dixie mountain biking
Mountain Biking the Other Southern Utah
BY GREG SCOTHERN
When most people hear the phrase “mountain biking Southern Utah,” their mind’s eye probably envisions the incredible slickrock and desert mesa riding of Moab or the St. George/Hurricane area (or both). And rightly so; both areas are true mountain biking Meccas and have certainly earned that reputation. What many of those same folks probably don’t realize, however, is that world class singletrack in Southern Utah isn’t just limited to Moab & St. George – there’s a whole other Southern Utah that they’ve been driving right on by for years – and it has some of the most beautiful and diverse riding experiences in the state.
The high country surrounding Cedar City, Cedar Breaks, Brian Head, Panguitch, Duck Creek, and Bryce Canyon is roughly four hours south of Salt Lake City, and this region’s best rides can all be accessed within an hour’s drive of each other. The region’s two massive, high-altitude plateaus create a uniquely-Southern Utah scenic wonder: the stunning juxtaposition of red rock cliffs and hoodoos with high alpine scenery. The Markagunt Plateau includes Cedar Breaks National Monument on its western rim, spanning from Brian Head Peak to the headwaters of the Virgin River overlooking majestic Zion National Park. The Paunsaugunt Plateau features Bryce Canyon National Park on its eastern rim and overlooks the vast splendor of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. This is not the Southern Utah that fits the stereotypical, barren red rock desert imagery. This is the Southern Utah that is refreshingly cool in the summer, spotted with crystal-clear high alpine lakes and lush, thick forests of pine and aspen. In other words, it’s the perfect mountain biking destination to escape the heat in the summer months, and it offers some of the most incredible views on the planet.
Here are a few you’ll definitely want to add to your itinerary:
Easy to get to and loaded with dozens of great hotels & restaurants, Cedar City is an excellent basecamp option accessing the area’s many trails. The majority of the great rides in the region are inside an hour’s drive from Cedar City, and the riding immediately accessible from town is outstanding. Notable trails in Cedar City include the Three Peaks Recreation Complex and the Iron Hills trail system. Located about 10 minutes west of town, Three Peaks features 19-plus miles of flowy singletrack that dips and bobs through Utah Juniper interspersed with exciting wood ladder bridges and large playful expanses of granite rock features. A true playground for the whole family, the park has excellent options for beginner and expert riders alike, and also offers great improved campsites, bouldering, hiking, and even includes a full disc golf course.
The Iron Hills Trail System meanders through the foothills east of town and includes the popular “C” Trail, Highland Trail, Green Hollow, Lichen It, and Lava Flow. With roughly 15 miles of trail and multiple access points for loop, out-and-back, and shuttle options, you can string together quick 30-minute loops or 20-plus mile slogs. These are some of the funnest, flowiest, well-built trails anywhere and are worth stopping to ride even if you’re just passing through. For a longer complete tour, start at the Southview Trailhead and do a quick lap on Lichen It and Lava Flow to get warmed up, then climb up to the flowy Green Hollow and Highlands Trails that connect you to the “C” Trail, which rewards you with a nice long downhill romp into town. Take the short East Bench paved pathway at the bottom of “C” trail to get back to Southview. If climbing isn’t your thing, simply shuttle up to the “C” Overlook trailhead and enjoy nearly 5 miles of delicious descending back to town.
Brian Head Resort has been synonymous with great mountain biking for over 20 years, with fantastic lift-accessed trails as well as an expansive network of Forest Service trails. Nestled at 9,800 feet, Brian Head is Utah’s highest incorporated town and provides great year-round lodging and restaurant accommodations, making this another great basecamp option for your adventure. The trails at Brian Head feature dozens of miles of outstanding forested singletrack and two of the best downhill shuttle trails anywhere. For a classic alpine singletrack spin, do a lap on the 11-mile Scout Camp trail, or climb up through the resort on Color Country to Brian Head Peak for stunning views of Cedar Breaks National Monument and the surrounding Markagunt Pleateau.
Don’t miss the opportunity to charge both of the area’s premier downhill trails: Dark Hollow and Bunker Creek. Both trails start at the top of Brian Head Peak and offer incredible views and long, grin-inducing descents. Dark Hollow descends to the town of Parowan to the northwest, and Bunker Creek descends to scenic Panguitch Lake to the east. Both trails are 12 miles long and can be shuttled using your own vehicles, or you can take advantage of the shuttle services offered by the bike shops in Brian Head.
Navajo Lake & Virgin River Rim:
Navajo Lake is a gorgeous high-altitude lake, and it features an excellent 11.5-mile trail that circumnavigates the lake. Staying at a relative constant elevation, this flowy singletrack rolls through pine and aspen forests, lush, wildflower-filled meadows, and striking lava fields. This is a perfect ride for families with intermediate riders, but is still every bit as enjoyable for expert riders.
The Virgin River Rim is a stunning gem of a trail that offers unbelievable views of the Virgin River headwaters and the breathtaking geology of Zion National Park below. With point-to-point options up to 34 miles in length, the entire trail can be ridden in a day with a shuttle. But with several access points along the trail (including the aforementioned Navajo Lake), many riders opt to ride portions of the trail over a couple of days. Regardless of how you decide to ride it, don’t miss this one. The riding is outstanding, and the views just might be the best you’ve seen on two wheels.
Just outside of Bryce Canyon National Park is one of the most unique and beautiful mountain bike trails in existence. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to ride among the striking hoodoos and long-leaf pines of Bryce Canyon, wonder no more. Thunder Mountain will have you wondering if you’ve been transported to an alien planet; there’s simply no other trail quite like in the world. Incredible scenery notwithstanding, this is a well-built trail that is very flowy, not overly technical, and laugh-out-loud fun to ride. With 1200 feet of elevation over 7 miles of flowy singletrack, this point-to-point trail can be shuttled for downhill only, or it can be combined with the Red Canyon Paved Trail and Coyote Hollow Road for a nice 14-mile loop. Regardless of how you choose to ride it, Thunder Mountain is certain to become one of your all-time favorites.