Photo & Words: Tory Powers
Riders: Kaylee Gibbs, Ryan Rodriguez, Chelsea Kimball
Our biological instinct to want to explore is something that is rooted deep within us - something that the trail builders of the Greater Zion area in Southwestern Utah made sure to implore in their construction of this entire area. Every trail feels like an adventure as unique terrain and breathtaking views are implemented in every inch of Greater Zion, just 170 miles northeast from McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.
I’ve spent the last four years traveling to the Greater Zion area for Red Bull Rampage to shoot some of the world’s best freeride mountain bike athletes, only to hear stories about the world-class cycling that lay above me, atop the mesas. I finally had the chance to take an in-depth look at the terrain that would change the way I view Utah mountain biking forever.
We may have been pretty ambitious with all of the riding we wanted to get done over our three-day trip, but it is possible. However, give yourself at least a couple extra days if you want the full experience of Greater Zion riding.
Our first day began exploring the southern mesas above Virgin, the home turf of Red Bull Rampage and Rockville, both home to some classic riding. Grafton was an obvious first choice. Not only is Grafton entirely shuttle-able (either via 4x4 from Rockville or a longer, smoother back route out of Hurricane), but it encompasses some of the most diverse riding in the area. Grafton is most well known for the trail “Grafton Mesa” which ends near the infamous Grafton Road Gap, but it’s not just double black riding here.
Up top you’re gifted with full 360-degree views on Dig It. Nothing beats morning light hitting Zion National Park in the distance. Dig It, while being a black trail, has multiple line options as well as roll arounds for some of the bigger features. If you’re wanting to push yourself a bit, or maybe just take a look from afar, this zone would be great for you. A lot of the riding in Greater Zion sits on top of these mesas, but they're more than just quick ups and downs.
After making your way north across the mesa, you’ll find yourself at the infamous Grafton Mesa overlook.
What you can see below you might make you really stoked... or really nervous. This trail is rated a double black and it’s that way for all of the right reasons. Look ahead and you see big, sharp rocks that are mandatory hits, look to your right and you see 100-foot cliffs, dwelling a mere 10 feet or less to your side.
This trail is no joke... a downhill-only trail covering 720 feet of descent over just one mile.
Once you reach the Grafton Ghost Town and cemetery, you know your technical riding can finally come to a close. Grafton Mesa mountain biking trails
Make sure to take the drive up to Springdale, the entrance to Zion National Park, for some outstanding food. We grabbed Ryan not one, but two, nitro cold brews from Deep Creek Coffee Co. before making the ridiculously long trek across the street to a local favorite, Oscar’s. I cannot express with words how satisfied I was with their food. I was instantly sold on their Pork Philly that’s slow roasted for eight hours. Eight hours, guys. If there’s anything in this article you want to fully believe the hype on, trust me.
I was thankful December in Greater Zion is temperate, because a bunch of pork maybe isn't the best thing to eat before riding. Up next we headed back up the 4x4 road to get to Gooseberry Mesa. Gooseberry lies just west of Grafton and is actually completely connected via singletrack (albeit ten miles, but thankfully only 265ft of elevation gain), if you’re feeling frisky.
Gooseberry is another must if you’re in the area. This is the zone I had heard the most cyclists in the area mention when I asked about the Greater Zion trails. We quickly made our way out to the west end of Gooseberry, which is also where you’ll find the most ultimate viewpoints.
Gooseberry, while similar in style to how the slickrock trails of Moab are designed, felt extremely unique. There was a lot of flow through the rocky zones while also keeping things fast with intermittent singletrack and hard pack. The west side felt like a playground with a near infinite amount of lines through some areas and with some of the most stunning views.
While we didn’t get a chance to ride every trail in the area, we did take a look at North + South Rim, as well as Hidden Canyon, my personal favorite. As we were returning to our car, we took Hidden Canyon as a bit of a shortcut, and I can’t tell you how incredibly excited I was to ride that trail. Unfortunately, the sun was setting quickly as we powered through, but this area felt otherworldly with multiple deep-rock cutouts and trail meandering under millions of years of history. Gooseberry Mesa mountain biking trails
For day two, we took a short trip down to St. George to check out what our friends down south had for us to see. We started our morning at the Snake Hollow Bike Park which has over 80 acres of terrain and is the only year-round bike park in all of Utah. I think those details speak for themselves.
Nestled up against the iconic red rocks, Snake Hollow has multiple dirt jump lines, slopestyle, and pumptracks. But to me, what was really unique compared to all of the bike parks I grew up riding around Colorado was their inclusion of flow lines. Their slopestyle area also has rhythm sections and lines built similar to dual slalom tracks which kept things feeling very interesting. On top of all of that, there was an entire back section with a smaller skills park that’s perfect for the whole family.
After lunch, we had to go see for ourselves if the trails of St. George compared to the amazing riding we had seen the day prior. In the Green Valley area, we began on Bearclaw Poppy, which had what I would call the “freeride Jr.” zone known as “Five Fingers.” This was pretty cool to see in a public access zone, one main drop point led to five or more lines with varying difficulties.
If you continue along past Five Fingers, you get some very moderate green pedaling. Next, we hopped on the Barrel blue connector to ride the lower section of Barrel also known as “Playground.” We saw some local kids riding this zone, likely because of the freedom of line choice, as well as incrementally larger hits. Lots of natural and man-made hits made this section ridiculously fun. Up higher on Barrel, which we didn’t have time to see, is some really technical rocky terrain that a lot of local pros ride consistently for training.
We saved the best for last - the Zen Trail. The Zen Loop is a six-mile ride with just over one thousand feet of vert. If you ride counter-clockwise like we did, you get a pretty painful climb up to the edge of the mesa, but it is absolutely worth it.
As you approach the cliffside, you’re instantly greeted by massive slickrock and towering boulders.
This trail had a lot more old-school tech riding than Grafton and Gooseberry, and also more fast, flowy, continuous riding. If you want a ride that feels more like a mountain bike ride and less playful, that’s what St. George can offer you. Green Valley mountain biking trails
Our final day was spent back at higher elevation, and this time just across the valley from our first day on Grafton and Gooseberry. We began our morning over on Guacamole, just north of Virgin. Guacamole has a very similar style of terrain to Gooseberry with countless pillow slickrocks and moderate elevation.
You can link up 22 miles of unique riding or take extra laps around one of the many loops. You begin on Margarita, a nice mellow blue pedal over slick rock as far as the eye can see. It can get a bit tricky to follow sometimes, but just keep an eye out for one of the many cairns. All along the way approaching Guacamole and Holy Guacamole, the two back loops, you’re riding along the base of Crater Hill, a dormant volcano from nearly 120,000 years ago, as well as the classic view of Zion in the background.
As you approach Guacamole, you ride through burnt trees and tall grass with the sight of large slickrock just over your horizon.
Here, the first big loop starts, so pick your poison as you make your way back to why you really came, Holy Guacamole. You’ll meander through terrain very similar to Gooseberry all along the remainder of Margarita. Shortly after hopping onto Holy Guacamole, if you’re going counter-clockwise, you will find yourself surrounded by petrified wood, some of it is even showing itself in the trail down the way.
Were you sick of valley overlooks atop of mesas yet? Good, we aren’t either. You’re bound to find at least one of these on nearly every trail you ride in Greater Zion, and the view never gets old. Guacamole mountain biking trails
For our final leg of riding here in Utah, we headed back across the valley one last time to see Wire Mesa. The farthest east of the trail systems we experienced in Greater Zion, Wire Mesa had the most stunning views of Zion.
Wire is, overall, a very mellow ride, a seven-mile blue trail atop the mesa with only about 550 feet of elevation change. You won’t be bored though because the mix of alternate black routes and fast, hardpacked sections make this trail a grand old time.
Plus, making it out to the “Diving Board” is a spectacle in and of itself. We made sure to time our sunset with landing here, which made for a dark ride out, but it was well worth it. One last 360-degree view to close out our trip with a perfect cotton candy sunset and the castle rocks towering above us, even from afar. Wire Mesa mountain biking trails
Greater Zion may have earned a lot of its fame from Red Bull Rampage and being known as the freeride capital of the world, but I can promise you, that is merely scratching the surface of what there is to find across the many mesas. Come here not only to experience Zion National Park, but bring your bike and be sure to ride anything and everything. I guarantee it'll be as memorable for you as it was for us.
Local Knowledge- Getting There:
• Fly into the St. George Regional Airport
(SGU) with daily connections from Salt Lake City on Delta, Denver on United and Phoenix on American; (Dallas-Fort Worth seasonally beginning in March)
• Drive – Greater Zion is just off Interstate 15. Just 90 minutes north of Las Vegas and four hours
south of Salt Lake City. - The Climate (not like the rest of Utah!)
• Climate can change drastically during the year and throughout the day and depending on what
elevation you are at.
• Winters are mild with highs in the 50s or 60s, great for all outdoor adventures. Chilly in the
evening and early morning, but nothing layers can’t handle.
• Summers the temperatures range from the 80s-90s with some days reaching upwards of 100
• Expect dry heat and come prepared with plenty of water.- The Wildlife:
Greater Zion is the only place on the planet where the Mojave Desert, the Colorado Plateau and the Great Basin merge. With this diverse landscape comes many types of wildlife and plant species. Most wildlife is elusive, but you may occasionally, on mountain bike trails and public lands, encounter the protected desert tortoise, coyotes, kit foxes, quail, roadrunners (meep meep!), leopard lizards, gopher snakes and canyon tree frogs. Vegetation includes desert-adapted species such as creosote bush, narrow leaf yucca, sand sage, blackbrush, scrub oak and desert willow.- Bike shops and repairs:
• Bicycles Unlimited
• Bike Fix Utah
• IBBC Cyclery & Multisport
• Over the Edge Sports
• Rapid Cycling
• Red Coyote Cyclery
• Red Rock Bicycle
• Zion Cycles
See full list here
.- Guiding and shuttle services:
• Bike Zion
• Mountain Bike Buddies
• Paragon Adventure
• Red Coyote Cyclery
• Ride On
• Utah Mountain Bike Tours
• Utah Mountain Biking Adventures
• Zion Cycles- Food and Drink:
See full list here
• Pig’s Ear American Bistro – beautiful dishes and beautiful views with a wide variety of choices including many for the health-conscious individual and the not-so-health conscious individual. Lunch and dinner.
• Lonny Boy’s BBQ – rustic joint with all the barbeque favorites. Lunch and dinner.
• Main Street Cafe - Cozy, vibrant cafe offering wide-ranging & vegan-friendly American dishes, plus a shaded patio. Breakfast, lunch and dinner.
• Muddy Bees Bakery - Baked breads and healthy options, also licensed beekeepers with local, flower-fed, non-medicated honey available for sale. Breakfast and lunch.La Verkin
• River Rock Roasting Company – A local’s favorite, River Rock offers some of the best coffee around, pastries, hot breakfast items and amazing views over the Virgin River Gorge. Enjoy a pizza, burger or salad and beer with a view later in the day! Breakfast, lunch and dinner.
• Stage Coach Grille - Charming, wood-filled mainstay with a nostalgic vibe, turning out elevated American classics. Breakfast, lunch and dinner.Springdale
• Oscar’s Café – A local favorite, Oscar’s serves casual Mexican, burgers, and vegetarian fare. Breakfast, lunch and dinner.
• Camp Outpost Company – Recently opened, this American dining experience serves quality, rotisserie-driven comfort food. Located in the Desert Pearl Inn with ample outdoor seating in a nostalgic, camp-like setting. Breakfast, lunch and dinner.
• Bit & Spur Restaurant & Saloon – A popular cantina for contemporary Mexican and southwestern fare plus a robust selection of craft beers. Dinner.
• King’s Landing Bistro – a classic American restaurant with great views and full bar. Dinner.
• Switchback Grille - Contemporary restaurant offering mountain views through large windows and a menu of steak, seafood & wine. Dinner.Virgin
• The Cactus Room Restaurant - Don’t judge a book by its cover, this souvenir shop/restaurant is known for its bison and wagyu burgers and popular pies. Lunch and dinner.
• Balcony One – Upscale southwest barbeque in a rustic elegance, featuring steaks, salads, pasta, as well as a full bar. Lunch and dinner.St. George
• George’s Corner – great American fair (fried chicken is awesome) with a peek into the past – the restaurant is decorated with images of the region’s history. Breakfast, lunch and dinner.
• Benja’s Thai & Sushi – Select from some of the best Asian food in St. George. Lunch and dinner.
• Station II by Zion Brewery - Sample beer at the recently opened Station II Bar by Zion Brewery. The restored 1918 firehouse features a taproom, lounge, patio and billiards room. Outside food and beverage is welcome – even grab a pizza or pasta from The Pizza/Pasta Factory across the street before you hit the bar. (Open after 4 p.m. daily.)
• Cliffside Restaurant – dinner or lunch with a view, overlooking the city and all the way out to the peaks of Zion. Upscale, but comfortable, dining.
• Wood. Ash. Rye. – high-end small plates and craft cocktails in The Advenire hotel in downtown St. George. Breakfast, lunch and dinner.
• Red Fort Indian Cuisine – rated THE top restaurant in St. Georg for several years running. Authentic cuisine and setting. Lunch and dinner.
• Angelica’s Mexican Grill – If you love street tacos, this is the place in downtown St. George. Delicious meat choices and a salsa bar which is a small marvel. Lunch and dinner.Curated Lists of Favorites Across Greater Zion:
• Places to Enjoy a Drink
• Hot Chocolate Offerings
– warm up after a cooler day of mountain biking
• Uniquely Greater Zion
• Coffee Shops- Must Dos:
• Snow Canyon State Park
– Miles of hiking and views for days – and made famous by movies like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” – with slot canyons, arches, pioneer routes, lava tubes, and petrified sand dunes.
• Tuacahn Center for the Arts
– Broadway-style shows in the summer; concerts and performances across the other seasons; plus a Saturday market.
• Quail Creek State Park
– Paddleboarding, kayaking boating, swimming, camping
• Sand Hollow State Park
– OHV on Sand Mountain, paddleboarding, kayaking, boating, jet skiing
• Via Ferrata
-- Combine scaling the steep face of gorgeous canyon walls with the security of iron- rung ladders and safety cables – one of the only places in this country that has this quest.
• Zion National Park after dark
to observe the dark sky (certified International Dark Sky Park)