I Wish I Was in Dixie Land

An Anthem to a Single Ride in St. George

St. George rocks. In the most literal, geological sense. They’re pretty phenomenal from a historical point of view. Red rock and crumbling mesas flank the horizon in every direction. Get close enough and you’ll spot petroglyph artifacts that are bleached into the smooth walls of sandstone boulders. The whole view looks like a scene from Total Recall, depicting a Martian time and place that most of us will undoubtedly never experience in our lifetimes – where massive, ancient seas and volcanic fault lines ripped through the earth’s crust with unimaginative power and left monolithic fragments scattered on the ocean floor, and also where I currently stand.

8167-A-Biking-St-George

It’s not even 6:30am, and although I’ve arrived at the trailhead, I’ve missed the golden hour of dawn patrol. The quiet morning light swiftly breaks into glaring sunrays and washes out the colorful vistas of the St. George valley. My window of opportunity is small, and there’s no time for reflection, let alone any coffee. Timing, it seems, is everything, and tactical strategies (like dawn patrol or nighttime excursions) are essential for any outdoor pursuit. Particularly during summer. The environment here changes quickly and, thus, you must be quick to change when it happens.

 

Another two and a half hours, by my guesstimate, and I risked getting caught stranded in a parched desert with no shade or water – a lifelong phobia of mine, having grown up in the lush, overgrown forests of the Pacific Northwest. Sounds dramatic, but it’s a slippery slope when the last drop of water is sucked clean from your water pack with miles left to go. Though I’ve regarded Utah as home for the past seven years, I’ve still harbored a fear of this exposed playground every time I visit. And combined with an early-June heatwave rippling through the area, I had no choice but to forego my typical lazy morning camping routine for a mad dash to the Bloomington trailhead on the south end of town.

 

Adventurists know the St. George area as a gateway to the technical slickrock of Gooseberry Mesa or the mystical canyons of Zion National Park. Passerby know the area as a gateway to Las Vegas and the last stop for cheap gas and decent coffee. Admittedly, I knew it from all three perspectives and had never explored beyond the strip of fast food restaurants and XL truck stops that routinely accommodate busses full of international tourists. Yet it didn’t take long to understand that St. George is certainly no local secret when it comes to outdoor recreation. The half-dozen cars at the trailhead on this early weekday morning were quick to make that obvious.

 

My bike and I are here for no other reason than wanting a change of pace from my go-to rides in the Southwest corner of Utah. Not that I’m bored with the trails here. With stellar pockets of singletrack growing throughout Dixie’s most brilliant scenery (think Gooseberry, Hurricane, Virgin, Brian Head, Cedar City, Red Canyon and St. George), there’s no excuse for boredom. But, alas, solo bike trips have a way of roping you into a more cautious approach toward adventure, leaving much of Southwest Utah unexplored by my own two-wheeled pursuits during the last few visits. Today is no exception.

 

Save for a cluster of larger-than-life anthills set against the northern mesa, the area looks uninspiring and flat from the Bloomington trailhead. A twisty and forgiving climb through a two-mile wash, however, helps maintain a constant pace as I begin to shake away the early-morning grog. Though the temperatures are still lingering on the cool side, the sun beats down on the hard-packed desert clay and reflects off the bleached white trails. Motivated by the increasing heat, it’s not long before I reach the cutoff for Bearclaw Poppy, a trail that precedes its reputation.

 

Bearclaw Poppy is one of the easier rides in St. George, and by no means an archetype of the entire trail system out here, but it’s arguably one of the smoothest, most fluid bike trails in Utah, as measured by the number of WOOHOOOOOO’s and THIS IS RAD’s that are inexplicably shouted at full volume. Endless dips and drops, carved into those larger-than-life anthills, are laid out like a massive pumptrack, and small cliffs look like a miniature version of Rampage, an annual “big mountain” bike contest in nearby Virgin, but without the career-ending repercussions.

 

Delicate cryptobiotic soil lines the edge of the trail, its lumpy crust playing an important and prominent role here. A single tire track through the living dirt can wipe out 25 years of growth and wreck havoc on the ecological wonders of this desert utopia. As tempting as the hero dirt looks, I am too focused on the fast, buffed trail in front of me.

Desert riding in St George

Squealing disc brakes stir up the last of the morning calm, and free-flowing adrenaline has pumped me full of more energy than the cup of coffee I skipped earlier. As the trail’s final swoops begin to taper out and the bike-fueled rush begins to subside, so does my trip to St. George. It’s a short stay, by all accounts, but it’s just enough to celebrate the golden hour of opportunity.

 

St. George and Hurricane Area Rides

 

Green Valley
A few dozen miles of trail in the Green Valley area snake their way through the various washes and mesas, making this the largest network of singletrack in St. George. Tackle the Stucki Springs, Bearclaw Poppy, Barrel Ride and Zen trails in a single day, or break it up for a return visit. Finishing your ride with a descent down Bearclaw Poppy is a must-do.

Red Cliffs
This national conservation area and wildlife preserve just north of St. George is a refuge for flourishing ecology, wild reptiles and vivid red rock formations. Church Rocks is a short but popular 3-mile bike loop, but connector trails like Prospector or Dino Cliffs will tack on upwards of 5-10 additional miles. Rolling slickrock is mellow enough for advanced beginner riders, but the pitch-black drainpipe at the beginning of the ride is enough to spook anyone. As a perk, you’re rewarded views of the ploppy, red domes of petrified sandstone known as Church Rocks.

 

Santa Clara River Preserve

A series of small, quick loops tie the Santa Clara River trails together by means of rolling desert singletrack. Barrel Roll is the most straightforward and popular trail here, but Rim Rock and Rim Rambler are subjectively more thrilling as they skirt the edge the mesa. For a longer ride, start from Green Valley and connect to Santa Clara via Stucki Springs to tack on double-digit mileage.

 

Gooseberry Mesa

Gooseberry Mesa has become a Southwest Utah mountain bike staple for many reasons, not least of which involves the high technical challenge. Loop together any number of short-and-snappy slickrock routes, which are marked by rock cairns and painted dotted lines, with more classic singletrack terrain and be prepared to. Set up basecamp at any one of the cliffside campsites along the rim of the mesa for 360-degree panoramas of the valley floor, which are most stunning at sunset.

 

Little Creek Mesa

It’s with sage advice that you explore Little Creek Mesa, 18 miles south of Hurricane, with someone who knows this relatively new bike mesa. Much like its Gooseberry counterpart, this plateau is riddled with techy challenges and rocky stunts, but easy-to-miss cairn towers are more difficult to navigate. Choose between two main trails, Magic Carpet Ride and the Big Loop, or link them together for a long day on this uncrowded mesa.

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