Mesas and Cervezas: Winter Mountain Biking in St. George, Utah
The time between Christmas and New Years is an excellent time to take a break and get away. For the past several years the destination has been Salt Lake City to hone my alpine skiing skills. Lift tickets have since doubled in price, and the lines for lifts have only gotten longer during the holidays, so this year I set my destination for St. George, Utah. No lift tickets. No waiting in lines to ride. No crowded roads to get to the trails. On top of this, my new 2019 Santa Cruz 5010 was begging to be ridden for the first time.
My friend Rob moved to Park City this summer, and he generously offered up his condo and car for me to use while he was away for the holidays. I flew to SLC, built up the new mountain bike, and started the 4 hour drive to St. George. Despite it being a bit snowy, it was a beautiful drive down the I-15.
Warm and dry weather was a big draw in doing this trip. The temp was still in the low 20’s and it was snowy right up to 30 miles from St. George. I do plenty of winter riding in Minnesota, and I love it, but the point of this trip was to get on rideable dirt. After dropping 2,000 feet, the snow disappeared and the temperature rose to the upper 40’s fahrenheit. Red Rock Bicycles was the first stop in St. George so I could get a map of the trails, and get any necessary local intel on riding conditions and recommendations. Sarah was super friendly and recommended a bunch of trails that were in excellent condition. I got checked into the hotel, suited up, and took off on my new ride to the Zen Trails.
If you are staying in St. George, you can ride to the Zen trails from town pretty easily. This is a great warm up to prepare for the climb up the Zen Connector trail to the actual Zen trails. Right away the beauty of the area stops you and begs you to take it all in.
Winter desert landscapes can be so dramatic, especially when there is snow falling on distant mountain tops. Layers of color and texture create unusual contrast.
The Zen Trail Loop was technical, but rideable for most skill levels. It’s very different from Midwest trails where there are fewer rocks and smoother riding surfaces. The first ride on my Santa Cruz 5010 was giving me a lot of pedal strike, so it was clear I had some adjustments to make. Nevertheless, it was delightful to be on this terrain on the new bike.
There was limited light left in the day, so I had to keep the number of photographs to a minimum so I could make it off the trail before dark. Overall, the Zen Trails were a great way to start off the trip. It is a loop with a moderate climb, and amazing views of the St. George area.
The first thing I did after riding the Zen Trails was to flip the chip in my new Santa Cruz 5010 from the Lo to Hi position on the lower shock mount bolt. The Hi position (bolt forward as pictured below) gave me 4mm of additional bottom bracket clearance, and slightly steepened the head-tube angle.
With this adjustment, and a small adjustment to shock pressure I was set for the second ride of the Mesas and Cerverzas trip.
Quite possibly the most scenic mountain bike route on the planet. I was fortunate that the trail was mostly free of snow and ice, and was very rideable for mid-winter conditions. The plan was to ride the North Rim and South Rim trails to take advantage of as much of the scenery as possible. Coming from St. George, you drive through Hurricane and out on Highway 59 towards Hildale and Colorado City, AZ. Take a hard left on “Main Street” and start driving the dirt road towards the trailheads. Follow the signs for Gooseberry Mesa.
At the “Y” intersection there is a trailhead with a toilet. This is where I parked because beyond it the road was in questionable condition for the low clearance car I was driving. From there I rode down “Gooseberry Mesa North” access road to the start of the Windmill trail that connects with the North Rim Trail . It didn’t take long to hit the rim of the mesa for spectacular views of Zion National Park.
The adjustments to the suspension on my new Santa Cruz 5010 made all the difference. Gooseberry Mesa consists of a lot of slickrock with 6-12” ledges. Lifting the front wheel and timing your pedaling is essential to an enjoyable ride. Also, be ready to do a little bit of hike-a-biking. Some sections are simply not rideable unless you possess skills like Danny MacAskill.
Sections of slickrock, marked with white dots, connected sections of technical singletrack with loose fist-sized rocks. Short juniper trees frequently block sight-lines in corners, so it was essential to keep speed in check. Near the North and South Rims, the consequences of a missed turn could be devastating. Many of the slickrock sections also contained frozen puddles, another obstacle to be vigilant of.
Temperatures were in the mid-30’s fahrenheit, and it was quite windy. My Ragnarök boots were the perfect solution for my feet in these conditions. They blocked the wind, trapped heat, and kept my feet comfortable and dry. As I carried on along the North Rim, the views did not disappoint.
Approaching the half-way point of the Gooseberry Mesa ride, I took a break to adjust tire pressure and tighten a few loose ends on the new bike. The slacker headtube angle compared to my previous 5010 took a bit of getting used to, and I quickly warmed up to it when lifting the front wheel up ledges and dropping off of steep rock declines on to flat trail The 15mm longer top tube more equally distributed my weight, which makes the bike handle in a more predictable and balanced way. And those new Teravail tires: damn they look good. In March 2019 I will be able to share more about them.
After a quick blast down the point trail, it was time to start riding the South Rim back towards the parking lot. There was a lot of winding around, up and over huge rock faces, navigating cactus plants sneering at the sidewalls of my tires. The riding was extremely technical, and it took me more than two hours to cover 12 miles of trail.
Suddenly the singletrack spit me out on to a huge rock slab with a cliff that dropped several hundred feet below.
The views were absolutely breathtaking, and the riding along the edge quite intimidating.
There was another several miles of extremely technical riding, often requiring me to push the bike through sections. Daylight was dwindling, and the desert light was painting the landscape in vibrant and dramatic tones.
Just look at the shadowy red hues of this sandy road back to the parking lot. I was having a “moment”, taking in all of this natural beauty.
The drive back towards highway 59 was equally scenic.
In Southern Utah it is impossible to find a local brewery serving beer, but after riding Gooseberry Mesa there is an excellent opportunity. Instead of taking Highway 59 back to Hurricane, go the opposite direction 10 miles and cross the border into Colorado City, Arizona. Just across the border is a brew pub aptly named “Edge of the World Brewery”. They had five beers on tap, and serve a variety of food. Nowhere else in the St. George area will you find anything like this. It’s worth the 10 mile drive after riding Gooseberry Mesa.
This made for the perfect ending to an amazing day, riding a new trail, on a new bike, in one of the most beautiful landscapes in the country. Next up was the IMBA Epic Route on the Hurricane Rim Trail.
Hurricane Rim Route
The legs were still recovering from the extremely technical 13 miles of Gooseberry Mesa, but it was time to explore the 26-mile IMBA Epic Route on Hurricane Rim the next morning. The route is accessed from Sheep Bridge Road, just to the east of the town of Virgin. There is a parking lot just across the river. This route includes the Jem Trail, Hurricane Rim Trail, and Gould’s Rim.
Leaving the parking lot, you start by riding slightly uphill on the Jem trail on the edge of a cliff that overlooks the Virgin River, to the intersection of the Hurricane Rim Trail. The first 10 miles are mostly uphill on singletrack, with small technical features here and there. Of course, the views are amazing.
From the Hurricane Rim Trail, you get spit out on to Highway 59 right near the town of Hurricane for a brief moment. After about 1000 feet there is a jeep road that goes straight up off the left of the highway. It is more than a two mile climb to Gould’s Rim Trail from there. Gould’s Rim gets a lot of negative reviews, but on this large loop it is a nice respite from the climbing and technical sections.
Towards the end of Gould’s Rim you approach the highway via a dirt road, at which point the Jem and Dead Ringer Trails converge.
The Jem Trail is super fun, with a smoother riding surface and a flowy feel. It was nearly 9 full miles of descending flow back towards the parking lot, which comes as a nice reward after so much climbing and winding along narrow singletrack.
After 3.5 hours of challenging riding, while skipping lunch, the body was completely worn out and hungry for nourishment. This was a long, difficult ride on some of my favorite trails in the area. If you come to St. George, the Jem Trails and Hurricane Rim are on the “must” list. Tomorrow I would be riding the famous trails in the Santa Clara area.
Barrel Roll / Sidewinder / Suicidal Tendencies
Favorited by most locals for their proximity to the town of St. George, these three trails in Santa Clara offer lots of options for ride planning. You can just ride Barrel Roll for a 5.7 mile loop, or connect to Suicidal Tendencies via Sidewinder for an 18 mile ride with a wild mix of riding from flow sections, to extremely technical singletrack that navigates tight spaces between rocks that will tear your ankle skin off.
Barrel Roll lifts you up above the skyline pretty quickly, and you can see a bunch of other trails in the distance. I parked at the bottom of Cove Wash access and climbed up to the start of Barrel Roll, which then elevated you even further as you approached Sidewinder. The mountain views from this perspective were particularly interesting, as layers contrasted against each other. It made for some really fun photography.
Sidewinder was mostly a non-technical climb that leads to the start of Suicidal Tendencies.
Suicidal Tendencies was something entirely different. Right away there is a descent that drops you right into a rocky switchback. You didn’t want to miss any turns on Suicidal Tendencies.
By this point of the trip, my body was very tired. On Suicidal Tendencies I smashed knuckles, gouged cranksets, clipped pedals, and sent my chest smashing down on to my handlebars. It was time to take it easy and be careful to avoid any serious injury. I was having a blast riding a new bike, on dirt, in late December. The trip was wrapping up and it felt so great to get so many miles in the legs.
The following day I did an easy 13 mile ride up the dirt road to the top of the Jem Trail so I could descend down once again. Halfway up I turned into the Dead Ringer Trail, which is also a super fun trail if you’re looking for undulating flow. and some great views at the top.
Temperatures were in the upper 20’s, with a 35mph wind blowing from the north. The wind pretty much nullified the descent. I had to push the pedals hard to go downhill all the way back to the car. It had been an amazing five days of riding, my body was tired, but my soul was energized. St. George did not disappoint. I’ll be coming back.