Mountain Biking in America’s Famed Canyon Country

Until recently, we seemed to only head out to the beautiful canyon country of Southern Utah for one thing: canyoneering.


Canyoneering was and is 100% our thing. We plan trips months in advance (something we rarely do), get our friends to make the long drive out with us, and spend hours rappelling, hiking, and crawling in and around canyons for days on end.


But on our most recent trip out to “The Beehive State” we didn’t even pack our ropes or harnesses. And man it felt weird. Instead, our van was stuffed with two contraptions that would allow us to get an entirely different view of the canyons - and allow us to cover a lot more ground in a shorter amount of time. We are of course talking about mountain bikes.


Two mountain bikers in the desert.
We are not this good... yet. PC Sam Marx on Unsplash

Luke has been mountain biking for years - he was even part of the inaugural mountain bike team at his high school in Estes Park. Mountain biking is one of his favorite sports, and one he feels most comfortable with. Myself (Madalyne) on the other hand is very much an amateur.


The plan was for us to road trip out to Vernal, Utah with Luke’s younger sister who had a job lined up out there. Then once we left Vernal we would head south to Fruita in Colorado, a known mountain biking hotspot, before crossing the border into Utah. Our main area would be Moab - an amazing town that we 100% could see ourselves living in one day (though way in the future).


We had four days set aside entirely for mountain biking. Four days on the trail, in the beautiful weather, trying not to get scratched up too bad. It was going to be great.


Here are some of the BEST trails and areas we found, both in Fruita, CO and in and around Moab, UT:


FRUITA


Horsethief Bench: A total loop of 3.9 miles with less than 400 feet of ascent. This is a great trail to do if you feel comfortable riding over and on sandstone rock and want a stellar view of the Colorado River below. But be prepared - it gets hot out in the sun.

Rating: Black


Rustler’s: Another 3.9-mile loop that is geared more towards beginners - it even has helpful signs giving you advice on what to do in certain situations (like going over rocks, turning and riding uphill). This is the perfect warm-up ride to help you feel comfortable in your surroundings, and on your bike overall.

Rating: Blue


Kokopelli Trail: This trail is definitely not for the faint of heart, but if you are crazy enough to do it (it is now very high on our adventure list), we bet it will be completely and totally worth it. It is 143.5 miles (or a bit more if you add on some extra stops) in total, with a mix of technical singletrack and pavement, though the majority of it is on old jeep roads. The trail takes you from Fruita, CO all the way to Moab, UT with almost 14,000 feet of ascent - but over 14,000 feet of descent, so I’d call that a win :). Most people do this trail in 3-5 days. If you are at all interested we highly recommend doing some research, this website is a great place to start.

Rating: Black

Desert dirt road at sunset
Type of trail you'll ride if doing the Kokopelli Trail.

MOAB


Slickrock Trail: Probably one of the most famous mountain bike trails in Utah, and maybe even the USA (or the world?...), Slickrock is definitely worth trying, though it is okay if you just make it through the practice loop on your first go (that is what we ended up doing). The first thing you notice, and it seems dumb typing this, but it is almost ENTIRELY on slickrock. While your tires do definitely stick to it, it is a terrifying thing to get used to and be comfortable with. The next thing you’ll realize is that unless you get there super early, or go late in the day, it will be busy - not just with mountain bikers but with dirt bikers too. So if you are down to try it, come prepared with water, your nerve, and get ready to bump around for 11 miles (or do the practice loop just to try it out, it is only 1.6 miles).

Rating: Black


Klonzo Area: This area about 15 miles north of Moab is a perfect spot to get a mix of different trail difficulties, plus because it is a bit farther out, it is not very busy. Some of the better trails are the Upper and Lower Loops (3.3 miles and 4.8 miles, respectfully) and Gravitron, a fun twisty black diamond trail that is less than 2 miles long.

Rating: Mix of Blue and Black


Bar-M Loops Area: Very close to the Klonzo Area, just a bit closer to town and accessible from the Moab paved bike trail, these loops are also a good mix of difficulties, though more in the Green and Blue range. If you are looking for some easier trails with awesome views, then hit up the Bar-M Loop (7.9 miles and rated Green) or the combination of Lazy and EZ trails (rated Blue).

Rating: Green/Blue

Desert landscape at sunset
Ready to ride through scenery like this? PC Perry Kibler on Unsplash

White Rim Trail: Another killer long-distance trail that takes you through some of the prettiest canyon country Utah has to offer. It is also entirely in Canyonlands National Park - meaning more regulations on camping and no dogs. This one is a bit shorter than the Kokopelli Trail (a measly 100.8 miles...jk) as well as less elevation change overall - only 5,656 feet of ascent. Most people do it in 3-5 days with a support car, especially since there are almost no services along the trail. Again, just like the Kokopelli Trail, do your research beforehand - this is a great place to start.

Rating: Black


If you are interested in mountain biking in the beautiful canyon country of Utah and western Colorado we highly recommend checking out REI’s Mountain Bike Project. It has all the information you would need, plus a nice handy interactive map to show you trails wherever you are.

Girl rappelling down a sandstone wall
Still our "bread and butter" :)

While heading out to canyon country sans canyoneering gear felt weird, in the end almost a week of mountain biking was actually a ton of fun. Yes we got a bit scruffed up, fell a couple of times, and got very sweaty, but we also had an absolute BLAST. Seeing the landscape from a bike is a different experience than just normal hiking. You have to be aware of your surroundings at all times - or you might just run into a huge rock or scratch your elbow on an overhanging tree (not that that happened to us… :). Plus, you just feel more a part of the landscape riding through it than you would walking through it. It is a weird thing to explain.


While we think canyoneering is still one of our favorite activities, mountain biking is definitely moving up the list - for the both of us.