8 Desert Bikepacking Routes Perfect for Spring

It’s getting to be that time of year: we’ve weathered the worst of winter and our bikes are ready to come out and play, but summer mountain season still feels so far away. That’s right, it’s time for a spring bikepacking trip!

If you’re looking for somewhere to bikepack during March and April, the deserts of the southwestern US are hard to beat. Spring is the perfect time to enjoy these vast landscapes while temperatures are mild, water sources are flowing, and wildflowers are blooming. There’s something so special about these wild places where geology is laid bare and stubborn, vibrant life is hidden everywhere in plain sight.

Sound good? Here are eight springtime desert ride ideas for your bikepacking bucket list. Some are long and epic, some are short and sweet, and all promise to make you feel small and insignificant in the best possible way. I’ve spent time in all these areas and bikepacked some or all of most of these routes, so I can personally vouch for their awesomeness. Enjoy!

The desert is a special place for bikepacking – just watch out for the spikes!

SoCal Desert Ramble

Length: 497 miles
Style: mix of gravel, dirt, and paved roads, sometimes rocky and sandy
Location: Southern California
Learn more: route description (bikepacking.com)

This meandering route explores the desert region inland of Los Angeles and San Diego, mixing scenery and cultural curiosities along the way. You’ll pass through Joshua Tree National Park and Anza-Borrego State Park, two of the classic southern California desert destinations, as well as Pioneer Town and Big Bear Lake (if there isn’t too much snow). The most unique stops along the route are surely the dilapidated old resort town at Salton Sea and the bizarre settlement of Slab City, which you just have to see to believe.

The riding is non-technical, but don’t underestimate those sandy and rocky desert roads. The route designers recommend at least 2.4″ wide tires for dealing with those challenges, yet the route is 35% pavement – clearly a “no perfect bike” situation. Though the route is point to point, logistics are easy thanks to public transit; Amtrak takes unboxed bikes with advance reservation. For folks who want more singletrack, more remoteness, and fewer quirky desert settlements, check out the Stagecoach 400 route in the same area.

Related: California Bikepacking: Route Ideas in Every Region

Salton Sea
Slab City
View of Joshua Tree National Park desert floor
Joshua Tree National Park

Anza-Hapaha Loop

Length: 90 miles
Style: mix of dirt and sand roads, a bit of pavement
Location: Southern California
Learn more: route description (bikepacking.com)

If you don’t have time for the full SoCal Desert Ramble, this 2-4 day loop offers a bite-size taste via the dirt and sand roads of Anza Borrego Desert State Park, the largest state park in California. Dispersed camping is legal here, but water is scarce, so tank up at the two resupply stops and prepare to dry camp.

The riding is mostly non-technical, but sand can be a challenge (wide, tubeless tires recommended) and a few short super-steep hike-a-bikes may seem daunting from the bottom. But riders will be rewarded with quiet dirt roads and classic desert scenery.

This route is usually at its best in March and early April when the desert wildflower bloom peaks, but it can be ridden any time except for summer (too hot).

Read more: Bikepacking the Anza-Hapaha Loop

Grand Staircase Loop

Length: 160 miles
Style: dirt and gravel roads
Location: southern Utah
Learn more: route description (bikepacking.com)

The Grand Staircase Loop is a scenic and engaging sampler of southern Utah’s desert country. It’s logistically simple (gotta love loops) and just the right length for a short but immersive 3-4 day adventure. The dirt road riding is interesting and challenging without being technical. You don’t need any suspension, but a rigid mountain bike with wider tires is helpful for all the rocks and some sand.

The canyon country scenery, including Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, is both classic and varied. Highlights include a sweeping descent down Kelly Grade, a gradual climb up Cottonwood Canyon with its distinctive cockscomb rock formation, and the rugged and remote “Death Ridge,” the most challenging section in my opinion.

As with most desert bikepacking routes in Utah and elsewhere, pay attention to water sources. Their frequency is manageable on this route but some planning is required, and you may need to carry 6-8 liters at times. Temps can be hot down low near Big Water (good for a simple resupply stop) and cooler up at the higher elevations.

Related: Bikepacking Southern Utah’s Grand Staircase Loop

Bikepacker rides rocky desert road with rock formations in background
Two bikepacking bikes lean against sign for Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

White Rim Road

Length: 97 miles
Style: dirt and gravel road
Location: eastern Utah
Learn more: route description (bikepacking.com) and ride reports

It’s hard to find a more classic desert ride than this popular backcountry 4×4 drive in Canyonlands National Park. Bikes are welcome too and there are campsites dotting the canyon rim along the way. By connecting on a bit of paved road you can form a loop perfect for a premier bikepacking overnighter or long weekend.

Camping permits are hard to get, and you may be sharing a campsite with guided 4×4 tour groups. But the Canyonlands scenery is so out-of-this-world amazing that you probably won’t mind. You’ll be riding the rim alongside the inner canyons of the Colorado and Green rivers, sometimes just a stone’s throw away from the drop-off, surrounded by yet more canyon walls towering above you. At the risk of understatement: it’s a stunning place.

Aside from permit applications and campsite selection, water is the biggest logistical hurdle on this route. River access is rare and water is silty, so if you’re riding over more than two days you’ll likely have to pre-cache water or hire an outfitter to do it for you. Vehicle-supported trips are also an option on this route, if you’re into that.

If you get your water and permit situation sorted, this route makes a great beginner trip thanks to its easy logistics and well-traveled backcountry roads. Anyone who starts out bikepacking on the White Rim Loop might be spoiled for future trips, but they’ll definitely be hooked!

If you love the idea of bikepacking near Moab but don’t want to deal with the permit hassles and designated campsites of the White Rim, you might also consider the more technical Kokopelli Trail and Hey Joe Safari routes.

White Rim Road passing very close to the inner canyon walls near Gooseberry Campsite.

New Mexico Off-Road Runner

Length: 500 miles
Style: gravel and dirt roads, some pavement
Location: New Mexico
Learn more: route description (bikepacking.com)

The Off-Road Runner is a 500 mile point-to-point ride stretching from Santa Fe to Las Cruces roughly parallel to the Rio Grande. Santa Fe is a gentle starting point with a small airport where you can easily build your bike and ride into town. Bike-friendly public transport links up the southern end of the route with El Paso, TX and its airport. Attractions along the way include breweries and tacos, historic small towns, and plenty of low and high desert landscapes. Astronomy fans can work in a visit to the Very Large Array with just a bit of off-route riding.

There isn’t any technical singletrack on this route, but it isn’t all smooth pedaling either. Sections of desert wash are sandy (you may be pushing for a bit) and some of the two-track is chunky and rocky. These are a minority though, and a quarter of the route is on low-traffic paved roads. Camping is easily found throughout the large stretches of public land, and food resupply is straightforward as long as you like Mexican food. I highly recommend tubeless tires for this route!

For a shorter and logistically simpler loop route in the area, check out the Monumental Loop in the Chihuahuan Desert at the southern end of the Off-Road Runner.

Related: How to NOT Bikepack the New Mexico Off-Road Runner

Bikepacking tent in New Mexico

Arizona Trail

Length: 750 miles (or 300 mile short version)
Style: singletrack, mostly
Location: Arizona (Mexico border to Utah border)
Learn more: Arizona Trail Association, bikepacking.com, ride reports (BikeSleepBike)

The Arizona Trail is an 800-ish mile National Scenic Trail open to bikers as well as hikers, except for a few bike-specific detours. I’ve completed it on foot and it stands out as one of my most memorable outdoor adventures. It’s not all desert, in fact the AZT’s incredible geological and biological diversity is one of its highlights.

The southern section offers the most desert riding, and those looking for a shorter and logistically easier ride should consider the first 300 miles between the Mexican border and Picketpost Trailhead. This corresponds to the shorter distance of the famous Arizona Trail Race, a self-supported bikepacking race held annually since 2006. Spring is a gorgeous time to ride the Arizona Trail, after the snow has melted up high (don’t start too early, April is usually good) and before the scorching heat of summer.

As a bikepacking trail the AZT is moderately technical. You’ll want at least front suspension, and if you’re not comfortable riding rocky trails, well, you will be by the time you finish! If you decide to tackle the full trail you’ll have a formidable obstacle near the northern end: the Grand Canyon. Bikes may not be ridden (or pushed) through the canyon, so you’ll need to disassemble your ride, carry it on your back through the canyon, and reassemble on the other side — no small feat! Another option is to hire a shuttle company to transport your gear to the other side, so you can enjoy the staggering scenery without staggering under the weight of your bike.

If the Arizona Trail sounds dreamy but technical mountain biking isn’t your thing, check out the Arizona section of the Western Wildlands Route. It roughly parallels the AZT through the entire state but on non-technical — though sometimes quite rough — dirt and gravel roads.

Plateau Passage

Length: 1218 miles
Style: dirt and gravel roads, some singletrack, some pavement
Location: southern Nevada, Utah, and Colorado
Learn more: route description (Bikepacking Roots)

For fans of both desert riding and long-distance bikepacking routes, the relatively new Plateau Passage is an intriguing option. It’s an intense ride traversing extensive public land and rugged remote spaces between Las Vegas, NV and Durango, CO. It’s not entirely a desert route — there are plenty of mountains along the way too — but desert highlights include the Mojave outside of Vegas and the classic canyon country near Moab.

This route is designed to be more challenging and remote than many others in this list, and some experience with desert bikepacking is highly recommended. The riding can be tough and 20% of the whole route is singletrack, so bring your mountain bike and at least 2.3″ wide tires as recommended by the route designers.

Screenshot of map at bikepackingroots.com

Central Oregon Backcountry Explorer

Length: 152 miles
Style: mostly gravel, some pavement
Location: central Oregon
Learn more: route description (bikepacking.com)

For something a little different, consider this bite size beginner-friendly loop through Oregon’s high desert country. Logistics are simple, resupply and camping are easy, and the scenery offers a different take on the “desert” category seen elsewhere in this list. Though many sections feel satisfyingly remote, this is a good route for beginners because you’re never too far from a helpful rancher if something goes wrong.

The first fifty miles of this route overlap the Oregon Outback leaving Prineville, including a stop in the tiny bikepacker-friendly town of Ashwood. Then the Backcountry Explorer turns southeast and drops to the John Day River through mesmerizing geology and sparsely populated ranch land. Primitive Burnt Ranch Campground is a great place to spend the night before continuing to views of the Painted Hills. The folks at the donation-based Spoke’n Hostel in Mitchell are memorable for their hospitality, which will get you fired up for a big gradual climb and descent through the Ochoco Mountains and back to Prineville.

This route would ride well on a rigid mountain bike, gravel bike, or sturdy touring bike with gravel tires. I strongly recommend tubeless tires; this area was where I made the decision, after fixing twelve thorn punctures in a few miles, to acquire tubeless-compatible rims!

Related: 6 Scenic Oregon Bikepacking Routes

Goat head thorns!
Dirt road bikepacking in Oregon

Desert Bikepacking Tips

Deserts are actually quite diverse in their geology, biology, and even climate. There are so many different types and regions to consider, all with their own charms and challenges. But at the risk of overgeneralizing, here are some important factors to keep in mind when bikepacking in the desert.

Water: Deserts don’t get much rain by definition, so surface water sources can be sparse. In some areas you may need to carry 6 liters or more on your bike and be very mindful of refill opportunities. Research thoroughly! Not sure how to carry all that water? See 9 Ways to Carry Water on Your Bike.

Bikepacking bike leans against blue cattle tank full of water in red rocky desert
Water sources can be precious in the desert.

Season: The routes in this post are generally best in spring and fall. A few may be rideable throughout the winter, depending on the year, and most are too hot to safely ride during summer. Every year is different though, so choose your timing with care and research the details of your specific route. High elevation sections can have snow and mud after a spring storm or too early after an especially wet winter.

Extreme temperatures: Deserts are known for their big temperature swings, especially in spring and fall. You may find yourself camping in freezing temps and sweltering in the afternoon sun the next day. Choose your bikepacking clothes and gear accordingly.

Tires: Tubeless tires are a lifesaver in places with lots of spikey foliage. Wider rubber, like 2.3″ or greater, is helpful for smoothing out rocky roads and floating over sand.

Related: Desert Bikepacking: Skills, Gear, and Inspiration

For all their challenges, deserts are high on my list of favorite bikepacking environments. I feel free and extra-alive surrounded by their distant horizons, subtle beauty, and big starry skies. I hope this post inspires you to tackle a new desert bikepacking route this spring!

More Bikepacking Resources

About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa, founder of Exploring Wild. I’ve traveled over 20,000 miles by bike and still can’t stop planning my next ride (and helping you plan yours). Pavement and panniers or singletrack and seat bag, I love it all. On my bike I feel free. Learn more about me here.

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    2 thoughts on “8 Desert Bikepacking Routes Perfect for Spring”

      • Hi Alan, I’m sorry to exclude my readers abroad! My audience is primarily in the US and the springtime desert riding season is somewhat specific to our southwest region, plus I’m very familiar with the area since I live here. But depending on where you live I bet there are other great routes in your area with their own springtime appeal. If you want to share where you live I can share some ideas.


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