Source: Kat Popma
This past spring my husband and I made the impromptu decision to take a coveted week off of work and road trip to Utah. Neither of us had been there before, but we had heard enough stories to peak our interest about little place called Moab, a desert town a few hours south of Salt Lake City. What makes Moab such an amazing destination is its terrain. The distinctive red rock is recognizable in countless well-known mountain bike photos. Set in between two National Parks, the town is surrounded by bright red, iron-rich sandstone carved into smooth, intricate shapes by the sometimes ferocious winds. The rock, like a fine-grain sandpaper, provides unbelievable traction and gives tires, feet and finger-tips an uncanny ability to climb (and descend) otherwise treacherous rock faces. Whole story inside
The one downfall we had heard about Moab was that it's mainly for cross-country riders on light cross-country bikes. We ride 8-inch travel downhill bikes (I ride a Devinci Wilson and my husband rides a Yeti ASX) and shuttle the majority of our rides. I wouldn’t say we’re lazy. I’ll ride my DH bike up if I know there’s a great downhill to be had. But if I have the choice between shuttling up for five runs or busting my butt for an hour for a single run well, it’s a no-brainer. In the end we said screw it, and packed up our DH bikes. We did however invest in a pair of XC lids.
It took us about 20hrs to reach Moab from our home in the Fraser Valley. We arrived at noon on Sunday and jumped right into our riding gear. The most well-known trail in Moab is called Slickrock. It's an all-day epic ride across slick-rock (that fine-grain sandpaper I was talking about) which is spray painted with white dotted lines and arrows. As there is no dirt and no trees to help mark a trail, the dotted lines are essential for not losing your way or riding off of cliffs (a very serious possibility). We didn’t have time to do Slickrock in its entirety, so we took off on the practice loop. What a wake-up call! The loop wasn’t even an hour long and I was ready to throw my big bike off a precipice and walk home. The long wheel-base and dual crown forks on my bike did not allow me to make the tight turns and abrupt hill climbs that appeared frequently on the trail. Ryan, with his frustratingly calm demeanor, was having no trouble on his heavier sprung set up and suggested that I rent a bike for the rest of the week, if it would stop my whining. This triggered one complex or another of mine and I reached deep within to leave him behind in the dust the rest of ride!
Whether it was to restore our relationship with a little fun or if it was just Ryan being a redneck, he told me after our ride that we couldn’t go to Moab and not go wheeling. On the way to Slickrock there’s a mini 4x4 route appropriately named “Baby Lion’s Back”. (Google “Lion’s Back”.) Ryan just had to test it out. I got out on the pretense of being the “photographer” although I’m sure Ryan knew I was just plain old chicken! In our stock Toyota, we headed up and over the back. The rock was so sticky that our tires chirped their way up the steep climbs that I could barely get up on all fours!
With me in a bit better of a mood, we went the local bike shops and chatted with every rider we could about which trails to ride and whether or not it would be worth it to rent an XC bike for the week. Most people chuckled when they heard I took a DH bike on Slickrock, it's one of the most technically challenging XC trails in terms of climbing (not in terms of general riding). We ended up buying a map and highlighting various trail suggestions for the rest of the week.
At the top of everyone’s list was Porcupine Rim trail. It’s THE downhill trail of Moab*
. For $20 per person you can take a shuttle to various drop-off points on the trail. In the late summer/fall you can go right up into alpine meadows of the La Sal mountains for the most scenic downhill trail you could ever imagine (or so I’ve heard). Being May, the upper drop-offs were still under snow. From where we were dropped we took close to 4 hours to get back to town (taking our time and stopping for breaks and pictures). The trail was a combination flowy single-track, narrow 4x4 roads and surprisingly technical descents that would give “Goat’s Gully” a run for its money. It was amazing!
Ryan was done by the time we got back, but I was itching for more flow. We compromised. On the map there was a trail called Gemini Bridges that was both a bike trail and 4x4 trail. It had various warnings for wheelers and bikers about technical descents and had the same trail difficulty rating as Slickrock. Having seen a 4x4 “technical descent” I thought it might be fun. It was. Well, I should say that my mother would have loved it. There was great geography and views, the actual bridges were amazing, but Ryan ended up following me ride down a gravel/dirt road for close to two hours. Not exactly my definition of technical descent, especially compared to Slickrock’s technical ascents.
Day three and our goal was Portal Trail. Described as death-defying, Portal Trail apparently follows a narrow trail hundreds of feet above the highway and river below. I was told that there are mandatory walks as people have literally fallen to their deaths trying to ride the whole thing. After the “technical” Gemini Bridges, I was feeling confident. However, to get to Portal Trail you have to ride up Poison Spider Mesa, another bike/4x4 trail. It was surprisingly fun. It’s a combination of road and slickrock with some technical climbing.
We passed a group of semi-elderly jeepers going up. At first I thought it was so cute that Grandma and Grandpa were still being active together in a low-impact sport like 4x4ing. Then I saw what they were climbing… Their jeeps were almost flipping over backwards and sideways as they climbed four-foot high vertical rock ledges. Grandpa was driving with his tucked-in polo shirt and wrap around sunglasses and Granny was in the passenger seat with holding the little pocket pooch and giving Grandpa detailed instructions.
I’m not sure the best way to make our longest story short, so here it is. We passed the Jeepers, rode another 3 hours, met back up with the Jeepers (odd since we were all traveling to the same location), realized we were lost and out of water (the kind Jeepers gave us extra water bottles), rode another hour before giving up on Portal trail, turned back, ran into one of the Jeepers who had lost a wheel, helped fix it for an hour and finally, sun-burned and dehydrated, returned to our truck after seven hours. Our happy ending- the broken down jeeper, Frank, invited us over to his campground for beers afterwards. Turned out Frank’s “campground” was a chromed out Greyhound with matching chrome trailer for his $70G Jeep all sitting on top of a landscaped RV pad. Ironically, he gave us Costco brand beer… I thought it was a good lesson in smart money management.
We spent most of our week riding our mountain bikes, but also found time to visit Arches National Park for a day. By the end of the week we were exhausted. On any given day we spent 5-7 hours biking or hiking in the 35 degree Celsius desert heat. Shade was limited to sparse bushes. Our only reprieve from the heat was the same wind that had carved the rock into the arches, bridges and rolling knolls around us. Sunburned and saddle-sore, we shuttle loving down-hillers were ready to head home. A quick stop at Mt. St. Helens made our trip complete. *
We’ve found out since then that there are apparently lots more downhill trails in Moab. We hit the Sovereign trail system, which was awesome but still more of a cross-country ride. Where the others are, I don’t know…
Ryan and Kat's recommendations for DH'ers itching to hit Moab
: A 4-6inch light dual suspension. Don’t bring a hard tail. The rock is unforgiving on the rear end! Helmet
: Cross-country helmet. Even for Porcupine Rim it wasn’t necessary to have a full-face in my humble opinion. All the trails make you “pay to play”. Gear
: The most important piece of gear was a hydration pack. I filled my 2L bladder and brought an extra bottle with electrolyte drink crystals. On our 7 hour epic, even that was gone. I brought knee-pads, but didn’t wear them at all. The only armor I wore was a helmet and light gloves. Where to stay
: We stayed at Slickrock Campground and rented a cheap cabin. It was basically just a bed in a shed with a communal washroom. However, it did have a pool and a hot tub. Both of which we used everyday. There are lots of campgrounds with this option. We liked the confidence of being able to lock our bikes up in a cabin if we went out instead of in the back of our truck or beside our tent. Vehicle
: You don’t need a 4x4 to access any of the trails, but bringing one sure was fun! There are shuttles available from at least two of the local shops. Trails
: Alright, we can’t give the best advice here, but we did learn from our mistakes…Slickrock
: If you’re an XC buff or even an all-mountain junkie, don’t miss Slickrock. The landscape was beautiful. If I had been on a smaller bike, I would have really enjoyed it. Porcupine Rim (and above)
: Don’t miss. I don’t care who you are. Don’t miss this one! If you’re on a 4inch bike you may have to walk two 15-20 foot sections. That’s it though. Do it. Poison Spider Mesa to Portal
: Take a map (and if you’re like us, a GPS). I still want to hit Portal, just to see it. However, it can be easy to head off track with this one as a number of 4x4 tracks are marked with the same dotted lines as the mountain bike tracks. Most people find their way. The ride up Poison Spider is a huff, but even on our DH bikes we enjoyed it (the first four hours at least). Sovereign Trail System
: Great all-mountain/XC. The climbs are gradual and are very flowy. Gemini Bridges
: Just drive out to see the bridges between rides.