Singletrack Comes to the Slickrock



Giddy. There is no better way to describe how I feel in this moment other than the pure, childlike joy that forces giggles unbecoming a grown man. Yet as I bank another turn on soft dirt and feel acceleration out of the corner, another girly sound escapes my mouth. A straight section of singletrack rolls away before my front tire, and I pedal faster, speeding over a roller coaster of small hills that descend into a technical rock garden. Beyond that, more banked turns and singletrack where none existed just a year prior. I giggle again after a series of swerving, bobsled-style curves, elated that this desert trail is not located in Fruita, or Sedona. It’s in what was arguably once the mountain biking capitol of the world, and perhaps is again – Moab. It seems singletrack has come to the slickrock.

Moab was never this fun. Since the infancy of mountain biking, this small desert hamlet only offered up uranium jeep roads and the world famous Slickrock Trail. But before my enlightening ride, I pulled up to the parking lot at Klondike Bluffs expecting to do the same route I’ve experienced several times before: a wide, sandy wash, followed by some slickrock where I’ll have to pull over and let jeeps and motorbikes go by. Then it’s onto an old 4×4 road ending with a hike-to overlook in Arches National Park. But while staring at the trailhead map, I thought my eyes were malfunctioning as the sign wove a different tale of multi-colored lines that wormed around a topographic relief like spaghetti in a bowl. Miles upon miles of brand new singletrack had been built in just a few years, and I couldn’t get on my bike and ride it fast enough.

Grand County Trail Mix, led by Scott Escott, is responsible for my uncontrollable bike-giggling. This group of hikers, mountain bikers and trail builders are the ones who work amongst cactus and sage, shoveling, raking and painting whole networks of non-motorized trails. Weeks after my eye-opening ride at Klondike Bluffs, I follow Escott and Trail Mix Chair, Sandy Freethey, into the desert. They, along with volunteers, spend innumerable hours under the Southern Utah sun on their mission to build, build, and build. Today, they are adding a few miles to a new connector trail called Houdini, located in the Klonzo 2 area, which will someday boast over 20 miles of singletrack.

“We’re going with the carnival theme,” Freethey says as she carries a paint can and roller to the work site. “So we’ve got trails like Roller Coaster, Hot Dog, Zoltar, Houdini and Wizard.” Much of the terrain on Houdini is slickrock, so the work goes quickly as they line the route with rocks and branches, scrape away tire-popping cactus, and paint dotted, blue lines on exposed stone where riders could easily go off route.

“Whoever came up with this idea, it was brilliant,” Escott says when I ask him who mountain bikers should thank for all this new trail. He’s lived in Moab for 30 years and moved here from Colorado just for the mountain biking. But he was ready to leave after getting bored of only pedaling on jeep and motorbike routes. Then in 2008, the Moab Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management finished their resource management plan that called for 150 miles of non-motorized singletrack for bikers, hikers and equestrians.

Since 2010, Trail Mix has been tasked with fulfilling that mission. In just four years, they’ve sculpted almost 100 miles of trail around Moab with 50 more miles planned in the next few years. This explosive amount of growth is unheard of, considering the usual red tape that has to be hacked through before a single shovel of dirt is moved on public land. Escott gives all the credit to the BLM for having the foresight to keep Moab competitive in the mountain bike world. “We were kind of off the map for a while because we didn’t have a lot of singletrack,” Escott says. “We kind of fell behind, you know, Fruita, Park City, Grand Junction, places that were building singletrack.”

As a result, Moab’s economy was starting to suffer, and bike shop employees say they saw a significant decrease in tourism dollars. TJ Cowern, Service Manager at Poison Spider Bicycles, has lived in Moab for 17 years. He says it wasn’t until the mid-2000’s that he started to get worried. “I kept hearing people come in and complain that they’re sick of Moab, riding the same trails over and over. If you were a pretty avid mountain biker, it was the same three or four trails you were riding time and time again.” With roughly half of Moab’s mountain bike visitors coming from Colorado’s Front Range, Fruita became a closer and more attractive option. “Fruita started making big pushes and gains in their popularity for a mountain bike destination and we kind of needed to answer to that.”

Katie Stevens, the Outdoor Recreation Planner for the Moab BLM Field Office, also saw the writing on the wall. “We realized we were a little deficient in singletrack mountain bike opportunities. I think at the time we only had 11 miles of singletrack. We particularly had a problem with good mountain bike trails for kids, for families. After seeing a lot of families trying to negotiate the Slickrock Trail, when they had no business doing so, that really got us thinking about terrain that was mellow enough for beginners. After all, if there’s no beginners, there won’t be any mountain bikers after a while.”

Houdini 1

Sandy Freethey 2With the BLM’s plan in hand, Trail Mix started working with a fervor. “We started out with Pipe Dream. It was a big project and that really brought the BLM to trust us; that we can build sustainable, great trails,” Escott says. After that, they built the Moab Brands trails just north of town, which is a mountain bike focus area with 25-30 miles of singletrack. More miles were added onto Klondike Bluffs, which now has 50-60 miles of loops. Klonzo will someday end up in the 20-mile range. “The Mag-7 area, Bull Run, Getaway, Great Escape, the names, you know, sometimes I’m riding trails and I can’t even remember what the names are, there’s so many of them,” Escott says with a laugh.

So how does a new trail get built in Moab? Despite the administrative ease of Moab’s singletrack construction project, the whole process isn’t that simple. Escott says someone first has to find a spot where there might be good mountain biking, then submit a proposal. “We start to tweak it before we hand over the proposal to the BLM. They look at it, and they usually give us the thumbs up. Then it has to go through wildlife studies, archeology, and paleontology. We come back, start putting the pin flags in, get our crew together, and whip it out.”

Escott says the BLM is even more involved than just giving the green light on proposals. All those archeology and paleontology studies cost a lot of money, which the BLM provides. “Without their support, we’d maybe have 20 miles of singletrack. We just couldn’t afford it. So they are our greatest fan, and the best partner you could ever have. If we ask for a Bobcat, they give it to us. I wish there could be this cooperation with land managers and trail builders everywhere.”

The day after my giggling ride at Klondike Bluffs, my friends and I drive up Kane Creek along the Colorado River and pull into the Amasa Back parking area. It’s a place I know well as I usually ride this old 4-wheel-drive road every time I come to Moab. But today is different, as we are going to check out a new trail called Captain Ahab. Dozens of new miles have been built in this rugged spot, including Rock Stacker, Jackson, and Hymasa.

On our bikes, we ride up the road to the official trailhead. But instead of dropping down the usual stone steps to the creek bottom, we instead switchback our descent on newly cut trail. After that, the climb up Amasa Back is the same old jeep road, and I begin to struggle up and over rock ledges and encounter the familiar sensation of my back tire spinning out on loose sand. But then we reach the Hymasa Trail, a brand new singletrack section that bypasses the old Amasa Back route. The ascent is wonderful, perfectly cut, and at an incline that’s ideal for going uphill on a bike. In fact, pedaling uphill doesn’t get much more fun.

Klonzo 4

At the top, we come to the start of Captain Ahab. This jewel of desert mountain biking is a one-way, technical playground that has my adrenaline flowing from the first pedal stroke. The trail is some serious riding that clearly required major construction. Entire sections are literally ramps made from the surrounding stone, a few the size of Subarus. Cowern says this is typical of the work Trail Mix is doing. “They’re not just sweeping the desert and making singletrack. I mean, major changes to the environment are happening to make these happen. They’re using grip hoists and all kinds of rock bars and everything. It’s pretty amazing to see the before and after shots on some of these trails.”

Exhausted from pedaling in summer heat and red-lining my heart rate, I stand astride my bike saddle and watch as dozens of mountain bikers wend their way down Captain Ahab, then connect back onto Hymasa for another loop. The atmosphere is upbeat and exciting, despite sun shimmers floating off the rocks. It almost feels like Moab has been reborn; given a second life. With news of singletrack sprouting around Moab like desert blooms after a spring storm, huge numbers of mountain bikers are once again making the pilgrimage to Southeastern Utah.Houdini 2

Klonzo 3

Cowern has noticed the increase in traffic at Poison Spider Bicycles, and says rentals have gone up a solid 20-percent in a year. “We now have a lot more singletrack than Fruita has to offer, so people are making that extra drive to come over again. People are definitely responding and we’re seeing a huge influx. There’s definitely a major renaissance going on now where you can come back twice a year, spring and fall, and probably ride new things both times, and also a couple of the trails you’ve really loved that keeps drawing you back to Moab.”

Trail Mix members have also seen a shift in mountain biker’s attitudes. “Any time we’re out here either building or doing maintenance, and we encounter the mountain bikers and they say, ‘thank you, thank you, this is wonderful,’ that’s really rewarding,” Freethey says. She’s also seen the economic impact trails have had on the town. “Mountain bikers, they know this is a mecca, and so they’re coming. And now there’s so many new trails, they stay longer. When it comes to Moab, you used to come for a long weekend. And now what we find is people come for a week.”

Dawn is just beginning to break over the red rocks when I meet up with Scott Escott for a final ride. He want to show me the new trails just cut this year at the Klonzo area. I futilely attempt to keep up with him despite the fact that he might be old enough to be my father. We’re cranking on one of his fresh creations called Big Joe Bend. It’s a narrow swath of singletrack cut directly into the side of a steep, crayon-colored mesa. Roller coaster bumps and jumps, hairpin turns, and more examples of impressive rock work are highlights. The trail itself is short, but connects to several other new trails so riders can create their own adventure and be hard pressed to ride the network the same way twice.

At the top of the mesa, we stop to catch our breath and soak in the view. Dark clouds roll in, obscuring the morning sun which keeps the temperature low enough for another loop. Before we depart, I ask him what Trail Mix will do when they’re finished building the BLM’s 150 miles of singletrack. Escott smiles with a pause before he answers. “We’re all getting pretty old, you know. If we see it through the 150, that would be amazing. It might happen, you never can tell.” Judging by how fast these intrepid desert rats have built 100 miles so far, I have no doubt mountain bikers visiting Moab will be giggling over 150 miles of brand-spanking new desert singletrack very, very soon.

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