We just finished up the 355-mile Great Allegheny Passage/C&O Canal Towpath on hard tail mountain bikes with rear panniers and an assortment of small front bags (including a Revelate Gas Tank), which worked perfectly.
We were spending nights in motels/B&Bs so only carrying about 10 lbs extra, but it was a great shakedown for gear set up and to start thinking about bike packing and some self supported over night/multi day trips.
It got me thinking about, uh, maybe call it unpaved dirt touring/exploring, in southeastern Utah/southwestern CO. There are so many little used, unpaved back roads that go to amazing places and everything from bladed dirt to 4-wheel drive.
Personally, I'd rather start out with exploring via unpaved touring. I'm 65 and DH is almost 70, so we need to keep things on the sane side when we load up our bikes, but it has to be interesting.
For example, my first two places to check out would be the dirt road that parallels the Dolores River from the Dove Creek Pump Station downstream for a ways and then eventually comes out on a highway near Slickrock (or is it Bedrock?). This would be a great overnight ride in the fall, with a lot of options for hiking side canyons. Here is a link with pictures of the canyon in that area. The dirt road in these pictures does look smooth, but it does deteriorate enough to be interesting as it goes along. Plus nobody around when boating season ends (if there is one). However, you'd also definitely have to avoid elk hunting season. Also, there are several river crossings along the way, so flow needs to be very low. September could work.
The next option would be a road in southeastern UT that crosses White Canyon above the Dark Hole (near Lake Powell), and just heads off into the red dirt (from HWY 95 outside of Hite.) But really, there are roads everywhere that go somewhere mind blowing in that part of Utah, with very little to no traffic much of the time.
The nice thing about most of these Utah red dirt roads is that there is so much sand content that they are pretty much functional even when it rains, i.e., they don't form mud, just damp grit.
Anyway, our long ride on the GAP/C&O Canal confirmed that 29er hardtail mountain bikes are ideal for this type of riding (for us). The rear rack & panniers are easy (we have them already, simple set up, they work), so the next expenditures would be ultralight 2-person tent (I like the REI DASH 2 -- freestanding & each person gets his/her own door), ultralight sleeping pads and a down bag that zips open to be a comforter for two (rather than carry two full sleeping bags.
Probably the next bag I'd get (or make) would be a handlebar bag for the tent.
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