For most folks planning a 6-day vacation away from work entails mai tais on the beach, sand in the toes, and gourmet dinners. While that sounds nice, I’ve never been on one of those vacations, so why start now?!
The “vacation” I was invited to join in on was a 5-day, 4-night bikepacking trip with 8 humans organized by my Steamboat friend Britni. The plan was to bike from the San Juan mountains to the Paradox valley (near the Utah/Colorado border) with 4 stocked huts along the way, thanks San Juan Hut System! As someone who had never bikepacked, it sounded like a great way to get an introduction and make memories with friends.
The huts were fully stocked with food, beverages, sleeping bags, and a few other essentials. The only gear we had to carry was extra clothes, repair kits, an in-reach, and first aid kits. It was refreshing to carry just the essentials on your bike for 5 days.
We all met in the Paradox valley where we would end 6 days later. It was 100F when we dropped the car and self shuttled to Durango, that was our warning that the last two days would be HOT! After driving 3 hours to hotels in Durango, we had our last showers and got to bed.
Day 1 - A handful of our 8 humans had bikepacked before so I took lessons on how to position my bike bags and frontloader to minimize rubbing and mishaps. Everything felt much heavier than usual so what better way to get acclimated to the weight than with a 3500 foot climb up to the first hut up at the top of Bolam pass, just kidding, ouch! My partner Cal and I are a bit of endurance junkies so we dropped our heavy bags at an intersection and took a lap on a favorite section of Colorado Trail that day (we had to get some downhill singletrack!).
Later that evening we met up with the rest of the group at the hut delighted to find cold beers, ponds to wash off in, and plentiful snacks with the most spectacular views of the 14er Wilson group.
Day 2 - It was a cold morning at 11,400ft so we got a leisurely start and celebrated our friend's birthday with a huevos rancheros breakfast.
This day we had our first real test with front loaders riding the East Fork singletrack down to Lizard Head Pass, plus more xc single track to follow. Everyone survived and I found that the extra weight on the downhill made me feel fast and more stable, now I get why a lot of the best downhillers are burley and strong!
At the end of the day we again had an uphill finish to the Black Mesa hut, but were pleasantly surprised to find the bevs cold and the views unforgettable. The mosquitos on the other hand kept us in constant motion. We made a thai themed dish, sang happy birthday to Andrew with 8 canned negronis carried up by Erin and hit the hay early once the sun set.
Day 3- The starts became earlier as the elevation got lower and temps got higher. This day we dropped out of the San Juan mountains and into the green hills below, on the way down we had one 2 mile detour but the consolation of the wrong turn was spotting the cutest black bear with big ears peering between the bushes. After the detour we took the singletrack option again and found fast times on some remote trails.
We stopped at a reservoir and half the group took a dip, half the group took a nap. We made it up to the hut in the afternoon, temps were starting to rise as elevation dropped. As with all of the other nights we watched the sunset from near the hut. The hut system certainly nailed the locations!
Day 4 - We started rolling Early to beat the heat, a few easy road miles got us warmed up then we took the singletrack options where the winding tech was reminiscent of grand junction riding. Today things got HOT and weird. The sun got renamed by our resident comedian Laraine as “the death star,” my partner Cal started wearing a bandana that flowed behind his helmet which I deemed the head cape, and many outer shorts were removed and just chamois were rocked.
Shade breaks and water refills were necessary on this stretch but we made it to the final hut fairly early and were greeted with a recent restock of extra COLD BEER and bubblies, hallelujah! We entertained ourselves during the afternoon hours just like pre-smartphone days. We read previous group’s journal entries of true sufferfests (and realized how lucky we were with weather and gear), we threw rocks off isolated cliffs, and sat in the shade just shooting the s***, now that is good for the soul. It was a hot last night and half the group slept out under the stars after another banger sunset that we all watched from the rocks together.
Day 5 - We got rolling at 7:30 AM because we knew it’d be a hot one as we dropped even further into the Paradox valley. Several miles of dirt roads were followed by some singletrack then to a hike-a-bike downhill via an old cow trail (think Portal on steroids, eek!).
We crossed the Dolores river, which some of the group jumped in, then the final pedal back to the cars. I skipped the river and headed for the shower which a sweet local man Greg had set up for SJHS bikers to use. We hung out with Greg and he told us stories of previous groups requiring rescues, having mechanicals, and trudging through mud. We felt lucky that we had 8 humans, 180 miles, 18,000+ feet of climbing, 0 mechanicals, and only one minor detour. We all hugged, said our “see ya laters” and headed back home, while 3 ran shuttle back to Durango.
I knew when I signed up it would be an unforgettable experience and it was. I deepened friendships and came away with a handful of new friends. Besides the obvious beautiful landscapes, one of my favorite parts of this trip was that we had no cell service. It brought me back to interacting with friends on a deeper level and just living in the moment. With no internet or social media, we entertained ourselves the way we did as kids, making dumb games and ridiculous “you had to be there” jokes. It was a good reminder to take those breaks from technology and go hang in nature with your friends. If anyone gets the chance to do a San Juan Hut System trip I would highly recommend it, you'll certainly have a memorable adventure!
WRITTEN BY INGRID STENSVAAG