Gooseberry Mesa Trail near Hurricane, Utah; photo by Andreas Siegel
When the mountain biking craze rolled from Marin County to Moab in the ’80s, the tiny town quickly became the prime location for two-wheeled adventure in Utah. Furnished with lilting slickrock and heart-pounding trails, for decades Moab was the best terrain riders anywhere could imagine.
But though logic tells us being first is usually a good thing, history tells us otherwise: If you’re first, you will eventually be overturned or overrun. (Just ask the Olmec or the Sony Walkman.)
Moab, for all its beauty and years of trail building, has been supplanted. The usurper is a series of upstart trails in St. George and the surrounding area. Some are well established, others are merely toddlers, but taken together they amount to the best weekend you’ve ever had on a bike.
Bearclaw-Poppy Trail (Historic Green Valley Loop) – St. George
When it comes to conversion—in this case, to mountain biking—this lovably lap-able trail puts any missionary duo to shame. The Bearclaw-Poppy Preserve greets visitors with an endless network of trails that hug the base of Bloomington Hill. The variation between these interlocking routes makes the trail a popular destination for more experienced riders to bring their beginner friends, without fear of pushing novices beyond their skills. It’s like a ski resort where expert runs parallel the rope tow.
Carsonite trail markers, scattered throughout the area, identify easy escape routes for features like “Three Fingers of Death” and “The Acid Drops.” It’s important to follow the signage for safety reasons, but also to retain the right to use the trails meandering through the preserve (so please, no improvising on this trail).
Within the confines established by the BLM, however, are some uproariously fun pump tracks, drops and smooth-rolling desert hardpack, which makes sticking to the script easy. The trail in its entirety can be shuttled as a 5-mile downhill run, or an 11-mile out-and-back (longer if you loop back using the city roads). Whatever route you choose, you’ll be grinning as wide as your chin strap by the end.
JEM Trail – Hurricane
When linked to Hurricane Rim and Goulds, JEM (blazed by John, Ellen and Mike) forms a 21-mile loop of intermediate-level riding. If you choose the classic JEM loop, you can ride this trail as a 13-mile loop with roughly 800 feet of gain, but you’ll have to chug 6.2 miles up a dull and dusty doubletrack to reach the point where most riders start: the top of a 7-mile joyride to the Virgin River.
The descent pours smoothly from Highway 59 down an open desert plain before an abrupt shift in tempo at “The Staircase,” a steep, technical section with tight switchbacks. Aside from this geologic aberration, which can easily be hiked while toting your bike, the JEM singletrack flows like Busta Rhymes to the river gorge. Here, anyone afraid of heights can choose to walk the brief segment of exposed trail overlooking the riverbed before finishing the ride.
JEM Trail, photo by Gary Colet
Barrel Roll – St. George
Barrel Roll outside of Santa Clara was a local favorite before the recent development of BLM trails. Barrel Roll is an intermediate 6-mile loop with 700 feet of climbing that shares a trailhead with the Rim Rock, Sidewinder and newly minted Suicidal Tendencies Trails. Barrel Roll is the least challenging of the group, so riders can test their suspension on its varied terrain before taking on the trail’s more technical cousins.
As you push along Barrel Roll, pale tufts of sagebrush and intermittent speckles of Indian paintbrush enliven the trailside landscape. In the distance, the Pine Valley Mountains cap the Navajo Sandstone cliffs in a stacked collage of crimson and yellow—a worthwhile reward as you pedal back to the trailhead.
Gooseberry Mesa – Hurricane
To some, Gooseberry Mesa is a sacrilege—a mohawk-topped punk with the audacity to undermine Moab’s monopoly on slickrock. To the rest of the world, it’s simply the most fun they’ve had on two wheels. Riders from across the globe make the Gooseberry pilgrimage to pay homage to the nine painted trails spidering atop the bubbled and boiling sandstone. These international devotees never return home disappointed.
Each of the nine trails stretched across the mesa top offers their own degree of difficulty. Beginners can ride the dirt road or the practice loop for a tiny taste of the technical splendor on Gooseberry without missing out on some of the visual delights. Experts can take on the Big Loop, a 12.5-mile bruiser that incorporates the more challenging stunts and stints of smaller trails into an anthology of Gooseberry’s greatest hits. Every trail has its own highlights, so it’s worth spending a day or two to discover which ones capture your loyalty. After all, devotion is a foregone conclusion here.
Zen Trail – St. George
When people gush about the riding around St. George, they’re actually talking about the Zen Trail. While supremely difficult, Zen Trail is a perfect balance (as the name implies) of climbing and descent, full throttle fun and focused technical riding. You’ll zip along desert singletrack before picking your way through blossoms of sandstone and other monoliths, but the topological contrasts of the trail flow together in a riotous ride that’s worth every second.
It’s a hearty 1,100 feet of climbing condensed into a 6-mile loop overall so be prepared to pedal. The southwest end of the circuit overlooks the Bearclaw-Poppy Trail but stays on the Green Valley side of the bluff. Despite being a relatively short cityside trail, it’s important to bring lots of water to meet the trail’s demanding technical descents and aerobically stimulating ascents.
Meet the Expert
Photo provided by Mark Erickson
When Mark Erickson retired to St. George 15 years ago, he figured he’d spend the rest of his mornings playing golf. “That lasted a few weeks,” he says, explaining his decision to ditch a golf cart for his mountain bike. “I found I needed a little more than golf to keep the blood pumping. But the real reason I enjoy mountain biking so much is that it gets me out into some of the most beautiful scenery on earth.” His first ride into the landscape he loves was on the cityside Green Valley Loop. The ride itself was short, but circling back to the trailhead on busy roads was uninspiring and long, which may have planted the seeds for his future shuttle service, Mountain Bike Buddies.
“I got myself totally lost on a ride in Washington and ended up sitting on a rock all night, waiting for someone to come along. I was thinking, ‘This is how the people I find lost on the trails around St. George must feel.’ They have two options—either get rough directions from a local bike shop or sign up with a big guided tour company.” Neither option is ideal if all you want is someone to pick you up, point you in the right direction and then meet you at the bottom. Erickson offers riders a third path, between “turn by the rock that looks like a longneck, bro” and “that’ll be $150…per person.”
Erickson has become the preeminent shuttler in St. George. Whether he’s taking first-timers down the paved trail in Snow Canyon or fearless pros to the insanity of Flying Monkey Trail in Virgin, his feedback from guests is unanimous: “That may have been the most fun day of my life.”
The Raging Bull
Photo by Garett Buehler
As a brand, Red Bull occupies a unique position atop the world of sports. It’s not only the patron saint of soccer players, skateboarders and rally drivers, but also the sponsor of soapbox races and other benign bits of absurdity. For all the silly venues and mainstream sports, though, Red Bull is still the horned god of truly terrifying spectacles. Foremost among them is the Red Bull Rampage, where mountain biking’s brave-and-stupid chieftains gather in Virgin, Utah, (although it’s not virgins that get sacrificed). Every fall, the unsullied terrain is transformed into a monstrous playground where 20-foot drops are commonplace and 70-foot backflips rate third place.
Each year the jumps get bigger and riders push physics to the Newtonian limits. Worries tug more insistently at spectators and competitors alike—successful runs are merely a crisis averted, a nightmare deferred. It was these concerns that led Red Bull to cancel the event in 2004, but in the twisted logic of extreme sports, those fears were symptomatic of a challenge pros can’t ignore. After all, overcoming fear is part of the thrill. With that in mind, the Rampage was reborn in 2008. The event is an unending crescendo with new bones and records broken annually. But until the bubble bursts with a broken back or worse, this particular bull rages on.
Visit redbull.com/bike for details on the 2015 competition.