The first time I rode the Slickrock Trail was in 1985. Back then, it was on everyone’s bucket list. When ski season ended, everyone wanted to be in Moab, riding the early mountain-bike designs. We talked about needing a suspension system that took the pounding out of the riding, but no one knew when that development was coming. I remember seeing an ambulance bumping up and down the Slickrock Trail to retrieve a guy who had vaulted over his handlebars on shock-absorber-less front forks, breaking both arms and giving himself a concussion.
Jump forward a few decades, and photographer Brett Schreckengost is telling me about all this amazing new singletrack riding in Moab, and how good trail-riding can feel as fluid as skiing powder. I knew the Slickrock had gone out of vogue (even though it’s still good riding), but wondered where all these new miles of trail were, and if his pronouncement about it being like powder skiing was jive or not.
We agreed to meet, and I rented a full-suspension bike with 29-inch wheels, having heard it will make rocky riding feel like moving over warm butter.
Schreck is a good rider, and I am definitely slower. We were in an area called the Magnificent 7, on the Bull Run Trail off the Gemini Bridges Road. It was around this time that Schreck pulled out his GoPro camera and began fiddling with mounting it on his bike. At that moment, something odd happened in my mind. I started picturing all those amazing GoPro ads where people are doing the coolest things, and the soundtrack is fantastic, and for a moment I thought that I would do anything to be like those GoPro people. So when Schreck told me to ride first, and he would shoot from behind, I took off at lightning speed.
Going faster than I have ever gone on 29” wheels was crazy, because tumbling from such a big wheel that has kicked up in the air means you are falling from an unreasonable height. There is no chance to roll; you just slam body parts in a jumble of rocks, and see what’s damaged when the shock is over. Within 10 minutes, I had launched over the handlebars twice, the second time pounding into a tree that saved me from going over a small cliff. Schreck said I was scaring him, and that I needed to slow down.
We were riding some of the new singletrack. About 80 miles have been put in so far; the trails come in all levels of difficulty, and are rated on an easy-to-difficult scale, much like ski runs. As amazing as the riding and the views were from up on Highway 313, with red-rock country all around me and the snowcapped La Sal Mountains in the distance, the cooperation it took to construct these trails was the most remarkable thing of all to contemplate.
The groundwork for the new trails – figuratively, anyway – was laid in 2008. That was the year the Bureau of Land Management finalized a Resource Management Plan for 1.8 million acres in the Moab area. The plan, in the works for years, encompassed everything from bighorn migration corridors to spotted owl habitat to 400,000 acres of wilderness study area. It also permitted up to 150 miles of “non-motorized” trails exclusively for mountain bikers, hikers and equestrians.
Around this time, a group of mountain bikers in Moab known as Trail Mix noticed that Fruita, Colo. had become the new pilgrimage site. While Moab riders had been making use of two-track jeep trails, Fruita riders had been busily constructing new singletrack, just north of town. (A New York Times travel write-up in 2007 referred to Fruita as the place “Where Mountain Bikers Carved Their Dream Terrain.”)
Now, with a green light from the BLM, Trail Mix went to work; the only element still missing was trust. Scott Escott, an effusive, 23-year Moab resident – and a trail-building force to be reckoned with – stepped in. Escott and Trail Mix wanted to finish the Pipe Dream Trail, but the BLM was reluctant to give over the land. To prove themselves to BLM Outdoor Recreation Planner Katie Stevens, whose job it is to oversee their trails, the bikers took her to an area of work they had done on state lands. Escott says, “We built bridges with boulders the size of Volkswagens across drainages.” When Stevens surveyed their work, she pronounced it “The Appian Way,” in a nod to one of the Roman empire’s earliest and most strategically important roads .
That’s when Escott knew he had established what he calls the “first line of trust.”
Building a mountain-bike trail in this part of the world is not as simple as it might seem, as the BLM is tasked with taking into account the interests of both the living and the dead (in the form of dinosaur fossils and First Nation sites). For the latter, the BLM generously offered the services of its archaeologists and paleontologists, who are needed to approve the layout of each trail. According to Escott, hiring a private archaeologist would cost $500,000; he marveled at this kind of government support.
Stevens has tutored the trail builders well, and, in a way, even been their coach. She tells them, “When you go out with archaeologists, throw rose petals on their feet, hold the tape when they take measurements and carry their lunch.”
The BLM has clearly outlined what they expect of proposed trails, and the Trail Mix builders adhere strictly to those guidelines. According to Trail Mix Chairperson Sandy Freethy, it makes the process work remarkably well. So well, in fact, that Escott has been asked by biking groups to consult on how to work with land management agencies in Sedona, Durango, Cortez, Grand Junction and even Fruita. “We are the gold standard in this country for partnership with the federal government,” he says. When I asked Escott what difference an effective partnership with the BLM and a bunch of newly completed singletrack actually meant, he answered with conviction, “Millions of dollars already.”
One of those newly-developed trail systems, Moab Brands, has 30 miles of singletrack, and what was once a little-used area now sees 60 to 80 vehicles in the parking all day long in the spring and fall seasons, according to Escott. If there are at least two riders per car, then it is easy to see the economics of what he calls “the renewable resource – trails.”
And the BLM is not the only federal agency in support of mountain biking. Brian Murdock of the U.S. Forest Service manages mountain-bike routes in the Manti-La Sal National Forest (in essence, the La Sal Mountains that hang over town). The USFS is now finishing its own recreation plan, and will be building what Murdock calls “stacked loops” of trail at Medicine Lake on the south end of the range as well as Jimmy Keen Flat this summer with their own trail crew. In addition, Murdock oversees five shuttle services that drop off as many as 10,000 riders for the tremendously popular Whole Enchilada ride that starts at Geyser Pass (10,528 ft.), climbs over Burro Pass at 11,216 ft., then winds about 30 miles in a staggering 7,000 ft. descent to the Colorado River. (Take that, Fruita.) La Sal riding extends the season by allowing an escape from the hot desert in the summertime, and offers a tour through the conifer-and-alpine zone.
My preference is to be riding in the La Sal’s sizable aspen groves in the autumn; the gold canopy overhead and the red rock in the distance makes me feel very much at home. When I asked Escot about his preferences, he was somewhat less enthusiastic about mountain riding, and implied he wasn’t afraid of desert heat. “I’m an old farmboy,” he said. “I can get up at 4 a.m. It’s the most beautiful time to ride.”
On the drive back down the hill from the Mag 7 trails, with the view of the La Sals and the Henry Mountains and all the convoluted red-rock world below, it didn’t really matter that I was a marginal trail rider, or that I had taken skin off my hips and felt like I had broken my big toe. I simply thought that riding is nothing like powder skiing. It’s hard, it’s unforgiving, but I realized then that I would sell my old mountain bike and buy one of those fat-tire bikes, or a dual-suspension, or whatever, but I was going to be back – if for no other reason than Moab is one of the most sublime places to ride on planet earth.
Particulars for Winter Riding
Moab has a remarkably long riding season. Stacking thin layers of clothing for winter riding is a strategy just like planning for the heat of spring and summer. In fact, some local riders say they prefer the quieter season, because it gives them the chance to have a trail to themselves for a while.
Moab is at an elevation of 4,025 feet, with an average high temperature of 98.1 degrees in July and an average high of 56.9 in November, 50.8 in February and 62.1 in March. The weather is rarely bad if you dress appropriately. With 244 fully sunny days, about 5.9 inches of snow each year and 8.9 inches of rain, odds are good that you will find most days ride-able.
Moab lists nine bike shops in the online Yellow Pages; I happened to choose Poison Spider Bicycles for my rental. I later learned it had been voted among the top 10 bike shops in the country by Outside magazine. I asked Sales Manager Billy Snyder for a ride with good winter sun. He recommends Ahab for sunny riding all day, but says his favorite is the Porcupine Rim. It is part of the Whole Enchilada ride. Even when you can’t access Geyser and Burro Pass because of snow cover, you can ride the lower five sections virtually all year.
From Feb. 28-March 2, Snyder stages a bike-demo event called The Thaw where he guarantees there will be more bikes than people (unlike most other demo events, where there are only 50 bikes for a whole crowd).
The website discovermoab.com/biking.htm lists all the new singletrack routes, as well as some of the classics. The maps are extremely well done, and give you a good idea of what the rides look like before you arrive. Additionally, you can purchase Geoff Freethy’s excellent trail maps at all the bike shops for $2. The money goes to support Trail Mix and their continuing trail work.
A BLM list of shuttle services and contact numbers for your tour pickup and drop off can be found at tinyurl.com/kq9ro2o.