Gravel Biking the San Rafael Swell

Posted by on November 13, 2017

Howard Shafer - Gravel Riding in the San Rafael Swell

Howard Shafer, a.k.a. “Photo-Dad,” riding the Fezzari Shafer gravel road bike in Buckhorn Wash in Utah’s San Rafael Swell.

Last week my dad and I made a short trip south to the San Rafael Swell for a couple of days of gravel bike adventuring. Photo-Dad, a.k.a. Howard, a.k.a. Mr. Shafer, is shopping for a new road bike and my friends at Fezzari were kind enough to loan us a couple of their new Shafer GR gravel road bikes. Yup – the bike is named after us – sort of (more on that later). We did a road ride outside Huntington the first day and spent the second day gravel biking the San Rafael Swell. We spent the night in an empty campground on the rim of the Little Grand Canyon and took tons of pictures. Keep reading to learn more about Utah’s fabulous San Rafael Swell, the Fezzari Shafer gravel bike and to see a whole bunch of photos of both.

San Rafael Swell - Gravel Grinder Paradise

With dramatic southwestern backdrops and hundreds of miles of dirt roads and jeep roads, the San Rafael is a gravel grinder paradise.

This trip was my first hands-on (ass-on?) experience with a gravel bike. However, I’ve been thinking about gravel biking the San Rafael Swell for a while. It’s a beautiful place with lots of dramatic landscapes and since it’s BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land, there are far fewer restrictions in terms of camping, off-road travel, etc. There are hundreds of miles of great dirt roads and four wheel drive roads. However, there aren’t very many good singletrack trails for mountain biking. The main mountain bike ride is the Goodwater Rim Trail, which traces the rim of the Little Grand Canyon above the San Rafael River for about 15 miles. It’s a really fun trail with spectacular views but for multi-day trips, I want more than one trail. So I’d been thinking it would be nice to work some “groad” (gravel road) rides into my San Rafael Swell adventures.

Goodwater Rim Trail

My wife Jenni, mountain biking on the Goodwater Rim Trail, in the spring of 2016.

If your life doesn’t revolve around bikes, as mine does, then I should probably explain gravel bikes. They’re basically road bikes designed to handle dirt and gravel as well as pavement. Gravel bikes generally have a longer wheelbase than a traditional road bike, slacker geometry, wider wheels and tires, and most of them also now have disc brakes.

The Fezzari Shafer GR Gravel Road Bike

A beauty shot of the Fezzari Shafer GR gravel road bike, on the rim of the Little Grand Canyon in Utah’s San Rafael Swell.

I’ve been friends with the folks at Fezzari for a few years, now. They’re a direct-to-consumer bike maker located just down the road in Utah County. They make great bikes, cut out the middleman and pass on the savings to the consumer. They’ve been a good photography client (I took a lot of the action photos on the Fezzari web site) and I rode the hell out of the Fezzari Timp Peak mountain bike for a couple of years.

All the employees ride hard and they’re super confident about the quality of everything they make. So confident, Fezzari has a 30-day “Love-it-or-Return-it” guarantee. That means you can buy a bike, ride it for a month on your home roads or trails and return it if you decide you don’t like it. You can’t get any more low risk than that.

Fezzari Shafer Gravel Bike

The Fezzari Shafer gravel bike, at the bottom of Buckhorn Wash, at the San Rafael River.

The Fezzari Shafer GR gravel bikes we borrowed have a carbon fiber frame, Shimano hydraulic disc brakes and 40mm tires. My bike had a Shimano 105 drivetrain and my dad’s bike had a higher-end Shimano Ultegra drivetrain. I’m primarily a mountain biker and my main goal with road bikes is that they’re lighter and more efficient than a mountain bike. So the low-end 105 drivetrain works just fine for me.

Fezzari Shafer - Shimano Disc Brakes

The Shimano 105 hydraulic disc brakes on the Fezzari Shafer gravel bike worked great. I was surprised how much they felt like traditional cantilever brakes. However, they have way more power, modulation and control and they’re unaffected by dust or water.

The disc brakes were a nice surprise. We’ve had them on mountain bikes for almost 20 years now and they work really, really well. I know all the arguments for using them and totally believe they’re more reliable and safer than cantilever brakes. What I didn’t know was how much they felt like road bike brakes – just better ones. Although the initial feel is similar to cantilever brakes, hydraulic road disc brakes have way more power and far better modulation. I never felt short on braking power and I never felt like I was going to go over the bars. If you haven’t tried a disc road bike yet, I recommend you do. Disc brakes are better and that’s that.

Fezzari Shafer Gravel Bike - 40mm Tires

The Fezzari Shafer bikes we rode had 40mm Schwalbe G-ONE tubeless gravel tires. We set them to 60 psi on the road and 40mm psi on the dirt. At 40 psi they smoothed out rocks and bumps and the traction was great. The tubeless system worked great, too. Neither one of us had a flat.

Tires are a big part of what differentiates a gravel bike from a traditional road bike. Tire width is increasing on all road bikes with 28mm being the current standard. Depending on the build the Fezzari Shafer comes with 28c, 34c or 40c tires. The bikes we borrowed came with really wide 40mm tubeless Schwalbe tires. We did one ride on pavement and one on dirt so my dad could get a feel for the bike on both surfaces. Tyler Cloward, Fezzari’s Director of Product Development and a good friend, recommended we set the tire pressure at 60 pounds on the road and 40 on dirt and that’s what we did. My dad was concerned the big tires might make the bike feel sluggish on the road. That was not the case, though. And more rubber on the ground always means more control. On the dirt, the wide tires and 40 psi pressure did a great job of smoothing out bumps and rocks. Traction was great on the dirt, too. To be fair, we were on a really good dirt road without any long, steep, loose bits so I can’t say how they’d feel on a steep road with a real gravel surface.

Shafer Trail Jeep Road - Moab, Utah

Look down at the Shafer Trail jeep road, near Moab, Utah and Canyonlands National Park.

Yes, the Fezzari Shafer is named after our family. The Shafer family came to Utah in the mid-1800’s as early Mormon pioneers. The family split up with one branch heading north to Canada (my immediate family) and another settling south in Moab. In 1917, John “Sog” Shafer “built” the Shafer Trail to move cattle between Moab and the high country up on the mesa where Canyonlands National Park is located. I put “built” in quotes because the trail was already in use by natives and outlaws. John Sog Shafer made it into a regularly used road, though. The Shafer Trail is the beginning of the White Rim Trail, a popular four wheel drive road and mountain bike adventure ride. That’s where the Fezzari Shafer got its name.

Howard Shafer on the Fezzari Shafer Gravel Bike

Another photo of Photo-Dad on the Fezzari Shafer. The fall cottonwoods were beautiful in Buckhorn Wash.

Even though it was short, our trip to the San Rafael Swell was a very good one. First of all, it’s a beautiful place and I always enjoy being there. And of course, I had my first gravel bike experience and it was a good one. If I do get the itch to buy a road bike, it will definitely be a gravel bike. I know I’d get a lot more mileage and adventure out of a gravel bike than I would a standard road bike. And since it’s named after me, I don’t see how I could buy anything other than the Fezzari Shafer GR. The Fezzari Shafer also met the approval of Photo-Dad, who had a whole list of required features and a spreadsheet of stats and specs it had to match. He’s still trying to make up his mind about what to buy but I know he came away pleased and impressed with the bike.

Gravel Biking in Buckhorn Wash

Buckhorn Wash is a relatively easy ride with little elevation change and spectacular southwest canyon scenery.

Please enjoy the photo gallery below to get a better feel for the San Rafael Swell. I’ve included a few photos from other San Rafael Swell adventures to round out the gallery. I seriously encourage everyone to visit the area. It’s absolutely beautiful and relatively untouched compared to more publicized tourist destinations. I always camp in the desert but there are plenty of motels in the surrounding towns of Price, Huntington, Castledale, etc. For my mountain bike friends, check out the San Rafael Swell Mountain Bike Festival. They have two per year and the upcoming 2018 spring festival will be their 32nd. It’s a unique event with a small, family-oriented feel and I guarantee you’ll be introduced to some great new trails and fun people.

Photo-John & Photo-Dad in Buckhorn Canyon

An obligatory posed photo with all four Shafers (John, Howard and the two Fezzari Shafer gravel bikes) in Buckhorn Canyon in Utah’s San Rafael Swell.

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