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Golden Tunnels and Shipping Containers: Touring the Grand Staircase on the Aquarius Trail Hut System

Originally posted on The Radavist October 18, 2022

While fully loaded touring and sleeping under the stars provide an enticing self-contained experience, there is a unique allure to the quintessential hut trip. Hut-supported routes are rare here in the U.S., but our rag-tag group of cyclotourists has taken advantage of the proximal classics, including the San Juan Hut Durango-to-Moab and Telluride-to-Moab routes. When the Aquarius Hut Trail Network was announced last year, our exploratory interests were piqued. Home to the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, southern Utah has become one of my favorite destinations from time spent riding and touring in our 4×4 in its rugged backcountry. Even so, the beauty of the riding and surrounding landscapes still bowled me over.

We have a lot of thoughts about both the route and the huts—read on for a full review of this majestic trip…

Aquarius Trail Hut System Overview

While the amenities and relative logistical ease of a hut link-up add to the overall experience of any hut-to-hut trip, the route between the Aquarius Trail Hut System is incredible all on its own. Starting in Brian Head, UT, the ride covers 200 miles over six days to reach its eastern terminus in Escalante. Of note: if you’re traveling from sea level, you might want to give yourself a few extra days to acclimate as the route is entirely at elevation. Our trip included mixed terrain and surface types with sections of singletrack trails, double track, gravel, and pavement—a “best-of” of sorts.

However, there are alternative routing options to accommodate varying preferences, experience, or bike set-ups: tweak the route to include all possible singletrack, just fire roads, or make it e-bike friendly! (Multiple routing options also open up the ATHS system to repeat visits that would still offer novel riding.) So don’t let riding experience or comfort on technical terrain deter you: there’s a route for you. And, whichever way you choose, rest assured you’ll pass through some of the most stunning landscapes in Southeastern Utah.

The Aquarius Plateau and Grand Staircase

The Aquarius Plateau is among the high geologic tables that comprise the High Plateaus Section of the Colorado Plateau. As North America’s highest timbered plateau, the Aquarius Plateau tops out at 11,328′ at Bluebell Knoll. This wooded high country runs across the northern edge of the Grand Staircase—a massive series of sedimentary steppes—for about 100 miles. Formed 20 million years ago by the tectonic plate uplift on the Colorado Plateau, the Aquarius Plateau encompasses more than 900 square miles. It is the largest and highest plateau in Bryce Canyon Country, with over 50,000 rolling acres, all above 11,000 feet in elevation.

The Aquarius Plateau towers above the newly solidified, 1.87 million-acre Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, with the massive eastern slope overlooking the alien landscape of Capitol Reef National Park.

The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument’s status had a rocky hiatus from 2016 through 2020 when the federal government opened it up for mineral extraction bids. Many local and national environmental groups rallied around protecting this unique landscape. Finally, after years of uncertainty, on Oct. 8, 2021, President Biden issued Presidential Proclamation 10286, restoring the boundaries of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument with help from United States Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland.

Now protected, GSENM spans 1.87 million acres across various ecotonal shifts, from low-lying deserts to dense pine forests. While the land is now guarded from mineral extraction, it is important to note that this is the home of many Indigenous groups. From the Ancestral Puebloan and mysterious Fremont people, who farmed and lived within this landscape for thousands of years, to their descendants, including people from the Hopi, Paiute, Zuni, Ute, and Navajo tribes who are very much still here today.

The Hut Experience

Hut-to-hut travel first began in Europe as a way to provide an infrastructure of backcountry refuges for ski tourers in winter months and backpackers during warmer seasons. While this concept has caught on with some in America, there are still few hut networks appropriate for bicycle travel. The Aquarius Trail Hut System is the latest to launch in the American West, and it’s the best one yet, in my opinion.

Hut travel by bike lends a semi-supported style to cyclotouring. Each night you arrive at a new hut in a new location after riding anywhere from 25 to 40 miles (for the ATHS) across stunning landscapes. The huts are stocked with food, water, bedding, and all the accouterments you’d want after spending six hours riding a half-loaded bike. Because you spend your nights in these huts—and thus make two meals a day using the hut’s resources—you needn’t carry a stove or shelter on your bike. Or even a sleeping bag. The Aquarius Trail Hut System supplies a sleeping bag liner for you; more on that later.

You arrive each evening presented with a meal plan, with all the ingredients on hand in a solar-powered refrigerator. After gorging on dinner, you sleep in a cozy, warm hut with your pedaling compatriots. The following morning, you can cook breakfast, make a bag lunch, and pack up all the snacks you want for the day’s adventure.

As compared to other hut systems we’ve reviewed, we found the availability of solar power to be the most stand-out feature of the ATHS—you can charge your GPS, phone, camera, or whathaveyou with this extensive lithium battery bank and warm showers are made possible by filling a solar shower bag with hot water. The ATHS are also outfitted with composting toilets and ample fresh water. Plus, how cool are re-purposed shipping containers?!

How To Pack

Our group ran the gamut of mountain bikes. From rigid 29+ beasts, to steel hardtails, and carbon full suspensions, it was a diverse group of machines. The ATHS recommends full suspension bikes, but a hardtail is more than enough bike for the singletrack and meandering forest roads.

Since the huts cover food and shelter necessities, all you need to carry are your clothes, personal items, food/water for the day, and a tool/repair kit. Among our crew, some packed super light, while others lugged along accessory creature comforts.

Compared to bike touring, this experience is relatively easier, so treat yourself! Pack some comfy clothes, binoculars, a book, and headphones. Oh and don’t leave your camera at home!

https://youtube.com/watch?v=m68UpnwujnY%3Fenablejsapi%3D1%26origin%3Dhttps%253A%252F%252Ftheradavist.com

Reportage: The Route and Changes We Made to the Experience

Josh and I began an email thread this past April when the Aquarius Trail Hut System was announced. I had gotten a press release and immediately sent it to him, asking what he thought. Though we were completely slammed with work projects through summer, the two of us were already looking forward to a late autumn “work-cation.” Josh contacted the hut company, sending over our previous documentation on the San Juan system, and worked out a slight discount for our late-season booking. We were the last group to book a run through the network; the huts close at the end of October as the chance of snow on route increases exponentially come Fall. So with early October dates set, we contacted our group to see who would want in on this trip.

A few emails later and we had ten riders total, maxing out our capacity. People would come from Phoenix, San Francisco, and Santa Fe, descending upon southeastern Utah as a particularly wet monsoon season came to a close. We met up in Escalante, got pizza at Escalante Outfitters, and began to pack our bikes. The next morning, our ATHS shuttle dropped us off in Brian Head, and we began our 200-mile ride back to Escalante. This shuttle service is included with the huts package.

Right out of the gate, there’s a nice and easy climb up to the start of the singletrack; from there, it’s a non-stop descent through a canyon lined with aspen, creating a yellow tunnel of glee. We’d jam through the trail, stop and regroup at the turns, and soak in the damp, cool air.

Every day provided a different glimpse into what makes the region so profound. From Thunder Mountain’s hoodoos to the Cassidy trail bentonite clay hills, basalt fields with igneous lava flow, gargantuan climbs, and rutted double track, the geography continued to amaze. Once atop the Aquarius Plateau, it feels like you’re on top of the world with views all the way to Navajo Mountain, Death Ridge, and beyond.

The days were as long as they were stunning, and it wasn’t until the fourth day that our group suffered a schism. My rear wheel’s spokes began to fail, and since they were tensioned through internal nipples, a proper trail fix wasn’t possible. Luckily, I was right at the bail-out point near the Old Escalante Road, which would take me back to town early. Later, a few more flats slowed the group, and finally, a handful of riders bailed out early on the 5th day. Only four people completed the entire route.

Regarding route recommendations, we’d strongly steer future partakers towards sampling all of the singletrack! From Thunder Mountain to Cassidy, and the Great Western Trail, these ripping ribbons of dirt cannot be missed! We also opted out of taking Hells Backbone to Boulder, UT, as Calf Creek Falls were flooded and riding 20 miles of highway miles with no shoulder seemed sketchy. Instead, the group climbed back up Hells Backbone to Pine Mountain Road, which takes you to Escalante all on dirt. In doing so, you add about 800′ of elevation and 5-ish miles to the sixth day but avoid all highway miles.

Is it Worth the Money? Any Critiques?

As I mentioned, we worked out a slight discount with the ATHS in exchange for media coverage, but I’d argue our group would have gladly paid full price for this experience. Hell, we paid full price for our previous two trips in the San Juan Huts networks! Our primary critiques were mostly food-related. The San Juan huts stock each refuge with food packaged in bulk containers; you pour some chips, trail mix, or M&Ms into a bowl and snack away with your mates. Or, cram all the salty/sweet goodies into a reusable bag or container for the ride.

The ATHS larders had single-serving snacks, which makes sense from a convenience perspective when traveling by bike. Still, I think most cyclists prefer reducing packaging waste, even if it means finding creative containers for on-bike snacks (or this cyclist certainly would). Every day my bags were full of trash from the snacks—I’d much prefer bulk food items and a reusable container.

The snacks were also pretty thin when our group got to the huts. Granted, we were the last group of the season and received a discount, so we’re not complaining, but if you have specific snacks or hydration requirements, be sure to pack those. I brought a few bags of Sour Patch Kids and Scratch Labs, and I was glad I did!

We did have to filter a few times on this route but these easy Katadyn BeFree filters did the trick!

We also recommend you take your own lightweight sleeping bag liner, as the bag liners the ATHS gives you at the first hut to haul with you for the rest of the trip are rather large, heavy, and bulky. Silk sleeping bag liners are about the size of a soda can and weigh mere ounces. This will save you from trying to find a place to cram an 8″x8″x2″ blanket into your frame bag or backpack.

One last note if you’re planning on riding this route late in the season is to be aware there are lots of hunters on the course; some of which we encountered seemed drunk and aggressive toward us. Be safe, wear a bright color, and keep those earbuds out so you can hear approaching vehicles.

Final Thoughts

If you have a friend who’s never bikepacked or toured, a hut-to-hut trip is perfect for whetting their whistle. Since you don’t have to carry your shelter or stove and can pack fairly light in the summer, you get to sample the experience of self-supported travel while having the comfort of the hut to look forward to each night. Even experienced cyclotourists can vibe with this model!

The Aquarius Trail Hut System is the best experience I’ve had on a hut-to-hut system, with excellent routing options, stunning views, ripping trails, great food, and accommodations. The Aquarius Plateau and the Grand Staircase are some of Southeastern Utah’s true gems, and the high country vistas are second to none.

Pros:

-It’s a wonderful route through one of the most scenic corridors in Southeastern Utah
-There are many options for routing, making it easy to curate your group’s unique experience.
-The huts are packed with all the essentials and have space heaters for cold nights.
-For around $150 a night, per person, it feels like you’re getting a good deal from the rider package.
-Solar power banks allow you to charge your electronics.
-Hot showers each night.
-The meals supplied are great.
-You get to sleep in a shipping container.
-You get to keep your pillow case, which features a print of the trail map!
-The high elevation route stays cool in the summer.

Cons:

-The food could be a bit more varied. It’d be nice to have some fresh greens to compliment the hearty protein-based meals. We were all dying for a salad.
-While there was an abundance of beer, the sparking water situation was pretty slim.
-Snacks could be in bulk bins rather than individually packaged items. We found several pieces of snack wrapper litter on the route, clearly misplaced by other travelers on the ATHS.
-The provided sleeping bag liners are rather bulky, making it hard to find space if you’re packing light.
-Since the entire route is at high-elevation, you or someone in your group might develop elevation sickness so make sure to give yourself plenty of time to acclimate and stay hydrated!

We had a blast on this trip, and I’ll quit rambling so you can enjoy the photos and video! Read along in the Gallery captions for more. If you have any questions, drop them in the comments, and we’ll do our best to respond.

Thanks to the Aquarius Trail Hut System team for kicking ass on this entire experience!

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The start of a good thanggg!

Our shuttle driver Rob is the best at capturing the beginning of the best guest hut adventures-- these pictures are some of our favorites to look through! 🚵‍♀️📸

Thanks Rob!
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The start of a good thanggg! 

Our shuttle driver Rob is the best at capturing the beginning of the best guest hut adventures-- these pictures are some of our favorites to look through! 🚵‍♀️📸

Thanks Rob!

Send your favorite trail buddy a virtual high-five right NOW 🙏

📸: @theradavist
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Send your favorite trail buddy a virtual high-five right NOW 🙏

📸: @theradavist

We can't think of a better way to celebrate your birthday than in Utah's backcountry surrounded by friends! 🎂

Sign up for your celebration next season while there's still space available!

📸: @theradavist
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We cant think of a better way to celebrate your birthday than in Utahs backcountry surrounded by friends! 🎂

Sign up for your celebration next season while theres still space available!

📸: @theradavist

Campfires under the stars do something for the soul 💙

📸: @theradavist
... See MoreSee Less

Campfires under the stars do something for the soul 💙

📸: @theradavist
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