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2021 Hut to Hut Excursion turns in to ultimate survival experience

A core four of thinkMTB's strongest riders - Brad, Bernie, Dan and Sidney - took the challenge of riding the San Juan Hut System from Durango to Paradox, CO this month. They would cover 158 miles, climb 15,000 feet, spend two days at more than 11,000 feet, all for a five-day tour of the best of Colorado backcountry. They experienced warm, cold, wet, dry, sunny, cloudy, windy…all four seasons. They pedaled through fire road, jeep track, single track, paved roads, hard pack, sand, rock, mud – basically encountered it all!

The venture started with a one-and-a-half-day drive from Orange County, CA including a quick stop at club member Craig’s in Prescott, AZ. The group then moved on to another club member home in Durango, CO for a town visit, acclimation and a wonderful pre-ride feast hosted by Sharone and Orly…then the real adventure began.

Day 1 Durango to Bolam Pass Hut

  • There were two options, the standard route of 18 miles with 3800’ climbing, or the alternate route of 21 miles with 4800’ climbing and peak elevation of 12,500'. After much deliberation and considering stories from other riders, the group opted for the “easier” route. Although shorter, this route was no walk in the park. A lot of climbing in a short distance, high altitude and extremely rocky 4x4 trails made for a challenging ride. All rode strong, despite heavy bikes and packs. They only walked some of the steep rocky sections and made it to the hut by lunch time. The views were beautiful, pristine lakes and meadows at 10,000'+. They settled into the hut for the evening, happily discovered it slept eight, and it was just the thinkMTB four. The hut was well stocked and comfortable. Bernie cooked up a great meal of spaghetti and chili and the group reflected on the perfect weather that first day while relaxing in an equally calm night, watching lots of deer around the camp. Little did they know what the next day would serve up.

Day 2 Bolam Pass Hut to Black Mesa Hut

  • This time the guys opted for the alternate route of 32 miles with almost 4000’ climbing. Weather was great at the onset. There were lots of single track, some fire road, and quite a lot of climbing. This was a challenging day with some hike-a-bike and some long gradual but relentless climbs. They still rode strong, but about 30 minutes before getting to the hut, a storm rolled in with lightning, thunder, and a downpour. Even with rain jackets on, everyone was drenched and more than happy to get out of the storm. Monsoon storms normally come in the late afternoon, pour down for an hour, then get blown out but not this one. It rained and hailed relentlessly thru the night, coming down so hard conversation in the hut was near impossible! Again, Chef Bernie came to the rescue, serving a much needed hot meal of chicken burritos that night. They went to bed hoping for nothing but the rain to stop.

Day 3 Black Mesa Hut to Dry Creek Hut

  • This was supposed to be the easiest day, 38 miles with a little climbing but almost 6000’ descending down to a breathable altitude. After raining continually thru the night, they all woke up to temperatures in the low 40s and the rain just kept falling. Now they needed to decide what to do. Though they had a few warm clothing items and rain jackets, they were not prepared for driving rain, wind, and such cold temps. This would be even worse given the route had them descending most of the day. They messaged San Juan Huts but received little response. Then, while walking around the hut at one of the few times rain had stopped, they noticed a truck parked out near the road. It was Susie from San Juan Huts, who had come to service the hut. Saying they were happy to see her was an understatement. They helped her service the hut (a ton of work she normally does alone) and she agreed to be their shuttle to the next hut. Someone was watching over the crew; they may not have survived otherwise - it continued to rain and hail on and off for the whole day! They piled into Susie’s truck putting the bikes and coolers in the back. Four squeezed into two seats in the front and Bernie volunteered to ride in the back. Susie drove 3.5 hours thru the storms, delivering the gang to the next hut. They stopped in the beautiful town of Telluride on the way for coffee and some snacks. Upon arrival at the Dry Creek hut, Susie let them off at the main road, as the last quarter mile to the hut was a mud pit and likely her truck would have been stuck in it. Slowly they made their way thru the mud to the hut, often walking in the bushes at the side of the road, where they found small cactus plants that stuck to the mud and their clothes. Needless to say, everybody was a complete mess by the time they got to the hut, and glad to have some shelter. It continued to rain most of the rest of the day. The chef cooked up some spicy chicken and noodles, so at least all ate well that night.

Day 4 Dry Creek Hut to Wedding Bell Hut

  • All woke up to 60 degrees sunny skies and rainbows. What a relief! It was great to see sun after 36 hours of rain! Now the challenge was getting back to the main road thru the mud, deciding the best route to take to just start the ride for the day. After cleaning up, several trips out to the main road were necessary to carry the bikes, and then the packs, all while walking in flip flops or casual shoes thru the mud so the bike shoes were not clogged. This was heavy, sticky mud that clung to everything. Finally, everything was out to the road, the bikes were readied, an effort was made to clean the shoes, and it was time to get on the way… almost 11am. Today’s route was 34 miles with a little climbing and a little descending. A pretty easy route of some single track and mostly fire road. Unfortunately, after looking at the route, navigator Brad, discovered the route started on the other side of the hut and they were supposed to go back down the muddy road. NO WAY! The guys sat down and tried to map out a way to the destination, ignoring the routes provided. Brad figured they could ride a gravel road back to the paved highway and ride on that for a while to connect to the route. After a while they did reconnect with the standard route on a rideable fire road. They rode this for about 4 miles encountering the occasional muddy spots along the way. As fate would have it, about 4 miles in, the whole road became a complete mud pit. After navigating the mud and brush on the side of the road for a distance, it came to a point they couldn’t wheel the bikes anymore and had to carry them, all 40lb bikes plus additional 5-10lbs of mud. At one point they waved down a maintenance truck on the road. “How much further is the road muddy?”, they asked. His answer was another 4-5 miles. That’s it! They’re done! There was no way they could continue. So they turned around and made the way back to the main road. They were prepared for high altitude, some weather, mechanicals, flats, dehydration, medical issues, but not the mud. After getting back to the main road, they ate some food, cleaned the bikes and shoes and tried to figure out what to do. It was now early afternoon and only 5 miles from where the day started. Brad was back to figuring yet another way to get to the destination. After riding on the paved highway for a while they turned on to a well maintained, gas line, gravel road. Finally, back on track! They rode this for a while, turned on to some cool single track, back onto double track and were well on the way to the hut. The reroutes added about 9 miles to the original route, forced the clan to stop many times to clean bikes and shoes, but they did finally make it to Wedding Bell Hut. This hut was situated at the top of a cliff with the most spectacular views and provided an incredible sunset. The sad news was after a challenging day, this hut was in the worst condition of any of the previous huts. No non-alcoholic drinks (weather was now mid 70s). Hut was dirty, trash cans overflowing, no clean towels, shortage of food, the list goes on…

Day 5 Wedding Bell Hut to Paradox

  • A beautiful sunny day at the start. This was also a short day 30 miles with about 2300’ climbing and about 3800’ descending. This included a hike-a-bike down the side of a cliff. A trail where you descend 900’ in three quarters of a mile. The start was a little fire road climbing and then a lot of double track, trying to avoid the occasional mud spots along the way and there were many. Finally, after about 23 miles, they reached the much anticipated cliff drop trail. They walked most of this trail and stopped halfway for lunch. It was something different and the views were amazing as they descended into town. Apparently, many years ago, this trail was built by farmers that used to walk their livestock up and down it. Hard to imagine. The trail was extremely rocky and there were times they had to help each other carry the bikes over some steep drops. They finally reached the bottom and now it was about 6-7 miles of paved road to the destination - a little “store” in Paradox where Brad’s truck was waiting. They made a brief stop at the Bedrock Store, famous from the Thelma and Louise movie, but it was closed. All that was there was a guy sitting outside who wanted to chat for the next hour. Probably hadn’t seen another live human being in days. After a while Bernie said it was time to get going. The next few miles were all flat paved road, and they reached the destination a little after 1pm. After some cold orange juice, cucumbers, and warm showers provided by the store in Paradox, they started their return drive to Cedar City for the night.

After leaving Cedar City the next day, the weary four met club member Gary in St. George, UT for breakfast and then it was time to head home.

This trip was an adventure with some trying times. The riding was relatively easy compared to other challenges these riders have met. They experienced incredible scenery, great riding, and camaraderie. The bikes handled what was thrown at them extremely well, a small mechanical on Bernie’s chain, and Sid broke a spoke - that’s it. thinkMTB will likely do something similar again, taking into consideration the lessons learned in this experience and inspired by the memories made.

Authored by their leader, Sidney

Check out the full photo gallery for more images of this epic trip

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