Multi-Sport in Moab: Cycling, Running, and Packrafting the Colorado River

Just a few miles from downtown Moab, the Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway offers recreation opportunities galore.
Just a few miles from downtown Moab, the Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway offers recreation opportunities galore. Emma Walker
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“Hey! Are you nuts?”

My reverie interrupted, I scan the bluffs on river left and see a family standing at the shore. The kids are waving enthusiastically, and their dad genuinely wants to know what’s wrong with me.

Grinning broadly, I hoist my paddle in the air and shout back: “Maybe a little!”

The family erupts into cheers, and I get my paddle back in the water just in time to negotiate the next small rapid, which, in early spring, is just a series of riffles.

It’s not hard to see how I might look a little unhinged: strapped to my tiny blue boat, the lone vessel in a sea of towering red cliffs, is a disassembled mountain bike.

Pre-runoff conditions make for a serene paddle on the Colorado River, just upstream from Big Bend.
Pre-runoff conditions make for a serene paddle on the Colorado River, just upstream from Big Bend. Emma Walker

I’ve been up and down this iconic canyon more times than I can count. The “River Road,” so named for its course along the Colorado, runs from just north of downtown Moab, through the ghost town of Cisco, and ends at its junction with I-70, providing vistas of the Fisher Towers, Castle Valley, the La Sal Mountains, and—my favorite section—that quintessential component of any Moab trip: the magnificent sandstone cliffs rising above the Colorado River.

Though I’d explored many of the canyon’s recreational offerings—bouldering at Big Bend, hiking up Negro Bill Canyon, camping at the half-dozen BLM campsites scattered up and down the river corridor—I was ready to see it from a whole new perspective. It’s easy to miss the little details from behind a windshield.

I’d been itching to get on this stretch of the silty Colorado since my first-ever trip to Moab in my early twenties. Now, with a newly acquired packraft, I was finally ready to take the plunge—though I hoped not literally.

Packrafts are lightweight, inflatable boats, small enough to fit in a pack before and after paddling, but sturdy enough to ferry cargo (paddler, pack, bike, what have you) across alpine lakes, down stretches of flatwater, or, for the very bold, through gnarly whitewater rapids. They’ve long been popular in Alaska—for a crash course, read legendary adventurer Roman Dial’s Packrafting!—and are steadily gaining traction in the Lower 48.

This visit would involve three human-powered trips through the canyon.

The plan was fairly simple—the beauty of adventuring under your own power is eliminating the need for complex shuttling operations—get bike and boat on the river at a put-in just downstream from Fisher Towers, float to Big Bend, assemble the bike, and ride back up to the starting point. The next morning, for good measure, I’d run the Canyonlands Half Marathon.

This section of the Colorado is by no means wilderness, though it’s bordered on river left by BLM and, to the right, Arches National Park. Established campsites are sprinkled along the banks, and most of the time you can see the road, or at least the cars speeding down it. But rivers, lifeblood of their ecosystems, have a way of taking over: ripples, hurrying downstream to Lake Powell, drown out the engine sounds; invasive tamarisk trees make themselves useful by shielding the road from view. It’s a pleasant float, to say the least.

The shoulder on SR-128 may be narrow, but kayak paddles serve an additional purpose: alerting oncoming traffic to your presence.
The shoulder on SR-128 may be narrow, but kayak paddles serve an additional purpose: alerting oncoming traffic to your presence. Bix Firer

The bike ride upstream, naturally, is a little more work, especially with a packraft and paddle in tow. The challenge begins with finding a suitable take-out at Big Bend Campground, then hauling the whole rig up to the gravel parking lot for reassembly without tramping through someone else’s campsite.

Once on the road, despite the narrow shoulder—a dismantled kayak paddle makes for excellent flagging—the canyon delivers again: the impenetrable red fortress walls are a good distraction from the gently rolling hills, punctuated on occasion by short uphill slogs.

The following morning dawned clear and cool, unusually windless for the notoriously blustery start to the annual Canyonlands Half Marathon. The half runs down the River Road from the bluffs at Mile 11 on SR-128 to Swanny City Park in downtown Moab, where runners are greeted by live music and a beer garden. It’s a fast course, being on road, and an ideal event for first-time distance racers. The surroundings provide much-needed diversion, and the road heads the same general direction as the river: downhill.

This Moab visit—once, twice, three times a canyon—served as a work-out-the-kinks training outing for longer, more remote packrafting expeditions, though any given aspect would’ve been worth the drive from Denver.

The Canyonlands Half Marathon is a perfect race for those new to longer distances.
The Canyonlands Half Marathon is a perfect race for those new to longer distances. Emma Walker

Best of all, even after all my forays to Moab—and dozens of trips up and down the River Road—I discovered something new each time I changed my vantage point: a slight bend in the river, a crack system in the soaring red cliffs, a boulder begging to be climbed. It’s pretty remarkable what a change in perspective can show us about the places we love best.

If you go…

Camp at Upper Onion Creek (BLM) for fantastic views of the La Sals and Fisher Towers, minus the crowds of the downstream campsites on 128. Or splurge and stay at Red Cliffs Lodge, where you can enjoy a glass of local wine from your patio on the banks of the Colorado. No permits are required for private boating on this stretch of the river, but camping is regulated.

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