The forecast was favorable, with highs in the 70s. It turned out it was much hotter.
That was an era before CamelBaks or other hydration systems were widely used. I carried a couple of water bottles and a couple of boxes of Gatorade. It wasn’t nearly enough.
The terrain was new to us. I had spent a lot of time down on Indian Creek, where our ride began, and I had spent a lot of time on the road connecting Hurrah Pass and Chicken Corners on the north end of our destination. But we had never spent time in the middle 30-some miles of our route.
Those three factors – hot weather, low water, unfamiliar terrain – spelled trouble. The ride is deceptive because the first 20 miles are easy, heading north from Indian Creek. Maps mark it as a high-clearance two-wheel-drive road. It’s got only a couple of places that make a driver pay attention. It’s equally easy for a mountain biker. There are long expanses of packed dirt and rock with occasional sand traps to work your legs.
I remember thinking all those years ago in the ’90s that completing the ride would be a breeze. Wrong! The road changes distinctly from two-wheel drive to four-wheel drive. There are constant short, rocky climbs and enough technical spots to keep you on your toes. The cruel joke is the farther you peddle, the harder it gets on the Lockhart Basin Road.
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I don’t recall much about that initial ride anymore. We ran out of water but thankfully got bailed out by three people in two vehicles tackling a particularly tricky four-wheel-drive stretch in the middle of nowhere. They were charitable with their water.
I also remember getting off Lockhart Basin Road onto Hurrah Pass Road, which I had ridden maybe a half-dozen times with absolutely no trouble, and finding myself spent. The Hurrah Pass Road isn’t tough, unless you’ve already covered 40-plus miles. The steady climbing and dehydration did me in the 1990s ride. I told Bob I couldn’t go on, curled up in the meager shade of a bush and rested. The plan was for Bob to go retrieve our car on the Moab side of Hurrah Pass and try to bail me out. I planned to resume the ride once I recovered, but neither of us knew if that would happen.
Lo and behold, I did bounce back after forcing myself to eat some trail mix Bob left with me. I was eventually back on my bike, though not burning rubber.
Fast forward to 2012: Lockhart Basin came up again over a beer we had last winter as a possible riding route. We weren’t averse to the challenge of covering it in one day. While we’re older now, we’re also wiser so we felt we could tackle it with one big push.
Cooler heads prevailed. We remembered how we had vowed to visit the basin on a more relaxed schedule. Great choice. It turned out to be one of my best trips to the desert.
We recruited Aspen Times intern Michael Appelgate to be our sag driver. He proved the perfect person. He was ecstatic to finally visit Moab, so he didn’t complain about all the driving we needed him to do.
We pulled into Indian Creek late on a Friday night and by dumb luck found an extremely cool, secluded campsite despite crowded conditions. I had never checked this place out in 25 years on Indian Creek, so I felt that was a good omen.
We knew we had an easy ride the next morning, so we took our time letting the sun thaw us out. We eventually packed up camp and drove the short distance to the start of the Lockhart Basin Road, just off the intersection with the paved road that leads to the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.
We pedaled little more than a mile, passing the Hamburger Rock unimproved campground, when we got a funny feeling about our journey. I’ve never seen a higher concentration of campers than in the two or so miles between Hamburger Rock and the Indian Creek crossing. There was something called the “Man Camp” with oversized campers with ATVs and dirt bikes parked outside. Every designated campsite and little pull-out was stuffed with people camping.
To each their own, but I don’t know they handled it. The concentration was as high as some trailer parks.
Oddly enough, once we crossed Indian Creek, just a few miles into our ride, we found the solitude we so desperately sought. For the next 24 hours we saw one cyclist, three vehicles and one ATV.
Saturday’s ride was highlighted by scenery rather than the physical challenge. The Canyon Rims Recreation Area juts to the east. The view to the west featured the Island in the Sky. In between the Island and us was a Colorado River on its never-ending mission of carving the rock.
About 15 miles into the ride we took a diversion down to the Colorado River via a sandy route littered with the debris of broken dreams – the skeleton of an old work truck, a random hot-water heater, an old A-frame house that former occupants tried damned hard to make into a nice home but ultimately failed. An old lawnmower was outside. Red sneakers, 1950s-style, were among the relics inside.
We returned to the main road and camped about 1 mile north of the junction, staring into the big bowl of Lockhart Basin to the southeast and layer upon layer of tortured rock to the west.
Day two featured as great of scenery and more challenging riding. Lockhart Basin Trail hugs the cliffs of Canyon Rims. Around each corner is a breathtaking new vista featuring chocolate-colored hoodoos or gnarled rock formations towering up from the valley floor. Mitten Butte resembles the classic formations towering up in Monument Valley far to the south.
Bob and I stopped frequently to soak in the scenery. It was a far cry from seventeen years earlier, when we stopped frequently but were too tired to enjoy the views. One highlight of the ride was a slight, apparently unnamed pass that divides south from north. On top of the pass we gazed back at scenic spires poking up in the Needles and the Abajo Mountains. To the north were the Behind the Rocks area and the La Sal Mountains.
The road trickled into a drainage that was nothing short of a geologic dream then spit us onto the comparatively high-traveled Hurrah Pass Road. Michael had backtracked with our sag wagon, driven back up to Moab and met us on the Kane Creek Road, roughly 51 miles from where Bob and I started the prior day. The temperature never topped 70 either day, ideal for that type of ride.
We didn’t have the tumult or the trauma of 17 years earlier. For that we were grateful.
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