By Molly Absolon
Mountain Biking in the Four Corners
For years, the town of Moab, UT, has been synonymous with world-class mountain biking. Known for its slickrock riding and spectacular scenery, Moab attracts bikers eager to test their skills and experience the magic of riding over petrified sand dunes painted in hues of pink, salmon, red and cream.
But Moab is no longer the only place to ride in the West, especially in the Four Corners Region where mountain biking has taken off over the past 20 years. Bikers now have a variety of destinations to choose from depending on whether they are looking for buffed-out trails or rugged technical challenges; subalpine forests or redrock mazes; a guided trip or a personal mountain bike adventure. All these options and more can be found within an easy day's drive of Grand Canyon National Park.
One of my favorite trips in that area is to ride from Bryce Canyon to Zion, says Jen Lamb, who guided for Western Spirit cycling adventures for a number of years. You get a little bit of everything: red rocks, ponderosa pines and aspens, singletrack riding, some dirt roads, and technical challenges as well. Plus the scenery is magnificent.
Western Spirits' Bryce to Zion tour links together a series of trail systems that can be ridden with or without a guide. The first day on the itinerary takes bikers through Casto Canyon, which is known for its singletrack and colorful rock formations. Rides also take place on the Virgin River RimTrail that runs high along the edge of the Markagunt Plateau and offers swooping ups and downs and spectacular views of the distant walls of Zion. Another day takes riders to the Thunder Mountain Trail, which follows a series of knife-edged ridges through the 43 million-year old Clarion Formation, an iron-rich layer of limey rock that has weathered into the same whimsical pink hoodoo towers that make nearby Bryce Canyon so famous.
The Thunder Mountain trail is just pure fun, Lamb says. The trail is smooth and fast, and riders can let loose a little bit without fear of encountering unexpected technical drops, cobbles or sand.
The area near Bryce also includes Brian Head Resort, whose owners have developed miles of singletrack mountain bike trails, and now offer shuttle service and lift access to exciting downhill riding. Finally, just outside of Zion National Park, a group of local cyclists have created more than 20 miles of trails on Gooseberry Mesa. This area draws rave reviews from bikers who say the mesa has some of the best riding they?ve experienced anywhere. Period.
Gooseberry Mesa is mostly singletrack and includes some technical slickrock as well as smooth sections through ponderosa, juniper, pinyon pine and manzanita. It's fun riding and offers enough challenge for riders of all abilities, Lamb says. Plus the backdrop is made up of the towering sandstone walls of Zion, a view that really can't be beat, especially at sunset.
Gooseberry Mesa has a 3 percent incline, barely noticeable to the naked eye, but significant for riders who recommend cycling to the end of the mesa on the main trail, and returning by the more technical spurs so the hard parts are usually drops rather than climbs. But even the most beginner riders will enjoy the simple out and back to the mesa's terminus, where the point narrows into 17-foot wide peninsula that juts out above precipitous drops of more than 200 feet on three sides.
For mountain bike riders who are south of the Grand Canyon, Sedona, AZ, has seen extensive trail development over the past few years and now boasts of many miles of singletrack riding close to town. Known for being uncrowded, fast and scenic, Sedona's trails are mostly flat with just enough technical slickrock to keep riders challenged. Plus Sedona is a tourist destination with plenty of restaurants, bars, galleries and coffee shops to keep you entertained between rides.
The best season for riding in the canyon country is spring and fall. Even winter can have comfortable riding temperatures, but be prepared for some weather days, as it can rain or snow here making cycling unadvisable. In the summer, when temperatures soar above 100 degrees, most mountain bikers head to the high country. The area around Bryce stays rideable throughout the summer. The other option is to head east to Durango, CO, a community that is vying for the title of mountain bike capital of the world.
Durango is full of outdoor recreationalists of all types: every car seems to sport a bike or boat rack, and spandex bike shorts are common attire in the town's coffee shops. Durango is home to a number of world-class bikers, including Missy Giove, Juli Furtado, Greg Herbold, Lisa Muhich, and Ned Overend, and it hosted the first-ever World Mountain Bike Championships in 1990. Since that time, the riding around the town has only gotten better.
Trails wind up and around the mountains, and through the conifer and oak forests. One route, the Colorado Trail extends for 470 miles to Denver. Most of the riding is more local, however, with the Hermosa Creek Trail being touted as one of the best mountain bike trails in America by its fans. Rideable by competent novices, Hermosa Creek also provides plenty of fun and adventure for experienced bikers as well. The hardcore often opt for an out-and-back, but most mortals shuttle their bikes to the far end of the trail and end up with 20 miles of smooth sailing, mostly downhill, back toward Durango. Mountain bikers can also use the lifts at Purgatory Ski area to provide quick access to trails for relatively little expense.
It's easy to surf the Internet to find out more about mountain bike riding at Brian Head, near Bryce and Zion, on Gooseberry Mesa, or around Durango and Sedona. A number of commercial outfitters, including Spirit of the West, offer guided trips throughout the Four Corners Region, but you can also put together your own mountain bike adventure with the help of guidebooks, local beta from bike shops, and a good map.
As always, be prepared when you leave your vehicle. You'll need water, food, a basic repair kit, and an extra layer so you are self sufficient in the event of a flat or just a long hot day on the trail. Happy riding!
Road Biking / Cycling in the Four Corners
With its wide range of elevations, varied topography, world-class scenery, and a number of low-traffic routes to explore, the Four Corners region is a coveted riding destination for road bikers. The area's roads connect alpine meadows to deep canyons; they traverse long stretches of pinyon pine and juniper forests before ducking down into the naked landscape of rock and dirt found along the desert floor. You can ride mountain passes or spin your way over long relatively flat cruises. There's enough riding and enough variety to keep you happy for days or even weeks.
Some of the area classics include the 50-mile ride from Durango, CO, up over two 10,000-foot passes to the old mining town of Silverton; a 44-mile one-way ride from Jacob Lake to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon that has been called one of the seven wonders of the cycling world; a 46-mile loop around the Sunset Crater near Flagstaff; 60 miles of rolling hills leading from Durango to a hot soak in Pagossa Springs; or a 54-mile ride from the Grand Canyon to Cameron, AZ, that features a 20-mile downhill screamer. All the rides merit superlatives when it comes to scenery, challenge, road surface, and enjoyment.
Many of these routes can be patched together simply by looking at a highway map, but it's always advisable to check in at a local bike shop or to peruse the web to learn where you can expect traffic or rough roads, where the shoulders peter out, and where you can stop for food and water along the way. You can also stop by bike shops in Durango, Flagstaff or Tucson for advice.