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Poison Spider Mesa and the Portal Trail 

Day Four - Part I - of the 2008 Utah-Colorado Roadtrip

Posion Spider Mesa
 
We woke up this morning to cloudy skies that still looked a little icky. We opted to roll into town for leisurely breakfast. While eating breakfast we could see lighter skies to the north and foreboding clouds to the south. It would be a toss up as to wither were would get rained on today or not. After breakfast and a few errands we went back out to camp and tweaked up the bikes for the day. The plan was to do the Poison Spider Mesa and Portal trail loop. This loop is one of those marquee trails that I had always heard about and was itching to check it out.
 
Resources: In addition to the stuff I mentioned earlier, the Cheap is Real map for this ride useful to bring along as well. I can't remember all of the turns from this ride but those maps should get through this ride. Here is my GPS track from this ride. Choose your format: GPX, GDB, KML
 

The Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailWe took a couple of diversions on our way out to the trailhead. The first was to checkout some Indian writing in the rocks on “Wallstreet.” It is right after the Jaycee campground and it well marked. You will actually be passing back by here as part of the loop on this ride so you may want to include a stop here as part of the ride's loop.

 
The Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailAfter gawking at the writing we went past the trailhead and continued on out Potash road to take in some views of Long Canyon and lookup into Dead Horse Point State Park. It was also pretty impressive to see just how large Amasa Back Mesa is as we drove around its entire finger. While on the sightseeing diversion the clouds would occasionally break so we were excited about the idea of not getting rained on during the ride.
The Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal Trail
 

The Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailWe soon made our way back to the Poison Spider trailhead off of Potash road and put our knobbies to work. The trail (a 4WD route) climbs with some steep sections that includes baby heads and ledges for about the first 1.5 miles. You should notice some painted white jeeps on the rocks here and there to guide you along. After a short break from the ledges and babyheads you get into some deep sand sections that will be a challenge you to keep your momentum going. After this you get into some technical climbing sections where lots of rubber and drivetrain scuff marks from the moto-types will keep you going in the right direction. Some of these have been given names like waterfall and wedgy.

The Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal Trail
 

The Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailSomewhere around 3 miles or so things level out and some good views of the Behind the Rocks Wilderness Study area and the La Sal Mountains further to the south open up. There are also some bit of slickrock to play on here and there. Nothing as expansive as the stuff that was yet to come, but enough to get away from the sand and well well-worn marks on the trail for a bit.

The Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal Trail
 

The Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailSomewhere around the five mile mark you come out into a significant field of slickrock where you will see four domes a head of you. The trail will go between the far right dome and the one just to the left of it. Between here and there are lots of opportunities to freeform on the slickrock and even work your way out to the edge of the mesa. Free forming on the slickrock out to the edge is exactly what we did.

The Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal Trail
 

The Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailIt was pretty cool out near the edge of the mesa. We could look down and see our campsite as well a good chunk of the Amasa Back Mesa that we rode our first day here. There was also a grand view of the Moab Rim trail. There was a large group of Four-Wheelers on the the Moab Rim trail that day and they looked like tiny little specks from our vantage point. If you look close in the picture on the left you can see the jeeps. You obviously do not want to get too close to the edge here. Most of the time the "edge" is a rounded slope where you would most likely slide off the mesa before the actual fall started. That is why it is vitally important that you scope out your route before committing to a line.

The Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal Trail

The Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal Trail
Various Shots from playing on the Mesa

 

The Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailAfter playing on this area of the slickrock we rejoined that main trail where it goes just to the left of the right-hand dome I was talking about earlier. There are a couple of hella-steep slickrock sections that you can grunt up or if you have some good route finding skills you can freeform a more contouring or switchbacking route up to the top of these. You will notice on quite a few pictures on this page, we are looking off to our left our right while riding on the rock. I really dig being in the "ferret out a line" mode while on the rocks.

 

The Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailBefore long we came to a spur out to the picturesque Little Arch. A few folks have ridden across the arch. If it was on flat ground you could do all day long but when a fall of hundreds of feet and death awaits, I think I'll pass. If you get at the right angle you can look through the arch and see the trailhead for the Moab Rim trail. It was really cool the following day to look up from that trailhead and see that arch. I was also amazed at the trees growing in the pockets in the sandstone. It makes you really appreaciate why you should be careful to stay off the cryptbiotic soils as they take hundreds of years make these otherwise desolated spot, suitable for plants to survive in.

 

The Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailAfter the spur to the arch we continued along our way. There are some confusing intersections, but with both the Lattitude 40 map and the Cheap is Real map you should be able to find your way along. The jeep route at this point is a clockwise loop, but the MTB route is to go counterclockwise. The direction on the Cheap is Real map reflect this counterclockwise route. The trail is also signed here and there. There were also a few big freaking swaths of deep sand that I am sure would have been a royal pain in the butt on any other day. Considering all the rain that hit this place the night before, the sand was quite manageable. I am sure we had to be hitting this ride during near ideal conditions. The sky was also opening up into an absolutely incredible day with puffy white clouds against deep blue skies.

 

 

The Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailSomewhere around the 8 mile mark you come to a T-intersection with the domes behind your right shoulder around the 4 or 5 o'clock position. We ran into a couple of Canadian gals who followed the loop in the clockwise direction and from their description it sounded like the counter-clockwise direction is certainly the way to go. We hung a right here and did a rocky climb for about half mile up to the rim where we were treated to some great views of the Moab Valley.

 
The Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe views of the Moab Valley below were simply impressive. Highways 128, 191, Potash Road and Kane Creek Roads were all just thin little lines from this vantage point. You could also see were the seepage from the tailings pile from the old Atlas Uranium Mine is killing the trees between the pile and the Colorado River.

 

Warning about the Portal Trail

 

I’m going to pause from the story of the day to warn you about the Portal trail. It will reset your scales for exposure on a trail. It is off the charts extreme. Nobody falls off the Portal trail and lives to talk about it. The exposed sections have majestically beautiful views to a certain and quick death. Lee Bridgers in his Mountain Biking Moab book dedicates a couple of pages to bringing home life and the Portal trail. This is just a tiny excerpt of a larger fascinating story on how he relates the life of one of his friends to the Portal trail.

“Rusty was eighty-three when he shuffled off. He was a real piece of work, under construction for over eighty years. He had lots of kids. His kids are having kids. People were, and still are, affected by Rusty’s spirit. When he died his family and colleagues celebrated his long life with funny stories and tears of gratitude for having Rusty as a friend for so long. How old are you? How long will you live? Ever consider that your life is invaluable to your family and friends? Ever heard of the expression “Don’t break your mother’s heart?” Ever heard of natural selection? This is the connection. You may not be a Rusty Musselman, but with age, you may become just as interesting, just as much of a character. In Moab we call it “Rugged Individualism.” Fall off the Portal Trail and you will never know the rewards of being an “elder,” of being a rock for your family. You will become some nameless someone who fell off the damn Portal Trail onto the rocks below.”

I’m not trying to scare you, the Portal trail should do that on its own. The exposed sections are not too technical, a solid upper-intermediate rider could pull off those moves 5 times out of 6. However, that 6th time is DEATH! The risk is simply not worth the reward here. Riding these sections is Russian Roulette on a mountain bike and three people have died so far here. I love myself and my family too much to risk becoming the fourth by trying to ride those exposed sections. If you don't feel the same way then this may not be the trail for you.

 
The Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailFrom where the Poison Spider Trail comes out to the view of the Moab Valley, the Portal trail is off to your right. It is intentionally left unmarked here and omitted from the kiosk map back at the trailhead by the BLM to discourage its use. Before you get to the super exposed section the trail is superb both in trail character and astounding views that approach surreal. We rode the non-exposed sections of the portal and heeded every single dismount sign. There are no signs to tell you when it is okay ride again. Use your most cautious judgement on when or if to get back on your bike.
The Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal Trail The Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal Trail
 

The Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailI want to bring your attention to this photo. I have drawn in the trail in red to better show you some of the exposed sections. The sub-picture in the upper left hand corner is the view looking down from the trail at that spot. I'm not certain but I believe this spot is colloquially referred to as "Idiots Launch". Here is a link to full-sized version of the picture if you want a closer look.

 
When you get out past the severely exposed sections you are treated to another surreal view as well as a large enough piece of earth to sit down on. The pan shot above is about a 270 degree view angle with the Portal trail coming in from the left-hand side by the exposed sections and going down the shelf off to the right-hand side of picture.
 
The Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailOnce you get around the point the trail becomes less exposed. It does however become wickedly technical. It reminded me a great deal of the Goat Camp trail in Arizona only shorter. It is not like there is a shortage of exposure through here either. It is just the kind that you will most likely survive. Bill O'Neil was looking at one nasty little turn with a drop and talking about how doable it was. An over the bars here would mostly likely pitch you off a ledge of some 20 feet or so. I had to remind him that our idea of exposure had been drastically skewed over the last 20 minutes and that was still one hell of a potential fall.
 
The Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe technical ride down was pretty exciting and challenging. It was more of a slow technical kind of trail vice a ripper blaze fest. Big Chunk-O-Rama. Believe me my shoes touched Mother Earth on more than a few occasions on this trail. Once down at the bottom of the mesa the trail undulates for a while out to the Jaycee campground. You do not need to do this section as there is a spur that shortcuts the trail directly out to the road shortly after you come off the mesa. However the trail to the campgroud is alright.
 
The Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal Trail
 

The Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailThe Poison Spider Mesa and Portal TrailFrom the campground it is about a 1.5 mile pavement return on Potash Road back to the trailhead. Once again if you did not hit up the Petrogylths earlier, you should stop and take a gander. We finished up this ride with a few hours or so of daylight left. We both felt pretty good still, so while enjoying some post ride refreshments we both, at almost at the same time said, “What's Next?”

 


Here is the video from the day's ride. We were quite cautious in how we rode this trail and walked all the exposed sections. However when editing this video after the fact, I saw a couple of spots that I would not ride again. Those exposed bits are not some place you want to test your limits. Right-click on the image to download the video that is 9 minute and 35 second video that is 130MB in size.

 
So we hopped in the truck and headed out for Day Four - Part II, Bartlett Wash.