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When my friend Michelle asked if I wanted to join her on the Aquarius Trail Hut System, a six-day hut-to-hut route that ushers riders from Brian Head, Utah to Escalante, my initial thought was ‘nope’. I’d suffered enough on our San Juan Telluride to Moab Hut-to-Hut trip the summer before and I didn’t want a repeat (that trip was great, it just kicked my butt).
But after checking out the website and clicking through the photos, it did seem like this trip would be pretty awesome – more singletrack, bigger views, and nicer huts.
Ultimately, it didn’t work out for me to join Michelle on the trip, but she generously agreed to do a little write-up for Two Wheeled Wanderer.
Here’s her guide to biking the Aquarius Trail Hut System in Utah. I have to say I’m a little jealous!
What is the Aquarius Trail Hut System?
The Aquarius Trail Hut System (ATHS) is a 200+ mile hut-to-hut bike route that connects the high-elevation peaks outside of Brian Head, Utah (11,307 ft) to the desert town of Escalante (5,800 ft).
Along the way, riders get to experience the stunning views and landscapes of Utah’s “Color Country” which traverses through remarkable terrain including Red Canyon, Aquarius Plateau, Escalante National Monument, views out over Bryce Canyon, and more.
The route cobbles together a variety of different Jeep roads, singletrack, fire roads, and a little bit of pavement between each of the 5 huts, making each day a little bit different and unique.
The Aquarius Trail Hut System route starts at the base of Brianhead Resort in Brian Head Utah and ends in the small desert town of Escalante.
The full trip, which is what we did is 6 days/5 nights, but you can also choose shorter 4 day/3 night or 3 day/2 night trips.
Below is a breakdown of each day of our trip.
*Note: while e-bikes are allowed on the Aquarius Trail, they must stay on the main route and not take the singletrack options. The miles and elevation gain stats below are for our personal non-e-bike trip, which included a mix of singletrack and following the main route.
- Hut: Hatch Hut (7,072 ft)
- Distance: 36 miles
- Elevation gain: 1,683 ft
Day 1 started off with an epic singletrack descent down Bunker Creek trail from Brian Head – 12 miles of fast, flowy fun through aspen groves and meadows. It was an awesome start and I’d definitely like to go back just to do this trail again.
The singletrack ends at Panguitch Lake and then the route continues on a pretty Jeep through juniper and pine forest to Hatch Hut.
We got caught in a rainstorm in the afternoon – the first of many! – so we made a pit stop at the RV park in Hatch to wash off our bikes before heading up to the hut outside of town.
- Hut: Butch Cassidy Hut (8,034 ft)
- Distance: 27 miles
- Elevation gain: 2,904 ft
The second day started off with a relentless 8-mile, 2,500 ft climb on Jeep road. The saving grace was that it was through the lovely Proctor Canyon and the climb ends at the top of Sunset Cliffs with incredible views out over Bryce Canyon.
From the overlook, it’s an 8-mile descent down to Tropic Reservoir where you can take a dip in the chilly water before cruising the last 15 miles to Butch Cassidy Hut.
Bonus singletrack: There is an option to do a 13-mile lollipop on the Cassidy/Rich Trail in Red Canyon, which we opted not to do.
- Hut: Pine Lake Hut (8,385 ft)
- Distance: 25 miles
- Elevation gain: 1,457 ft
Day 3 was supposed to start off with an epic descent down the Thunder Mountain trail, but unfortunately, we’d been experiencing torrential rains, so we decided to stick to the much easier and slightly less messy dirt road. If conditions are mostly good for your trip, Thunder Mountain is a must.
We also, unfortunately, skipped Casto Canyon, and instead, took the dirt road straight to Pine Lake Hut. There are at least a dozen river crossings in Casto Canyon and I’m not sure what these are normally like, but we had heard that some people had to get rescued out of there a few days just before us due to unsafe water levels.
Skipping these sections due to epic rains was the biggest disappointment for us and I definitely want to go back and ride this portion.
- Hut: Aquarius Hut (10,023 ft)
- Distance: 37 miles
- Elevation gain: 4,915 ft
This day was HARD. We added about 10 miles doing the out-and-back to Powell Point overlook, which was worth it for the views and experience, but it definitely made for a long day.
The rest of the day was steady climbing up to Aquarius Hut. Almost all of this day was above 10k’ elevation. Eat a good breakfast and pack lots of snacks!
- Hut: Hell’s Backbone Hut (8,034 ft)
- Distance: 31 miles
- Elevation gain: 2,799 ft
We opted to skip the first 13 miles of backcountry singletrack on the Great Western Trail because of all the rain we’d been having. Instead, we took the dirt road until we intersected with the final 5 miles of the Grand Western Trail (singletrack option to Blue Spruce on the map) that led us into Hell’s Backbone.
The riding along Hell’s Backbone was amazing and definitely a highlight of the trip!
- Distance: 36 miles
- Elevation gain: 2,169 ft
The final day! It started off with a super fast fun downhill on Hell’s Backbone Road toward Escalante with incredible canyon views on both sides. Then… MORE climbing! The hill doesn’t look like much on the GPS analysis but it was hot and felt quite hard. I highly recommend taking a dip in Calf Creek to cool off before tackling this last hill.
The final stretch into Escalante is a gradual roll and we arrived just in time for lunch!
The huts were really cool. They’re made from cargo containers and each one has a fun cargo container factoid, which Nick – my boyfriend – loved.
Each hut provided a ‘luxury backcountry bikepacking experience” complete with:
- Solar panels for charging electronics
- Gas-powered generator to charge e-bike batteries
- Refrigerator and stove
- Fully stocked kitchen
- Large decks with picnic tables and sitting areas
- Outdoor heaters
- Bluetooth speakers
- Fire pits and chairs
Each hut had two sleeping quarters, each of which could sleep 6 people (so 12 people total). Overall, it was a better and more comfortable set-up than the San Juan huts, but it was still pretty tight even though our group only had seven people.
I can’t imagine a trip with a full group of 12. The huts would be crammed!
Mattresses, pillows, and sleeping bags are provided. You’ll also get a pillowcase and sleeping bag liner at the first hut, which you need to carry with you through the trip.
There is actually quite a bit of space outside the huts to lounge and relax on post-ride including huge decks, a picnic table, and hammocks.
However, these spaces are not covered, so if you run into a lot of rain on your trip (like we did!), the only option for staying warm and dry is to hang out inside, which can get a bit cramped.
There are also hut slippers that are provided in a variety of sizes, so you don’t need to pack extra shoes/sandals or get the huts muddy with your riding shoes, which was really nice.
We didn’t find any games in the huts, but some of them had guitars and Bluetooth speakers for playing music.
Each set of huts has a foot pump-activated shower that worked with varying degrees of success. One shower for that many folks is rough, no matter what, but it was nice to be able to rinse off at the end of the day.
Fresh towels are provided at each hut and if you want a hot shower, you can boil water on the stove.
The food was quite different from San Juan Huts. Each hut on the Aquarius Trail had a fairly set menu for us to cook for dinner like burgers, spaghetti and meatballs, salad, orange chicken, etc… which were all good.
There were a few alternative options, but the hut hosts (the huts are cleaned every day with fresh food brought in) were available and willing to bring us requested items as well as cater to dietary restrictions if needed. If you’re vegetarian you could make it work. Vegan would be hard. You can learn more about the food options and provisions here.
The huts have solar-powered fridges, so there are lots of fresh food options, which was nice compared to the mostly canned food supplies in the San Juan Huts.
The kitchen area is quite small, though, and would have been hard to navigate with a bigger group (we were 7) and/or groups that didn’t want to cook together.
For lunches and snacks, there are supplies to make sandwiches and a variety of sweet and salty snacks to choose from. I will say that the bulk snack option on the San Juan trip blew the Aquarius snack options out of the water. It would have been nice to have been able to throw together some trail mix rather than carry multiple individual packets and bars.
For breakfasts, we ended up just doing quick and easy because we were leaving the huts every day by 6am to beat the rains.
Lastly, you can opt to get the Beer Package for $57 per person, which allots you up to three beers per hut.
The pit toilet bathrooms were gross 🙁 I guess the law requires the pits to be above ground rather than buried, so the smell was really bad.
There was also a gas-powered generator for the e-bikes and to keep the generator and e-bikes out of the rain, they had it running in the bathroom making for a loud, hot, stinky potty experience.
I’m not sure how/if the bathrooms would improve during good weather windows if the generator was moved outside.
Each hut has a bike stand and a smattering of tools, lubes, tubes, etc… You’ll need to bring your own mountain bike pack essentials for riding in between huts or any other special tools/spares you might need.
There are also other basic supplies like a first aid kit, sunscreen, and bug spray.
Preparing for your ride
Booking the huts
The huts can be booked separately (6 people) or together (12 people). If you don’t have a group of 6 or 12, there is a discussion board where you can coordinate with other smaller groups.
For 6 days/5 nights, the price is $998 per person which includes food, access to the huts, and emergency support.
What kind of bike do you need?
You’ll want at least a hardtail mountain bike, but a full-suspension trail bike would be more fun, especially if you plan on riding most of the singletrack.
I rode my short-travel Kona Hei Hei and it felt great.
If you don’t have your own bike or you’ll be flying in and don’t want to bring yours, you can rent one. They have Specialized and Santa Cruz full-suspension bikes available as well as e-bikes.
One of the unique things about the Aquarius Trail Hut System is that it’s e-bike friendly. Each hut is equipped with a generator for charging batteries and the distances between huts are low enough so that you don’t have to worry about running out of juice.
However, it’s important to note that e-bikes are not allowed on most of the singletrack sections of this route.
If you choose to ride an e-bike you will be riding mostly on dirt jeep and fire roads.
Gear to bring
You honestly don’t need to bring a lot of gear because most everything is provided for you at the huts.
You will need a backpack (or bikepacking bags) big enough to carry:
- At least 3L of water
- Lunch and snacks
- Pillowcase and sleeping bag liner (provided for you at the first hut)
Read next: Osprey Mira and Manta Backpack Review for short multi-day bikepacking trips
Navigating the route
Some days were pretty straightforward for navigation where there were long stretches on the same road. We had phones and GPS, but this is one area where I think the San Juan Huts is better.
The paper maps and step-by-step directions we had for the San Juan huts made navigation much easier. The GPX file Aquarius uses only worked on the Ride with GPS app, which sucks phone batteries dry super quickly.
If you do want to use the GPX files, I recommend having a bike computer like the Garmin Edge 830.
They also had this strange idea of putting a map on the pillowcase. This is a cute novelty but not actually very useful for navigating.
Since this is a point-to-point ride, you’ll need to set up a shuttle. If you leave a car at Escalante Cyclery (the finish), you can book a shuttle with Aquarius Trail Hut System from Escalante to Brian Head on day 1.
The shuttle leaves the bike shop at 8am and you arrive in Brian Head around 10:30am. In theory, this works great, but it did pretty much guarantee that we got caught in afternoon thunderstorms the first day.
Vehicle support on the route
The Aquarius Trail Hut System can easily be done with vehicle support whether you’re traveling with kids, your partner doesn’t ride, or you want to make it more of a ‘fun’ trip rather than a ‘suffer’ trip.
Each hut is located on a well-maintained gravel road with relatively easy access. There are also parking spaces and each hut is wheelchair accessible. If there are people who will not be riding, they can arrive at the hut early and relax on the deck or hammocks until you roll in.
You will need to book a semi-private or fully private trip if you plan on doing your own vehicle support.
Take all the planning out of your trip with a guided trip. Escape Adventures offers a 6 day/5 night guided trip that includes two guides, a support vehicle, and meal preparation.
Best time to Go
Bookings for the Aquarius Trail Hut System are open between July 1 and October 1. We did our trip in August and I don’t know if it was just the year, but it was SO rainy. We had afternoon thunderstorms almost every day.
Fall would be a nice time to do this trip to catch the aspen foliage, but keep in mind that most of the route is above 8,000 ft, so temps might be chilly and there’s always a chance of early season snow.
Overall, the Aquarius Hut bikepacking trip was a great experience, especially since our group jived so well together. If we hadn’t all gotten along, it would have been a much different trip.
As for the riding, even though a lot of the route was on dirt roads, it was more challenging than I expected due to long days and lots of riding at high elevation. But the incredible scenery made up for the long slogs.
The mountain biking stretches were really fun, too, and I definitely want to go back for the singletrack portions we missed!
- The San Juan Hut System Telluride to Moab Mountain Bike Trip
- Bikepacking Across Washington on the Cross Washington Mountain Bike Route
Have you done the Aquarius Hut-to-Hut bikepacking route? Is it on your bike-it list? What questions do you still have? Leave a comment below!