In June of 2014, eight riders from Pennsylvania traveled three-quarters of the way across the country and spent a week dirt-biking in Moab, Utah. This is their story.
Eric Stambaugh – South Mountain Cycle Shop, South Central Pennsylvania’s Beta Dealer
Moab Day 1: Poison Spider Mesa
There's something about waking up in the desert - can't put my finger on it, but the air is somehow crisp like fall back home, yet you know it's going to be hot. Maybe the time change has something to do with it. I find myself up and outside much earlier. The sun is already pounding on the tops of the red rocks, but it is cold in the Spanish Valley.
Today we plan to ride with Tim's friends from Colorado, Bill and Gary. Last night at the Moab Brewery, Bill told us that someone had recommended the Poison Spider and Golden Spike trails to him. So this morning we meet and head north across the Colorado River on US 191 toward the Poison Spider Mesa. As we turn left onto SR 279 we pass the old uranium processing site. Yellowcake anyone? Not anymore, the site is now in the midst of what looks to be a very orderly remediation. Check out the cleanup's fact sheet sometime (gjem.energy.gov/moab), I find it fascinating. A few miles of pavement with steep canyon walls on the right and the Colorado River on the left and we are at the trailhead.
Poison Spider and Golden Spike are Jeep trails rated on recreation maps as difficult and most difficult. They loop through the Poison Spider Mesa and link up with Gemini Bridge road. On a dirt bike, most jeep trails are readily negotiable, but this is Moab and there are sections of Golden Spike that will curl your hair. The last thing I'd want to be in is a Jeep. The trail begins as a steep dirt road with sandstone outcrops and quickly turns into full blown rock mountains. The landscape is straight out of an old western movie, with gullies, gulches, washes, cliffs and canyons. The riding is fun - a little trials action mixed with desert gassing and 'paved' hill climbs thrown in for fun. At some point we get separated and loop around for a while until we get everyone gathered back up. This is when the real fun starts: we unknowingly wind up on the only double-black diamond trail on the Poison Spider Mesa. The climbs are hairy, the descents are steep and we begin the task of lifting the bikes over some obstacles in 85-degree dry heat. The effort is worth it. Somewhere at an altitude of about 5,200 feet (Moab is at about 4,000), we stop at a lookout point and can see the valley below south to Moab and the entrance to Arches National Park. It's spectacular. Later we stop and hike a few hundred yards to Gemini Bridges: gigantic rock arches that you can walk across with the canyon floor hundreds of feet down.
The ride back to the highway is a red dirt road that climbs over the cliff adjacent to 191 and breathtakingly drops down the other side. A few miles of blacktop and we're crossing the Colorado again and heading into town.
As the sun sets in the desert, the chill is back. The cliffs cast long shadows, but the sky is clear - promising another fresh desert morning.
Moab Day 2: La Sal Mountains
Yes, we planned a trip to the desert in June, but the timing was more about when everyone could get together rather than nailing the ideal weather. Well it turns out that the forecast for Moab today is 97 degrees. We know we want to ride Slickrock early in the week, but after yesterday's sweatfest on Golden Spike, the group is open to ideas. When you drive into Moab on 191 from I70 you are treated to a spectacular view of red rock desert in the foreground and massive snow-capped peaks in the background. Those peaks are the La Sal Mountains and they are well over 12,000 feet high! We did some research and found that there is a portion of the La Sal National Forest that is open to multiple uses including off-highway vehicles. The project has been set up as a study to conserve the land while keeping it open to responsible use. It also raises money for education in Utah. It's bound to be cooler up there than down here. Heck, from the pictures, it looks like there are even trees with actual shade. And the trailhead is only 27 miles from our house.
The day is already hot as we are leaving. We head south on Spanish Valley Road and hang a left on La Sal Loop Road. The road begins to climb and within minutes the red landscape turns to green, the vegetation thickens, and it feels like we are riding straight into Colorado. The pavement ends when we turn onto Geyser Pass Road. It is wide and steep and there are cattle grazing on the shoulders. Soon it is narrow and steep and lined with massive pine trees. The temperature has dropped enough that I am glad that I decided to wear my enduro jacket. Then I see it, my first glimpse of snow in the gutter! Then more. By the time we reach the 10,500 ft. Geyser Pass, there are piles of it nearly a foot deep. Riding over the pass is an experience, especially after leaving the desert 30 minutes ago on a dirt bike. The road opens up a bit as we navigate the switchbacks on the other side and the views are big - a green valley below that fades to forever and 12,726-ft Mount Peale well above the tree line.
We find the trailhead and get to it. The single track trails are unbelievable - meandering like cow trails through high meadows, dropping into rocky canyons, weaving through stands of aspen, and cutting across cliff edges steep enough to make you want to click your heels three times. The elevation changes are extreme and the scenery is powerful. Difficulty ranges, but everything is navigable from the saddle save for a few downed tree detours. Turns out that June is a great time to come to Moab. It is 64 degrees in the La Sals and had we been here three weeks ago we wouldn't have been able to ride these trails due to snowpack.
As we descend back into the valley I realize that I am continually impressed by this land (both West and East) and am thankful that I can get out and see it. Kudos to the state of Utah for giving this a shot. Tomorrow we plan to visit a better known multi-use trail. Stay tuned.
Moab Day 3: Slickrock and Porcupine Rim
The plan for today is to stick close to Moab and ride in the Sand Flats Recreation Area. Close is right. We ride into town by going north on Spanish Valley road and hang a right on Mill Creek Drive and a right on Sand Flats Road. In a minute or two, no more than 3 miles from downtown, we're at the entrance station. It's two bucks a head for a day pass. And yes, someone is there to take our money and give us maps.
The Sand Flats Recreation Area is jointly controlled by Grand County, UT and the Bureau of Land Management. Its mission is similar to the La Sal OHV area. From their site: "SFRA’s mission is to protect the natural features of the area from adverse recreational impacts while providing access to sustainable and enjoyable recreational opportunities." Awesome. Call your senators, folks, tell them this is how it's done.
Anyway, the place is 9,000 acres of outdoor fun, mechanized or otherwise. Today we're interested in Slickrock trail and Porcupine Rim. Despite its popularity among mountain bikers (bicyclists), Slickrock was created in 1969 by a dirt biker (motorcyclist) named Dick Wilson and the BLM. Today motorcycles are still permitted. If you ride a dirt bike (or a mountain bike for that matter), I can guarantee that Slickrock Trail is like nothing you've ever seen before. First of all, the rock is not slick, it affords incredible traction with rubber tires, but it was named back in the day because the steel shoes of horses would slip on it. The rock is actually called Navajo Sandstone and it looks like Mars. The planet Mars. Slickrock trail is a 12-mile adult amusement park. The trail is marked with white paint blazes on the rock and it flows up, down, across and around giant sandstone sculptures bordering two massive canyons and the Spanish Valley. Riding here can be a little disconcerting at first since the rocks are so steep and the trail often follows the spine, but once you get the feel for the traction, it's surprisingly satisfying. And those views.
After Slickrock and a short break, we continue west six miles on Sand Flats Road to the trailhead of Porcupine Rim.
Porcupine Rim is a more traditional two-track desert trail, but it is by no means routine. It drops in off of the dirt road and follows the canyon's edge with loose and fixed rock of all sizes. It's 11 miles or so to the turn-around point - the last few miles are so gnarly, it's closed to anything bigger than a bicycle. Here, the boys and I pick up the pace by calling on our Pennsylvania rock skills. There are numerous drops that are exciting to execute on the way out, but turn into challenging step ups on the way back.
We have pbj sammys at the turnaround in the shade of a tiny scrub pine and then pick our way back to Sand Flats Road, riding at a slightly slower pace. Some dirt road and we are back at the entrance - dirty, sweaty and smiling. We pass by the trailhead for Hell's Revenge, a popular Jeep trail and vow to bag that before the week's out.
And now for something completely different...
Moab Day 4: Sovereign Trail
Singletrack is hard to find in Moab. This place is big. And so are most of the vehicles that people use to enjoy the terrain. Consequently, most of the trails, with the exception of Slickrock, are at least two-track (wide enough for an ATV). Here is where motorcycles have an advantage. If you consider the impact on the land, motorcycles have a similar "footprint" to mountain bikes and horses. Yes, some will agree and disagree, but based solely on what I saw on the Sovereign Trail today, the singletrack portions of the trail are barely visible - sometimes even when you're riding them.
We gear-up and head north out of town on route 191. 20 miles seems like a long slog on the pavement, but good lord, it's better than loading-up all of the bikes on a truck to get there. A short dirt road stint and we're at the trailhead. Like most of the land out here, Sovereign is multi-use. A non-profit from Moab, Ridewithrespect.org, manages the system and, similar to La Sal OHV, reduces impact by designating which portions can be used by which vehicles. The singletrack is fantastic, fabulous, superlative, and superlative. Don't get me wrong, it's not easy, but the smooth sections flow and the rocky uphills give you a real sense of accomplishment if you clean them. There are even long sections of Slickrock for your tractive pleasure.
But the things that stand out about Sovereign are the goat-path switchback ascents and descents. These sections hug the terrain and sometimes require the rider to dismount to navigate the 180. And steep! At one point we are no more than 500 feet from our destination as the crow flies, yet it takes half a mile to get there. It's easy to imagine a cowboy, low in the saddle, picking his way down at sunset on his sure-footed horse.
There are sections that we don't get to ride today, mainly due to the midday heat. So, unlike the cowboy would have been able to do, we actually ride into town and have ice cream in our gear. Talk turns to our next trip, we'll surely have to ride the rest of that singletrack. And there are so many canyons that we haven't seen. And Hell's Revenge still beckons. Maybe next time we won't come in June.
Moab Day 5: Steelbender
Since some of us have to leave Moab today and all of the bikes have to go, we are looking for a ride that is easy and close. Yeah, we choose Steelbender. Close? Yes. Easy? Not so much.
The Spanish Valley runs roughly North South with Arches National Park and Moab at the top, giant red rock cliffs to the west, and gentler mesas to the east. We've always wondered if there are trails on the east mesas, other than the Sand Flats area to the north. A little world wide interweb time last night yielded one option: Steelbender trail --also known as Flat Pass. You can enter Steelbender from the south near Ken's Lake (reservoir for Moab) or north near the golf course. We went south. This route allows you to ride the lower spur of Steelbender which is tough and exciting. Then, if you don't get lost (like we did), you can ride three quarters of the main loop and shoot out of beautiful Flat Pass near million-dollar homes.
I'm not sure who named this trail, but I can imagine after four or five hours out there in a jeep or on an ATV, you would have some bent steel. And aluminum. And cracked plastic. It's rocky, dusty, and steep yet incredibly enjoyable. There are wet creek crossings, dry riverbeds, some slickrock and rock walls so high and craggy you wonder how anyone makes it to the top.
So here's the thing about riding in the desert. This morning during prep, we all let down our guard. Since we are only going for a partial day, not far from home base, we don't take as much water, food, and spare parts. Some of us forget sunscreen. The next thing you know, we're kinda lost, low on water and we get a flat front tire. No big deal, we've got a spare tube. Then we get another flat front tire. Guess what? No more front tubes. Patch kit? Yes, but it doesn't hold. So now we've got one guy riding in with a flat front. And this stuff is brutal. We make it safely and still have a blast, but lesson learned.
The ride out the pass is gorgeous. One moment we are in desert highlands, the next a green valley, then a rocky pass and finally Moab 90210. While loading the trailer, we talk again of our next trip. Colorado someday? Idaho? Who knows for sure, but I'm putting my money on Utah.