Author: Eric Donley

Our Favorite Cycling Route Planning Apps

We hope this finds you in good health during this very challenging time for our world. Although our primary focus is on the health and wellbeing of our staff and communities, we are still planning for and designing backcountry bike trips on our public lands.

To break-up the constant news feed, I thought I could share a few tools that we use to research new trips. Of course, the heart of our research is going and getting lost down a forgotten gravel road, or searching out rumors of an improved trail and sleeping underneath the stars. Still, we do put a significant amount of time into researching the details behind the scenes. Being that many of us are spending more time on our computers and devices right now, I thought I would share some useful online apps to create incredible backcountry experiences.

We spend most of our time in the field (90+%), but solid “screen time” research is necessary.

Comparison View

It’s worth mentioning that APP ≠ BACKCOUNTRY, right? The most enriching aspect of a backcountry trip is the non-human part of it. Most of us spend the better part of our lives engulfed in manufactured environments. Our public lands are our national treasures because they remain relatively unimpacted by humans, and that is the very reason that we go there. To engulf one’s self in technology while in the backcountry easily removes the magic. It’s essential to get out into wild places without your phone, ignoring the omnipresent social media impulses to share so that you can enjoy it. Yet, technology by its very nature is always improving and the tools below can add value to your experience. I hope that this list of tools is used in moderation and is used to enhance your adventures when help is needed.

Each tool has its advantages and disadvantages, and if you spend enough time planning out backcountry adventures, you start to use each tool for what it does best. Of course, this list is not exhaustive, and I would love to hear about the tools that you use to plan adventures (make comments below).

Ride with GPS

Ride with GPS is one of my favorite tools for mapping out road or gravel bike rides. Ride with GPS is mapping software for cyclists. As you will find with most, if not all of these tools, they all have similar features and especially for planning out rides, and Ride with GPS does it best. One of the best features is the accurate elevation gain profile with a friendly interface for viewing. The app has an incredible selection of map overlays to choose from such as topographic, standard road, satellite, hybrid and more. Here is a quick gravel/road ride that I quickly made. You can send it to your device and view all of the stats prior to the trip.

This is a live map. Check it out. Zoom in, out, and change map layers

Ride with GPS excels in the gravel bike and road bike world as the map interfaces well with paved and dirt roads. It doesn’t interface with trails as well as some of the other options available. You can easily export files to your GPS device or use their native app for your phone.


Okay, nothing new here as Strava is the #1 social cycling and athletic tracking app. Strava is a mapping and tracking app for athletes and I bet you are familiar with it. My guess is that Strava’s primary use for most people centers around training and social media. What might be worth sharing here is how it can be used to plan trips not in your area. Strava comes in handy when you are trying to gauge how popular specific trails are. For example, here is a snapshot of the ‘Segment View’ of a popular trail in Moab. You can see the elevation loss (or gain), mileage, number of times Strava subscribers rode it.

Strava Screen Shot

Strava’s route planning tool seems to work best for road biking and gravel biking, but doesn’t have the tools available to plan well for trail and backcountry trips. Here is a road bike ride into Arches National Park that I created using Strava’s ‘Route Planner’ tool. It provides you with an excellent elevation gain profile along with some other useful stats. As you can see in the photo, you can export this to GPX file for your GPS device.

Strava Screen Shot

Gaia GPS

One of the go-to tools for explorers, mountaineers, climbers, backcountry cyclists, and map nerds, Gaia is incredible. Gaia GPS was not built with a ‘cycling first’ approach, so its main disadvantage is that it doesn’t assume you will be traveling by bike. Gaia’s advantages are too numerous to mention here, but it excels at planning out backcountry routes that require the use of different types of maps. You must subscribe to the premium version of Gaia to get access to the map overlays, but it’s worth the 20+ dollars a year. Let’s say you are planning a bike-packing trip from Grand Junction Colorado to Moab and you want to figure out how many total miles you will need to ride. Gaia allows you to interlace USGS, Forest Service and their impressive in-house topographic maps and create a seamless route on trails and roads. Even more, Gaia is global. You could plan your next weekend hike or next year’s trip to the Andes in Peru.

Here is an example of a Gaia route for a popular hike outside of Moab.

This is a live map. Check it out. Zoom in and out.

Most mountain bikers have the app loaded on their phone, and I’m sure most people reading this are familiar. Trailforks is the go-to app for mountain bikers looking for trails. The app is a database, mapping tool, and social app that has most mountain bike trails in existence uploaded to the platform. Trailforks also has a great route planning tool that is mountain bike specific (it does expand to other disciplines also). You can research your rides and map out your specific routes before you get to the trailhead. You can research trail popularity quickly with their color-coding trail overlay that highlights the spectrum of ‘most popular’ to ‘not popular.’ The picture below highlights trail popularity, with the most popular being red and the least popular showing green.

Strava Screen Shot

One impressive feature is that trail building organization and land management agencies that maintain the trails are listed on each specific trail’s webpage. Also, you can use their nifty ‘Land Owner’ overlay to learn about where trails cross public and private boundaries. This type of research is useful if you are going to a distant place at some point in the future, and you cannot just look at the ‘live’ or ‘recent’ trail conditions. You might want to reach out to a trail group, or local bike shop to get info on the trail quality. The image below shows a few of these impressive features, such as land ownership and last time the trail was ridden.

Strava Screen Shot

The tools above can help you plan your next destination cycling trip. As always, we are standing by in our office if you are ready to go fully guided! As I mentioned before, we are interested in the tools that you use. Please feel free to comment below.

Hope you enjoyed!

Eric Donley
Western Spirit Guide

Send Us A Message

Campers enjoying the night sky.

The era of experience is alive and well. More and more people are devoting their time and resources toward meaningful experiences versus owning more physical stuff. Look no further than your social media community, and most likely, you will witness most engagements focused on experiences. People are interested in pushing their boundaries by doing new activities like hiking or mountain biking, achieving sought after goals that test their endurance, or visiting our beautiful public lands. But why? We put our heads together and came up with some ideas about why people are choosing experiences over stuff.


    • 1. Experiences create opportunities. Whether it is meeting new people, finding out about a new passion, or learning a new skill, experiences build upon themselves. Think about the effect a class or course has on someone’s future. Riding a challenging trail, climbing a mountain, or overcoming a longer distance on your bike pushes boundaries. These experiences create new opportunities.


    • 2. Experiences make us happier (vs. getting more stuff). The evidence is all around us; getting more stuff doesn’t have a lasting impact on our overall happiness. Experiences, on the other hand, can have a powerful effect. For example, going to see your favorite band, or enjoying a great meal, or spending time being active in nature away from everyday stresses. All of these activities help release endorphins that have an overall positive feeling in our bodies.


    • 3. Experiences create lasting memories and enrich our lives. In many cases, getting a new product or thing makes life more comfortable, but does it create memories for years to come? In contrast, going on a vacation with your favorite people creates lasting memories that you will continue to share. Spending time doing something different from your everyday routine stands out from the mundane and helps to develop impressionable moments.


    • 4. Experiences help us make connections and meet new people. When you leave the comforts of your own home, your regular job, or your normal routine, you expose yourself to new places and new people. We have witnessed long friendships form on backcountry bike trips. Maybe it’s the fact that like-minded people choose similar experiences, or perhaps it’s because bonds form around significant experiences.


  • 5. Experiences last. At some point, our new device, product, or thing will eventually make its way to the corner of our closet. Most physical products have a life span that is not that long. Experiences don’t share that trait. Experiences and their memories are alive with us and continue to grow with us for years to come.

We hope this list helps shed some light on the value of experience. Western Spirit Cycling has been creating incredible bike vacations for 30 years. We couldn’t be more excited to welcome the era of experience. Creating memories has been our passion for decades and continues to inspire our efforts to share the beauty of our public lands and innovate incredible off-the-grid cycling trips.

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How To Choose A Family Vacation That Counts

Mother and daughter riding bikes

Exposing young kids and teens to our national parks, national forests, and to the wilderness is extremely beneficial. It helps young people connect with nature in a meaningful way, it gives kids and teens a chance to step away from digital devices, it is a great way to stay active on your vacation, and most importantly, it’s just fun! Getting outside and riding a bike or hiking and looking over a canyon rim or around a snow-capped peak is not something everyone gets to do every day. Making smores’ next to the fire, and eating a delicious meal during sunset are memories that last a lifetime.

But how do you decide where to go, or what to do? Should we bike, should we hike, should we raft, and should we camp? There are plenty of choices… camping versus hotels, the Northwest versus the Southwest, national parks versus national forests? Fully guided vacations versus DIY style vacations. The possibilities are endless. This guide will help shed light on some considerations to make if you aspire to visit a national park or national forest with your family.

1.Choosing the right place

If you are considering a family vacation that ventures off the beaten path then consider going to a national park. We are very lucky in the United States as we have set aside large expanses of land to be preserved for future generations. Over 3.5% (80 million acres) of all land in the United States has been designated as national parks. National forest also comes in at a whopping 180 million acres of land. That is a tremendous amount of open space.


Even with all of that land and the beauty and enjoyment that awaits in these destinations, there are real challenges to choosing a good location to take your family. For example, in places like Grand Teton National Park, or Yellowstone National Park the visitor centers and hot spots can be over-crowded. If you are interested in a national park you should enter the park early in the morning and have everything you need to be packed in your car for the entire day. This technique will help you avoid the areas of congestion during mid-day. Then, use tools like Hiking Project, or Mountain Bike Project to learn about trails in the region rather than relying on the standard maps distributed at visitor centers that everyone uses during their visit. This will help differentiate your hikes from the hikes the masses are doing. Take it one step further and check out the distance, technicality, elevation, and quality ratings in order to gain a deeper understanding of the trail.

National forests are certainly less crowded in most cases. Yet, national forests share being highly protected and coveted pieces of open space. Use national forests as a tool when you plan your vacation to national park hot spots. For example, when you plan to visit Yellowstone National Park take a couple of days and visit the Gros Ventre Wilderness in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. There are hiking, backpacking and camping options in this national forest, yet it will be far less crowded than its national park counterparts in the region. This same technique can be translated in almost any location with a national park close by.

2.Choosing the right adventures

Finding the right adventure can be challenging due to the logistics of making it all happen. For example, if you aspire to bike with your family through Zion National Park then you have to either bring or rent bikes for the entire family, find rides that will work for everyone and hopefully avoid congestion and crowds.

One technique that travelers can use is to hire a day guiding service on the first adventure of their vacation. During that experience, you can ask the guide about her/his favorite hikes, bike rides, and camping spots. This will help you get first-hand information from well informed and knowledgeable people about the specific geographic location.  Rather than spending your time searching for online comments, you can get first-hand information from someone who knows you and, in some cases, will be able to assess your specific abilities.

A second important factor when planning your adventures in and around national parks is BOOK YOUR CAMPING EARLY. Not all campgrounds are reservable online, but some are. In busy areas you should book 6 months in advance. To book campground reservations you can use This site will allow you to view national park and national forest campgrounds and it will either allow you to make reservations, or it will let you know that the particular campsite is not reservable online.

3.Choosing the right services

Finally, deciding whether or not to hire a guide service, create your vacation DIY style, or a combination of both can be challenging. One of the most common questions that we hear from our family vacation customers is wondering if they should just try to pull off their vacation without a guide service. Some of the pros to planning your own vacation are being able to change your itinerary on the fly, in most cases, it can be less expensive if you already own all of the necessary equipment, and there is a great feeling of accomplishment when your family succeeds said mission. The pros of hiring a guide service are centered around eliminating stress by allowing experienced professionals to handle the itinerary and letting go of all of the tedious planning necessary for meals and driving. This creates the necessary space so that you and your family can spend quality time together riding bikes, hiking, and camping.

There are pros to both methods and every family has their own experience and goals that will help them decide on what is right for them. If you’re unsure, we recommend a mixture of both options. For example, if you are planning a trip to Grand Teton National Park you can hire a multi-day guide service to handle the technical biking and camping portion of your vacation. Before or after your bike trip you can visit restaurants, hotels, and local attractions where guidance isn’t as helpful. Again, using the guide service at the beginning of the trip is usually the best practice so that you can squeeze all of the information you can get before embarking on your DIY adventures.

Planning a vacation for a national park road trip is a good idea… at least we think so! It can be challenging to pull off all of the logistics to maximize your family’s experience. We hope this list sheds a little more light on the process of taking your family to beautiful places where memories are created.


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Decades of Adventure: The White Rim

View of Washer Woman formation on the White Rim Trail, Canyonlands National Park, Moab, Utah.

There are very few established mountain bike routes that are as well known as the White Rim. For good reason, this iconic ride has been in the hearts and minds of mountain bikers for decades. But why? What draws riders here season after season? Here is a quick history to put this biking legacy into context.

The National Park system has been one of the keystone aspects of land conservation in the United States. The White Rim is nestled within the heart of Canyonlands National Park and crosses a 190 square mile piece of conservation history. To be able to ride through this place is truly unique. Around each canyon bend, up and down every wash the rider will wonder, “Has anyone ever stepped foot here?” The remote nature of this place is at the forefront of each visitors mind.

Interested in the MAP of the White Rim?

Hikers on the trail to Fort Bottom ruins from the White Rim Trail near Moab, Utah. Canyonlands National Park.

“Not only is the mere beauty of the landscape something to savor, but the geologic history is something to ponder”

Anyone who steps foot on the White Rim cannot help but wonder how the canyons have developed. Not only is the mere beauty of the landscape something to savor, but the geologic history is something to ponder. Layers and layers of rock have been carved and shaped by water and wind over the millennia. Bikers are given a front-row seat to this story because their tires are rolling across the most prominent piece of this history: the White Rim layer of sandstone. This layer of stone is much harder than other layers and therefore erosion of this rock happens at a much slower pace. Some moments can feel almost effortless and others are quite slow going, but every biker can appreciate the experience of riding across this unique surface.

Here is a VISUAL AID for the layers of sandstone found in the Canyonlands National Park

Mountain biker on the White Rim trail, Canyonlands National Park, Moab, Utah.

“The undeniably rugged nature of the trail holds years of history and travelers cannot help but tap into that history while passing through.”

Evidence of the humans that inhabited these canyons for centuries can be witnessed along the trail. Ancestral Puebloan rock art and dwellings are scattered among the cliffs and canyons. As Westerners came to the region this area was used for winter cattle grazing before it was designated a national park. Riders will notice that many of the names come from those early ranching days and bear the names of the families that grazed their cattle in the canyons and mesas of the region. However, the White Rim Trail wasn’t created by ranchers. It was blasted and carved out of the canyons by uranium miners during the 1950s when the nuclear arms race was in full swing. The undeniably rugged nature of the trail holds years of history and travelers cannot help but tap into that history while passing through.

Camp along the White Rim trail, Canyonlands National Park, Moab, Utah.

“Outfitters like Western Spirit have been guiding people around the White Rim since the early days of mountain biking.”

Outfitters like Western Spirit have been guiding people around the White Rim since the early days of mountain biking. Year after year people continue to pursue this adventure. Endurance cyclists circumnavigate the 80-mile trail in as fast as 1 day, but most riders choose to ride in 4 days to allow for ample time to experience the awe and wonder of this place. Each campsite has something unique to offer such as side hikes, new vistas, and places to explore. The wildness and remote nature of this place quickly draws you out of everyday life and into something very new and different. Many of our guests who rode the White Rim back in the 1990s have returned with their children, spouses or friends to share the cherished adventure.

Every bike ride has the potential to be great, but by reaching out for new experiences and adventures we can re-inspire our lives. The White Rim offers this type of adventure and for this reason it will continue to inspire more and more bikers throughout history.

Ride the White Rim with us.

Mountain bikers on the White Rim trail, Canyonlands National Park, Moab, Utah.

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