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Utah's mountain bike mecca.

Moab hasn't seen anything like it since the 1950s, when the discovery of uranium drew thousands of prospectors to the area. Although the small southeastern Utah town has long been a base for visitors exploring nearby Canyonlands and Arches national parks, the rush of mountain bikers descending on Moab from around the world has raised its prominence as a tourism hub to an entirely different level.

With a wide strip of motels and fast-food joints running down its center, Moab bears little resemblance to such posh desert oases as Palm Springs or Scottsdale, Arizona. It's the surrounding natural landscape, however, not the human "improvements," that has made Moab a mountain biking mecca.

Rough dirt roads wind along high-walled canyon bottoms and traverse sagebrush-covered mesas, offering astoundingly scenic mountain bike routes through this high-desert tertrain. Though they do not stand out on maps as conspicuously as the national parks, public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management stretch out for miles in almost every direction from Moab. Access to BLM lands is limited mostly by a cyclist's endurance and ability to follow trails.

Maps and books focusing on mountain bike routes around Moab are helpful, as are tour companies that offer guided trips. Only a few years ago, there was just one such company in Moab; now there are several.

Spring and fall are the best times for bicycling here. (Summer brings sizzling hot weather; in winter, temperatures can hover around freezing.) Desert rides in the immediate vicinity of Moab are invitingly cool in early spring. Later, as temperatures begin to climb, higher-altitude routes in the nearby La Sal Mountains become more appealing.


While Moab certainly attracts its share of hard-core bike bums who are happiest when grinding up or flying down a seemingly vertical rock face, less dedicated mountain bikers can find plenty of ride options that provide thrills and stunning scenery without putting life and limb at risk.

Here are four favorite routes that can be enjoyably negotiated by riders with only a modicum of off-road experience. Maps of the first ride described are available at the trailhead parking area; for help with navigation on the others, you should use a map and/or guidebook (see page 26).

1. Moab Slickrock Bike Trail practice loop. The main Slickrock trail, developed by motorcycle enthusiasts, has gained legendary status among the motorless two-wheeling set. On some weekends, a steady stream of cyclists (one local bike shop manager refers to them as "the Lycra parade") can be seen making the pilgrimage around the 10-mile circuit, following its painted white dashes up and down undulating sandstone humps.

However, legend may collide painfully with reality for those attempting to negotiate the course without well-honed technical riding skills. But inexpert riders need not despair: they can get a glimpse of greatness on the Slickrock's adjacent 2.3-mile practice loop. Similar to the main trail but over somewhat easier terrain, the shorter loop requires much less of a commitment; you're never so far from the trailhead that you can't walk your bike back if necessary.

Be sure that your brakes are in good working order. Even on the practice loop, you'll have to squeeze hard to check your speed on precipitous declines that seem to run headlong into equally steep rising slopes. Despite the impression that the trail's name might give, the sandstone it traverses offers remarkable traction; bike tires rarely lose their grip on even the toughest climbs or descents.

2. Kane Creek Canyon, Hurrah Pass. This 21-mile out-and-back ride snakes up a canyon between rust-colored cliffs before ascending to a stunning overlook. It requires little technical skill, but stamina for long climbs.

The ride begins near where Kane Creek empties into the Colorado River, just a short drive from town (you can easily ride there if you prefer). A graded dirt road climbs steadily south along sandstone walls resembling slabs of fudge dusted with chocolate powder, then makes a rapid descent through hairpin turns to the canyon bottom, where an icy spring gushing from a rock wall and shady cotton-woods provide welcome relief.

After a few more twists and turns, the canyon widens to a broad valley. The road continues along the mostly level valley floor, eventually crossing Kane Creek (or its dry bed, depending on recent weather). Bearing right at a junction, you begin the relentless 600-foot climb along the canyon wall to Hurrah Pass. A BLM sign that greets you at the pass identifies your elevation as 4,740 feet. You'll quickly forget the rigors of the climb as you drink in the sweeping views back over Kane Creek Canyon and ahead over meanders of the Colorado River. And you might forget them completely in the exhilaration of your descent as you begin to retrace your route.

3. Gemini Bridges Trail. When done as a one-way ride, this 13.5-mile route lets you coast downhill most of the way, leaving you free to enjoy the high-desert scenery. Starting with the trailhead turnoff, the trail is well signed throughout.

The first few miles of the rock-strewn dirt road descend gently across a tableland of junipers and pinon pines. After the trees give way to a grassy expanse, a spur leading off to the right takes you to the top of the twin sandstone arches that gave the trail its name. Back on the main trail, you get a taste of slickrock riding as the slope steepens, culminating in a swift drop into Little Canyon, a short-walled but appealing draw.

Riding along the bottom of the canyon, you pass under Gooney Bird Rock, a sandstone pillar. Then, as if to ease your guilt about all the coasting and easy pedaling up till now, the trail makes a taxing ascent up a canyon wall. Through the climb is tiring, it earns you a great view of Arches National Park, and a thrilling glide as a finale to your ride.

4. La Sal Mountains, Onion Creek. A great late-spring ride, this 25-mile "coast" begins in the La Sal Mountains and ends at the Colorado River, descending 4,000 feet through remarkably varied and scenic landscapes.

Shuttling up from Moab toward the La Sals' snowcapped peaks, you'll notice a conspicuous drop in temperature, and stately ponderosa pines taking the place of the lowland pinons and junipers. As you saddle up and roll off down the Castleton-Gateway Road to the Polar Mesa Trail, fields of lupine and Indian paintbrush that grow after snows melt line your route. Breathtaking views of Fisher Valley open up on your left as you continue down Thompson Canyon Trail.

After dipping into Hideout Canyon and climbing up its other side (the ride's only tough uphill stretch), you swoop down into wide-open Fisher Valley. Leisurely pedaling brings you to the head of Onion Creek Canyon, a fantastically tortured chasm with walls ranging in hue from green (a result of salt deposits) to red. Frequent crossings of shallow streams splash you with refreshingly cool water as you twist through the canyon to its lower reaches.

This ride is offered as a guided day-trip with shuttle by Kaibab Mountain/Desert Bike Tours.


Although Moab's popularity among mountain bikers is a boon to the town's economy, it's a potential threat to the surrounding fragile desert environment (particularly to cryptogamic soil, a black, mottled crust that holds soil in place and allows new plants to germinate). Ride only on roads, trails, slickrock, or sand; it can take several years for the soil, algae, mosses, bacteria, and lichens to recover after being crushed by a bike tire.

The desert in turn can be a threat to the unprepared rider. Carry as much water as possible (a gallon per person isn't excessive on a full day's ride), bring along tools and parts for basic repairs (such as changing a flat tire), and always ride with at least one other person.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes Moab travel planner
Author:Mahoney, David
Date:Apr 1, 1992
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