Sharp Desert Singletrack- Rethinking Mountain Biking in Vernal

Someone stole Adam’s bike. He calls to tell me this on the eve of our long-planned mountain bike trip to Vernal. For years I’ve been itching to discover the hype of desert singletrack only three hours east of Salt Lake City, but various scheduled trips were always sidetracked by weather, partners cancelling, and life itself slapping me upside the head. And here it was happening again, the night before a pre-dawn start, and Adam absentmindedly leaves his new 29er unlocked in the yard, and finds it missing soon after.

Dinosaur-back spines create a fun descent on Jass-Chrome Molly. (Rider - Adam Symonds)

But all is not lost. Adam has a backup bike – a 13-year-old Marin hardtail with v-brakes. It’s been stored outside for two years and rust is its primary color. Always the optimist, Adam loads it onto the bike rack before we pick up Mike D and hit the interstate eastbound toward Vernal.

It has been said by prominent cycling magazines that Vernal is the new Fruita (or at least Utah’s version of it), and is possibly even better than that oh-so-publicized Colorado mountain biking mecca. But as I stare out the truck window and watch mostly flat desert blur past, I’m skeptical. However, since I literally wear my love for Utah recreation on my sleeve, I have to give Vernal a fair shake despite my only mental image of the place consisting of dinosaur bones and drilling rigs belching natural gas across a monochrome landscape. Second-hand info from friends who tasted Vernal’s offerings describe a town bursting with multiple personalities– singletrack woven between opposing worlds of dino-tourism, buses loaded with river rafts, and no-vacancy motels packed with gas-field workers. I also hear there’s a brand new brewery, which is enough kick in the pants to accelerate to Vernal post-haste.

My pre-trip research of mountain biking Vernal immediately leads to Troy Lupcho, a former BMX world champion and owner/operator of Altitude Cycle. He’s one of the trail-building godfathers in the area who’s responsible for the extensive McCoy Flats trail system just outside of town. It all began in 1996 when Lupcho moved to Vernal from Salt Lake City and found there was absolutely no place to ride.

“Back then there were no trails. There wasn’t one trail,” Lupcho says. “So I started exploring around different areas and then hooked up with a gentleman named Rich Etchberger, who is a professor at Utah State University. He and I started working together building in a little bit of trail.” The first trail, called “Got Milk?” because of all the beat-down cow paths out there, was built at what is now the epicenter of mountain biking in Vernal at McCoy Flats. From there, over the course of the last 18 years, Lupcho and Etchberger have cut over a hundred miles of single track.

Red dust and narrow singletrack on Jass-Chrome Molly Trail. (Rider - Mike DeBernardo)

The Flume Trail

Vernal gets hot in the summer. It is the desert after all, and we arrive in town under the high, afternoon sun with the truck’s thermometer flirting with triple digits. Seeking an escape at upper elevations, we blow by the low-lying McCoy Flats trailhead and straight-line northwest to the Flume Trail. It’s described in guide books as one of the more classic mountain bike rides in the Vernal area, replete with excellent singletrack that winds up through a scenic canyon along mountain streams, and ends at a curious historic site called The Flume – a collection of decaying log towers that are the remains of an elevated waterway which serves as a relic of man’s attempt to channel a river past limestone cracks where it disappeared, leaving the farmers downstream without water for crops and cattle. It took four years to build The Flume in the late 1800s, but it leaked so much that it was abandoned soon after. Now these rotting log towers simply stand watch over mountain bikers who pedal by.

At the trailhead, we unload our bikes, including Adam’s derelict Marin. Only 10 minutes into the ride, the rear derailleur breaks and ends up in the spokes. But Adam soldiers on, declaring his bike is now a single speed. Then we enter gardens of stone worn smooth by millennia of water weathering, and the Marin falters again. The front shocks are so rusted that they seize up completely. His bike is now a rigid single speed. In addition, the saddle is busted and loose, and his rear hub squeaks so loud with every rotation that it sounds like crickets chirping. Listening to it, I feel like I should be relaxing on a wood porch at dusk with a beer on my lap instead of punching tires over steep, technical ledges under the noonish sun.  But nothing deters Adam, and he endures a forearm pounding that never lets up.

Finally, Adam’s bike seems to settle into its new identity and we make good time pedaling beyond the technical rock gardens to a deep stream crossing that Adam and I gingerly walk across. But Mike D always tries to clean a line despite any obvious impossibilities and explodes into the water, almost making it to the other side but getting a good soak instead.

Beyond the stream, the Flume Trail transforms into smooth singletrack and steep switchbacks that soon sees me sweating through my shirt and hyperventilating in the dusty, summer heat. Thankfully, the aerobic workout is short and we fly back down to the canyon floor for rock gardens that take us to the crumbling flume. It’s a rollicking good time, and talking to Lupcho, he’s pretty enthusiastic about the trail as well. “The Flume Trail is on Forest Service land, and they’ve done some great work up there. They just cut in some new stuff, and put in a restroom at the parking lot. It has nice diversity obviously, because it’s so different from the high desert and the topography that we have.”

At the top of the trail’s lollipop loop, we leave our bikes and walk along the row of log flume towers. Frankly, I’m a bit underwhelmed at this supposed climax of the ride, at least until we find a foot path that ends at the upper section of Dry Fork Creek. Fighting back my dizzy, heat stroke-addled brain, I strip down and revel in the cold water with a can of beer and discover that my old image of Vernal is starting to fade.

Jass-Chrome Molly

The following day, I awake to a red dawn clawing itself through my eyelids. It’s only 7am and the sun has already punched the clock to bake desert dirt and out-of-their-minds-for-being-there-this-time-of-year mountain bikers. We spent the night in Adam’s camper at the Jass-Chrome Molly trailhead with a plan of riding before the thermostat got turned up to inferno. With my head already throbbing from the heat and too many fireside brewskis, I mount up and follow Mike and Adam’s squeaky wheel into a maze of trails smack in the middle of dinosaur-bone country known as Red Fleet.

According to Lupcho, The Red Fleet area was also started in the early days by Rich Etchberger and Teena Christopherson. Their first trail was called Jass-Chrome Molly (sometimes called Jazz-Chrome Molly) which was named after their dog Jass, who died when they were building the trail. The “Chrome Molly” references Rich’s hardtail singlespeed that he was riding at the time.

Mike D likes to say that the desert is sharp, and as I meander on Jass-Chrome Molly’s overland tour of ups and downs that accumulate little elevation gain or loss, I find myself consciously avoiding the narrow trail’s edges, lest my tires lose traction and shuck me into thorn bushes and spiny cactus. I also realize that the Red Fleet network seems remarkably familiar. The undulating terrain, swooping corners, and fun descents on knife-edge ridges take me back to 18-Road in Fruita, or even the new trails being cut in Moab. Vernal is indeed the birthplace of Utah’s desert singletrack, and being here makes me giddy. But then, that could have just been an effect of the heat waves rising from desert sand and sharp plants. Dehydrated and once again desperate for cooler air, we only ride one loop before packing it in.

Red Canyon Rim Trail

From a scenic overlook on Highway 44, I listen to the sound of mountain wind as it blows through ponderosa pines and fields of brilliant, yellow wildflowers. After roasting in the oven at Red Fleet, we decide to spend our afternoon at a higher elevation. Although we only scratched the surface of Vernal’s myriad trails, Mike and I want to explore Flaming Gorge. Up here at 7,500 feet, the landscape, and therefore the mountain biking, is markedly different.

To taste the goodness, we choose the Red Canyon Rim Trail, a U.S. Forest Service hiking path that has been identified as appropriate for two-wheeled usage. Clicking into clipless pedals, we dive-bomb down the semi-technical singletrack despite misgivings that Adam’s geriatric bike may come apart bolt by bolt. The trail has an old-school vibe that I find really fun as I hop over large rocks, dodge ponderosa pines and white-knuckle my brakes down steep embankments into shallow creeks only to find myself in the absolute wrong gear for the crumbly climb up the other side. This is a thinking man’s trail, where not a grain of dust has been manicured or buttered for ease of tire rolling. Turns aren’t banked, trails aren’t “flowy,” and signage is sketchy at best. I love it.

In the middle of it all is the Red Canyon Lodge. A myriad of trails spiderweb out from the main building and cabins that surround East Greens Lake. Mark Wilson has owned the place for about 20 years, and has been instrumental in creating a mountain bike scene at Flaming Gorge. He says the trails around the lodge are ideal for escaping the summer heat. “It offers completely different scenery up here. You are riding in forested terrain, mostly in the Ponderosa Pine Belt, which is filled with rather majestic trees and a great deal of wildlife. You have the opportunity to see anything from mule deer, to bighorn sheep on a regular basis.”

In addition to owning the Red Canyon Lodge, Wilson gains even more rubber-side-down cred since he helped form the Uintas Trail Coalition along with the Ashley National Forest in the early ‘90s to identify a number of existing trails that were suitable for mountain biking. But he’s probably best known for organizing the now-defunct Dinotrax Mountain Bike Festival, a weekend-long party of all things bike that riders still reminisce about today. But it seems the glory days are over as, on this day, we have Red Canyon Rim all to ourselves.

“Sadly in the past decade there’s been little trail development on the Ashley National Forest,” Wilson says. But as we dismount our bikes at one of the many viewpoints overlooking Flaming Gorge Reservoir glistening in the sunlight below, I can’t help but think that’s a good thing. The trails are classic, and it would be a shame if they were ruined by an overzealous committee with bike-park designs on the brain. I’m also perplexed that we are so blessedly alone considering the sweltering heat in the valley. “When things really heat up temperature-wise in the Uinta Basin, then the trails up in Flaming Gorge, all of which are at 7,000 feet or higher, makes it a cooler respite for daytime riding,” Wilson says. “And Canyon Rim is probably the single-most popular trail because it provides options anywhere from a couple miles to 15 miles round trip.”

It’s Not Moab or Fruita. It’s Vernal.

The only problem with riding Red Canyon Rim Trail from the top, is that we finish with a long uphill. That only makes me feel even more justified to grab another cold one before sitting on the paved parking lot to watch birds of prey ride thermals far above the yawning gorge. All three of us have to be back in Salt Lake that evening, and we each regret that we can’t spend more than two days exploring. Only scratching the surface is an understatement when all that we rode is put into perspective, but what we did ride was proof enough that Vernal really does deserve every accolade it receives.

Of course, for locals and bike-shop owners like Lupcho, that sort of fame draws out conflicting feelings. “As a business owner I say hell yeah, let’s get more people here! But as a local, and a mountain biker, I say hell no! We don’t want Fruita! So it’s a tough balance,” Lupcho says. But he also doesn’t seem too worried about Vernal becoming another Moab or Fruita. “I don’t think Vernal is going to change from where we are right now. You know I’ve been here for 18 years, and it hasn’t changed all that much. There has been a little surge of riders coming in primarily from Steamboat Springs, and we’ve had people coming from Montana, Wyoming, and even Canada, just to ride because they’ve heard about the trails. But I don’t think it’s ever going to blow up.”

Lupcho also says he thinks Vernal, hands down, has the best singletrack in Utah. After sampling just a fraction of his self-built playground, I find it difficult to argue the point. As we drive away from Vernal with completely wrecked legs and that body-buzz signifying a damn good workout, I also find it impossible to imagine myself not coming back every year.

But Adam isn’t invited unless he gets a new bike.

Leave a Reply