TOURING THE WILD WEST WITH YAMAHA
Colorado is a “Gateway” to some of the most diverse trails in the country
By Jeff Henson
This job certainly has its perks, and one of the biggest is getting to experience different trail systems all over the U.S. and abroad. One of my favorite locations to ride is all around the town of Moab, Utah. Its scenery and epic trails never get old. I’ve also explored nearby Spanish Valley; climbed the western side of the La Sal Mountains; dirt biked Mary’s Trail, White Wash, and “The Tubes” at Green River; and shredded the Coral Pink Sand Dunes near Kanab. One year, I made the eight-hour drive from Phoenix five times just because I couldn’t get enough of the area. I thought I had seen it all, or at least most of it. Leave it to Yamaha to point out that I had barely scratched the surface.
This time, we’d be starting a little further east, across the border in Colorado. Draw a straight and horizontal line between Utah’s Arches National Park and Colorado’s Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area, and you’ll find Gateway, Colorado, smack dab in the center and skirting the Dolores River. Yamaha flew us into Grand Junction, Colorado, where we hopped in a car and headed an hour southwest to the Gateway Canyons Resort. Even though spring was already present, I noticed the mountains were still topped with snow. A two-lane highway winded through the hills and hugged West Creek, flowing at peak level from well-above-average snowfall over the winter.
YAMAHA RMAX2 LE AND XT-R
Upon arrival, we had a fleet of Wolverine RMAX2 side-by-sides waiting for us, prepped for two days of exploring. The RMAX models present included a 999cc parallel-twin engine with D-Mode power settings (Sport, Trail and Crawl modes), selectable 2WD and 4WD with diff-lock, a Warn VRX 4500-pound winch, a factory-installed SSV stereo with Bluetooth connectivity (new on the XT-R for 2023), and the integrated and portable Yamaha Adventure Pro mapping/navigation system. On many of the machines, Yamaha replaced the factory-installed 30-inch Maxxis Carnivore 8-ply tires with GBC Parallax 10-ply all-terrains for maximum puncture resistance. They also equipped each RMAX2 with Yamaha-branded bed racks ($899.99), Wolverine rear cargo boxes ($573.99), a Wolverine bed extender ($502.99), and side-view mirrors ($289.99).
Yamaha gave us the choice of the 2023 Wolverine RMAX2 1000 LE (Limited Edition) or the RMAX2 1000 XT-R. The standout difference between the two comes down to tuning the suspension. The RMAX2 LE comes with Fox 2.0 iQS (Intelligent Quick Switch) suspension with three levels of shock damping—Comfort, Medium or Firm—that can be selected on the fly with a rocker switch on the dashboard. The RMAX2 XT-R has similar shock settings, but you must exit the vehicle to set each shock manually. The LE is the more convenient option, but the XT-R allows for differing front and rear suspension settings.
DAY 1: DINOSAUR TRACKS IN THE HIGH DESERT
Our first day of riding was claimed to be a mix of fast dirt roads, rugged two-track and embedded slick rock. With that level of diversity, I grabbed an RMAX2 LE model so I could adjust the comfort level from the seat.
From Gateway Canyons Resort, we headed southeast on 4.4 Road across our first river crossing and into the red rock canyons. Somewhere along the way, I noticed a sign claiming Moab was 30 miles due west, signaling that we had crossed into Utah. The trail switched back and forth as we climbed up onto a ridge at our first stop of the day, Bull Canyon Overlook. The canyon is massive, and on this clear day, you could see way off into the distant mountain range where the canyon seemed to end. It’s deep, comprehensive and reminiscent of the first time I peered into the Grand Canyon, but much greener. Rock-cliff overlooks provided the best spots to take it all in.
Bull Canyon is also where we discovered dinosaur tracks. The fossilized tracks have been here longer than the canyon when this area was a mountain-less, coastal, sea-level plain. The dinosaurs left their prints in the sand, which hardened over time into the Entrada Sandstone layer and fossils that we can see today. The three-toed carnivorous theropods that made the most significant print fossils (pictured) are from the same paleontology suborder that includes velociraptors, made famous by the “Jurassic Park” film franchise. Today, you can still see some winged descendants from the prehistoric age along the edges of the canyon, as eagles and red-tail hawks use the cliffs to nest and hunt for prey.
From this point, we headed towards Castle Valley, and the trail became much rougher from winter snowfall, rain and flooding. Keeping an eye out for deep cross ruts formed by water erosion was necessary, especially when pushing at higher speeds. As we dropped further, pine trees gave way to junipers and scrub brush. Elevation changed frequently, and the terrain mixed sand with slickrock. Here, I got the most use out of the Fox iQS system, switching between the Firm setting for the faster washed-out sections, and the Medium and Comfort settings for the more technical challenges. I also got to try the Crawl D-mode power setting on the rocks with impressive results. All three modes provide maximum power but deliver it in different ways. Crawl is much more controlled, offering more precise navigation when climbing rock faces. This was the good stuff, and the rougher, the better! We stopped for lunch, looking over Castle Valley from the top of the mesa before looping around and back to Gateway.
DAY 2: TIGHT TRAILS AND MUD IN THE LA SAL MOUNTAINS
We covered over 100 miles on day one and were in for the same on day two. This time, we would head further south and upward into the La Sal Mountains. I’ve spent some time on the west side of this range on dirt bikes, ATVs and even a snowmobile, and found it steep and difficult in spots. But, coming from the east, the climb is much more gradual and scenic, but with a wider variety of trails that can get tight quickly.
Starting at around the 4500-foot level, we climbed to nearly 9000 feet below Mount Waas Peak, which was blanketed with snow. The further we rose, the tighter the trails got, with giant pines lining each side; it got dark in spots from the overgrowth. This is where the RMAX2 shined with its 66-inch-wide track and excellent maneuverability. A 72-inch sport side-by-side would struggle in some of the areas we covered.
Looping through the trees, we hit some sections of snow below the peak before crossing over to a grassy valley for lunch—a fast-moving stream cut through the area, armed with higher-than-normal volume from the snowmelt above. Unlike day one, dust wasn’t as big of a factor.
Making our way back down the mountain, the trails were primarily damp and very muddy in spots. I thought we might have a chance to use the locking front differential in a few places, but the RMAX XT-R motored through everything I pointed it at without delay.
Soon enough, the red rock canyons appeared, signaling that our side-by-side adventure was almost over. I slowed to take one last look at the canyon walls, noting the slow forming of arches along the cliffs where the elements have taken their toll on sandstone for thousands of years. I imagined how different it might all look 5,000 years from now.
IF YOU GO
The best time to visit is from spring to fall, as many access routes are not maintained during the winter when heavy snow is present. Average high temperatures range from 50 to 90 degrees during these months, with an inch of average monthly rainfall to keep the dust down.
We never encourage riding alone, and this is undoubtedly a ride you’ll want to share as a group. The terrain is rugged in many spots, so tough tires with excellent sidewall protection and a spare are a must. You should also have a good tool wrap for unexpected breakdowns; carrying extra fuel is a good idea. We finished both days with the low-fuel light glaring at us.
Pack plenty of water and bring layers of clothing. Our ride wasn’t warm, but you get dehydrated twice as fast at higher elevations because your respiratory system works harder in the thinner air. While I didn’t need it on day one, I spent the entirety of day two wearing an enduro jacket.
Yamaha put us up at the Gateway Canyons Resort and Spa, which offers some very fancy rooms at well above Best Western pricing. The resort has casitas available for groups, a few excellent restaurants, and offers activities like hiking trails, mountain biking trails, wine country tours and is centrally located between several national parks. The resort also offers guided UTV and Jeep tours. You can rent a UTV for two or four people. Tours run up to three hours in length with trips to landmarks like Dolores Point, Beaver Creek Homestead, Rattlesnake Point, Atomic Heritage, the Big Lebowski, La Sal Mountain Tour, John Brown Dinosaur Tracks, and Calamity Camp.
The resort also houses the Gateway Canyons Auto Museum, a must-see if you’re into classic automobiles and muscle cars. There’s a small fee for the museum, and you don’t have to stay at the resort to experience it.
The town of Gateway has a general store, and there are many primitive camping locations along the main dirt access roads with room for tents and toy haulers. Gateway Public Grounds Campground is off the main road just south of Gateway Canyons Resort.
Whether you splurge on a resort stay or rough it in a tent trailside, this is a trail adventure you’ll want to repeat as the trails, destinations, and beauty are seemingly infinite. We can’t wait to head back for more.
Gateway Canyons Resort and Spa
Reservations: (866) 671-4733