Bikepack Through Utah in Style with the New Aquarius Trail Hut System

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Originally posted in Salt Lake Magazine July 16, 2021

It’s the Age of Aquarius. We’re not talking about the zodiacal configuration of celestial bodies foreboding the fall of civilization here, we’re talking about the new hut system built specifically for bikepacking through Utah Color Country. The Aquarius Trail Hut System has five huts spaced across 190 miles of bike trails starting at the 11,300-foot peak at Brian Head and ending in the town of Escalante at 5,820 feet. That’s a sizable chunk of trail for cyclists to tackle, but the fully stocked, luxurious huts enable bikepacking trips that are heavy on the biking and light on the packing.

A Utah bikepacker rides Thunder Mountain Trail
Thunder Mountain Trail. Courtesy of Utah Office of Tourism

Bikepacking has been a growing segment of the cycling industry for the past few years as more folks seek off-the-grid, self-supported adventures, but it’s an intimidating niche to get started. Grinding uphill on any bicycle is difficult enough. Add in an extra 30-plus pounds of gear strapped haphazardly across the frame while battling mechanical issues and trying to navigate to suitable campsites, and we’re getting into complex territory with many potential pitfalls. The Aquarius Hut System lightens the load so you can focus on the good part: ripping pristine trails through scenic landscapes.

Speaking of the trails, the primarily singletrack route passes through gorgeous settings including Powell Point, Bryce Canyon National Park, Red Canyon, Dixie National Forest and more. Riders will get to descend the exciting Bunker Creek Singletrack near Brian Head and ride through the famous hoodoos of Red Canyon on the Thunder Mountain Trail. The trails feature a little bit of everything from fast and flowy to technical and spicy.

Courtesy of Aquarius Trail Hut System

The five huts, constructed from repurposed shipping containers, are stocked with everything you need. Off-grid solar electricity powers a full-size refrigerator and freezer at each stop, which also includes a gas grill, a two-burner stove, kitchenware and cooking equipment. Roll right up and feast on an enviable selection of cuisine including highlights like salmon with mashed potatoes and fresh seasonal vegetables along with burgers, pasta and various desserts. The menu is far more enticing than those freeze-dried meals that typically keep you going on overnight adventures. There’s even a beer package available for $50 per person, which is well worth the cost. All you need to do is cook it up and clean your pots and pans when you’re done. Vegetarian and gluten-free options are also available upon request.

The only things you’ll need to carry from hut to hut are a pillowcase and sleeping bag liner—both provided at the first hut you visit—your personal belongings like clothing and a toothbrush, and lunch and water for a day on the trails. Everything else you need will be there waiting for you, including charging stations for e-bike batteries and cellphones for those who don’t want to go fully off the grid.  

Courtesy of Aquarius Trail Hut System

Six-day, five-night self-guided trips are available now from July through October starting at $890 per person, and a shuttle back to the starting point at Brian Head can be booked for an additional $50 per person. Check out the Ride Guide for full details of what you can expect on the trip. The huts comfortably sleep 12 people, or you can book the entire hut if you prefer a more private adventure. Fully guided tours are available for $1,800 per person. Visit the Aquarius Trail Hut System website for more information and to book a trip.

Opening Week: Aquarius Trail Hut System

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Originally posted in MSN.com Aug 29, 2021 and Outside Feb 1, 2021

Opening Week of the Aquarius Trail Hut System it’s been named one of “America’s Newest Attractions Worth Exploring“, by MSN.COM and a “Mountain-Biking Mecca” by Outside Magazine, but what is it actually like biking from hut to hut along the Aquarius Trail? Well, we’ve just recently finished our first fully-booked week with all five huts occupied by mountain biking adventurers. There’s been some great feedback, and adjustments are being made. 

On the home front, Jen Becker, Director of Marketing among other things, has been organizing the stocking of the huts and dealing with the inevitable hitches that come with launching a new backcountry experience. To her, every detail of the hut stay is important, from the amenities provided, the technical difficulty of the trails, even finding out what everyone’s favorite snack is, “we’re learning a lot about what people want from the hut experience. Initially, we thought the guests might want a variety of snacks that are different in each hut. But then we started getting feedback that if someone had a favorite snack, they were looking forward to having it at the next hut as well, it’s just the little things that we couldn’t anticipate so we’re having to change as we go.” She also mentioned that some guests will ride especially hard one day and choose to prepare a simpler back-up meal of burgers rather than have the meal provided for that night that would require a bit more preparation.The plan for streamlining the guest experience is to send out detailed feedback surveys to the guests after they complete their stay in the Aquarius Trail Hut System. In the backcountry, any resources are hard to come by and even more difficult to keep stocked. There are some conveniences that simply aren’t sustainable for that environment. So honing in on what will actually be useful for guests has been crucial so that nothing goes to waste.

Amenities and meals are something we can control. However, the terrain and the climate are a bit out of our hands! We’ve heard back from guests about the Aquarius Trail itself. Here’s three key takeaways so far:

  1. Elevation! Elevation! Elevation!
Photo by Renee Callaway

Even on the days that you are not doing some serious climbing, you’re still going to be at a very high elevation. The Aquarius Plateau is THE highest timbered plateau in North America, at over 10,000 feet. This can mean fantastic views, and this can also spell out “altitude sickness” for some. Take it easy on your first few rides. Many riders who come to the mountains feel pretty good as long as they keep their efforts reasonable. But before you go hammering climbs, remember that once you start gasping for breath, it is sometimes difficult to get back down to a comfortable level of aerobic activity. Best to pace yourself until your body gets acclimated. Renee Callaway, a mountain biking guest, called it “a combo of hugh altitude, heat and general exertion. #flatlanderproblems” !

  1. Cool nights, hot days –

 Along the route, there’s some summer heat. Cooler temperatures won’t really hit until Day 4 at the Pine Lake Hut. 

Photo by Renee Callaway

Especially in the summer months, expect some heat from Southern Utah. But in those higher elevation huts, you’ll have some cooler nights. When checking the weather beforehand, you can monitor these three different elevations: Brian Head, Aquarius Plateau, and Escalante. Pine Lake and Hatch are also good areas to keep an eye on for temperatures that you’ll experience. If you missed our breakdown of packing essentials, get a full walkthrough on what your bike should be loaded up with. The creator of the hut system, Jared Fisher breaks down everything you would need with you to have an absolute blast. Link to the video is right here: 

  1. Serious climbs
Photo by Renee Callaway

There are some climbs! Renee Callaway, shared her experience of this as well: “Not going to lie it was a hard day – eleation, heat, climbs. But also the day started with some super fun Singletrack. Day one of six on the Aquarius Trail Hut System done.” We are happy that there was some Singletrack payoff for Renee, but urge everyone to get that training in before attempting this one-of-a-kind bikepacking adventure! 

We look forward to even more feedback as we blaze ahead on our first season ever. Thanks everyone! 

Utah’s New Hut System

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New Hut System Links 190 Miles of Trail in Southern Utah

Bikepacking that lets you go light on the ‘packing’

Originally posted in BETA

APRIL 25, 2021 TESS WEAVER 


Jared Fisher, CEO of Las Vegas based bike touring company Escape Adventures and a bike shop owner in Las Vegas, Reno and Moab, has ridden  all over the country, including several cross-country trips. The former BMX rider, ultra-distance mountain biker and avid bikepacker has covered a lot of miles on two wheels, but he says there’s nowhere in the world more beautiful to ride a bike than the Aquarius Trail Hut System, a new bike route in Southern Utah connecting five shipping-container huts with 190 miles of double and singletrack from Brian Head to Escalante.

“I wanted to go on the coolest routes possible through the most scenic areas possible on the best trails possible,” says Fisher of the route and system 30 years in the making. “It’s a backcountry route that a lot of people don’t know about and a place most people don’t get to see. It includes scenic Powell Point where John Wesley Powell surveyed southern Utah and the famed Thunder Mountain Trail—which I consider the most scenic trail in the world. You’re literally riding through red rock hoodoos—there’s nothing like it in the world.”

Creating an almost 200-mile route, converting shipping containers to solar-powered cabins and gaining approval to place them on public land was no small feat. But the energetic and determined entrepreneur and endurance athlete often tackles challenges. In 2018, having never run for elected office before, Fisher ran for governor of Nevada, kicking off his campaign by cycling on a 1,400-mile listening tour around the state. While the Forest Service spent three years processing Fisher’s proposal, he bought private land for his first hut location in Hatch, Utah, converted a shipping container into an off-the-grid unit that required no foundation and invited Forest Service officials to come see what he was hoping to repeat four times, every 30-40 miles along a route through southern Utah’s Color Country.

The route is inspired by a trip Escape Adventures first offered in the ’90s. Brian and the Bullfrog took riders from Brian Head, Utah, to the Bullfrog marina on Lake Powell, stopping at local hotels and B&Bs along the way. But the combination of a snowy start at the 11,306-foot peak of Brian Head and a sweltering finish at Lake Powell limited the dates Escape could run the trip. For the Aquarius Trail, Fisher eliminated the final low-elevation days and incorporated huts so guests could enjoy a remote experience.https://8843ac0ad7ddf96636de3c8b356ae8b9.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

The Aquarius Trail Hut System comprises about 70-percent dirt roads and 30-percent singletrack, including prized trails like Bunker Creek, which descends 2,885 feet over 12 miles from Brian Head to Panguitch Lake, followed by 15 miles that roll through ponderosa and juniper forests dotted with ancient lava beds en route to Hatch. Days average between 35 to 40 miles and 3,500 feet of elevation gain. Fisher has done the entire 190 miles on his downhill bike, but he recommends riding the Aquarius on a hardtail. Gravel riders can skip singletrack days and take dirt road detours. The huts are spaced distances many riders can pedal in a day, and e-bikes can cover without running out of power. Fisher hopes families utilize the system—kids can ride pedal-assisted while their parents spin it out and non-riders can drive support vehicles and meet up in the evening at the hut. There are options to take detours. For example, users might ride through Bryce National Park one day. In the future, Fisher hopes spider webs of trails extend from the route.

The huts, which run on solar PV electricity (enough to charge electronic devices and e-bike batteries) and accommodate 12-14 riders, include beds, a bathroom, showers and a fully stocked kitchen with a gas grill, a two-burner stove, kitchenware, cooking equipment and tableware. The fridges and freezes are stocked with ingredients to prepare dinner (think salmon, tacos, burgers or spaghetti) and breakfast (everything from oatmeal to breakfast burritos) as well as to-go lunch items and trail snacks. Escape can even stock the huts with beer and wine prior for guests. The luxury bikepacking experience includes hammocks, large decks, repair tools and stands, games, a fire pit and more. For the six-day adventure, you only need to carry clothes beyond what you’d bring on a normal day’s ride.

Self-guided tours are available July-October and start at $889 per person for 6-days/5-nights. Escape Adventures offers a guided tour starting at $1,800 per person. Shorter trips are also available. For more information, visit aquariustrail.com.

Pet Friendly Vacations, A Hot Air Balloon, and a Luxury Bike Trip

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Originally posted in Bostonglobe April 21, 2021

Imagine pedaling off-road through an area known as “Color Country” in southern Utah.
Imagine pedaling off-road through an area known as “Color Country” in southern Utah.HANDOUT

Enjoy a local paddle

After a winter — and year — cooped up at home, get out and explore the local waterways. North Shore-based Coast to Coast Paddle, which offers kayak and standup paddleboard rentals in Beverly and Salem, opens its new Woburn location starting this Memorial Day weekend. Rent a single or tandem sit-on-top Ocean Kayak at its Horn Pond kiosk — located by the 500-acre Horn Pond Conservation Area — and explore little coves, a submerged island grove, and the scenic shoreline. The calm waters make this an ideal location for paddlers of all ages and skill levels. Or head to Coast to Coast Paddle’s locations at Independence Park in Beverly or Salem Willows Park in Salem for kayak and SUP rentals, lessons, and tours. Rentals offered daily through Labor Day weekend; book tours and rentals in advance. Rates: $20 (one hour) to $70 (eight hours) for single kayaks and SUPs; $30 (one hour) to $105 (eight hours) for tandem kayaks. 978-969-0151, www.coasttocoastpaddle.com

North Shore-based Coast to Coast Paddle opens its new Woburn location starting this Memorial Day weekend.
North Shore-based Coast to Coast Paddle opens its new Woburn location starting this Memorial Day weekend. HANDOUT

A full-family getaway



Separation anxiety is real — especially for Fido. You can’t possibly leave your pooch behind on your next vacation, which is why Newport’s Hotel Viking now offers a special package for dog owners. The Press Paws experience lets dogs play at nearby Lucky Dog Resort while their owners get pampered at the hotel’s Spa Fjor. Then dogs and owners reunite for a cozy stay at the pet-friendly Hotel Viking. The package includes chauffeured dog service to and from the Lucky Dog Resort, three hours of supervised play in fenced-in yards, light training (reinforcing manners behavior), chill time on the many luxurious couches and chairs, lots of treats, a brush, and photos of your pup’s fun. The hotel also provides a Puppy Amenity Pack. Meanwhile, you and a guest can each enjoy a 50-minute massage and a 50-minute facial at the Spa Fjör. The downtown Newport hotel has 208 suites. Package rates start at $899 (excluding taxes). 401-847-3300, www.hotelviking.com


Sleep in huts with showers, lighting, solar power for charging devices, fire pits, and a fully stocked kitchen.
Sleep in huts with showers, lighting, solar power for charging devices, fire pits, and a fully stocked kitchen. HANDOUT

THERE

A luxury bikepacking trip

Imagine pedaling off-road through an area known as “Color Country” in southern Utah, where dazzling sunsets meet red terrain and natural wonders abound. The new 190-mile Aquarius Hut System lets riders experience some of the area’s most stunning terrain while sleeping in five luxury huts along the way. Hop on a mountain bike (ebikes are welcome, too) and see Powell Point, Bryce Canyon National Park, Red Canyon, and Escalante National Monument, among other top sights. Then sleep in huts with showers, lighting, solar power for charging devices, fire pits, and a fully stocked kitchen. Huts (made from repurposed shipping containers) are spaced about 30 to 40 miles apart and accommodate up to 14 people. Want someone else to handle the details? Escape Adventures offers guided and self-guided tours July through October. Self-guided trip starts at $889 per person (5 nights), which includes accommodations, all permits and fees, food/provisions (not including beer), and a pillowcase with the route map printed on it — a nice touch; $1,800 for guided tour with all of the above plus vehicle support and guide. aquariustrail.com

The 190 Mile Aquarius Trail

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Originally posted in Adventure Traveller April 13, 2021

The NEW Aquarius Trail Hut System offers a backcountry mountain biking experience like no other in the region. A system of five huts furnished with beds, a bathroom, and a fully stocked kitchen has been strategically placed along a 190-mile route through some of Utah’s most scenic backcountry – spanning from the peak of Brian Head at 11,307’ to the beautiful town of Escalante at 5,820’. This section of Utah is called “Color Country” and includes many well-known attractions such as Powell Point, Bryce Canyon National Park, Brianhead Ski Resort, Red Canyon, Aquarius Plateau, Dixie National Forest, the Hogback, Escalante National Monument and much more. Self-guided tours are available July-October and start at $889 per person for 6-days/5-nights. Escape Adventures offers a guided tour starting at $1,800 per person. Shorter trips are also available. For more information, visit https://aquariustrail.com/. Check out the video here

The Aquarius Trail Hut System provides a luxury bikepacking experience, complete with showers, solar power for charging electronic devices, fully stocked kitchens with a refrigerator and freezer, lighting, hammocks, large decks, bathroom facilities, bicycle repair tools and stands, playing cards, fire pit, cozy sleeping arrangements, and more. 

Riders enjoy singletrack, challenging jeep tracks, dirt roads, hidden lakes, and spectacular vistas. E-bikes are allowed at each hut so groups of mixed abilities can enjoy the same adventure.

“These unique huts were built using repurposed high-top shipping containers,” said Jared Fisher, Founder & Director of Escape Adventures. “They are spaced approximately 30 to 40 miles apart and accommodate 12 to 14 riders.”

Guests ride to Brian Head Peak, down Proctor Canyon and into the quaint little town of Hatch. They meander past the Tropic Reservoir and into Red Canyon, home of the infamous Thunder Mountain Trail and the Red Canyon Bike Path. The route explores all the Dixie National Forest has to offer, including a big climb up to the scenic Powell Point where John Wesley Powell surveyed Southern Utah. Days average between 35 to 40 miles of riding and 3,500 feet of elevation gain.

The Full Itinerary:

Day 1: Your adventure begins at Brian Head Peak (11,307), where you will descend the exciting Bunker Creek Singletrack. Mountain Bike Action Magazine rated this Singletrack as one of the top 10 best trails in America. It descends 2,885 feet over 12 miles to Panguitch Lake where you will catch an exciting and fun 15-mile route through ponderosa and juniper forests—dappled with ancient lava beds and rolling meadows—to the Hatch Hut in Hatch, Utah.

Day 2: Energize with a hearty breakfast for this morning’s invigorating eight-mile, 2,500-foot climb through Proctor Canyon to the top of Sunset Cliffs. This is the mountain border for the Bryce Canyon Valley. After viewing the stunning scenery, you’ll descend eight miles to Tropic Reservoir, and take a plunge in the crisp (yet refreshing) waters. Cruise a 19-mile section of the Great Western Trail to Red Canyon. Once you get to the hut take a little time for hiking or opt for the Cassidy Loop in Red Canyon. Enjoy the sunset over beautiful Red Canyon.

Day 3: Get ready for some of the best single-track in Utah–Red Canyon. From the hut, ride down Thunder Mountain Trail through the beautiful hoodoos of Red Canyon. From here cross Highway 12 and ride up to the Casto Canyon trailhead, passing many amazing views of Slate Mountain and Powell Point. Casto Canyon crosses a small creek bed up to 44 times before eventually meeting up with jeep roads that cross the high planes of Bryce Canyon country to Pine Lake Hut. Pine Lake is a nice relaxing lake where you can fish or swim and cool off for the evening.

Day 4: Today you will climb to the top of the Aquarius Trails namesake – the Aquarius Plateau. Get ready for the BIG climb -2,200 feet over 10 miles to the top of Barney Top 10,577 feet. On your way to the top, don’t forget to ride out to Powell Point (an optional 8-mile out and back ride to a vista overlooking southern Utah). Once back on route, continue onto Barney Top and across spectacular high meadows to the Aquarius Hut at Clayton Springs. If you are still thriving for another ride, opt to ride down to Barker Reservoir and back. The ride drops 500 feet to the reservoir so don’t forget you have a climb back to the hut.

Day 5: There are two different ride options from the Aquarius Hut to the midpoint at Posey Lake. Take the non-technical ride on Hell’s Backbone Road or choose the backcountry singletrack ride on the Great Western Trail. Each is vastly different. The dirt road option is across big open meadows with antelope roaming freely while riding along the mountain singletrack, you will be challenged to technical riding and more climbing (climb 2,500 feet and descend 3,300 feet over the first 15 miles). Choose to stop at Posy Lake where, time permitting, you might have the opportunity to do some hiking around the lake. From here choose dirt road or then ride cowpuncher 5-mile singletrack to Cowpuncher Guard Station and Blue Spruce Campground. From here both options collide into the ride up to Hell’s Backbone Bridge and across Box Death Hollow Wilderness and then finally descending to Hell’s Backbone Hut at Sand Creek.

Day 6: Passing through various vegetation zones, today’s ride borders the Box Death Hollow Wilderness. Continue riding along Hell’s Backbone Road until you reach Scenic Highway 12. From here it is a beautiful ride along the Hogback back to Escalante. Along the way, stop at Calf Creek and cool off in the crystal-clear waters. An optional 3-mile hike to Calf Creek Falls is a great side trip as well. This 128-foot waterfall is nothing shy of amazing! One big climb on the road after Calf Creek is followed by a gradual descent to Escalante to conclude your 190-mile adventure.

Mountain Bike Hut-To-Hut Through Utah

Originally posted in Wealth Kingdom

The scale and grandeur of the backcountry mountain bike route make it hard to put in proper perspective, or capture in words. We’ll try though, with 190 miles through national parks, hoodoo-filled canyons, mountain goat-dotted meadows, and dramatic Southwestern desert scenery covered upon the ride from Brian Head to Escalante, staying at the new Aquarius Trail Huts.

Five shipping container huts are spaced along the Aquarius Trail, which rolls through Utah’s most storied and scenic points, from Powell Point to overviews of Bryce Canyon National Park, Brian Head Ski Resort, Red Canyon, Aquarius Plateau, Dixie National Forest, Escalante National Monument, and more. Some sections of the trail are singletrack, some are just scenic, and you have options for easier or harder days along the way, with cold beers and other beverages waiting at each hut for your arrival.courtesy Escape Adventures

The off-grid Aquarius Trail Huts are retrofitted shipping containers powered by solar, with full-size refrigerators and freezers that can be stocked for your group. The huts have bedding, towels for the cold shower, and everything else you need (except your clothes and your toothbrush), and each is divided into multiple bunk-rooms.

Aquarius Bike Huts
courtesy Escape Adventures

Book your stay, then throw a leg over your ride. From Brian Head, the route descends nearly 3,000 feet on Bunker Creek singletrack to Panguitch Lake. Navigate with a provided GPS track or a map as it meanders through ponderosa and juniper forest interwoven with ancient lava beds and rolling meadows to Hatch Hut, in the Headwaters section of the National Mormon Pioneer Heritage Trail, and the original Hatch homestead, settled in 1872.

Aquarius Bike Huts
courtesy Escape Adventures

A robust meal and a dreamy night will prep you for a big morning ride. It’s an eight-mile, 2,500-foot climb through Proctor Canyon to panoramic views atop Sunset Cliffs at the entrance to Bryce Canyon Valley. Eight downhill miles later, take a refreshing plunge into Tropic Reservoir before following the Great Western Trail to Red Canyon Hut for sweeping views of Bryce Canyon and stunning sunsets.

Aquarius Huts bike trail
courtesy Escape Adventures

Day 3 starts with a descent through Red Canyon’s hoodoos on the flanks of Thunder Mountain before crossing Highway 12 and climbing to the Casto Canyon trailhead with views of Slate Mountain and Powell Point the whole way. The route crosses a small creek bed 44 times before it flows into Jeep roads on the high mesas of Bryce Canyon en route to Pine Lake Hut.

Aquarius Huts mountain bike trail
courtesy Escape Adventures

Fish or swim in Pine Lake before hitting Aquarius Trail’s high point on Day 4. It’s a 2,200-foot climb over 10 miles to the top of 10,577-foot Barney Top on the Aquarius Plateau, with an optional eight-mile detour to Powell Point for sweeping vistas of southern Utah you’ll never forget.

Aquarius Huts bike trail
courtesy Escape Adventures

From Aquarius Hut at Clayton Springs, opt for backcountry singletrack on the Great Western Trail or a more chill pedal on Hell’s Backbone Road, which traverses open meadows frequented by free-roaming antelope. Both routes convene on Hell’s Backbone Bridge before Box Death Hollow Wilderness and the descent to Hell’s Backbone Hut at Aquarius Trail’s last hut at Sand Creek, and the exit to Escalante on Hell’s Backbone Road along Box Death Hollow Wilderness. Cool off in Calf Creek along the way, and even if your legs are tired, the three-mile detour to the 128-foot waterfall of the same name is worth the trip. Then, it’s one final road climb before the final gentle descent to end the tour in Escalante.

Aquarius Huts bikepacking trail
courtesy Escape Adventures

The Aquarius Trail is a self-guided trail and hut system developed and operated by Escape Adventures. Book a trip and you get a map and access to fully stocked huts. You carry clothing and personal items, but bedding, towels, food, and a full kitchen await you at each stop. Each hut sleeps up to 12 in two cabins, with a separate bathroom building with a shower, pit toilet, and hand-washing station. A storage area at each hut houses a generator to recharge e-bikes. $889 per person for six days five nights. Add $50 for beer. Group rates and shorter trips are also available. More info: aquariustrail.com

A New Utah Hut-To-Hut Mountain Bike Route

Originally posted in Men’s Journal

The scale and grandeur of the backcountry mountain bike route make it hard to put in proper perspective, or capture in words. We’ll try though, with 190 miles through national parks, hoodoo-filled canyons, mountain goat-dotted meadows, and dramatic Southwestern desert scenery covered upon the ride from Brian Head to Escalante, staying at the new Aquarius Trail

Five shipping container huts are spaced along the Aquarius Trail, which rolls through Utah’s most storied and scenic points, from Powell Point to overviews of Bryce Canyon National ParkBrian Head Ski Resort, Red Canyon, Aquarius Plateau, Dixie National Forest, Escalante National Monument, and more. Some sections of the trail are singletrack, some are just scenic, and you have options for easier or harder days along the way, with cold beers and other beverages waiting at each hut for your arrival.

Aquarius Huts
courtesy Escape Adventures

The off-grid Aquarius Trail Huts are retrofitted shipping containers powered by solar, with full-size refrigerators and freezers that can be stocked for your group. The huts have bedding, towels for the cold shower, and everything else you need (except your clothes and your toothbrush), and each is divided into multiple bunk-rooms.

Bikepacking Tips Learned the Hard Way

READ ARTICLEBIKEPACKING TIPS LEARNED THE HARD WAY

Aquarius Bike Huts
courtesy Escape Adventures

Book your stay, then throw a leg over your ride. From Brian Head, the route descends nearly 3,000 feet on Bunker Creek singletrack to Panguitch Lake. Navigate with a provided GPS track or a map as it meanders through ponderosa and juniper forest interwoven with ancient lava beds and rolling meadows to Hatch Hut, in the Headwaters section of the National Mormon Pioneer Heritage Trail, and the original Hatch homestead, settled in 1872.

All the Bike-Rafting Gear Needed for a Backcountry Adventure

READ ARTICLEALL THE BIKE-RAFTING GEAR NEEDED FOR A BACKCOUNTRY ADVENTURE

Aquarius Bike Huts
courtesy Escape Adventures

A robust meal and a dreamy night will prep you for a big morning ride. It’s an eight-mile, 2,500-foot climb through Proctor Canyon to panoramic views atop Sunset Cliffs at the entrance to Bryce Canyon Valley. Eight downhill miles later, take a refreshing plunge into Tropic Reservoir before following the Great Western Trail to Red Canyon Hut for sweeping views of Bryce Canyon and stunning sunsets.

Aquarius Huts bike trail
courtesy Escape Adventures

Day 3 starts with a descent through Red Canyon’s hoodoos on the flanks of Thunder Mountain before crossing Highway 12 and climbing to the Casto Canyon trailhead with views of Slate Mountain and Powell Point the whole way. The route crosses a small creek bed 44 times before it flows into Jeep roads on the high mesas of Bryce Canyon en route to Pine Lake Hut.

Aquarius Huts mountain bike trail
courtesy Escape Adventures

Fish or swim in Pine Lake before hitting Aquarius Trail’s high point on Day 4. It’s a 2,200-foot climb over 10 miles to the top of 10,577-foot Barney Top on the Aquarius Plateau, with an optional eight-mile detour to Powell Point for sweeping vistas of southern Utah you’ll never forget.

New Euro-Style Hut-to-Hut Ski Touring Route Opens in the Southern Rockies

READ ARTICLENEW EURO-STYLE HUT-TO-HUT SKI TOURING ROUTE OPENS IN THE SOUTHERN ROCKIES

Aquarius Huts bike trail
courtesy Escape Adventures

From Aquarius Hut at Clayton Springs, opt for backcountry singletrack on the Great Western Trail or a more chill pedal on Hell’s Backbone Road, which traverses open meadows frequented by free-roaming antelope. Both routes convene on Hell’s Backbone Bridge before Box Death Hollow Wilderness and the descent to Hell’s Backbone Hut at Aquarius Trail’s last hut at Sand Creek, and the exit to Escalante on Hell’s Backbone Road along Box Death Hollow Wilderness. Cool off in Calf Creek along the way, and even if your legs are tired, the three-mile detour to the 128-foot waterfall of the same name is worth the trip. Then, it’s one final road climb before the final gentle descent to end the tour in Escalante.

Aquarius Huts bikepacking trail
courtesy Escape Adventures

The Aquarius Trail is a self-guided trail and hut system developed and operated by Escape Adventures. Book a trip and you get a map and access to fully stocked huts. You carry clothing and personal items, but bedding, towels, food, and a full kitchen await you at each stop. Each hut sleeps up to 12 in two cabins, with a separate bathroom building with a shower, pit toilet, and hand-washing station. A storage area at each hut houses a generator to recharge e-bikes. $889 per person for six days five nights. Add $50 for beer. Group rates and shorter trips are also available. More infoaquariustrail.com

Bikepacking the Aquarius Plateau

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Riding gravel and singletrack trails while enjoying the comfort of hut life and house-cooked meals.

Originally posted in Life Utah Elevated

Written by Ryan Salm Aquarius Trail

After so much time spent staring at screens and dreaming about the future, the idea of hopping on a brand-new bike route seemed like a figment of my wildest imagination. Having spent the last 25 years putting together the puzzle pieces of the Southern Utah landscape, there was a swath of land north of Bryce Canyon National Park that for me remained unexplored. Although it always stood towering in the distance, I hadn’t yet found the right reason to investigate it further. 

As fortune would have it, a chance run-in, months of planning and a good crew all came to gether in October 2020. The result was a one-of-a-kind, two-wheeled journey across the Aquarius Plateau.  

The smoke from forest fires was thick as Kyle Smaine and I rolled across the Great Basin en route to Brian Head. The smoke had been inhibiting my breathing and exercise regiment, which is why we were relieved to find our starting point above the resort in an island of blue sky, above a sea of haze.   

Every so often you run into the right person at the right time. I had met Jared Fisher, CEO of the Las Vegas-based Escape Adventures, on a photoshoot in California. While conversing about our mutual love for Southern Utah, he informed me of plans for a brand new hut-to-hut bike route that was in the works. (Read: “Three Utah Bikepacking Routes for Beginners to Intermediates“)

After countless email inquiries, Fisher told me he and his team had put the final touches on their project. Our crew of Kyle Smaine, Whit Boucher and Ashli Lewis were about to get the maiden voyage on the Aquarius Trail System.

Hoping to leave all of our pent-up, socially distant emotions behind, Smaine and I arrived a day early. Ten minutes after parking, we stretched our legs and quickly transformed from road warriors into mountain bikers and grabbed a shuttle at Georg’s Ski Shop. 

Nothing clears the cobwebs of life on the road better than riding one of Brian Head’s 100 miles of downhill trails. In our case, it was the Blow Hard Trail, a local favorite. (Read: “A Quick and Dirty Guide to Brian Head Area Mountain Biking“)

With a kaleidoscope of color displayed in both the autumn leaves and the ever-changing geology, we were elated to descend the 10 miles of Blow Hard’s fast, technical and flowy downhill.  

After a crisp night’s sleep in a golden grove of aspen, it was time for the main event: five days in the saddle on the inaugural public run of the 170-mile Aquarius Trail.   

“Nothing clears the cobwebs of life on the road better than riding one of Brian Head’s 100 miles of downhill trails.”

Photo: Ryan Salm
The Aquarius Plateau is the highest-timbered plateau in North America.Photo: Ryan Salm

History

In 1990, Jared Fisher ran a bike tour from Brian Head to Lake Powell’s Bullfrog Marina. The Brian and the Bullfrog tour was revered by clients because of the sheer diversity of ecosystems covered over the course of one ride. 

“For years we envisioned a tour similar to this, with the addition of comfortable backcountry lodging,” Fisher says. “In 2015, with the help of the tourism board and local counties, the Aquarius Trail and Hut system came to fruition.” 

The Ride

Heading across alpine terrain, we pedaled upward to Bunker Hill to start our journey. Topping out at 11,300 feet, the Southern Utah landscape dropped away 3,000 feet into the valley below. Limbs of trees from the 2017 Brian Head Fire whizzed by our periphery. Despite the destruction caused by the fire, we were inspired to see seedlings and colorful flora emerging through the blackened ground.

The first day’s ride was right in our “love for mountain biking” wheelhouse — long, rocky trails with serpentine berms and beautiful scenery. The day’s final third culminated in an aspen-laden double track and aimed us onward toward gravel and tarmac.

Location

Towering high above the northern edge of Utah’s Grand Staircase, the Aquarius Plateau traverses more than 100 miles and includes some 50,000 acres of rolling terrain above 11,000 feet, making it the highest-timbered plateau in North America. 

It was a journey of long sustained climbs and dusty descents through desert, forest and wide open meadows. With pinyon pine and juniper forests thriving at the plateau’s lowest elevations, the landscape quickly morphed into ponderosa pine forests at middle elevations and a combination of dense aspen, spruce and fir forests at its highest elevations. 

“Towering high above the northern edge of Utah’s Grand Staircase, the Aquarius Plateau traverses more than 100 miles and includes some 50,000 acres of rolling terrain above 11,000 feet.”

With days averaging between 35 to 40 miles and with more than 3,500 feet of elevation gain, the Aquarius Trail is not for the faint of heart.Photo: Ryan Salm

Route 

Based on the diversity of beautiful terrain along Fisher’s original Brian and the Bullfrog route, Escape Adventures decided that this would be the rough outline of the Aquarius Hut System. The six-day, five-night hut-to-hut through-ride combines the initial sections of cross-country and technical single-track with double-track and tarmac to Bryce Canyon National Park. 

From there, the journey leads across the Aquarius Plateau and on to Escalante, making it a truly unique hybrid ride. With days averaging between 35 to 40 miles and with more than 3,500 feet of elevation gain, it’s not for the faint of heart.

Our crew juggled the ups and downs of this long-distance ride while at times wondering if a hardtail bike wasn’t the best option. We thrived on the single-track but felt the challenge of grinding out large sections of existing ATV trails and double track connecting each of the five huts along the trail. 

Technically speaking, the route isn’t difficult, but the long swaths of gravel at high elevation often took its toll. The importance of fitness and positivity became apparent as mornings quickly morphed into late afternoons. It was a case of one pedal stroke after another until each day’s mileage was complete. (Read: “Visions of Grandeur: Heaven and Hell on Two Wheels“)

Despite the long days, the reward at the end of each day’s rides were the huts. The Hatch, Butch Cassidy, Pine Lake, Aquarius and Hell’s Backbone huts were perfectly situated right where we needed them. Each was packed to the gills with snacks, food, drinks and even a cold beer or two. 

It’s amazing the sheer caloric intake we consumed after each 35-plus mile rides each day. Lacroix, regenerating fluids, beer, chips and salsa, Cheetos, Doritos, guacamole, more beer, Otter Pops (blue one for me), beef tacos times four, pickles and s’mores — in that order, all eaten over two hours. 

Hammocks, bunk beds and heaters created an oasis to watch the setting sun and drift off to sleep. Propane stoves and gas barbecue grills allowed us to experience the comforts of home while staying in the backcountry. Every night, we rotated preparing group dinners, with someone playing chef while the others prepped and relaxed. It was the perfect respite from the solidarity of eating at home during the pandemic. 

We spent our evenings sitting under the stars around the hut’s propane fire pit. The dancing flames became the perfect place to share travel vibes that had recently felt like a thing of the past.

Huts

The elements that became paramount for Escape Adventures when building out each of the five huts: keep it green at a good price point while using easily available materials. In the end, decommissioned shipping containers were the answer. Their weight proved both stable and environmentally sensitive, as they didn’t require a laid foundation.

“It worked out well to use a bear proof, incredibly strong recycled box that we could turn into a sleeping unit and kitchen unit,” Fisher says.

Off-the-grid generally refers to an absence of electricity. One of the most unique attributes of the Aquarius Hut System is solar power. With a history of running a green company, Escape Adventures were educated in this area. Their 2kW-plus system uses batteries recycled from hotels on the Las Vegas strip to power refrigerators in each hut and, in some cases, satellite service, so visitors could have access to the outside world if needed. 

“I think everybody can appreciate the fact that we don’t have power lines going to our locations,” Fisher says. “Nothing had to be dug up or disturbed, yet we still provide those essentials that people have become accustomed to in the 21st-century with their internet connection and ice cold beer.”

“Off-the-grid generally refers to an absence of electricity. One of the most unique attributes of the Aquarius Hut System is solar power.”

The huts were built using decommissioned shipping containers and each is packed to the gills with snacks, meals and drinks for visitors.Photo: Ryan Salm
Photo: Ryan Salm
Photo: Ryan Salm

Route Continued

Scattered among the the long, lonely valleys and wooded, windy backroads were a few perfectly placed trip highlights. 

Stunned and frazzled, I hopped off the top bunk on the morning of Day 3. I didn’t hear the alarm but before I knew it, I was packing my pre-made breakfast and lunch and peddling into the dawn. A sting of cold air on the exposed skin of my hands woke me up as I headed from the Butch Cassidy Hut to the famed Thunder Mountain Trail. 

Kyle, Whit and I were chasing an elusive sunrise that rose and fell between each dip in the vermillion-colored formations. When we finally reached a summit of sorts, beams of sunlight ignited a collection of spines and hoodoos. My fatigue quickly faded as we dipped down and across the eroded geology of crimson and rusted orange through some of the most beautiful landscapes in the American West. 

With the idea of the Aquarius Trail being a self-guided adventure, each day’s route was available on a GPS app. Knowing that our next few days would be long stretches of gravel, we decided to test out an eight-mile single-track connector. Though in full agreement that we were in for a hot, arduous “sufferfest,” Kyle, Whit and I followed a hoof- and paw-print scattered trail that wound through Rich and Cassidy canyons. Sweating and physically worked, my soul was satisfied by the day’s adventure.

While we spent a lot of time thinking about our love for single-track, the truth was that the majority of the Aquarius Trail miles were double-track and gravel. My lack of training and experience on long sustained climbs set in. And on a few occasions I felt that maybe I wasn’t the target audience for this trip.

After a brief meltdown around sunset on Day 3, something clicked. Maybe it was the golden aspens lining the dirt road or maybe it was the soft murmur of Clay Creek, but as I pedaled that morning by myself I was revived. 

Before I noticed the pain of the elevation gain, the climb was in my rear view. At an optional side trail, I reunited with the crew. After riding out the ridge, a narrow trail led to a staggering perch on Powell Point.  

The day didn’t get easier, but my attitude toward perseverance shifted. Instead of dwelling on the pain, I lost myself in the staggering expanse of life above 9,500 feet. For the next two days we pedaled the Aquarius Plateau, a spectacular place to ride with not a sound except for the rotation of our tires, the lone bugle of an elk or the call of a hawk.  

“My fatigue quickly faded as we dipped down and across the eroded geology of crimson and rusted orange through some of the most beautiful landscapes in the American West. “

Photo: Ryan Salm
On the Aquarius Plateau, it’s likely you won’t hear a sound except for the rotation of tires, the lone bugle of an elk or the call of a hawk.Photo: Ryan Salm

Multi-Use Approach 

While riding the entire hut-to-hut route from beginning to end, unsupported, is not a family-friendly ride, Escape Adventures offers a multitude of options. Though a self-guided or fully guided trip is a great way to bike across the Aquarius Plateau, Escape Adventures welcomes everyone to their backcountry hotels with a two-night stay. The huts can be used to access Bryce Canyon National Park or Pine Lake. Weekend warriors, horse-packers and those seeking a unique outdoor experience are welcome. 

For bikepackers, an important factor is managing the variety of skill sets in any given group. That’s why an alternative e-bike route was created so all can enjoy the route. The huts are situated at a perfect distance to make sure that e-bikes have more than enough life to make it to the generator at the next hut.

Final Thoughts

On our final day, we pedaled our way to the edge of the plateau and dropped into a speedy descent. The aspens were peaking as we wound down past Posy Lake, alongside the labyrinthine Box-Death Hollow Wilderness and past the farmland along the outskirts of Escalante.  

Like all adventures, the key is adaptation. While at times taken back by the enormity of road riding, we came to the conclusion that we were better off enjoying the ride. While driving back on Route 12 from Escalante Outfitters to Brian Head, I found myself smiling. Son Volt’s “Windfall” came on my headphones with the lyrics, “May the wind take your troubles away.” It struck me as a telling line considering contemporary issues — virus, fires and social injustice among them. It also made me consider how petty my days of difficulty on the trail were — especially as those are some of my best memories from a difficult year on planet earth. 

Age of Aquarius

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Originally posted in Adventure Cycling

 Dan Meyer Jan 19, 2021 | Explore

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.

Day One

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.

Winding down as the sun sets at the Hatch Hut.Ryan Salm

Day Two

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.

Day Three

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.

Exploring a singletrack alternate in the red rocks near Tropic Reservoir.Ryan Salm

Day Four

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.

Day Five

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.

Weather

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.

Bike Shops

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).

Navigation

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.

Resources

aquariustrail.com

escapeadventures.com

What to Know About the Aquarius Hut System

Elevation outdoors logo

Originally posted in Elevation Outdoors Dec 2, 2020

This fall, a new string of huts was completed that hopes to open up a new route of exploration through Southern Utah. Designed specifically for bikers and known as the Aquarius Trail, it will become fully operation next spring, ready to serve as a legit hut-to-hut, cross-country experience or as individual base camps. Below, we highlight everything you need to know about the brand new trail.

The Aquarius Trail is a public-private partnership featuring 5 fully-stocked huts.

The trail system is comprised of five huts along a 190-mile route from the peak of Brian Head (11,307 feet) to Escalante (5,820 feet). The huts are spaced approximately 30 to 40 miles apart, with long, challenging climbs and fun, speedy descents along the way.

Each hut is made of recycled shipping containers and uses solar power to provide electricity. Sleeping up to 12 people, most huts have two bunk rooms (3 bunk beds each), a kitchen, bathroom with foot-pump showers, bike maintenance/repair station, fire pit, and plenty of space to spread out and relax. They also have modern conveniences, like solar-powered outlets and a refrigerator and freezer.

Refrigerator? Freezer? Yep. These huts come fully stocked, not just with solar and gas-powered cooking equipment – including an outdoor grill, two-burner stove, and kitchenware – but with actual food and drinks. Purchase of a spot in the hut includes food for three meals (breakfast and dinner at the huts, with lunch provisions and trail snacks to go), and you can add on a beer package, too, that will have your favorite cold ones waiting.

The first hut on the trail, the Hatch Hut, is located on private property. The other four are built inside the boundaries of Dixie National Forest. The company behind the huts’ construction, Escape Adventures, formed a partnership with the National Forest to build the huts.

The bike route is a gravel grinder’s heaven, and beautiful anyway you slice it.

There are some folks out there who simply love riding on gravel roads. If you’re one of them, then this trail was made for you. The majority of the trail is gravel and rocky, dirt, “fire” roads. Single trek sections are sprinkled in along the way, but they are few and far between. Take a look at the trail map and notice that some days do not include any single trek at all.

That said, no matter how you feel about what’s under your tires, you won’t be disappointed by the scenery in front of your eyes. The views above Brian’s Head, the beauty of Red Canyon, the peaceful forests of Pine Lake, the vast, open terrain of the Aquarius Plateau (from which the trail takes its name) – these are all areas the trail will introduce you to that you may have bypassed previously. The trail also includes a bit of history with a jaunt out to Powell Point, where John Wesley Powell surveyed Southern Utah.

Beautiful scenery along the Thunder Mountain Trail in Red Canyon. Thunder Mountain is part of the Aquarius Trail. Photo by Wake and Wander.

Single trek seekers can utilize the hut system in a different way.

Of the 190-miles between Brian’s Head and Escalante, only a small percentage of them are single trek. So if gravel isn’t your thing, you might not enjoy riding the whole route between the five huts.

But, the single trek it does have is pretty exciting and highly regarded. For example, both Bunker Creek and Thunder Mountain are part of the Aquarius Trail. So, with that in mind, single trek riders might think about using the hut system in a different way. Instead of completing the entire trail, you could make a case for seeing the single huts as homebases to explore their respective areas in more depth, over the course of a couple days.

For example, the Butch Cassidy Hut is nearby the Thunder Mountain trailhead, as well as other attractions in Red Canyon. It would be perfectly feasible to bunk up at this hut for a weekend and, instead of passing through, stick around and ride all the nearby trails with your crew.

Pine Lake Hut at sunset along the Aquarius Trail. Photo by Wake and Wander.

The huts are destinations in themselves.

Regardless of how you use the hut system and regardless of how you rank the terrain, it’s worth noting that the huts are destinations in themselves. Built in scenic and serene locations – remember, they’re mostly within Dixie National Forest – you wouldn’t even necessarily have to bring a bike to appreciate them.

The Pine Lake Hut, for example, is tucked away in the deep forest, seven miles from the nearest major intersection. The setting is a getaway in itself, meaning you could be happy even if you didn’t leave the hut. Same goes for the Aquarius Hut high atop the Aquarius Plateau. Check out what each individual hut has to offer in terms of location, and consider using it as an avenue to explore these lesser-known parts of Dixie National Forest.

Aquarius Trail Hut System Crosses the Halfway Point

Aquarius Trail Hut-System logo web

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:

“Aquarius Trail Hut System Crosses the Halfway Point”

Escalante, Utah.  June 17, 2020 – Work on the Aquarius Trail Hut System has crossed over the halfway point with the completion of 3 of the 5 huts. The remaining 2 huts are scheduled to be completed over the next 6-8 weeks. Once completed, the network of huts will provide a true backcountry experience for those thru-biking the 175-mile multi-purpose route. It will also serve the region via sustainable economic and tourism development as well as conservation education and heritage preservation in a region celebrated for its unique history, geologic and geographic diversity. The Aquarius Trail Hut System utilizes existing forested double-track and singletrack trails from the peak of Brian Head for approximately 175-miles east to the town of Escalante. The trail twists and turns through some of Utah’s most beautiful country including Hell’s Backbone, Red Canyon, and Powell Point. The huts are sourced from recycled shipping containers that have been retrofitted to sleep 6 people per unit with 2 units at each location. They were designed to have a minimal environmental impact. Beyond transporting them into their designated hut locations they don’t require any new environmental disturbance. The Aquarius Trail Hut System offers a unique accommodation for those interested in multi-day adventures on thru-trails but is also a great option for families exploring the area. If you are interested in staying at our huts and experiencing a part of Utah unknown to many, we encourage you to visit our website at www.aquariustrail.com and contact us to receive more information.

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Announcing the Aquarius Trail Hut System

Aquarius Trail Hut-System logo web

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:

“Providing a Utah backcountry experience with a hint of luxury”

Escalante, Utah.  September 21, 2016 – The Aquarius trail and hut system will provide true backcountry experience with a hint of luxury for those thru-biking the 175-mile multi-purpose trail. It will also serve the region via sustainable economic and tourism development as well as conservation education and heritage preservation in a region celebrated for its unique history, geologic and geographic diversity.

The Aquarius Trail and Hut to Hut System designates and signs 175 miles of forested double-track and existing singletrack trails from the peak of Brian Head down to the town of Escalante. The trail twists and turns through some of Utah’s most beautiful country including Hells Backbone, Red Canyon, and Powell Point. Four huts will be situated along the route, locations are still being determined and cannot be announced until proper NEPA has been completed at each of the proposed sites. The huts are sourced from recycled shipping containers that have been retrofitted to sleep 12 people per unit. They are built locally by Rhino Cubed and designed to have a minimal environmental impact. Beyond transporting them into their designated hut locations they don’t require any new environmental disturbance.

The huts will operate as a through hike/bike accommodation system. The first hut will be delivered to Escalante by early Spring 2017 and placed in its respective location upon the snow melting. The remainder of the huts will be built throughout the Spring and Summer season and should be delivered and located before the Fall. We anticipate being able to take reservations and bookings of the hut system by September of 2017.

The Aquarius Trail and Hut system offers a unique accommodation for those interested primarily in multi-day adventures on thru-trails. If you are interested in riding from point to point and experiencing a part of Utah unknown to most, we encourage you to visit our website, and contact us to receive more information. We also recommend that you follow our social networks and sign up to receive our newsletter to get the latest updates on the projects development.

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