The Southwest’s Bumpiest Ride: The Rimrocker Trail from Colorado to Utah

Rimrocker trail
The view from Utah's 160-mile Rimrocker Trail. Courtesy of Rimrocker Trail

One afternoon last fall, I found myself in a small southwestern Colorado town called Nucla. I was with an old college pal, Kirk, and my Toyota FJ Cruiser, which had just carried us the 55 miles from Kirk’s apartment in Telluride. In Nucla, we met a friendly woman who, when we mentioned our destination, Canyonlands National Park, suggested we take the Rimrocker, a newly established off-roading trail that headed in that direction. It wasn’t the original plan, but so what? We had the gear, the time, and the ride—a four-wheel-drive rig with high clearance. We were going with the flow and the flow was taking us off-road. She gave us a map.

The Rimrocker is a gem: 160 miles of dirt stretching from Montrose to Moab, with all the beauty of Arches National Park and none of the crowds. The red mountains in the area were once popular among rimrockers, 19th-century miners and outlaws who hid in them, thus the name of the old mining road, which officially opened to tourists in 2016. Many of the cliffs are streaked with narrow bands of aqua-green ore, the wellspring of a once booming extractive industry. Signs warning of radioactivity abound, many of them riddled with bullet holes. All of it simply added to the sense of being totally out there.

The first few hours had us riding across the Uncompahgre Plateau, where the trail gradually reaches a high point of 9,840 feet. Paradox Valley ran below us and, in the distance, rose Utah’s white-capped La Sal peaks. There was the odd cow and hawk, but no humans. This was the hard, perpetual expanse of the West, where people sometimes go but mostly don’t.

Occasionally we stopped for photos and to realign the bicycles on the back of the vehicle, which were taking a beating on their rack. My FJ was tested often by the Rimrocker. It shook and pounded crawling over boulders and up ascents of loose gravel. But there were no serious issues. The biggest concern arose at sunset.

We were coming down from a modest summit when Kirk realized that his phone was missing. He knew where he’d left it, atop a canyon that we had stopped at an hour or so earlier. Under radiant stars, I drove us back and Kirk used his headlamp to locate the thing. We set up camp overlooking the valley and constructed a fire with cow pies for kindling. We heated up chili, finished a bottle of Stranahan’s, and, in the morning, threw stones at the wreckage of an ancient-looking car that rested a ways down the cliffside. Clearly, we hypothesized, this was an intentional scuttling by thieves, probably bank robbers, looking to disappear the getaway car. Standing there, it felt as if we had been disappeared, too. The juniper- and sagebrush-dappled mesa was wholly ours. It was hard to leave. But we did, and by mid-afternoon we’d reached Canyonlands to begin our original adventure—an extra one already under our belts.