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Dead Cow Loop

The Dead Cow Loop is an "adventure ride." You'll have mountain bike experiences you'll find nowhere else. For example, you'll be riding the slickrock bottom of a slot canyon through running water. For expert riders it's definitely worth the work. But before going on to the ride description, I'll talk you "casual riders" out of doing Dead Cow.

Midpoint of the ride, as we cruise Navajo slickrock along the Green River. Photos and ride description November 19, 2013 by Bruce.

Do NOT do this ride if:
1.  Your Honda Civic needs a paved trailhead lot.
2.  You need a bathroom, at least occasionally.
3.  Cell phone reception is a must.
4.  You reject rides with over 2000 feet of climbing.
5.  You look for smooth manicured trails.
6.  20 miles on dirt would be exhausting for you.
7.  Your $200 cycling shoes can't get wet.
8.  You need maps on signposts, with a smiley-face "you are here."
9.  Hiking in sand would just RUIN your day.
10. You consider yourself anything less than a gonzo rider. 

Aftermath. Going knee-deep in muddy water, then riding through sand. Bike making an awful noise. Chain and brakes need hosing down. Also shoes full of water and sand.

The Dead Cow Loop is on BLM land in the desert south of Green River. The ride I describe here is a lariat of 16 miles with 1700 vertical feet of climbing. The distance is more work than it sounds. Much of the ride is on a loose trials-motorcycle pathway and there will be significant sand riding. Typically even the firmer dirt trail is about 50% harder pedaling than hard-pack singletrack.

View southwest on Red Rim as we begin the ride. Temperature 37 degrees, overcast skies. Late November. No tire tracks since the rain 4 days ago.

My ride description starts from the Red Rim trailhead on the Red Wash Road, over 17 dirt-road miles from I-70 east of Green River. (The trailhead is the same as Mary's Trail.) Portions of this road are impassable when wet, and the last 3 miles require a high-clearance four-wheel drive vehicle. It will take you about 45 minutes from I-70 to reach Red Rim, longer if you care about those bikes flopping around on your roof-rack.

View over Red Wash from Red Rim.

The ride can be started from the Ruby Ranch Road above the White Wash sand dunes. This dirt road is much nicer than Red Wash and can usually be done in a sedan, weather permitting. It's 13 miles to the southern viewpoint over the sand dunes. The disadvantage of this route is you'll need to cross the sand of White Wash. This is impossible in a sedan and dicey in an SUV. So if the west entrance is your plan, park on the bluff above White Wash. Ride your bike from the top and plan to hike through 1/4 mile of sand right away. The trip will be about a mile longer and have 300 more feet of climbing. Plus the extra sand.

Forking to the left to drop down the Entrada sandstone into Red Wash.

The White Wash route also misses the nice cruise along Red Rim. Instead, it substitutes an arrow-straight sloppy-loose ride along a fence, uphill, through the sage brush. (You can turn left when you hit Red Wash Road and follow it to the Red Rim trailhead, if you don't mind a few extra miles.)

This part of the wash has a solid sandstone bottom.

The ride from Red Rim
Let's assume you've reached the Red Rim Trail on Red Wash Road, whether by car or by bike. Start southbound on the broad motorcycle-loosened singletrack. The trail winds around as it skirts a few Entrada sandstone buttes.

The lower levels in the Entrada have bands of clay. We're riding on a shelf between layers, with Goblin Valley-like hoodoos here and there. Riding south.

At the first trail fork (mile 0.6) keep right where a fainter singletrack descends on the left into Red Wash. (Although unsigned, this trail descends the bottom of a tributary to Red Wash. But at the point where it would rejoin, there's a stay-out fence across the wash. So it's most likely NOT legal.) Stay right and uphill.

We've reached the entry to Dead Cow Wash, looking west.

At the top of a hill at mile 1.2, the trail seems to go straight and down the ridge. But the broader trail turns 90 degrees to the right as you drop from the top. (See the little trail marker near the bottom of the wash?) Fork right and cross the washbottom northbound.

At the next trail fork (mile 1.9) the route from White Wash joins from straight ahead. Turn 90 degrees left and descend the rock bottom of the wash.

The upper wash alternates dirt and sand, with mounds of Navajo sandstone along the edges.

Follow the trail down Red Wash, where it will cross to the southern side of the wash. Then it veers south across sage flats going generally uphill. Here the motorcycles have made wump-wump waves in the dirt. Plus parallel cheater paths. The surface is a little loose, with some areas of tough but rideable sand. Get used to it.

The wash now has a trickle of water, with shallow puddles between gentle sandstone ramps.

The path turns from red dirt to yellow as you enter the Navajo sandstone zone. At mile 4.2, the path splits. Stay right. (Left connects southbound to the Ten Mile Point road.) After 0.1 mile, turn 90 degrees right and drop westbound downhill through the opening in the cable fence. You're now in Dead Cow Wash.

In Dead Cow Wash, you can usually skirt the water to avoid wetting your shoes. We're looking back uphill.

The next 3/4 mile is loose dirt with occasional deep sand. With skill and spinning strength, you can ride it all (2.3-inch 29er tubeless with pressure lowered to 26 PSI -- your results may vary). When in doubt, pick the line straight along the wash bottom. It's usually more firm.

You'll pass the connector returning from the loop at mile 5.0 on your left, but you might not notice it. The wash then veers north and the surface gets more firm. Soon you'll notice a little ooze from springs dampening the wash. Then it becomes a trickle. Pretty soon, you're dropping down little cascades into rock pools and whooping the sidewalls of Navajo sandstone.

In many areas, the wash-bottom is rounded, inviting the bike to careen back and forth between the sidewalls.

At mile 5.9, the washbottom is blocked by a re-vegetation barrier. To your left is a sandy portage up to the top of sandstone.

Consider backtracking 3/4 mile up the wash and running the washbottom downhill again. It's an easy climb. Unlike the next wash, there's nothing tricky in this section of Dead Cow Wash. The puddle zone is definitely worth doing twice.

Ready to hop back on the bike and ride after a portage uphill in deep sand. (The old trail -- often underwater during spring runoff -- is fenced off here.)

Once you've climbed to the rim, you're faced with a tedious grind across the mesa. Here the waves in the dirt are about the size of storm waves on Utah Lake -- about as high as the top of my wheel with crests 12-15 feet apart. The loose surface kept me from pump-tracking the whoops. They're probably fun if you have a motor. Set your sights on the horizon and spin along. There's good stuff coming up.

Wump pedal pedal. Wump pedal pedal. Wump pedal pedal. Fishtail pedal pedal.

At mile 7 you're finally out of the dirt and onto slickrock that slopes down to the Green River. To your right is Bull Bottom. The butte to the south (straight ahead) is circled by the June's Bottom ride. The buttes are Entrada sandstone. Across the Green River, the cliffs are Navajo sandstone.

Mercifully, we're out of the dirt ocean. We're descending south on sandstone. The butte of June's Bottom is directly ahead across the river.

There are a couple of faint forks with trails descending to the river. There's nothing waiting for you there but tamarisk and sand, but as long as you're having an adventure, consider a plunge in the river before you go on. (Note: this ride was November 19 with a temperature of 37 degrees. I did not go for a swim.)

Whooping along the edge of the Navajo sandstone.

The trail drops down to the sandy "bottom" near the entry to The Tubes. There's a trail forking left that climbs steeply uphill. I don't know where this goes, but It's Not the Droid You're Looking For. Keep right until you reach a cable fence. Turn left through the cable fence at mile 8.6 and begin climbing The Tubes.

View of the Green River as we descend toward the cottonwoods near The Tubes.

Bang through the water and rough rock slabs (or walk your bike) until you hit open rock. The water is deeper here than in Dead Cow Wash. The ups are steeper, and it's more technical overall.

This puddle allowed a nice route along the right side, with a lovely ramp to the next level. But I parked the bike on the steeper spot so it would stand up for the photo.

Trickier spot. 14 inches, then two ledges on the
ramp up and out (R side of big ledge).
Four inches of riding room on the bottom, water
up over the brakes. Pedals scratching the sides.
It will be impossible to keep your feet dry. So when you hit that first deep puddle, just fire on through and aim for the rough climb out.

Some of the water here will come six inches higher than your wheel hub. There are a couple of sharp slots where your pedals will hit sandstone, and you'll have to push through the water with your feet on the canyon sidewalls.

Do you think this is where "The Tubes" name came from?

When you reach the top of the springs, the wash bed becomes dry. Enjoy the sandstone while you can. As you hit areas of sand, find the lines that include patches of rock. At first, you'll be able to keep firing uphill.

High and dry, climbing gently uphill on sandstone.

Eventually, near the upper end of the wash, the sand wins. I had to push the bike. I'd guess it was 0.1 to 0.2 mile before I could resume riding.

"And what about those times when there was only one set of footprints in the sand?" Well, my son, that was when I was carrying my bike.

At the top of the wash (mile 10.0), the trail pops out onto open sage flats. The trail that's straight ahead goes east to Ten Mile Point Road (with a connector to the north-south trail you forked off to enter Dead Cow Wash). The BLM maps show it as sand. Instead, fork left to go north on the Cut-off Trail.

Sand-blasted wind sculpture on the exit from the wash.

This section is pretty high-speed compared to what you've been doing. You'll have to climb up and over a little mountain. You'll cross two old doubletracks (these paths go from the north-south Ten Mile Point trail to the west side of the loop near the Green River).

About to take the plunge down from the high spot on the Cut-off.

The Cut-off is about a mile long. As you near the north end, it drops into a sandstone canyon. Here you'll hit the ride's most technical feature, a steep sandstone ramp dropping about 15 feet, then a thigh-deep pot-hole that you can't go around.

At mile 11, you're back in Dead Cow Wash. Turn right uphill. I was able to ride all but a few feet of the sand on the way uphill. Didn't seem much harder uphill than down.

Looking down the drop, just before we rejoin Dead Cow Wash.

Now retrace your steps back to the trailhead. Although it's only 16 miles, it will feel more like 25. With playtime, allow at least 4 hours.

Bottom Line:
Not a cushy ride, but very rewarding and unique. Add this one to your bucket list.

Handlebar view. Almost home.

Riding notes, lariat loop from Red Rim:
0.0     South on Red Rim trail
          N38 45.872 W110 02.341
0.6     Keep R N38 45.633 W110 02.748
1.2     Fork R N38 45.485 W110 03.279
1.9     Fork R down wash
          N38 45.660 W110 03.593
4.2     Keep R (L = Ten Mile)
          N38 44.356 W110 04.105
4.3     R into Dead Cow Wash
          N38 44.272 W110 04.102
5.0     Keep R (L = Cut-off)
          N38 44.244 W110 04.814
5.9     L up sandy slope to top of mesa
          N38 44.828 W110 05.100
6.7     Keep straight (L = bailout DT)
          N38 44.668 W110 05.830
6.9     Straight (R = descend to river)
          N38 44.604 W110 06.042
8.1     Keep R N38 43.888 W110 06.646
8.6     L and climb up The Tubes
          N38 43.486 W110 06.542
10.0   Out of wash, L on Cut-off
          N38 43.537 W110 05.138
          (straight = to Ten Mile)
11.0   R uphill in Dead Cow
          N38 44.244 W110 04.814
11.8   Fork L (north)  N38 44.272 W110 04.102
13.9   Top of wash, fork R
15.6   Back at beginning
Getting there:
On I-70, drive about 13 miles east of Green River. Take the Floy (175) exit. Turn right (south). The pavement rapidly turns to dirt. This is the Ruby Ranch Road At mile 4.2, turn left to Blue Hills Road (note: may be impassable when muddy). Go 3.7 miles, then turn right (south) toward Ten Mile Point.  At mile 14.2, keep right to Red Wash Road. (If you're nervous about your vehicle, park here and continue on your bike. It will be three miles to Red Rim.) At mile 17.1 The Red Rim trail crosses the road N38 45.866 W110 02.345. Your ride will start by taking the Red Rim singletrack to your left (south).

Water: No
Toilets: No. White Wash is a pack-out area. Remember your plastic bag and toilet paper.
Camping: Primitive, White Wash area.
Nearest bike services: Moab

From the west: If you're camping in the White Wash sand dunes area (reached via Ruby Ranch Road), you may wonder if you can bike directly to this trail. Well, yes. But even by the most rock-and-dirt intensive path, you'll push your bike through about 1/10 mile of sand as you cross White Wash. I do NOT recommend trying to drive down and through the wash. I've done it; it's not pretty.
Take Ruby Ranch Road. Keep right at mile 4.2. Stay left at mile 11. At mile 11.8, stay straight on the main road as a spur goes left to the dunes. At the next fork (just past a parking zone), go left off Ruby Ranch Road. Pass three parking zones and stop at the top of the hill overlooking the valley. Park here. Bike down the connector as it drops from the bluff after the last parking zone. When you reach sand, hoof straight across bearing straight south. You'll encounter a (still sandy-sloppy but sometimes rideable) road along the fence. When Red Wash Road turns 90 degrees left, keep going straight on the path along the fence. At mile 2.4, fork right downhill into the wash (the trail along the rim to the left is the Red Rim Trail).
Riding resources:
Single-page, printable riding guide
GPS track file (right-click and select "Save Target as..."):
     Multi-track GPX file of area 
     Dead Cow Loop from Red Rim    From Ruby Ranch Road
Maps for printing:    Satellite view H-res of above  
     Links to Moab area resources
     Links to Price area resources

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