The airplane bucked quite a bit with about 10 minutes of flight time remaining. The second of two flights that day, the first of which started in Philadelphia, saw me in the aisle seat of a tiny CRJ200 aircraft during a short hop from Phoenix, Arizona to St. George, Utah when the plane suddenly began to hit some moderate turbulence. I was somewhere in between sleeping, but not really sleeping
when this happened, and opened an eye to check the reactions of those around me. Many people were out cold, with their necks craned back and their mouths wide open, while others seemed intent on finishing their books, and still others were content with whatever was being transmitted to their brain through some oversized, noise canceling headphones. I noticed that a handful of people seemed to have their faces pressed up against the windows, and as I craned my head around the nice lady seated to my left by our row's window to have a look for myself, it became immediately clear what had a few of the passengers excited: we were flying directly over the heart of the Grand Canyon. I have been to the Grand Canyon once in my life, and it was as humbling an experience as I can remember; standing on the rim's edge will remind you of your place in this world in ways not much else can. I've flown over it quite a few times as well, but never flown over it at such a low altitude. The updrafts from the canyon and surrounding mountains might have jostled the plane a bit, but they reminded me that I was about to spend a week in a landscape unlike any elsewhere on the planet.
St. George occupies the southwest corner of the Beehive State and is the population center for Washington County in the heart of one of the planet's most stunning natural playgrounds. During the drive from the airport to my hotel in La Verkin 25 miles to the northeast, I was often distracted, and it had nothing to do with my cell phone. There is an almost surreal quality to the landscape in southwest Utah that will leave you in awe, regardless of what the sun might doing; which as it turned out, would be a decidedly fickle star throughout my week in the area.
Hurricane is home to just a fraction of the population of St. George, but provides access to much of the area's best trails.
La Verkin is adjacent to some of the area's rowdiest bits of riding, including Nephi's Twist, a freeride/downhill trail with easy access that is very shuttle friendly.
Washington County sits squarely on a rare and spectacular convergence of land along the meeting point of the Mojave Desert, the Colorado Plateau, and the Great Basin. There is much to take in in terms of the geology of this particular point on the planet, and my inner amateur-geo-nerd could have happily spent a week hunting for fossils, or ogling at the layers of sediment visible among the stunning rock features that abound, or even scrambling up and down the Basaltic lava flow formations that surround St. George. Fortunately I had my bike with me, and to be quite honest, was still only able to sample a small dose of the massive amount of trail on offer in and around the greater St. George region despite being in town for a week.
The diverse geological spread and vast amounts of open space mean that there is a staggering quantity of incredibly high-quality trails between St. George on the western edges of the riding region, to Virgin, 30 miles to the east. The freeride scene is alive and well here, and I'm not just talking about Red Bull's annual huckfest.
// Local FlavorsAge:
Philadelphia, PA, USAIndustry affiliations:
Pivot Cycles, Maxxis Tires, Stans No Tubes, Kali Protectives, MRP, Julbo, Deity Components, EVOC, Shimano, 9point8, TopeakInstagram: @bricyclesFavorite Trail in the Area:
Nephi's TwistRiding Style:
Huffing your way to the top of a stunning freeride trail is much easier when you know you have plenty of shuttle vehicles awaiting you in the neighborhood below.
St. George has Barrel Trail
, La Verkin Nephi's Twist
, and Virgin Flying Monkey
just to name a few. The Mesas offer up plenty of technical, XC oriented riding throughout the area, and while places like Moab and Sedona are more famous, southwest Utah has all of the world-class slick rock you could ask for. What's more, I couldn't find a single trail that didn't offer up some kind of impressive view, with the Hurricane Rim trail providing what, in my own estimation, might be one of the most scenic rides in North America, with views of the Mojave, Pine Valley Mountains, and Zion from a singular vantage point.
The value of this region extends well beyond the scope of mountain biking, as evidenced by the immense popularity of hiking, camping, off-roading, and other recreational pursuits so many engage in here. Much of Utah's open space, like other parts of the American West, is largely governed by the Bureau of Land Management, an agency formerly known for its "extraction management" and now largely responsible for access to outdoor adventure of many sorts. The relationship between mountain bikers and the BLM in this corner of Utah has been strong for decades, and that dynamic is perhaps the biggest factor behind the amazing array of riding opportunities you'll find here, and we have the Recreation Enhancement Act to thank for that.
"With the money we make at this office," Dave Kiel tells me from the St. George BLM field office. "The nice thing about the Recreation Enhancement Act is it can't be spent on anything other than recreation, and it can't be spent outside of this office, so that's our money. That's how we build new trails, that's how we build new trailheads, that's how we do everything. That's why recreation is really the driver here, because we're the only ones who have money."
Dave has been the Recreation Planner at the St. George BLM since 2004, and has been a mountain biker for nearly 3 decades. Dave hails from San Diego, but came to St. George after spending the better part of two decades working for the Forest Service in Juneau, Alaska. He explained to me the role of his BLM office, which compared to the millions of acres typically covered by these agencies, covers a scant 629,000 acres and whose boundary roughly corresponds with the entirety of Washington County.
The role of the BLM has been considerable in the legalizing of many trail networks that came into existence long before his arrival in St. George, and has in his time with the office profoundly affected the quality and quantity of riding opportunities available in this part of the country. When our conversation shifted towards the future for Washington County, my jaw hit the floor when Dave Kiel told me what was in store here.
"What we're right in the middle of right now," he says."Is a master plan for our transportation system, and it basically encompasses everything from full-size four-wheel drives right down to the hiking trails. The population has doubled since I moved here, and the use numbers are absolutely staggering, so we had to acknowledge that the current transportation system isn't big enough, and we need to have more. We sat down and we mapped it out, we received a bunch of requests, we produced loads of KMZ files, and we went through several versions of a plan. It took several months to get through it. But, what we're left with is a plan that will include 208 miles of singletrack to be built over the next 10 years."
The relationship between mountain bikers and the BLM is peachy for the moment, with the exception of the rogue trail here or there, which to be fair can be said for the vast majority of communities where mountain biking is such a prevailing force. The roots of the sport in this region are a bit more tangled, and a lot of the detangling came courtesy of Cimarron Chacon, owner of GRO Promotions, an event promotion, marketing, and trail design consultation company famous for the True Grit Epic and 25 Hours in Frog Hollow endurance races. She founded the Dixie Mountain Bike Trails Association in 2010, and prior to her self-employment, preceded Dave Kiel's role at the BLM as a landscape architect for the region. Cimarron was in graduate school at Utah State when she began to hear grumblings of discord among the BLM in St. George over rogue trails being built by mountain bikers in the area. She interviewed and was hired by the St. George field office right out of school and on her first day of employment was tasked with "figuring out this trail thing", as it was put to her.
"The first trail I assessed," she tells me over a beer in her living room. "Was the Bear Claw Poppy Trail
it was an editing project. It was a mishmash of cow trails and all sorts of crazy stuff that mountain bikers were just going all over the sensitive habitat. We got a group together and picked the best route, and to this day it can put a smile on your face whether you're 7 or 70."
In her time with the BLM, Cimarron helped to grandfather in formerly rogue trail networks such as Gooseberry Mesa
and the Jem Trails
, provided the environmental assessment for the first ever Red Bull Rampage and helped to get that event off of the ground, and left her post at the St. George office with funding, a trail crew, and two people to manage the responsibilities she was handling on her own in the form of Dave Kiel and his wife Lynn, the current landscape architect. Cimarron spent some time in Tucson, Arizona following her time at the BLM before eventually moving back to St. George and forming her own company. She was made aware of the 10 year trail plan, and knew that there would be value in forming an organization of mountain bikers to comment on and provide input for the plan as opposed to operating as an individual, which is how the Dixie Mountain Bike Trails Association was formed. She stayed on as president while she and the DMBTA figured out the nuts and bolts of being a non-profit, and also made sure submissions for the travel management plan were submitted before stepping down and allowing Lukas Brinkerhoff to take over. DMBTA is now on its 3rd president, and while Cimarron has plenty on her plate with GRO Promotions, her involvement is very evident, as is her pride in the growth and maturation of the mountain bike community.
"I think what's really great," she continues. "Is that the mountain bike community is growing and it has become really dynamic. We used to just be a handful of people that just knew each other and rode together, but now we've got mesa riders, and racers, and families out riding together. You've got the high school mountain biking scene which is really big in Utah. All of these groups are really unique, but everybody gets along, and we have so many trails to ride. Despite all of the people who are here to ride, you can go out and have a trail all to yourself if you want. We're not a major city, so our mountain bike community really encompasses more than the St. George area. It includes people from Vegas, and Salt Lake City, and Cedar City. People head here throughout the year from those places, and they've just sort of expanded our little family."
Mountain biking has, in just a few short years, become a real commodity for St. George and the rest of southwest Utah. It has become more than just a tourism boon as well, although that is certainly an economic driver here. More than that, it is now recognized as a credit to the quality of life for locals. Ryan Gurr can speak to that with a great deal of authority. As the owner of Red Rock Bicycles, Ryan has seen firsthand the reciprocity that exists between mountain biking and community, with his own business seeing the kind of growth and development that quite frankly, I'd never expect to find at a bike shop. When Ryan purchased the store 10 years ago, the floor space was nominal, and the employee count was 5 in all. He now has upwards of 30 employees, including a marketing director, events coordinator, and several of the region's top bike mechanics, and the store appears to occupy half of a city block. The growth of Red Rock seems to parallel the growth of mountain biking in and around St. George, and while much of that success can be attributed to visitors to the region, Ryan credits the integration of cycling into the fabric of St. George's local culture.
"We're actually at a point," he says. "Where the city and the land management agencies are actually working together to make mountain biking better. The city sees it as a quality of life endeavor, as does the county, and they're actively working to improve facilities. One example would be this community trail called the Bear Claw Poppy Trail
, and it's literally right in the middle of a neighborhood. The city, the county, the BLM, and our state trust land are actually working together and have co-funded a project to build bathroom facilities, parking facilities, and garbage facilities at the trailhead. This level of cooperation has never been done in this town before. Every land agency used to just work on their own with no co-op, no thought of bathrooms, and certainly no thought of improving the non-trail aspect of the facilities. Now they're looking at it saying, We need to make these better. We need to make them feel more like parks.
The city and the county are building a bike park this winter, and they're both paying for it, and they're using it as a quality of life project. So yeah, everybody's into it right now."
No bad views from the Hurricane Rim trail.
Ryan Gurr and his shop Red Rock Bicycles juggle retail and advocacy roles for St. George.
If you come from a land of dark dirt and trees, following the trail on slickrock can be a challenge at times. The other side of the coin is that the grip is endless here.
Talented bike mechanics and baristas alike will keep you rolling along happy.
It might seem strange to hear that mountain biking wasn't instantly held in high regard by the any and everyone in and around Washington County, given the abundance of opportunities as well as the high profile nature of the people and trails here. I certainly found it to be a bit of a head scratcher. But that's just how it goes sometimes; mountain biking might not be underground, but it's still very niche and a bit nebulous to those who aren't participants. During our chat, Cimarron told me about her first trail assessment while working for the BLM, and the armed guards that accompanied her during her initial field visits. It seems that her bosses weren't sure just what they wanted to do with the trails at that point, and they also weren't sure how mountain bikers might respond. Like I said, nebulous to say the least.
It's safe to say that mountain biking has been demystified in Washington County since the days of armed guards at the trailhead, and that wouldn't be possible without the stewardship of many different people. Southwest Utah is a singular riding destination, but within the region are several pockets of sub communities who not only work to cultivate a strong mountain biking culture throughout the region, but also take ownership of the trails in their respective backyards. It's a logical and effective means of delegating responsibility that seems to keep progress moving throughout the area, as opposed to going after one singular objective after another. This is great news for locals and visitors alike, as the trail count and quality shows no signs of slowing anytime soon.
"Yeah, it's Southern Utah and it benefits everyone because there's more to ride." DJ Morisette notes. "It keeps people in the area for longer and it builds synergy so it's not like anybody competing against anyone in that matter at all."
DJ is the co-owner of Over the Edge Sports in Hurricane, alongside her husband Quentin. Their shop was the second of the famous chain of OTE chain of stores, and has been an integral component to life on and off of the bike in Hurricane. The couple's work in the region precedes their ownership of Over the Edge. DJ was the trail boss during construction of the Hurricane Rim Trail
, and their shop location was chosen due to its proximity to so many different trail networks. While their responsibilities at the shop certainly keep the parents and business owners busy, their work on the trail is seemingly never done, with the two of them leading the effort on an incredibly fun and technical network of non-BLM trails at Quail Creek State Park.
Being a parent is as good an excuse as any to pump the brakes on trail work and riding, as is being a business owner, especially when your business is mountain bikes in a mountain bike mecca. In spite of the many opportunities they have to pass on any number the abundance of roles they have assumed in the region, the enthusiasm for their work is palpable, and when I asked them pointedly what it is about this place that makes it so special in their eyes, their response came easily enough.
"I love the variety of the terrain." Quentin Morisette says without hesitating. "Whenever you have the chance to get out on the slick rock, you get to be as creative as he is you want. Up there on the mesas you always tell people that the only rule is don't make tracks in the dirt. But when you're on the rock, you can really get out and be creative and be in the flow and be in the moment."
DJ agrees. "The diverse riding here is amazing. If you want to get out and to see a beautiful landscape, you're going to see that. You're going to get both. You're going to get a fun ride and you can get beauty all around you, which is awesome. Whatever your skill level is, there are different lines you can take in which is awesome.
"It's southern Utah, and it's all here. It's awesome. It is nice to go on ride other places, but when you're busy sometimes you can't get away that far. Even when we do ride other places, to be honest, you're like 'Wow, we're really lucky, you know?'
I certainly know that there are a lot of really cool places to ride, but whenever we come back from a trip, we're just reminded of how good we have it here."
That they do. Interestingly enough, I left what had up until that point been a colder and snowier than average winter in the northeast for what I was hoping would be sunny and warm conditions in the Utah desert. In what some might have considered an ironic twist of fate, my week in Utah saw me leave behind spring-like conditions in southeastern Pennsylvania for what would prove to be the only week of "winter" Washington County locals had seen all year. Did it matter in the end? Not one bit. For me, it just contributed to an overwhelming sensory overload of sights, smells, and sounds, with dramatic weather rearing its head on occasion. But by and large, the not quite wintry week in St. George would have been considered prime autumn conditions by many others, myself included, and the imprint I'm leaving with is that of stunned reverence.
My flight out of St. George was early, and this time I made sure to grab a window seat to avoid any further neck craning. 10 minutes into the flight, the sun made its appearance just as the Grand Canyon was disappearing from view behind the plane. The plane bucked a little as I scrambled to grab my camera from my pack and shoot the scene below. For the record, I didn't need that
reminder of my departure from this stunning natural playground, but I appreciated it nonetheless.
Parents, business owners, stewards, purveyors of stoke; Quentin and DJ Morisette are commodities for the community of Hurricane, Utah.
Local KnowledgeTravel Information:
Please check out Greater Zion
for a comprehensive set of travel information.Bike Shops:
As you might imagine, there are a number of reputable bike shops in the region. Over the Edge in Hurricane
, and Red Rock Bicycle
in St. George are standouts.Favorite Eats:
If you're planning on spending most of your time in between Hurricane, La Verkin, and Virgin, you could and should do breakfast, lunch and dinner at River Rock Roasters. Their coffee is amazing, and they have a really tasty menu good for any time of day. St. George is the population center of southwest Utah, and therefore offers up the greatest selection and variety of dining and drinking options. I thoroughly enjoyed the espresso and snacks from the Affogato Food Truck parked in the Red Rock Bicycle lot. George's in Ancestor Square gets solid reviews as well. Utah is famously conservative when it comes to drinking and night life, so don't expect much of that while you're in town. You'll have to bring the party if that's what you're looking for.Area Digs:
I stayed in La Verkin during my time in the area at the La Quinta Inn. I was at the bottom of Nephi's Twist, 5 minutes from both Hurricane and Virgin, and another 25 to St. George. St. George offers up the most lodging options in the area, and an Airbnb search will yield dozens of options for you.Local Mountain Bike Club: The Dixie Mountain Bike Trails Association
have been at it here for a decade, and have fostered a great relationship with the area BLM.Brice's Key Tips:
1: First, I'll suggest using the St. George Regional Airport if you're flying in. Many people will fly into Vegas International, but it's a couple of hours from the area and is a massive airport, so getting in or out can take a while. SGU is tiny, which means that you can have your luggage and be on the road 10 minutes after your plane touches down, and on the trail an hour later.
2: Also, remember to hydrate. This is a year-round riding destination, and while the temps are fairly comfortable during the winter, there's not much in the way of moisture in the air here, and I made the mistake of ignoring hydration needs and suffered accordingly for a few days. Drink water. Oh, and stretch.
3: Finally, "Zen" trail is among many of the area's must-rides, just make sure you ride it counter clockwise. Trust me.