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Mountain Biking Southwest Utah - Local’s Guide

It’s no 73-foot Rampage gap, but Southern Utah has plenty of places to cut your chops with a huck fest of your choosing. Greg Mazu photo by Flickr creative commons.

For most passers-by, Washington County, Utah is just another pit stop for extra large bathrooms and the last major cache for 64 oz. sodas before hitting Las Vegas, some 120 miles to the southwest. Road signs direct tour buses towards the entrance of Zion National Park, with caravans of RVs following suit. It’s a tourist trap for the armchair traveler, but it’s a mountain bike mecca for anyone who’s heard names like Rampage, Gooseberry or Grafton thrown around in video parts or magazines.

THE SCENE

Taking a page from an online dating profile, the Bear Claw Poppy Trail system is practically meant for sunsets and long strolls in the desert.  Stephanie Nitsch photo.

Washington County is more often billed by a generic location: Southwest Utah. Just a few miles north of the Arizona border, it’s an enchanting area packed with legends and petroglyphs, national parks and quirky Utah laws. Mars-like landscape is upended by monolithic rock spires and prehistoric mesas, all of which make for an otherworldly setting for the area’s couple hundred miles of singletrack and rogue trails.

Pods of trails spread as far north as Cedar City and Brian Head, 30 miles away, but the bulk of Southwest Utah’s bike scene span east to west, stringing the small towns of Springdale, Rockville, Virgin, Hurricane (HURR-uh-kin), La Verkin and (and slightly bigger town) St. George together by a squiggly highway.

For over a century, it’s been a place that’s appealed to pioneers and propagated by legends. Mormon settlers first staked claim along the riparian banks of the Virgin River in the 1860s hoping to literally cultivate the Dixie Land of the West by growing cotton. (The crops failed and the settlements were wiped out by Native Indians, but the name stuck, hence the area’s allegiance to Dixie.) Ghost stories and curious folklore are rooted in non-fiction (Google “Grafton Ghost Town” or “Flying Monkey Mesa” for good campfire stories). And among all its history, the American West pioneer spirit lives on in modern ways, attracting a generation of explorers that eschew covered wagons for mountain bikes.

THE TRAILS

Pop, lock and drop it. Techy ledge drops are everywhere in Hurricane, Utah... some with more exposure than others. Greg Mazu photo by Flickr creative commons.

Southwest Utah, particularly the “town” of Virgin, is arguably the birthplace of freeriding in the U.S., gaining notoriety from its malleable rock faces and unmistakable red mesas. It all provides an infinite canvas for big mountain biking and treacherously raw and technical lines – jagged rock fragments always laying dormant, waiting to claim flesh. And because of loosely regulated public land laws, creating your own big mountain line on BLM territory is technically legal, though not always encouraged.

The legendary Grafton Trail is one of the oldest established freeride trails in the area. Utah’s pilgrims were the first to build the trail in the 1860s, etching permanent wagon wheel imprints into a rocky, cliffside road on Grafton Mesa. But in 2002, it was repurposed as another kind of trail and became synonymous with freeride mountain biking, when a young Kyle Strait was filmed boosting over the Grafton Gap in New World Disorder III – and just a year after Red Bull’s first experiment with Rampage.

Tom Van Steenbergen front flips the canyon gap at finals during Red Bull Rampage in Virgin, Utah, this fall. Redbull Content Pool photo.

But for the more traditional trail user and the majority of riders, well-defined trail systems are a little more approachable. The Bear Claw Poppy system, a rolling network of sun-bleached XC trails on the south end of St. George, weaves together mellow ascents of a few hundred feet with smooth, pedal-less descents on the way back down. 

Further to the east, three separate mesas – GooseberryLittle Creek and Guacamole – have been graffitied with rock cairns and white paint, the official signage for any of the mesas’ numerous lollipop trails that oscillate between undulating slickrock crags and prickly juniper forests. And all over Dixie Land, stand-alone trails like the JEM (Virgin), Church Rocks (St. George) or Suicidal Tendencies (St. George) stick out as classic cross-country routes with an occasional touch of desert flow – though the latter two known more for their singletrack technicalities.

THE CLIMATE

It’s okay to make mountains out of molehills on the Bear Claw Poppy Trail in St. George, Utah. Stephanie Nitsch photo.

The summers here are brutal – cresting triple digit temperatures for days on end and requiring any outdoor recreationalist with a heartbeat to seek shade and refuge between about 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. But spring and fall are primed for bike trips, taking away the sting of UV rays and making the area inhabitable for a short while. As seen during this year’s Rampage, torrential rain pour and flash floods do happen this time of year, and they are catastrophic if you’re caught in the wrong place. When rain does hit, the desert sand turns to thick clay – definitely not in that ‘hero dirt’ kind of way – and becomes nearly impassible for bike and car tires.

Where To Eat

Welcome to Boom Town, USA. Virgin, Utah’s downtown scene is on the verge of revitalization.  Djof photo by Flickr creative commons.

River Rock Roasting Company in La Verkin has Southern Utah’s best coffee and massive homemade cinnamon rolls – best consumed while sitting on the outdoor patio, which seems to abruptly cascade over the edge of the Virgin River canyon.  George’s Corner in downtown St. George is a three-meal-a-day kind of place, where the pub food is reliable and tasty but the drinks are as legally weak as they come. Just down the street,  25 Main Café is a sweet, unexpected little bakery and bistro that serves up savory morsels and decadent cupcakes. ($1 cupcakes after 7 p.m. Just sayin’…)


CAMPING | LODGING

Ample BLM land means a staggering amount of free dispersed camping, but the most popular spots skirt the rim of  Gooseberry Mesa or stem off from Highway 9. It goes without saying (but it’s worth saying anyways) that it’s wise to avoid setting up camp in or around trenches and washes, as even a little bit of precipitation can cause a flash flood to take out your site. Alternatively, fork over a few bucks for a site inside Zion National Park, where tourist season dies off in the fall and usually takes the annoying campers with it. For amenities on a moderate budget, the Inn at St. George is a humble motel surrounded by “downtown” amenities and is run by a few mountain bikers who might just be inclined to show you around.

What Bike To Bring

Whatever steed you choose, grippy tires are a good bet at Gooseberry Mesa. Greg Mazu photo via Flickr.

If you believe in the fat bike hype, Gooseberry Mesa is a surprisingly fun playground to bring out the 5-inch tread. Hardtailers and singlespeeders are common sights too, but a trusty full-suspension of any size gets the job done. Whatever your steed, bring it to Over the Edge Sports in Hurricane or Red Rock Bike Shop in St. George (which has an awesome virtual trail map here) when you need to get it dialed in or tuned up. For less of a DIY style, Paragon will outfit you with a guided and catered 3-day bike-camping trip, shuttling you between various trail systems. 

From The Column: Local’s Guide

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