Western Express Route; Statistics and Planning Considerations - CycleBlaze

Bicycle Travel Forum

Western Express Route; Statistics and Planning Considerations

George Hall

I'm posting this to make it easy for someone in the future to do research on the Western Express route.  Please reply if you wish and add your own stats or thoughts based on your experience riding the Western Express route, and that way this thread could become a great resource for others who are considering this route.   My journal from 2017 (2017 Western Express Tour) may be helpful to describe the day-to-day experience for those wanting more detail. 

General Description and a Warningthis is a challenging route.  This route includes lots of desert terrain and climbing and significant "no service" sections, as well as rugged terrain in Utah.  The physical challenge of the climbing, combined with vast empty sections in a shadeless desert environment, offer the very real possibility that an unprepared cyclist could get in trouble.  While it's a very rewarding trip, I would not recommend it for an inexperienced cycle tourist.  The terrain and weather combine to make this route one for the experienced folks.  If this is your first tour, it would be wise to consider whether you really want to try this route.     

How I Did It; I rode the route in a 5-week period from late July through August.  That may not be the wisest time to cross the desert terrain, but I was constrained by my work schedule.  I reserved hotels and other indoor lodging well in advance, and was able to stay inside the entire trip.  In order to do so, I had to ride one crazy long and very hard day - I don't recommend that approach for most folks as it involves significant risk of failure.  I strongly recommend that you read this page of my journal before deciding whether you want to undertake this journey without camping (Beast Mode Was Required).  I rode west to east - I preferred to get out of the busy San Francisco area first and then enjoy the wide open spaces, but I think you could enjoy this trip regardless of the direction you ride.  I had 2 traveling companions for most of the trip - they dropped out at Day 9 and then rejoined me at Day 18.  While I took 35 days to make the journey, 7 of those were rest days.  Because we were trying to stay inside for the entire trip, and because it's necessary to reserve hotel rooms well in advance, the rest days were distributed throughout the trip such that if we got behind schedule we could skip a rest day to get back on schedule. 

Weather;  the following is what I experienced.  You should note that I rode from west to east commencing July 23rd.

Rain There were 4 days when I noted rain as being a factor.  These were days when it was necessary to don the rain jacket; sometimes it may have been just a moderate rain shower and sometimes it was a drenching downpour from a storm.  There were other days when the rain was gentle and maybe only lasted for such a wee bit that I didn't even put on the rain jacket, and I'm not including those days in the total.     

Cold Weather.  "Cold" is a subjective term, of course, and what's cold to one person may not seem so bad to another.   While heat is the primary enemy, you will experience cold mornings in the mountains in Utah and Colorado. I noted that it was cold for at least part of 10 days.  Most of the time this just consisted of the early mornings and once the sun came out the cold got chased away.  But there was a day in Utah when we got drenched by a thunderstorm in the mountains and were chilled until we finished the day.  When you are in the mountains, it's sometimes cold in the early morn and then becomes hot in the mid-afternoon, and there were 2 days that I noted it was both cold and hot.   

Hot Weather.   The desert heat, especially so in the long shadeless no-service stretches, is likely the greatest risk you will face on this journey.  I noted the heat as being a significant factor on 12 days of the journal. You should consider this as being a minimum statistic - it's likely that it was hot on other days and I just didn't note it.    Also, you should consider that I start very early in the morning to avoid the afternoon heat; 4:00am wakeups were not unusual.  The early start helps avoid the worst of the afternoon heat, and even if that isn't your normal practice I strongly recommend you adopt that strategy for this route.  

Wind.  I really didn't note much of an issue with wind on this trip.  The winds seemed to be pretty minimal throughout the Nevada desert and weren't much of a factor in the mountains in Utah and Colorado either.  I did note one morning in Utah when the wind was rolling down the mountain against us as we climbed, but that was more of an issue from the wind chill than from the wind itself.  

Insects.   There was only 1 day when I had any significant issues with insects.  This was a day when I had to cycle into the night to reach town. Mosquitoes attacked me when I stopped on the steep climbs as I was nearing Blanding, UT.  Other than that instance, this was a bug-free ride for me. 

Navigation.  The ACA maps worked very well, with the exception that it was difficult to follow the trail system from Sacramento to El Dorado Hills, CA.  Not that difficult mind you, but just enough so that I got temporarily off-track a bit.  Otherwise the navigation was pretty easy.  There was a road closure as we began the initial climb to Carson's Pass that delayed us a bit until we figured out an alternate route, but even that wasn't very difficult.  Most of the route follows low-traffic highways and the navigation is very straightforward. 

Climbing Stats.  My journal includes a daily note of the amount of climbing, and you should consult it for details.  We climbed 93,120 feet total from downtown San Francisco to downtown Pueblo, CO.  Even if you break up the crazy long day I rode into 2 days, you will still have 7 days wherein you must climb more than 4,000 feet.  Much of the route involves sections where there's nothing in between the towns, no place to camp and no water even if you wanted to camp, so you have little choice but to travel to the next town and that involves climbing.  Here's a summary;

  • Days Elevation Climbed was 1,000 - 2,000 feet;   5 
  • Days Elevation Climbed was 2,000- 3,000 feet;   9
  • Days Elevation Climbed was 3,000 - 4,000 feet;  6
  • Days Elevation Climbed was 4,000 - 5,000 feet;  6
  • Days Elevation Climbed was 5,000 - 6,000 feet;  1
  • Days Elevation Climbed was +8,000 feet;                1

Grade. The elevation gain certainly doesn't tell the whole story regarding the climbing difficulty, because it doesn't factor in the grade.  There are some days on this route when you will experience steep grades - in my opinion they aren't as steep as the grades encountered in the Appalachians on the Transam route, with the exception of 1 day.  There were 6 days when we had maximum grades greater than 12%.  There were 8 days when we had maximum grades that ranged from 8 - 11%, and there were 9 days when the maximum grade was less than 8%.   (note that there were 5 days that I don't have data regarding the max grade)

Passes and/or Significant Climbs.  You leave California via Carson Pass (assuming you are traveling eastbound), and then throughout the Nevada basin/range province you will climb 1-4 passes each day.  The daily climbing continues throughout southern Utah and on into Colorado as you eventually cross the Continental Divide at Monarch Pass.  I counted 30 significant climbs on this route.  Most of these are named passes with a summit sign, some are unnamed but have a summit sign, and some are unnamed with no summit sign.  I noted 1 day that had 4 passes, 2 days that involved climbing 3 passes, 5 days that had 2 passes, and 10 days that had 1 pass to climb.  Some of this is rather subjective though, and you might count differently than me.  For example, I only counted 1 pass on the day I climbed +8,000 feet.  Even though there were several other steep climbs that day, only 1 of them (Salvation Knoll) was actually named.   The take-home point here is that you will climb every day on this route, and some days you will climb multiple passes. 

Riding Days28

Rest Days7  

Average Mileage On Riding Days;  57.3   Note that my daily mileage ranged from 24 to 130 miles. 

Average Mileage On Rest Days;  Are you kidding me? 

Days Rode Less Than 30 miles3

Days Rode 30 - 40 miles;   3

Days Rode 40 - 50 miles; 4

Days Rode 50 - 60 miles;    6

Days Rode 60 - 70 miles;    6

Days Rode 70 - 80 miles;    3

Days Rode 80 - 90 miles;    2

Days Rode +100 miles;         1

Average Speed.  I have average speed data for 20 of the 28 riding days, and these are noted in the daily entries of the journal.   The average of these 20 days was 9.2 mph. My average speed ranged from 6.8 mph (long day of climbing up Carson Pass) to 11.7 mph (mostly downhill day leaving California to Carson City, NV).

No-Services Sections.  How long between services constitutes a no-services section?  I don't know - I think it's like the definition of pornography, "I'll know it when I see it."  I noted 7 sections that I would define as "no-service" sections, and the shortest of these was 48 miles.  I'll just list them in order as they occurred on my west to east ride; 48, 50, 71, 79, 63, 84, and 80 miles.  Most of these sections are the distances between towns; when you leave in the morning there is simply nothing until you arrive at the next town.  You need to leave town with adequate water and food, which you will have to consume under the merciless sun because there is no shade.   Most of these sections occur in Nevada, except for the 2 longest which occur in Utah (well, mostly in Utah - part of the 84 mile section occurs in Nevada). 

Flat Tires; I had none. My riding partners had 1 flat each.  

Mechanical Issues; I had noneOne of my riding partners had issues with shifting, and that was fixed by a bike shop along the route.  And the same partner had to replace a new Schwalbe Marathon tire after only 1,000 miles due to a bubble forming on the sidewall.    

Specific points of note with regards to the Western Express route follow in no particular order;

1.) Highway 50 through Nevada has a bad rumble strip design for cyclists - there's often little shoulder and the rumble strip occupies a lot of it - see my journal for photo examples

2.) this is a desert route, and it can be very hot - leave early and carry more water than usual - my own rule of thumb is to carry 1.5 - 2.0 ounces of water per mile of the route.  I don't need near that much in the early morning, but in the mid-afternoon I may consume that much or more.  You will learn to "enjoy" drinking hot water on this route. 

3.) a water filter is of no use - there's just no place to get water in NV except in the towns, most of the streams through NV are dry - once you get to CO you will find plenty of water stops

4.) leaving early is always wise, even more so on this route. Beat the heat and solar radiation, and the traffic (although much of the route has very little traffic, the route passes some very popular tourist areas), and reach your destination before any afternoon thundershowers happen

5.) I prefer to cover myself as much as practical to ward off the sun - my solar leggings worked well - I tend to wear non-cycle tops such as long sleeve fishing shirts that are designed to ward off the sun - on some portions of this route you will find yourself exposed to the sun for the entire day with little to no shade available - and you have to cycle the next day so you really don't want to have to deal with sunburn.  This is a good route to bring along the desert gear.  Day 9 and Day 16 of my journal have pictures showing how myself and others dressed for the desert.

6.) the grades generally aren't as bad as the Appalachians or Ozarks, but there are a couple of steeper climbs reminiscent of the Appalachians, so be comfortable that you have an adequate low gear

7.) you CAN do this route without camping, but it requires a 127 - 130 mile day between Hanksville and Blanding to make that happen. Most unfortunately, there are several very steep climbs near Blanding, so it's not an easy route. For me, this was a very long and hard day.  Most folks will not be able to do this stretch in a single day.

8.) staying indoors requires advance planning and motel reservations made several months ahead - don't wait till the last or you won't have a room.  Highway 50 through Nevada is no longer the loneliest highway in America, and southern Utah has a lot of foreign and domestic tourists

9.) the traffic from Salida to Cotopaxi along the Arkansas River is pretty bad, and there's no shoulder - leave early and get through this section as quickly as you can.

10.) even in July and August, the early mornings in Utah and Colorado can be cool - even cold when factoring in wind chill on a bike - so consider having warm gloves and ear coverings. I always have a lightweight jacket and use my rain jacket for warmth when it gets cool.

Special Stats; On 2 separate occasions along this route I saw double rainbows!  Seeing a double rainbow once would have been special enough, but twice makes it quite memorable.  Also, we experienced a solar eclipse during the ride. 

If others reply with their statistics and useful information about their own Western Express tour, then this thread could become a very useful planning tool.  

Reply    Link    Flag
3 months ago
Kelly IniguezTo George Hall

I love reading these summaries and go over each detail slowly. This route is of particular interest to me. I've looked at it closely and decided I am not capable of riding that many big mile and climbing days in a row. 

Some research I did that might be helpful for others. On the big Hanksville/Blanding day: At Hite Marina they sometimes have RV's for rent. The website lists two available. I tried to reserve one for this coming summer and was told it depended on their having cleaning staff and they just wouldn't know that information until right before our potential stay.   They do have tent camping and a little store. Most of that, George noted in his detailed journal. We were looking at routing headed west, which has only 5,xxx feet of climbing vs the almost 8,000 feet headed east. 84 miles. A big, big day either direction.

We also stay exclusively in motels and reserve far in advance. That was flexibility we don't have.

Another alternate is taking Highway 276 around through Bullfrog. There they have a water taxi. There is also lodging in Bullfrog to break the day up. Should you be interested in this option, please confirm details before riding. Services are as scarce in the Lake Powell area as the rest of the Western Express.

A third choice would be to go to Green River from Hanksville, then route to Moab, and on to Dove Creek. 

Overall, I decided the route was too tough for me. My helmet off to those with the legs to put it big miles and climbs, day after day.

Reply    Link    Flag
3 months ago
George HallTo Kelly Iniguez

Kelly;  I investigated the RV rental option at Hite before our 2017 trip - was unable to get 1, apparently they get booked up pretty fast.  The store operators at Hite are great folks, but the store is only open from 9 - 5 (better check that before counting on it, could have changed).  There are other options like you said - this 1 day is challenging, no matter how you try it.  All of the small town hotels I stayed in were completely sold out and were turning people away, so you really do need reservations made well in advance - I'd say 2 months ahead is a minimum.  

It was a fantastic ride though!  I probably went at one of the worst times of the year - you could ride much earlier in the year and maybe avoid some of the heat and tourist issues. 

Reply    Link    Flag
3 months ago
John EganTo George Hall

US 50 across Nevada is not the "Loneliest Road" despite the name on road signs.  US 6 which runs from Tonopah to Ely is much emptier. With a mere 168 miles without services. The only "service" is a portalet 25 miles east of Tonopah at a rest area with a couple of trees. Warm Springs is abandoned and gutted. There's a highway maintenance station at Blue Jay where you can ask for water - - IF anyone is there. The Blackrock store is now a private residence. The Current Bar & Cafe has been shuttered for 25 years. You can ask for water at the house behind it - - IF anyone is there. 3 cars in either direction from 7 to 10 one morning.

Reply    Link    Flag
3 months ago
John PickettTo George Hall

Good summary. 

In 2019, when I was 63 years old, I did it east to west. https://www.cycleblaze.com/journals/noname/

I did not have the heat issues that I expected. Just lucky, I guess.

The long spans with no services were super challenging.  The ride from Baker to Ely was supposed to have a rest stop at a general store near the mid point. The store was closed the day I rode through. I had just crossed a basin into a brutal headwind. (The wind farm is a dead giveaway.) The rest of the ride was a slog. Long story short: don't assume services will be open. 

I brought a tent and camped at Hite. The store was open. The campsite was eerily deserted. The ride from Hite to Hanksville was plenty hard. I honestly don't know how you could do Blanding to Hanksville in one day. I met one guy who was traveling very light. He did it in one day. He's also an Olympic caliber triathlete. (No lie.)

After starting in Indiana, I gained about 4,000 feet in elevation getting to Pueblo CO. Pueblo to Wetmore at around 6,000 feet was a bit of a climb, but I made it without difficulty. Nothing prepared me for climbing from 6,000 to over 9,000 feet west of Wetmore. It nearly broke me. I had to stop just to catch my breath. For the first time, I had to walk. I reasoned that heaving over my top tube wasn't getting me anywhere so I started pushing my bike.  walked on several climbs after that. 

I took a day off in Salida to acclimate then rode over Monarch Pass. Super challenging but worth it. I should have stopped at Sargents at the base of the mountain but forged ahead into a headwind to Gunnison. I paid dearly for it over the next several days. Rest is very important when riding under these conditions. Treat each climb as if it's an extra 20 or 30 miles. So a 50 mile day with a climb or two or three will feel like a 70 or 80 mile day, and so forth.

You can wild camp in Dixie National Forest which the route passes through in between the various National Parks and Monuments. 

I skipped some major attractions along the way. Natural Bridges and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison to name two. I simply didn't have the physical ability to see everything or to stop and do hikes. Some tourists I met rode to Moab and rented a car to take in some of the sites they otherwise would have missed.

Bring extra water. I had bladders with me that I filled. I had several gallons on my bike. In retrospect I should have bought large plastic bottles. The space saving from the bladders wasn't worth the hassle of decanting from them.

Pack light. Every ounce counts.

It took me 29 days with two rest days and several short ones. 

I was physically wrecked by the ride. After I got home, my body smelled. Bad. I believe the effort from the ride caused my body to consume muscle. It took me months to recover. I had to have cortisone injections in my knee and hip. This ride will beat you up! 

It's amazing country to ride through. Plan carefully. 

Reply    Link    Flag
3 months ago
George HallTo John Pickett

I started reading your journal, got hooked and read most all of it - reading it brought back memories and I recognized many of the photos you took, both on the Transam portion and the Western Express portion of your journey.  The Western Express is indeed a challenging route - I think you expressed that much better than I did.  

Reply    Link    Flag
3 months ago
John PickettTo George Hall

Thanks for the kind words. I must say that weeks of pain and suffering are powerful motivators for constructing readable jounral posts.

Reply    Link    Flag
3 months ago