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15 Incredible Bikepacking Routes In The U.S.

15 Incredible Bikepacking Routes In The U.S.

America is blessed with an abundance of fire roads, old wagon paths, beaten-in trails and the dusty traces of 2-tracks across its sprawling western half. These are the perfect fodder for the off-road rider: an endless maze of nowhere to explore. Our bounty borders on comical in its abundance, so we had better get cracking.

1. Great Divide Mountain Bike Route

Any compendium of bikepacking in America would be remiss to leave the GDMBR off. It is the granddaddy of bikepacking, arguably the first long-distance off-road bike route and a hell of an adventure. Winding from Jasper, AB (formerly Banff) to the Mexican border, the GDMBR showcases the spine of America, crossing the Continental Divide upwards of 35 times. T

his naturally brings riders into the gut of some of the most spectacular scenery the Rockies have to offer: Banff National Park, Glacier National Park, Grand Teton National Park, the Great Basin and the San Juan range, to name a few.

The riding is less technical than you might imagine. Mostly double track but often washboarded, the GDMBR is most frequently ridden on rigid bikes. I found my Surly Krampus (3” tires) to be more than adequate, but 700c wheels will likely lead to considerable sandy, muddy suffering. Be prepared to spend upwards of two months on the route. Even rolling light and riding hard, 2,700’ is nothing to shake a stick at.

The course record, however, still stands a hair below 14 days, set on the unsupported Tour Divide race.

More info here:

A hazy Banff National Park

2. Wild West Route

A recent newcomer to the long-haul scene, the Wild West Route was finalized in 2018 as a drier, emptier, rowdier cousin to the GDMBR. Running from Eureka, MT through Idaho, Utah and Arizona to the Mexican border, it immerses riders in the less-frequented sagebrush country of the Intermountain West. Certainly not for the faint of heart, the route offers a grand tour of some of the less-frequented swathes of the West.

Service gaps run up to 150 miles and water gaps 90 miles. The route is similar in technical and physical difficulty to the Great Divide, however the resources along the route are more rudimentary. Don’t expect many trail angels. Do, however, plan to have come cultural experiences along the way: the WWR stops in Salt Lake City.

More info here:

3. Plateau Passage

A route that has tantalized many a desert-dweller, the Plateau Passage is a trans-Utah adventure, exploring the highlands between Las Vegas and Durango, CO. The route spends most of its time high in the hills, making a summer biking excursion from Las Vegas somewhat less of an oxymoron. Expect to become aquainted with Utah’s southern ranges, the Colorado Plateau and some 12,000’ passes in the San Juans.

Depending on the season, water gaps on the route are not tremendous. 60-70 miles max, though the resupplies are often stock tanks. The resupply options are a little more dubious, with gaps stretching to 230 miles. With 120,000’ of climbing spread over only 1,200 miles and half the route being double or single track, expect to work. A lot.

Timing on this route is critical, as the summer heat can be rough at the low elevations, while the early season deadfall and late season monsoons can make the route impassable. Most people begin around late May. The highly motivated can link this with the Colorado Trail to ride Vegas to Denver.

More info here:

A view of the of the Abajos and Moab from Mt. Tukuhnikivitz in the La Sals

4. Colorado Trail

For those with a taste for thin air and alpine ecosystems along with their singletrack, the Colorado Trail is a worthy objective. Denver to Durango, it winds along the hiker’s Colorado Trail, through much of Colorado’s most beautiful high alpine terrain. The biker’s trail is forced to avoid the Wilderness Areas along the hiker’s trail, but that doesn’t detract from the isolation or ruggedness of the ride.

It is, apart from the AZT, one of the most technically challenging long routes in the country. Hike-a-bike is a notorious feature of the CT, but the amount of hiking is of course dependent on the rider’s skill and equipment.

The food gaps run at max three to four days, but yhe water situation is quite friendly. You never need more than 3-4 liters on you, though this depends on the time of year. Seasonal timing for this route can be challenging, as a high snow year will keep many of the high passes closed into July and thunderstorm season.

And in Colorado, you never know when it will start snowing. Last year, I beat a 2’ September storm on Independence Pass by about three days. Most people finish the 540 mile, 72,000’ ride in around two weeks, and most go north to south (Denver to Durango).

More info here:

5. Arizona Trail

Notorious in bikepacking circles, the Arizona Trail, and its accompanying race, are unlike any other major route in the US. The 800 mile route explores everything the Arizona desert has to offer. 65% single track amidst an abundance of varied terrain, the route goes through the Grand Canyon.

Don’t be fooled, however, as riders have to carry their bikes through the canyon, making the rim to rim hike crushing. You had better go light if you want to make it across the Colorado.

The AZT is a desert singletrack dream, and well worth the true hike-a-bike. Do bring a real trail bike to appreciate the fruits of your labor. It goes without saying that summer is not the time for the AZT. Water and food gaps aren’t particularly large (50 and 100 miles respectively), but you had better figure out how to carry your bike. The rules are: “the wheel can’t touch the ground.”

More info here:

6. Trans North Georgia

In a list dominated by routes west of the Mississippi, the Trans North Georgia stands out, both as an eastern alternative, but also as a rugged singletrack adventure. More climbing than you could shake a stick at (8,000’ days over a five day ride) and little sprinkles of Appalachia in between the ripping downhill.

The route is actually part of a longer mountainous adventure in the region, the Southern Highlands Traverse, which is a multi-week endeavor worth travelling for. Despite being nestled in the East, the route can feel very remote, so it is very worth checking out if hundreds of miles of Wyoming sagebrush isn’t your idea of a great time.

The TNGA is a run as a ‘race’ every August, with Eddie O’Dea’s current record sitting at around a day and a half. As a start time, August is definitely pushing it, as Georgia can get blisteringly hot in the summer. The route is definitely a spring/fall endeavor. There is rocky, challenging single track, so a gravel/cross bike wouldn’t be the best tool for the job.

Why climb all that way to thunk your way down beautiful single track? Bring a mountain bike.

More info here:

7. Kokopelli Trail

The Kokopelli Trail has been around longer than bikepacking. Given its length and logistics (Fruita to Moab), it has historically been ridden as a supported shuttle ride. Regardless of style, the ride is epic. As mentioned above, the Colorado Plateau delivers terrain, isolation and geologic beauty unlike almost anywhere in America.

Add to that some of the best desert singletrack around, and you have got one hell of a weekend. Linkable with many longer rides, the route is a gateway drug to big desert rides. Oh, and did I mention you pass through the La Sal mountains? Spring travelers may have to hike-a-bike through snow.

160 miles and 15,000’ of climbing makes for an epic weekend, so plan in advance. Most people do the route in three to four days, though extensions and variations abound for added or lesser complexity, and the ride is done predominantly east-to-west, so as to descend Porcupine Rim trail in Moab.

Depending on stock tanks and rural faucets, water can be anything from a non-issue to rather challenging, but the logistics are generally straightforward, as rides back and forth from Fruita and Moab are not hard to find. Especially on high-traffic areas such as Porcupine, please abide by LNT principles and keep the desert as beautiful as you found it.

More info here:

NOTE: For those who are less ‘objective’ oriented, loop routes can be a very appealing alternative to point-to-point endeavors. The logistics of loop trips are inevitably more palatable, and the rush to get somewhere is usually less intense. Depending on the loop, there are also sometimes shortcuts to take back to trailhead, rather than point-to-point endeavors, which typically take that path to begin with.

8. Oregon Big Country

To most, Oregon is not synonymous with the desert. That’s for states like Nevada, Arizona and Utah. Instead, we think of cherry blossoms in Portland, Mt. Hood and the rainy Cascades. Of course, that is not the whole truth of Oregon. Much of the state is dusty, and empty. This is particularly true of southeast Oregon, which is rugged and very quiet.

The Big Country loop is an eight-day tour east of Klamath Falls which attempts to showcase the stunning beauty of the real Oregon desert, because Bend doesn’t really count. Prepare to see almost zero people. You will pass through one real resupply in 360 miles, and, if there’s mud, don’t plan on going anywhere. However, be prepared to bask in the harsh beauty of a less-trafficked corner of Oregon (and Nevada).

The logistics and remoteness of this trip are no joke. Add to that some pretty rough surfaces and you have the recipe for a wild time in nowhere. Definitely don’t expect to be laying down 120 mile days. Instead, try to budget extra time to explore the area. There are plenty of abandoned structures and beautiful washes to explore! It is possible to cut the loop in half using Funnel Canyon, so keep that in mind if you’re moving slower than expected.

More info here:

 9. Smoke and Fire 400

Central Idaho is gorgeous. From the Sawtooth Range to the rolling, forested hills to the Salmon River, the area is packed with stunning and diverse terrain. The Smoke and Fire route starts and finishes in Boise, wrapping through Ketchum and Sun Valley and some incredible singletrack. Ridden every year as a race, the route definitely has some burly singletrack sections, particularly around Ketchum.

Despite its orbit around Boise and Sun Valley, don’t expect the route to feel like someone’s backyard. It feels out there. Make sure to bring some suspension and budget time for the hot springs; they’re so worth it!

90% of the 420 miles are unpaved and 36,000’ of climbing await the eager rider. Water sources are plentiful (the route hugs two major river systems, the Boise and the Salmon), and resupplies are not infrequent. Being able to ride in and out of Boise makes a weekend in Idaho’s backcountry accessible to anyone near a major airport as well.

The route is in the best shape July through September, as the high-elevation passes can get snowfall as late as June. It is also important to know that there are plenty of black bears, so hang your food!

More info here:

Redfish Lake, from the Sawtooths

10. Blackfoot Hackle (Bikerafting)

Bikepacking and Packrafting go hand in hand. Beyond the scope of this article, the options that carrying a tiny kayak with opens for backcountry biking are immense. Hotspots for this sort of business are southern Utah and southern Alaska.

The Blackfoot loop is an excellent introduction to the sport, especially if you are new(er) to whitewater. All the whitewater is portage-able but the route maxes out with a handful of class III’s. Beginning and ending in the wonderful town of Missoula, experience terrain from the GDMBR as well as Norman Maclean’s classic, A River Runs Through It.

Southwest Montana is superlative, and close to my heart. Relish the historic Clarke Fork River and the less-known, but equally wonder Swan Range northwest of Seeley Lake. Oh, and don’t forget to bring your fly rod.

160 miles of floating and biking with 7000’ of climbing, makes for a relatively mellow endeavor, though the whitewater gear (and whitewater) will definitely slow you down. Plan on around five days, more if you want to fish as much as you should. Ovando is worth stopping in, as the community is hugely bike-friendly and a hub on the Tour Divide. It goes without saying that this is grizzly country. Be bear aware!

More info here:

Swan Lake Range, with the Mission Mountains in the distance

11. Colorado 14ers loop

All bikepackers are masochists to one degree or another. But those who summit 14ers on bicycles, without question, make the rest of us look soft. Beginning and ending in Salida, this loop is a sort of choose-your-own-adventure, with the option to summit as many as seven 14ers along the way.

Each one requires around 4,000’ of steep climbing, and, often, hike-a-bike, and adding all seven adds about 60 miles onto the route as a whole. Enjoy a route that is almost ½ singletrack through Colorado’s beautiful alpine terrain, and take in every vista between Salida and Leadville.

The route links up with portions of the Colorado Trail, but don’t get suckered into thinking this is just part of a larger, more manageable ride. It is as hard as it gets, if you’re going for the 14ers. The trails on the peaks are challenging. If you’re riding down, downhill bikes and skills are highly recommended.

Thankfully, the logistics for the trip are uncomplicated. 30 mile water gaps, 90 mile food gaps and abundant bike shops make life a little easier, but only just. The ride can’t really be done before mid-July, especially in a heavy snow year, and any later than mid-September is pushing it, in terms of new snow.

What September does give you is beautiful aspen gazing. Most people take around nine days to complete the 285-mile, 50,000’ loop with the 14ers. Expect five days and 185 miles with the optional peaks.

More info here:

Sam, excited for the upcoming downhill to Salida. Monarch Pass in the far skyline.

12. Butte Batholith Route

A route near and dear to my heart (I’ve DNFed on it with a stripped rear hub and other mechanicals twice), the Butte Batholith ride is incredible. Not far from either Butte or Bozeman, every valley you drop into feels a thousand miles from anyone. Chock-full of fun singletrack up and down (bring your 50 tooth rear cog!), the route wraps around abundant rocky protrusions; there is rarely a straight-away on the route.

While the GDMBR passes through the same area, the routes do not share a foot of trail, so if you’ve done one, you haven’t done a lick of the other! One of the more singletrack-heavy routes I’ve ever done, do not underestimate the time it will take to do the route, and think about suspension, as the trails tend towards rocky and root-y.

The route is only 95 miles, but it holds 14.000’ of climbing and 85% singletrack, so plan for at least three days. With no food resupply and limited/variable water, bikes will be heavy. Being bear country, be sure to take the adequate precautions. One of the attractions of this route is that it is a figure 8, so that you can bail at mile ~45 should the need arise. It’s all downhill to the car from there.

More info here: Bikepacking The Butte Batholith Route – Southern Montana

Burton Park

13. Grand Staircase loop

The Utah desert can feel very crowded at times, hanging out around Moab and St. George, but venturing south, to Escalante and the San Rafael Swell, all that falls away and you can experience a little more of the Utah Ed Abbey saw.

Related article: What is the Best Time of Year to Visit Moab, Utah?

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is beautiful, desolate and contested, and the Grand Staircase loop attempts to demonstrate that.

A huge emptiness (the route is 98% unpaved), there is almost no car traffic on the route thanks to a small section of the road closed to cars. Expect to see almost no one! Proximity to Lake Powell, sandstone slot canyons and Grosvenor’s Arch augment the route’s already substantial scenic allure.

Grand Staircase-Escalante holds 75 million years of fossil history and 2 billion years of geologic history, so relish it while you can.

The bentonite clay that makes up a portion of the route is totally unridable when wet. As in, you can’t ride your bike, you can’t push your bike and you can’t wash the mud off your bike. The route is only really rideable in early spring (March and April) and late fall (October-November) due to the mud and soaring summer temperatures.

Barring rain, you can plan to ride the 160 miles and 12,000’ in three or four days. It is highly recommended to ride the loop clockwise, and water is not hard to come by, for the desert.

More info here:

14. Straddle and paddle

The only Midwestern route on the list, as I’m not counting the epic gravel race routes, Straddle and Paddle explores one of the regions genuine treasures: the Boundary Waters. Winding along the North Shore of Lake Superior and into Superior National Forest, the route dabbles in lake country without descending into the logistical complexity of a multisport adventure.

It deposits you at the doorstep of venerable Boundary Waters outfitters, allowing you rent a canoe for the day without having to figure out how exactly to fit a bicycle into a canoe. The proximity of people along the shore means riders can get away without much on their bikes, allowing for a more relaxed adventure.

With such a plethora of resupply and dining options, Straddle and Paddle is certainly the easiest route logistically on the list, making it an attractive option for those new to planning bike trips or those excited not to eat out of a bag. With 180 miles and 8000’ of climbing, a rider can polish it out in three days, or explore the side trips (and rent a canoe!) in four days.

More info here:

15. Orogenesis

Orogenesis is not yet complete. To my knowledge, no one has ridden the whole thing as of summer 2019. But lord is it ambitious: 450,000’ of climbing, 4600 miles, 1/3 singletrack, running from BC’s Coast Range to the tip of the Baja Penninsula. It follows, in parts, sections of pre-established trails, such as the Cascade Trail, the Oregon Timber Trail and the Baja Divide.

Everything between Klamath Falls, OR and Tecato is a question mark for now. You can sign up to help scout the route, or wait until Bikepacking Roots puts all the pieces together. If you do attempt it, let us know.

More info here:

Rainier in the evening, north of Packwood

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