Moab, Utah

Adventure Stories: Backcountry Expedition Meets Luxury Vacation

Горный заезд

, by Greg Heil

The Western Spirit mothership. Photo: Greg Heil

"Western Spirit [trips] are an interesting cross between a luxury getaway and a backcountry expedition," reflected Claire Bredar, mountain bike guide for Western Spirit Cycling. "On some trips, we'll be outside chopping food, making a gourmet meal, while it's pouring rain or hailing, and the guests will be hunkered down in their tents," she said with a laugh.

Thankfully, our "luxury expedition" with Western Spirit Cycling was blessed with picture-perfect weather the entire time, allowing us to fully immerse ourselves in the grandeur of Canyonlands National Park while pedaling our mountain bikes along the rugged White Rim Road. Even still, over the course of four days and three nights, we truly experienced this yin and yang. While we had to pitch our own tents, pedal (or push) our bikes up challenging climbs, cope with the brutal heat of the sun, and make our peace with dust and dirt that seemed to get everywhere, I know for a fact that I've never eaten so well, so far off the grid.

In fact, I honestly don't eat nearly this well for all three meals of the day in a normal week at home. Full stop. On the White Rim, we enjoyed superb meals three times per day, including during the middle of our rides, as we were able to rendezvous with our support vehicle multiple times throughout each day. After cranking out many miles on the hot, dusty road, pulling up to the big red truck, and seeing either Claire or Gus already in motion, setting up the table, prepping a delicious spread, with the beer cooler already propped up on the tailgate—does it get any better than that?!

Photo courtesy Western Spirit

Behind the Scenes with Western Spirit Cycling

Western Spirit Cycling Adventures (or "Western Spirit" for short) is renowned as one of the premier mountain bike tour companies in North America. Founded in 1990, it's not quite the oldest mountain bike tour company in the world... but it's damn close. After over 30 years spent serving thousands of guests, Western Spirit has perfected a formula for crafting superbly well-organized mountain bike trips that leave their guests raving... and craving more. In fact, as I posted brief social media updates following our White Rim trip, I received multiple ecstatic comments from folks coming sharing how they've been on 6 (or more) Western Spirit trips and can't wait to go back again. In fact, return guests account for 60% of Western Spirit's business. 

RELATED: Mountain Biking the White Rim: A Journey Through Canyonlands' Rugged Grandeur

To understand what sets Western Spirit apart from the pack and how they've achieved such long-term success, I sat down with Mark Sevenoff, Marketing Director and Co-Owner of Western Spirit, to get the behind-the-scenes scoop. During our interview, I uncovered many of the key ingredients in Western Spirit's secret sauce.

Permits, Permits, Permits

Permitting is often the single biggest hurdle for any guiding company operating on public land. "Western Spirit probably has the most permits on public lands, I would say, of any outfitter—in possibly the world," said Mark. "All our trips predominantly are on National Forest, BLM, and National Park lands. On the White Rim, it's quite competitive in Canyonlands National Park." There are five concessionaires with permits to operate in Canyonlands, and Western Spirit is one of the select few. 

In many areas across the country—and especially in National Parks—very few permits will be issued at any given time. Many of the concessionaires operating in National Parks originally secured their permits decades ago, and an upstart guiding company will only be able to secure a permit if one of the long-time mainstays closes up shop or allows their permit to lapse. But, of course, the specifics vary from location to location.

This wide array of hard-won permits allows Western Spirit to run "50 different itineraries and trips from Canada to Mexico," according to Mark. "So North and South Dakota, the Black Hills and the Maah Daah Hey Trail up there, Washington State, Oregon, California, you name it." Western Spirit is based in Moab, Utah, and while they do operate these far-flung trips across the Mountain West, the majority of their guiding takes place in Utah and nearby Colorado and Arizona. While the White Rim is one of their most popular trips, in mid-summer when the weather is too hot in Moab, they focus on trips on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, in the Colorado high country near Crested Butte and Durango, and other places further afield. 

Mountain biking the White Rim with Western Spirit. Rider: Greg Heil. Photo: Christine Henry

More than Just Mountain Bikes

While most renowned for their mountain bike trips, Western Spirit caters to all types of cyclists. Road cycling has long been a part of their portfolio, and in recent years, they've added gravel biking and ebiking itineraries as well. While gravel biking is a natural extension of the vehicle-supported tour model, I was curious to learn more about the move into ebike tours and the logistics required to make it happen.

"Believe it or not, I'm a huge ebike proponent," explained Mark. "When they first came out, people were like, 'you're a racer and you're really fit, why would you of all people be on ebike?' But for various reasons, I fell in love with them. I used to ride dirt bikes a bit, and I just think it's a great tool to get mixed abilities out there. They're just darn fun. So when we tried to figure out what trips were appropriate, certain trips were always on motorized routes. So take, for example, Telluride to Moab—that's a point-to-point trip on National Forest Service roads, and the truck follows you the entire way. So for the last 30 years, we've been doing that trip, and it's always been e-bike friendly or e-bike legal. It's a motorized route." 

But other routes were more complicated legally and logistically than Telluride to Moab. Take, for example, the White Rim tour that we just completed. The White Rim "was a trip [where] we thought it could really help people who were on the fence of whether they could do it physically or just needed the confidence of a pedal-assist bike," said Mark. But the main challenge in Canyonlands was bureaucratic. While the road is open to motorized traffic, "initially the Park Service said your vehicle had to be street legal, so you could take a motorcycle there, but it had to have a horn and signals and a license plate and DOT tires, and none of that really existed for a mountain bike or e-mountain bike. So it was impossible to actually make an ebike legal, even though the truck was driving on [the road]. It was this gray area."

DID YOU READ? 5 Key Ingredients for Creating an Unforgettable Mountain Bike Getaway

Granted, the street-legal restriction proved to be a blessing when we were riding the White Rim, as it kept the rugged road from being flooded by the noisy side-by-sides that dominate the rest of the 4x4 routes around Moab. So while we enjoyed the serenity that this law protects, it didn't make sense for ebikes. Eventually, the National Park tweaked the law to allow ebikes. Today, they even have rangers that patrol the entire White Rim in a single day from the seat of an ebike.

However, there are still technical logistics to charging a slew of ebike batteries so far out in the backcountry, especially since generators are still banned in the park. This has forced companies like Western Spirit to innovate and develop their own power bank setups. "Solar's not quite enough. If you have a bunch of ebikes, it's not quite there yet," said Mark. "So we've had to develop these battery packs that charge off the truck. All the different companies or competitors are inventing different variations. It's a bit of a trial and error thing, but we're making progress."

The addition of ebike trips has helped open up multi-day mountain bike tours to a whole array of people who might not have been able to participate otherwise. While no one on our tour used an ebike, we passed another Western Spirit tour heading the other direction that had some ebike riders. But even for experienced riders, the benefits of an ebike can be profound. 

"We did one last year up in Sun Valley, Idaho. We've been riding those trails for almost 30 years," said Mark. "I guided a group of men from Santa Cruz called the Redwood Riders. They had a name to their club, and they were all phenomenal riders. They'd all been riding for literally half their lives, for 30 years on mountain bikes, mostly starting in the 80s and 90s. They still ride what they call 'muscle bikes,' but they were all on e-mountain bikes, and we just had a blast."

Instead of being too narrowly focused on just technical mountain biking, Western Spirit's broad scope and variety of tours allows them to operate profitably as a company while still offering a select few advanced-level mountain bike trips.

The Best Guides

When I pressed Mark to hone in on what sets Western Spirit apart from the pack, he had one response: the guides.

"I think we make extra effort to have the best guides—just really friendly guides. We get so many applications [that] read a race resume. Like, 'I solo FKTed this.' It's kind of 'me, me, me, me.' And that's great. We want you to be a proficient cyclist, but your Strava times or your race results are kind of the last thing I'm looking at. Ultimately you're in the service industry, so being able to have empathy and care about others and have guides that really want to be out there" is one of the most critical factors to the operation's success.

Mountain bike guide Claire Bredar giving our daily map talk, and descending the Shafer Trail.

Western Spirit is in the process of building a new three-story headquarters on the site of their original building, which I have watched slowly unfold through Mark's photos uploaded to his rides on Strava. Even the design and construction of this new building were largely influenced by their commitment to support their world-class guides. While Western Spirit has long advertised on their website that guides can park their rig for the season at HQ, not all the guides have a decked-out sprinter van to return to between trips. So to help bridge that in-between time, Western Spirit is building "employee housing on site [with] bunk rooms [that will be] just a lot better for the guides." The employee housing level will include "indoor/outdoor showers, places to work on your bike, places to charge every little device you have, common space and wifi," and so much more. This is critical because the guides spend the vast majority of their summers out in the backcountry. Oftentimes, they only have a day or two between trips—at most a week. It's not nearly enough time off to warrant renting a place, and in a town like Moab, affording rent is tough to begin with. "The employee housing is a first for what I know of for mountain bike companies in town," Mark concluded.

When are you planning your next trip?

From luxury food to the most permits of any guide company in the nation, a wide array of trips covering all types of cycling, and the best guides in the industry, it's no wonder that Western Spirit has cemented itself as one of the premier mountain bike guide companies in not just the nation, but the world. While some other companies are still reeling from the effects of the COVID pandemic, Western Spirit (and their spin-off company, Outerbike) continues to innovate and push boundaries by launching new trips and events. And most importantly, their guests feel the love on every single Western Spirit trip, spurring many of them to come back year after year.

So when are you planning your next trip?! Take a look at Western Spirit's 2024 trip calendar and start dreaming!

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