In the lower left corner of Utah lies a table of seashell-colored sandstone fit for a family of heavenly giants. If something of the colossal kind dined there, they’d pull a chair up to 200-million-year-old cliffs composed of scarlet and carmine shale holding the table 1,000 vertical feet over the rest of the Earth. Called Gooseberry Mesa, this leviathan countertop and its slickrock are best known as a mountain biker’s playground. Trail runners and hikers get a good kick out of what the mesa’s trails offer, too.
With fall easing into the cracks and crooks of our state’s lowest latitudes, it’s time to mark the calendar with an autumn getaway. Gooseberry Mesa is a five-hour’s drive south of Salt Lake City or an hour mostly east of St. George. The rock tableau is a nice chunk of wild, and a couple nights worth of camping on it will quiet even the most citified soul. Gooseberry Mesa isn’t far from the sleepy burgs of Hurricane to the west and Springdale to the northeast, so a hotel and restaurant-based vaca is doable, too.
Here you’ll find everything you need to plan a getaway to Gooseberry Mesa and its environs, from the trail system’s history to what makes the slickrock roll, from where to get your caffeine hit to what’ll make your kids giggle. It’s time to go gonzo on Gooseberry.
Morgan and Mike Make History (and Trails)
Hurricane’s Morgan Harris wasn’t born in southern Utah, but he got there as soon as he could, right after high school, as it turns out. Morgan and his twin brother, Mike, spent decades riding dirt bikes and ATV’s into every corner of their painted-desert home, including Gooseberry Mesa. Up there, they found slickrock composed of coarse sandstone the color of an elephant tusk and riddled with steep-sided cups and round-edged ledges that made their machinated hearts flutter.
One day in 1993, Mike brought home a mountain bike and cajoled Morgan until he took it for a spin. The brothers’ start in the sport was sputtered, mostly due to riding too hard or far on those first trips. Of his first mountain-bike ride, Morgan chuckles and says, “I thought it was ridiculous. It took me two weeks to recover.” No matter, the brothers, their tire treads, and the tablelands of Gooseberry Mesa soon became inseparable.
On the mesa, slickrock outcrops are separated by sandy swaths of land spritzed with sagebrush, juniper, and pinon pine. In some places, the rock is divided by just a few meters of this other stuff. Sometimes, it’s a half-mile or so between slickrock digs. When the Harris brothers encountered these breaks, they did the next logical thing: “We laid out trail connecting the features we liked to ride.”
Morgan and Mike soon realized they were operating in error. Gooseberry Mesa is federal land administrated by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). If you’re making a trail on federal land and you aren’t the government, you’re committing a crime. In 1994, says Morgan, the boys confessed their unintentional mistake to the BLM’s St. George Field Office, the specific feds who manage the mesa.
Morgan says the younger versions of themselves received a proverbial hand slapping, “They told us we could ride all we wanted on the slickrock. But we weren’t supposed to link rock with trails without permission or a permit.” Morgan still seems to harbor a lick of guilt over those days, “We could have caused erosion or wrecked an archaeological site.”
Dave Kiel, a modern-day Outdoor Recreation Planner in the St. George Field Office, calls the mesa’s now-robust trail system “user-generated.” During those 1994 meetings, says Dave, “An idea was born.” Morgan agrees, “The BLM loved what we were doing, but said we needed a permit for it.” For the next two years, Morgan and Mike designed the Gooseberry Mesa trails under the BLM’s supervision. By 1996, the system was complete and, in 1998, it received a final seal of federal approval with a public dedication.
What started as the personal playground of two men with a love of wild places and slickrock has become an international phenomenon. “Gooseberry Mesa sees 12,000 mountain bikers every year,” boasts Dave. “We’ve had folks from 35 countries sign in at the trail register.” Morgan’s now retired from his professional career as a mason, but he still takes his mountain-biking hobby seriously. “I ride the mesa twice a week. Sure, there are more people out there, but it looks and feels like the early years.”
Gooseberry Mesa’s Goods
Stacy Young is the St. George-based owner of the Wilderness Running Company, an online running store, and he says that Gooseberry Mesa’s got the goods to sate more than just mountain bikers. He’s a trail runner by primary hobby, so he describes the mesa with a runner’s eye. “Gooseberry is a slickrock jungle gym,” he says, “the short, punchy climbs and high technical challenge call for a more explosive type of running.” Morgan Harris agrees with Stacy that Gooseberry makes a fine pedestrian destination, “The mesa is a great place to hike.”
Gooseberry Mesa’s 14.5 miles of singletrack and six miles of doubletrack originate from three trailheads. The trails are linked as loops ranging from one to a dozen miles around. This makes out-and-backs and traveling the same territory twice unnecessary.
Quentin Morisette and his wife, DJ, own Over the Edge Sports, a bike shop in Hurricane. Quentin says, “Everyone knows Moab for its slickrock. Not everyone realizes that Hurricane, and especially Gooseberry Mesa, should also be known for it.” He continues, “Since the mesa’s trails were designed by mountain bikers for mountain bikers, they have a certain flow you don’t find elsewhere.”
“The coolest part about Gooseberry Mesa,” says Quentin, “is that it’s enclosed.” Referring to the fact that the trail system is surrounded by the mesa’s edge, “You’ll never get lost.” Quentin laughs, “Well, you might not know exactly where you are for a little bit, but you’re never lost.” Quentin vouches for the trail system’s versatility, “There’s something for everyone.”
Because the mesa boasts impressive views that change by the meter, most folks enjoy doubling back on trails they’ve already traveled. Since this geologic tabletop lies above the surrounding landscape, it’s all about the long view. Stacy says, “My favorite spot is the mesa’s north rim. The panoramic views of Zion National Park from there are exceptional.” Just a scant five or so crow-flying miles northeast of Gooseberry Mesa is Zion’s famed red and yellow cliffs.
The routes out to Gooseberry Mesa, whether you’re coming from Hurricane or Springdale, are dirt roads requiring a high-clearance vehicle. Recent rains can make them impassible for a few days until their tacky, tire-sucking mud dries out. Services on the mesa are non-existent, save for a vault toilet at the Gooseberry Trailhead, a couple parking areas, trailhead signs, and extensive trail markings. Whether you plan to visit during the day or to camp for a few nights, bring all the water, food, and whatever else you need to stay happy and healthy.
The Three-Day Tour
Day 1- Get yourself to Gooseberry Mesa by mid-morning to make the most of your day. Park at the White Trailhead and take a spin or two around the Practice Trail, 1.3 miles of swervy slickrock. This trail packs an intermediate-level, tech-y punch that allows you to acclimate to the style of Gooseberry’s slickrock.
Once you’ve warmed up to the mesa’s ivory rocks, drop into the Bowls and Ledges Trail before linking to the Windmill Trail. You’ll find lots of flowy singletrack made of fine-grained sand on the Windmill Trail. Resist the urge to ride fast your first time through, as the trail sometimes travels close to the mesa’s edge.
Exit the singletrack at the Windmill Trailhead, then ride the dirt road back to the White Trailhead. Unfurl a folding chair in the shade and enjoy a breather, a couple long pulls on the water bottle, and some lunch.
Spend your afternoon either hiking or trail running. Create a lollipop loop using the White Trail and the North Rim Trail. This loop can be either three-ish or five-ish miles, depending on how far out you go. Return to the trailhead by mid-to-late afternoon to relax.
Day 2- Go big or go home today. Park at the Gooseberry Trailhead, and give your legs a mile warm-up on the dirt road to the White Trailhead and the South Rim Trail. The South Rim Trail is the longest and most challenging trail on the mesa. It’s six miles of sometimes highly technical riding out to Gooseberry’s west end. There’s no use in leaving skin or teeth fragments on the slickrock, so walk your bike when the features exceed your experience.
Brake for the epic view once you reach the mesa’s west end. When you’re ready to wander some more, retrace your steps a half-mile to the White Trail. Follow it onto the North Rim Trail, then stay on Gooseberry’s north side all the way back to the Windmill and Gooseberry Trailheads.
After a trailhead break, it’s time to run hard. Depending on how far you’d like to go, tackle the Practice Trail or add on some distance with the Bowls and Ledges Trail. Use that explosive kind of running about which Stacy Young spoke. Press up and over the ledges with power and bank off the slickrock’s concave curves. Let ‘er rip! Out and back from the Gooseberry Trailhead around the Practice Trail is about four miles, and close to six if you add in Bowls and Ledges. If this mileage is too much, turn on and off the power at intervals of a few minutes. Run for a bit, then jog or hike before repeating.
Day 3- Today’s highlight is a visit to Gooseberry’s gem, the Hidden Canyon Trail. By now, your legs are probably starting to feel some fatigue, so park at the Gooseberry Trailhead again and warm up on the dirt road. Begin your singletrack adventure by revisiting the first half of the South Rim Trail. Travel it for about 3.5 miles until you intersect the Hidden Canyon Trail. Go right to enjoy some of Utah’s sweetest slickrock and Morgan Harris’ favorite piece of Gooseberry. Once you’ve negotiated this adult playground, travel back to the Gooseberry Trailhead on the White Trail, creating a loop of about nine miles.
Finish your ride by about noon if you need to head home today. If your vacation isn’t over, use the sidebars to plan more fun on other area trails or at southwestern Utah’s less aerobic attractions. Don’t leave, though, until you’re sure you’ve gone sufficiently gonzo on Gooseberry!