Original Article posted on adventurecycling.org
Dan Meyer Jan 19, 2021
Once again, I got started late. After lingering over coffee, packing up my bike, and making sure the floors were swept and the doors locked, I found myself the last one at the hut. Which was fine. Solitude is a necessary component of a good bikepacking trip, even when riding with a group.
The October sun was already higher in the sky than I would have liked, but soon I was on a rocky dirt road shaded by towering ponderosa pines. I passed Will at the first switchback as he stopped for a water break, and John a little higher up. Tiny streams burbled down the mountainside and seeped into the edge of the road as I climbed, complementing the soundtrack of my tires crunching along. The air was crisp and cool, and the surroundings surprisingly lush. I felt like I was back in western Montana, not in the harsh, hot desert of southern Utah. The fire-orange hoodoos of Red Canyon seemed a world away, though we’d been there just yesterday.
It was Day Four of a five-day trip on the Aquarius Trail and Hut System, a 190-mile bikepacking route on dirt roads and singletrack from Brian Head, Utah, to Escalante. What makes the route especially unique is — as you might have gathered from the name — you stay in huts furnished with beds, a bathroom, and even a fully stocked kitchen, meaning you can leave your camping and cooking gear at home. That saved weight helps more than a little on big days like this one: the first order of business after leaving the Pine Lake Hut today was a stiff climb onto the Aquarius Plateau, part of Utah’s High Plateaus and the namesake of our route.
Two thousand twenty had been quite a year, and it wasn’t even over yet. I transitioned to working from home full-time in March, got married in June, and moved from Missoula, Montana, to Salt Lake City, Utah, a week later, all of it during a global pandemic. I went from a tiny, leaky A-frame cabin (full of charm, as the realtors say) with Rattlesnake Creek in my backyard to a modern downtown apartment surrounded by concrete and pavement. Instead of the burbling creek soothing me to sleep at night, I now had a busy four-lane thoroughfare drowning me in the din of traffic.
Granted, I had it pretty good. But the need to travel somewhere, to get out in the middle of nowhere with a starry sky as my nightly companion, was eating at me. When the opportunity arose to join the inaugural tour on a new bikepacking route in the Utah desert, and with a hut system to boot, I jumped on it.
The Aquarius Trail and Hut System was developed by Escape Adventures, a tour operator based in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Aquarius Trail is on public land, mostly in Dixie National Forest, and was designed for bikepackers, hikers, and ATVers. The route is dirt roads and doubletrack with a smattering of singletrack trails, not unlike the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route.
The Aquarius Hut System is a series of five structures placed at strategic points along the route to allow for reasonable daily distances between them. All but one are in Dixie National Forest — Escape spent years jumping through the bureaucratic hoops for permission to place them on public land — but the huts themselves are private, and you have to pay to use them. You could, if you were so inclined, ride the route and stay in a tent, since most of the huts are located on or near public campgrounds. But why would you do that when you could have the comfort and convenience of staying indoors?
Instead of rugged shelters built from stone, as one might imagine a hut clinging to a Swiss mountainside, the Aquarius huts are repurposed shipping containers. That’s right, we slept in metal boxes that had once carried goods across the ocean. But don’t let this deter you. From the outside, they have a certain utilitarian look crossed with a modern western chic — earth tones, steel roofs, solar panels — but the insides are homey, clean, and soothing with log-frame bunk beds, finished walls, and windows. They also have electricity, plugs for recharging your gadgets, and propane heaters for the cold nights. These huts just might swear you off tents for good.
After a four-hour drive south from Salt Lake City, I wound my way up a steep mountain pass to Brian Head Ski Resort, the start of the Aquarius Trail and where I would meet my group. After appropriately distanced hellos, we got our gear together and gathered around Alex, who would be stocking the huts, for a quick rundown. Alex told us what to expect, gave us the four-digit code to unlock the doors, and then surprised us with this: because he would be driving ahead of us each day, Alex could shuttle our gear. The group was delighted and happily tossed their bags into the van. Well, most of us.
I was briefly tempted to unburden my rig, but I felt an ethical responsibility to ride the route loaded as if I were a regular paying customer doing a self-guided tour. How else could I accurately gauge the physical and logistical difficulty of the route? Also, my boss would have yelled at me. (Editor’s note: Yes.)
We set off on the paved highway out of Brian Head in light, friendly traffic for two miles to a dirt road that wound up to Brian Head Peak. After a brief pause to regroup and take in the views — a smattering of pink and red rock that only hinted at what was to come later in the week — it was time for our first singletrack trail. (For riders on eBikes or who just prefer to stick to roads, there are alternate routes around all the singletrack trails.) Starting at just over 11,000 feet, the Sidney Peaks Trail is an intermediate-level mountain biking trail with loose, sandy sections and more than a few rocks to dodge. After a couple of miles, we entered a recent burn area. With the hollow remnants of trees charred black and our tires kicking up moon dust in every corner, it had an eerie, apocalyptic feel.
Still descending, we connected onto the Bunker Creek Trail where the surface was a bit rockier and more difficult, but we were all hooting and hollering and having a good time nonetheless. This was proper mountain biking, and it was some of the most fun I’ve had on a loaded bike. After 12 miles of uninterrupted singletrack, we found ourselves cruising on dirt roads that took us through the volcanic fields and cinder cones of the Markagunt Plateau and the sagebrush of Rock Canyon before a screaming descent to the little town of Hatch.
The Hatch Hut is located just east of town and is the only Aquarius hut on private land (owned by Escape Adventures). It’s in a flat meadow full of rabbitbrush with a view of red rock cliffs to the east. I was the first one to the hut, and I took full advantage by having a shower. Yes, that’s right: I took a shower. In addition to sleeping quarters, a kitchen, a storage unit, and a bathroom, each hut also has a fully functional shower operated by — like every other water source at the huts — a foot pump. The water was cold and the pressure was low, but still. After a long day pedaling in the sun, I wasn’t going to say no to a shower. Nor was I going to say no to a post-ride beer. In addition to food and supplies, Alex stocked each hut for us with plenty of adult beverages.
This being a self-guided tour, it was up to us to manage cooking and cleaning duties. Ashli volunteered to cook, and I happily washed the dishes. After dinner, we all gathered in camp chairs around the propane fire pit to chat about the day’s ride and enjoy another beverage. The fire pit was clutch — as soon as the sun went down, it got cold fast. There was a scramble for puffy jackets.
When it was time to call it a night, we had no need to pitch a tent, inflate a mattress pad, or unfurl a sleeping bag. No, we had bunks with real mattresses and a sleeping bag with a liner for everyone. Even with the windows cracked to ensure air circulation, I was warm and cozy all night long. The hard part was getting up the next morning.
After yesterday’s long singletrack section, today would instead be all dirt road, starting with a steep, dusty climb out of Proctor Canyon. But first we had to make breakfast, pack up, and clean out the huts. It’s the responsibility of those staying in the huts to make sure the dishes are clean, the floors are swept, and the doors locked before leaving.
Because the Aquarius Trail is a backcountry-heavy route that for the most part doesn’t pass through towns, we had to bring enough food and water to last us to the next hut. Luckily the huts are stocked with snacks and lunch items such as bars, fruit snacks, apples and bananas, and sandwich fixings.
Some highlights from Day Two’s ride included the bright yellow cottonwoods in Proctor Canyon; the long, fast plunge from the top of the Sunset Cliffs all the way to Tropic Reservoir, which looked sad and gross and in no way enticing in spite of the heat (though a few of us still ventured in); and the fun, swoopy doubletrack just south of Highway 12. It was about 30 miles from the Hatch Hut to the Butch Cassidy Hut, which is nestled among a group of dispersed campsites on the north side of the highway.
That morning, it hit me just how important it is to clean and maintain your drivetrain while touring in the desert. It had only been a day since I’d lubed my chain, but already my drivetrain sounded like it was devouring itself. With all the clicking and clacking and grinding and squealing, you could hear me coming a mile off. Needless to say, when I arrived at the Butch Cassidy Hut, cleaning my bike was my top priority (after showering).
All of the Aquarius huts are off-the-grid, self-contained units, and the water has to be trucked in. After cooking, cleaning, showering, and drinking, there isn’t enough water to justify hosing off everyone’s bike each day. You have to be a little creative in getting the many layers of dust off. Each hut has a full complement of tools, rags, lubricant, spare tubes, sealant, and even a repair stand, so there’s no excuse to not take care of your rig. I discovered that squirting the cassette and chain with a water bottle works pretty well and doesn’t use much water. I wiped off as much dirt as I could from the rest of the bike with a towel.
Before long, I had my bike running smoothly and quietly again, which was good because we had a big day ahead: more than 40 miles and nearly 4,000 feet of climbing to the next hut.
After a whole day of riding nothing but dirt roads and doubletrack, our crew of mountain bikers was excited for Day Three because we’d be starting with a solid chunk of singletrack: the famous Thunder Mountain Trail.
I’d heard of the Thunder Mountain Trail for years, having seen pictures in bike magazines, so my expectations were high. But after a few miles of repetitive trail — descending into a draw, switchbacking up and out of it — I was underwhelmed. The riding wasn’t terribly challenging, which was fine, but the views were downright disappointing. Where were all the Martian features that I’d seen in pictures? Then I rounded a corner and WHAM! Everything changed.
Suddenly I was on a narrow ridgetop trail skirting giant, bright-orange hoodoos that looked like they could topple onto me in the slightest breeze, with alien-looking rock formations in strange, new shades of red in every direction. I had to stop and take it all in for fear of distractedly riding right off a cliff. THIS was the Thunder Mountain Trail I’d been waiting for.
It’s only about eight miles long, but plan for some extra time on Thunder Mountain, especially if you’ve never ridden it before. Once you get the good views, they never stop. But you will stop, probably often. Just make sure to pay attention to the trail because once you start descending, things get a bit more technical. There’s nothing overly demanding on Thunder Mountain, but there were a few tight, rocky corners that required more concentration. I admit without shame to walking a couple of spots that were especially loose and tricky, something I might not have done on an unloaded bike.
Aside from a couple of mountain bikers near the trailhead and a group on horseback right in the middle, we had Thunder Mountain all to ourselves, which was quite a treat. That wasn’t the case on the other side, where Thunder Mountain drops you out onto Highway 12 with all the trucks and campers on their way to Bryce Canyon National Park. It was a bit of a zoo, and on a weekday no less. Luckily it was only a mile west to the turnoff for Casto Canyon.
It was a long 30 miles to the next hut, much of it hot and dry at the lower elevation. Like a mirage that never got closer, for miles and miles we could see the next day’s destination in the distance — the Aquarius Plateau.
After the 2,000-foot climb from the Pine Lake Hut to the top of the plateau, I turned onto the optional out-and-back that promised a can’t-miss viewpoint. Along the rooty, rolling doubletrack, followed by a smidge of pretty fun singletrack, I came across three others from the group who had also chosen the extra miles. Together we pedaled and pushed along the narrow southern tip, emerging from bristlecone pine trees to a crumbling limestone cliff at the plateau’s edge.
We’d reached Powell Point, 10,188 feet above sea level and the summit of the Grand Staircase, the pink, grey, and white cliffs stepping down all the way to the Grand Canyon hundreds of miles to the south. John Wesley Powell and his crew stopped here during their 1869 expedition to survey the Green and Colorado Rivers. Beyond lay Bryce Canyon National Park to the west, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to the south and east — jewels of southern Utah partially obscured by smoky haze in the distance from the wildfires out west. The thousand-foot vertical drop right in front of us? We could see that just fine.
We lingered at Powell Point for a while taking photos, eating snacks, and tiptoeing as far as we dared to the edge, which for me wasn’t terribly far. (I have a healthy fear of plummeting to my death, thank you very much.) Finally, we pushed our pedals and rejoined the main route to the Aquarius Hut some 30 miles away, much of it at 10,000 feet. We were in the high country.
Just a couple of miles from the hut, I was pedaling along by myself, enjoying the scenery and the solitude, when I stopped for an impromptu and vainglorious photo of my bike lying down in the middle of the road. As soon as I got back on the bike and put my camera away (okay, my phone), there, not 50 feet from me, stood a bull elk the size of a Greyhound bus. I’d never seen an elk that big or that close. Before I could even think about reaching for my camera (phone), he’d scampered off into the trees. I felt lucky for the glimpse and alarm at the fact that something that big could move so quickly.
The Aquarius Hut was the most remote so far, and it looked like it had been placed on an old, dilapidated ranch. There was even a small, neglected water tower that was listing to one side. I fell asleep that night to the sounds of elk bugling in the distance.
We’d been told ahead of time that the fifth and final hut, the Hell’s Backbone Hut, was experiencing electrical issues so we would have to skip it and instead head straight to Escalante. Which was a shame — Hell’s Backbone Road was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and, like Going-to-the-Sun Road in Montana’s Glacier National Park, is considered an engineering marvel.
We woke that morning to different weather than we’d had all week: instead of clear skies the blue of a pilot-light flame, we had clouds — clouds! — and a moderate headwind. We pedaled through a different atmosphere along the rolling top of the Aquarius Plateau. The sun would come and go, and we could see streaks in some of the darker clouds. It was raining somewhere.
It promised to be a short day so I didn’t mind taking my time. I was enjoying riding among the pine trees and meadows on the plateau. Soon the road tilted downward and we cruised on fast dirt through aspen groves, descending quickly until we found ourselves among juniper trees and sagebrush. It was like seeing all of southern Utah’s desert ecosystems in a span of a few miles. Before we knew it, we were sharing smooth pavement with cars, passing ranches and second homes. We were approaching civilization and the end of our journey.
At Escalante Outfitters, we shared celebratory pizza and beer as we waited for Alex and the shuttle van. It was a fitting end: after enjoying the luxury of a hut-to-hut trip and taking in the jaw-dropping beauty that is southern Utah in autumn, we weren’t about to forgo niceties like homemade pizza and cold brews. We were spoiled now.
NUTS & BOLTS
What to Expect
This may be “luxury bikepacking,” but the Aquarius Trail is a challenging route that will test your limits of endurance and bike handling. The daily distances are reasonable for off-road bike touring — about 30 to 40 miles — but the daily elevation gains are worth considering (Day Four saw well over 4,000 feet of climbing). And if you get in trouble, for the most part there are no services between the huts.
The Aquarius Trail and Hut System was designed for self-guided touring, in which case you would carry all your own gear (including water, lunch, and snacks), not unlike an Adventure Cycling inn-to-inn tour. Escape Adventures also offers guided tours on the Aquarius Trail, for which the van will shuttle your gear every day.
When to Go
The Aquarius Huts are available from July to October, depending on seasonal snowfall. Reservations are required to stay in the huts (aquariustrail.com/book-now).
How to Get There
American, Delta, and United offer flights to St. George, Utah, which is about an hour-and-a-half drive to Brian Head. Other options are Las Vegas, Nevada (three hours), and Salt Lake City (four hours). You can set up your own shuttle from the endpoint back to Brian Head, or Escape will shuttle you back to the start for a fee.
Bikes and Gear
Escape Adventures offers full-suspension mountain bikes (and eBikes) for rent. If you’re bringing your own bike, I recommend a hardtail mountain bike with a suspension fork, especially if you plan on tackling the singletrack. A full-suspension bike will be more fun on the singletrack at the expense of reduced efficiency on the roads. And because of the wide variety of road and trail conditions, including loose sand and sharp rocks, I highly suggest using high-volume tubeless tires with plenty of sealant. I rode a 29+ hardtail with a 100mm fork, and I would use the same bike again.
Food and Water
Each hut has its own menu for breakfast and dinner, as well as several snack and lunch options to take with you each day. Escape will also stock the fridges with beer, for a fee.
Plan on carrying the minimum three liters of water with you each day. While it’s possible to filter water from a creek or lake along the route, at least earlier in the season, don’t count on it. We did the route during the first week of October and I sure didn’t see any water that I would drink.
This being a desert tour, much of it at high elevation, plan for extreme weather. We had fairly perfect conditions for our tour — clear skies and sunshine — but we still saw freezing temperatures at night and hot, dry conditions during the day. The weather can change quickly in the desert, and you don’t want to get caught out in a storm without rain gear and a puffy jacket.
Bring sunscreen (and use it!) and hand lotion. I deeply regretted skipping the lotion as the dry desert air wreaked havoc on my skin.
St. George has several bike shops, as do Las Vegas and Salt Lake City. In Brian Head, go to Georg’s Ski Shop (georgsskishop.com).
Before the trip, Escape Adventures emailed us our daily route maps on MapMyRide. I saved the maps on the app as a backup and uploaded the GPX data to my GPS head unit for navigation.