It is amazing that anyone ever finds this place. A non-descript mesa in a no-man’s land of mesa’s so far down in southern Utah, that if you fell off the south side of it you would nearly land in Arizona. But it is the maze of dirt roads that intricately lace the top of the formation that make even finding the trail head a mini adventure. No signs, kiosks, or interpretative placards provide even the slightest clue that you are at the trail head of one of the best rides in the country. Rather it is the condition of the road that limits further motorized travel without tank tracks, as it changes from smooth 2wd gravel to bouldery slickrock 20 feet beyond the few available parking places.
The other clues are both the fire pits and junipers with sawn-off limbs, that seem to indicate that this is the place to park, unload, camp, and degrade your surroundings. Website directions, google earth, and mapping applications on smart phones will all help with locating the trail head, but do nothing to instill a sense of respect on the part of the users of this amazing landscape.
The riding here makes up for the sense of bewilderment in finding it, though the feeling of being just a turn away from being completely lost will continue to accompany you for the entire ride. Single track twists through the pinion and juniper forest with rocks and roots demanding attention and aggressiveness. At intervals you are spit out onto the tan and mauve fields of slickrock which dip and flow off to the horizon in every direction. Cairns mark the established trail, yet these are sometimes little more than small collections of formerly stacked stones, and where concurrent cairns have toppled the rider is seen to be wildly looking in all directions to find the next clue to direction. Sometimes there is a well defined path through swept aside gravel, and after awhile you get a bit more in tune with the riding and can begin to discern where thousands of tires have smoothed the stone itself, but you should accept getting lost here, nearly every one does. Yet it is in the looking around that you are stuck by what an amazing location for a mountain bike trail this truly is. The walls of Zion national park dominate the horizon, being just the right distance away to appreciate their entire span from Cannan mountain to the deep red finger canyons of Kolob. The Pine Valley mountains loom over the western skyline so that when the trail enters the fields of slick rock the views compete with the need to find the next cairn, and are a constant but beautiful distraction to staying on the trail itself.
Two interconnected loops offer various riding options from a short out to the cliff edge and back to a solid 15 mile figure 8 loop that offers everything from hairball technical challenges to flowy cruising on a forested single track, and of course the obligatory route finding uncertainties. The Shinarump conglomerate layer that comprises the slickrock sections of the trail are far less consistently technical than the more famous Gooseberry mesa which is just across highway 59. Large expanses of smooth tan rock seem to flow off into oblivion like the illusion of an infinite pool made of stone. Deposited during the late Triassic, the rock is the result of numerous braided stream deposits which give it a highly variable coarseness from grains to pebbles, and in this part of Utah forms the majority of mesa top riding. The term slick rock was apparently bestowed by pioneers who found it to offer little traction to iron rimmed wagon wheels with iron shod horses. Yet rubber tires cling to it with tenacity, and combined with a bit of momentum allows the ascent of slopes no amount of horse power could match.
The south loop is the more well traveled of the rides here, though seeing anyone else in the 10 mile loop is very uncommon and self reliance is encouraged. A constant tempo of open slickrock and curvy forest riding lead inevitably to the edge of the mesa where the views to the north and west are nothing short of jaw dropping. The trail continues along this edge, (yet never so close as to be foolish) and the riding alternates between tight turns through the junipers and expansive vistas moving northerly where the rock evolves into a series of potholes with the trail on edges between them. Briefer views of the edge of the mesa eventually become a turn to the southeast and some consistent forest riding down to a wash and then uphill to a T intersection. Left connects to the northern loop system, and right continues the last link of the southern loop and the amazing Magic Carpet ride back to the trail head parking. Apty named, the Magic Carpet ride is a smooth and undulating shield of slickrock that you never want to end. It is easy to get into the dreamy sense of flow, as the trail dips and carves along the edge of forest and eventually crosses near several petroglyphs just before a jeep road interrupts the single track for the first time. Rejoining the stem of the loop can always be a bit confusing until you realize that you turned the wrong way and are doing another lap, but the ride back to the parking area is just a few minutes more.
A Near Epic on the North Loop
Mid Winter riding in conditions this good can make you feel guilty. Fifty degree temps, no wind ,and the kind of flawless sky that almost seems fake it is such a deep blue. Winter riding has the added advantage of offering leisurely starts to the day as you lounge around drinking coffee waiting for it to warm up. This is in stark contrast to summer where it is a race with the sun and if you loose you are going to suffer. Arriving at the deserted parking area at 2:30 seemed a bit late, but I figured that if I limited my ride to the north loop I would even have time for a break at the point for a power bar.
Omens never seem “ominous” when you first encounter them, it is always in retrospect that you realize that you should have been paying attention. When I discovered that I had left my extra tube in my other hydration pack along with the first aid kit, perhaps I should have saw it as a clue. Yet strangely I found the dead battery on the MP3 player, even more distressing, until I realized that riding without it was something that I had not done in months. So I put a positive spin on it and thought about how quiet and meditative the ride would be.
As I pedaled away from the parking area and looked at my phone several things became immediately apparent. First I had managed to take a half hour to get ready and start riding, and secondly because I had forgot to charge the phone last night the battery was nearly exhausted.
I don’t like to tell people where I am going. I feel pressured to get back on time to prevent them from worrying unnecessarily, and that seems to take away from any spontaneous inclinations to linger or explore. When no one knows where I am, or when I am supposed to return, it may truly be days before my absence is noticed, and possibly a couple more before any alarm is sounded. This means that you are truly alone, and responsible for yourself and can expect no expedient rescue to come to your aid. It changes your behavior (or at least it should) and makes you realize that you need to be more cautious and measured in what you are doing. Every one of your actions has far greater consequence in that situation, a turned ankle or broken bone could mean a night out (or two) and not just a visit to a hospital.
As I pedaled into the woods I rode into a world of silence. The sounds of the bike and my breathing seemed to be swallowed up, and absorbed by walls of stillness that I could reach out into. The sun seemed low in the sky and already seemed to be getting the yellow tinge of sunset as I turned onto the trail that led to the north point. I had last ridden the trail this past summer and felt like I had a pretty good memory of it, yet I kept expecting a descent into a canyon where no canyon seemed to be. Perhaps I was just slower, or the trail longer than I remembered, at least the cairns were mostly intact and were easy to follow.
The north point trail is both less traveled and newer than the older and more established south loop. It has a reputation for being both less distinct and more of a route finding dilemma. I eventually found the large canyon that splits the loop into 2 parts and started up the eastern side of the loop which seems like one huge field of slickrock. Small cairns mark side “stunt” trails that lead to steep ramps, bridges, or jumps, but don’t seem to connect back into the main loop, but you never know that until you take them, and that eats up time. After several false connections I managed to get onto the main loop and finally felt like I was making progress towards the north point as it seemed familiar again.
Rounding the north point, I decided that I didn’t have time to stop after all as the many detours had eaten much of my sunlight. The light was beginning to turn orange-ish, but the single track on this side was far easier to follow and I had no real concerns about getting lost. The trail flirts with the rim of the mesa many times before diving back into the woods as a twisty single track on dirt and sand. Riding in the late afternoon winter sun, swooping through the trees, and hearing the hiss of the tire tread on the stone, made it impossible not to grin from ear to ear.
When I saw the mountain lion tracks in the trail my grin vanished. Suddenly the setting sun and silence took on a completely new meaning, and I realized that not only was I not the top link of the food chain out here, but the action of riding a mountain bike may look suspiciously like running, an action which you should never do around mountain lions. At that point riding through the woods was a lot less enjoyable and I looked forward to the openness of the slickrock.
Coming out of the woods was a relief and I had about 20 minutes of sunlight and probably another 30 minutes before complete darkness after that. I had ridden this part of the trail on the way in and felt like I was virtually back at the parking area, so I started to think about where to stop for dinner and how good a beer was going to taste.
It took awhile to realize that things didn’t look familiar. At first I tried to relate it to having never ridden this trail at sunset before, of course it would look differently. Yet as I continued ahead it became obvious that this was a new trail. Small cairns lead off of the slick rock and into single track that was so completely new that the marks made by the rake were still visible on either side of the few tire tracks that did mar the surface. Only then did I realize that not only, did I have no idea of how far back the main trail was, but I also did not have the light to go find out. Night time temperatures were dipping into the 20’s this time of year, certainly survival -able but the idea of dancing around and doing pushups all night long seemed less than ideal. I didn’t want to stop and do an inventory of what I did have in my hydration pack, but one of the things that I was pretty sure was in the errant first aid kit was the lighter, and survival blanket. These items would change the equation from a night of discomfort to a night of misery. As I didn’t know exactly where I was , my immediate concern was having this new trail head out onto one of the vast expanses of slickrock and then loosing the trail in the dark, spending the night out on an open piece of stone,.. At least there would be a solid surface for pushups.
I would like to say that it was a beautiful and enjoyable trail that offered several unique riding options and some amazing terrain, but as it was going the right direction and I did not have time to backtrack, I rode as hard and fast as common sense would allow, and as the sun touched the horizon and with the first hint of alarm bells ringing in my head the trail popped out of the woods to a campsite at the end of a double track road. With the thought that roads lead to roads I flew up the double track to find it T’ed at what looked like the main access road.
The sun had just set as I rode up to the parking area, and in the gathering darkness I loaded up the bike turned on the headlights and with the adrenalin slowly leaving my system, drove for home feeling like I dodged another bullet.