Back before I was an XC racer; back when Enduro wasn’t called that yet, I was a trail rider first and foremost. I guided mountain biking in the Alps for a summer, wore baggy clothes, and arrived in Colorado with the notion that one’s seat should be dropped to go downhill. It was Boulder’s incessant race scene that changed me. It’s been almost five years since I last owned a trail bike, but the itch couldn’t wait any longer, and I put down an order for a Scott Genius. While I’d hoped it would arrive in time for the trip to Moab, it didn’t quite make it, and instead I borrowed the shop demo from Boulder Cycle Sport to give me a tantalising taste of what I have in store when I pick mine up.
We broke up the drive to the desert with an overnight in Edwards at Christa’s parents house, then made our way to the Slickrock campground above Moab on Friday morning. I love the drive along the Colorado river. There’s a point just after you cross the river that the La Sal Mountains are visible in the same frame as the huge spires of Castle Valley. It’s magnificent. The La Sals have benefited from the El Niño weather patterns this year, and they were solidly coated in snow, down to about 8000 feet (Moab itself is at 3500 feet). The extra snow made the normally breathtaking views even better.
We started the weekend with a late afternoon ride on the Amasa back trail system. I’ve ridden here almost every time I’ve been to Moab. I love the trails, including the jeep road with its rock ledges and step ups. This was the first time I’d ridden up the Hymasa trail. It’s a singletrack route that follows the road, but it doesn’t have the same rocky features, which makes it a bit easier. We got to the top after seeing only a couple of other people of the trails. A stark contrast to the chaos I was expecting. Moab in the Spring can be really busy, as the snowstorms in Colorado push so many people into the desert. On top of that, it was “Jeep Week”, the annual gathering of rock crawlers that also call Moab their playground.
We had perfect afternoon light by the time we got to the overlook at the top of the Hymasa trail. After a flat fix (one of those mysterious punctures that happen as the bike is lying idle on the ground) we hit the trail again. Christa had ridden Ahab once before, but it was the first time for Erika (Christa’s sister). She coped really well, and got down all but a couple sections. Definitely promising for the weekend of riding. I got to the bottom of the trail and flatted, as did James Sullivan, so our short afternoon ride ended up being longer than we wanted. We drove back to the campsite and set about consuming beer and doing campsite kind of things. Like eating burgers.
Choosing between shuttling to the top of Porcupine Rim, or shuttling the Magnificent 7 trail system, we chose the latter. I thought Porcupine would be busier, plus Mag 7 gave us more options for extending or shortening the day as we felt we needed. We drove up highway 313 on the way to Canyonlands. The views get bigger the further west you drive in Utah. The Henry Mountains, that snowy enigma on the skyline shoot upwards, almost beckoning you to explore the state further; stopping you from settling on what’s right in front. The highway turns south and follows a high ridge to the turn off on Gemini Bridges road. That’s where we started the day. It was chilly up this high. A bitter northerly wind was mixing with the warmer air, making for a cold start. I borrowed James’ rain jacket, and then we hit Getaway trail as the first of the seven trails. The first few trails blend into each other seamlessly. High desert riding across a mix of sandy washes, sandstone slabs, and occasional rooty sections from the hardy pinion pines. We got to Gemini Bridge within 30 minutes, stopped to look at the arch for a quick minute, then kept the flow going. We were a five-person group. Pretty big for desert riding. I was worried that we’d suffer from the same problem as yesterday; small mechanicals holding up the group, but we didn’t. We flowed down the trail. Christa and Erika exhibited text-book sibling rivalry to keep up with Bryan and I. Every time I looked back, they would have exchanged places behind me. It was fun to see, as they were both pushing the pace.
The trails head slowly downhill until you reach the bottom of the wash, where there’s a choice to exit to Gemini Bridges road, or keep climbing towards the top of Gold Bar Rim. No-one was quite done riding yet, so we all enjoyed the awesome slick rock climb to the overlook into little canyon. We had some food then split off, with Bryan and I heading to the top of Gold Bar Rim, and Christa, Erika and James going back from whence we’d come, staying on singletrack as long as possible before dropping onto jeep road back to the car.
Bryan knew what was about to happen as soon as everyone else turned off, and true to form I rode as hard as I could to the top of the climb. I felt pretty stupid doing it, but by the top my lungs were nicely singed and I felt satisfied for putting in a bit of an effort. From then on I could relax. Well, relax as much as the Gold Bar trail allows.
Gold Bar is my favourite trail in Moab. It doesn’t gain or lose much altitude, which makes it all the harder. From the ridge, the expansive views across the town of Moab to the La Sals fill you with the sense of being way out there. The melding of red rock into snow covered alpine forest seems close enough to touch, even though it’s tens of miles across the canyons. The whole trail gives you this false comfort – the highway into Moab is just a couple hundred feet to the east, but 1000 feet down, and would take hours to get there by bike. We were taking the most direct route, and trying our best to cover it at more than 5 mph. The trail takes in every rocky knoll on the ridge. Successive 15 second climbs, followed immediately by 4-5 foot drops onto the hard sandstone. Bryan generously gave me 3 free ‘dabs’ for being first wheel. I would probably have only given him one if he was leading. We ended the ride with me on 2 (actual) dabs and Bryan cleaning the whole thing. We’ll call it a draw this time.
We didn’t pause much at the top of the rim. Instead we rode straight onto the Portal Trail. Of all Moab trails, this one has the worse reputation. People have died riding it. A lot of people simply avoid it for the fact that it’s hard to get to, and there’s plenty of other trails to stay occupied with. But it’s the most magnificent of the Mag 7 trail network, and the best way back to the river. The scary section of trail that gets all the attention is actually really short – a couple hundred feet where there really is nothing off the edge of the trail but 1000 feet of empty space and then a tarmac road at the bottom. It would be wishful thinking that you’d miss the road and hit the river instead. Bryan and I got off and walked the scary stuff. There’s no single part of me that would want to attempt that rocky section of trail. No bravado or ego that would make me take that risk. For the most part, mountain biking exposes you to broken bones and shredded skin. That’s enough risk for me.
Once past the exposure, there’s a huge view across the valley, and then a short and steep trail back to the canyon below. It’s fast and rocky. Ceaseless drops and corners keep it interesting, all the while your hands are screaming and you can begin to smell your brakes. It’s over before you realise, and you join the people at the river’s edge, who had spent their day in a less calorie-intensive manner.
We cruised back along the road, then south into town on the bike path. We’d narrowly beaten James, Christa and Erika, so we settled into a sunny spot at Eddie McStiff’s, a vaguely Mexican restaurant in town. We were then joined by everyone else, were we proceeded to drink a couple pitchers of beer in short shrift, before heading back up the hill to the slickrock, the stars, and the expansive western views which capture my imagination every time the sun sets behind them for another night.
With just a morning left to play in the desert, we went north to Klondike Bluffs. Right up against Arches National Park, the trails loop through low windswept bluffs, not gaining or losing much in the way of elevation.
The result is that you do a lot of climbing and what feels like not much descending. It’s perfect XC terrain, taking concentration and power to navigate the continuously changing terrain. This trail network in particular is really popular with beginner riders, and it’s awesome to see so many families out riding their bikes and having a good time on the trails. We did plenty of stopping at intersections and chatting to friendly people, and I was really happy to get back to the car after seeing so many smiles.