Beyond the Zion Curtain: Bike trails sneak past regulations

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Nothing seems to put the brakes on Troy Rarick's hunger for fast, new singletrack. Not even the law.

"Look at that spot over there. It's gorgeous. It's just crying for a loop," he said as he drove through the rolling sandstone desert toward one of his favorite mountain bike trails. A few miles to the west was the Utah border, an invisible line locals jokingly call the Zion Curtain. "Out beyond that is a ride we call Little Wing. It's a work in progress...eventually I want to have a 100-mile singletrack loop out there."

Rarick owns Over the Edge Sports, the bike shop that created the modern Fruita, Colo. In 1995, when he opened his shop, he and a crew of local bikers built a network of unofficial trails that turned the dying agricultural town into a pilgrimage spot for bikers from around the globe. According to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which oversees millions of acres surrounding Fruita, Rarick and other bikers should not be building anything. New trails on BLM land must go through a lengthy planning process. Miles of trails have just been approved southwest of Fruita, but the rides Rarick is eyeing have no shred of legitimacy.

It didn't seem to faze him.

"So what?"; he said. "We tried being compliant for a few years and it didn't get us anywhere. Now we're sort of going back to the good old days of building (trails) without permission and apologizing later."


A few minutes later, Rarick and eight other riders pulled up to their destination, an epic downhill trail called Flight of Icarus that dives almost 2,000 vertical feet down a narrow shale ridge with views to the La Sal Mountains 100 miles away. It was one of the first trails the bikers built (or, more accurately, discovered, since it strings together old hunting roads and game trails), then apologized for.

At the top was a new BLM sign that read: ATTENTION BICYCLISTS, PORTIONS OF THE ICARUS TRAIL ARE CLOSED. THERE IS NO THROUGH ROUTE. Rarick knew it was there. He'd been riding past the sign for months. He shrugged as he pedaled past again. "This was an established route and there were no public meetings to close it. This is a retaliatory strike by the BLM."

The group exchanged a few disparaging words about the agency and rode on.

Things haven't always been so tense in Fruita. When Rarick opened his shop in 1995, the BLM paid little attention to the locals' trail-building. The shrubby desert hills north of Fruita were designated "open travel," which meant, as far as the BLM was concerned, Jeeps, motorcycles and bikes could go anywhere they wanted, trail or no trail.

Fruita bikers started doing something no one had ever done. They built trails specifically for mountain bikes, with all the loops, swoops, rocks and drops that riders love but rarely see on hiking trails. Word spread about the thrilling trails and stunning scenery. Today Fruita attracts an estimated 50,000 bikers a year. The 2007 Fat Tire festival drew riders from 40 states and nine countries. Rarick's shop is on pace to have its best year ever.

In a recent editorial, BIKE magazine said the town has become a "soul center" of the sport. As the numbers of bikers and other users grew, the BLM drew up a management plan that put an end to open travel. The North Fruita Desert Management plan, adopted in 2004, officially recognized many trails bikers had built and restricted them to nonmotorized use. It allotted areas for motorized recreation, target shooting and other pastimes.

"We tried to provide the best quality and the most opportunity for each of our constituents," said Jim Cooper, transportation planner for the BLM Grand Junction field office. "Almost all of the (bike) trails were built by the public without authorization or environmental analysis or any kind of government blessing at all. But we kind of worked around that."

At the time, bikers in Fruita, including Rarick, celebrated the outcome. Their trails were officially recognized, and as part of the recreation plan, the BLM built a campground near the best rides. Life was good.

The business of bureaucracy

But recognition has its downside. Chris Herrman, director of the Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trail Association, said local riders have become frustrated with the "geologic pace" of the BLM's bureaucracy.

"A decade ago, mountain biking wasn't on the BLM's radar. Bikers could decide to build a trail and do it that afternoon," Herrman said. "Now the BLM has guys specially trained to build bike trails. With that comes this painfully slow bureaucratic process, which drives everyone crazy. I don't think anyone is to blame, but we haven't officially built a new trail here since 2000."

BLM employees trained in trail-building took a closer look at some of the region's steeper trails. That's when Flight of Icarus was closed.

"It's not open and it's not going to be," said Cooper. "It's an unsustainable trail that was built by a local yahoo who thinks he's a great trail-builder but isn't."

The bike community's growing frustration over the lengthy approval process is compounded, Herrman said, by the relatively quick approval of plans for oil and gas development.

"A lot of people wonder why they can't get permission to go out with a shovel and make a foot-wide scratch in the dirt when (energy companies) can slam it with heavy equipment."

Cooper said the BLM has to look out for the greater good: "What's a higher priority, pedaling your bike or fueling America?" Besides, he said, the BLM is in the process of approving miles of new trails just south of Grand Junction in an area called Bangs Canyon. Rarick and Herrman said Bangs Canyon is a lot like Fruita -- the "new" trails are just existing trails being officially recognized.

Bikers without borders

Like Pancho Villa, Geronimo, and other outlaws, bikers in Fruita have found they can cross the border when the authorities put heat on them. Rarick and others are starting to focus their trail-building efforts 20 miles west, across the Utah border. That's where their newest ride, Little Wing, lies. That's where they hope to create a 100-mile singletrack loop.

"Utah is like Grand Junction was 15 years ago. Biking isn't on the radar, so there's less bureaucracy," said Herrman. The terrain is much like the shale hills that made Fruita famous. The potential for trails, Rarick said, is practically endless. And the BLM field office in Moab, Utah, which oversees the area, is more permissive.

"They're not exactly encouraging it, but they're not saying to stop -- which kind of makes it like the old days all over again," he said after the ride down Flight of Icarus. "I wouldn't be surprised if that's the direction things go."

Ride guide

Where to stay

Get the book

A new, full-color version of the Fruita Fat Tire Guidebook ($14.99) is out, featuring six new trails including a 28-mile singletrack epic called Little Wing. Available in town at Over the Edge Sports or at

A number of rides don't make it into the book. If you're in the good graces of the guys at Over the Edge Sports, they may show you the way to Vegetarian, London Bridges and other trails.

Some little-visited gems

If you're new to Fruita, don't miss the rides that made it a classic: Mary's Loop to Horsethief Bench, Joe's Ridge, Zippity Doo Da and many others. Returning riders should branch out. Some of the newer, rarely visited areas hold tons of sweet rides. Here are two favorites:

The Zion Curtain
A 20-mile loop, mostly on intermediate singletrack with a few gnarly, walkable moves.

A map is recommended, but here's the overview: Take the Rabbit Valley Exit (No. 2) off Interstate 70. Drive north, following a dirt road up a steep hill. Park at the top. Bike three miles down a road to the east, crossing into Utah (the eponymous Zion Curtain). At a sandy wash, cross under I-70. Climb a Jeep road for 0.55 miles to an obvious singletrack on the left.

Follow this trail as it winds up and down, recrosses the road twice and flanks the fence that separates Colorado from Utah. Take advantage of spectacular stops on a high mesa with views of the Colorado River below; 9.5 miles after turning onto the trail, it ends on a Jeep road marked as Kokopelli's trail. Take the road northeast (right) back to the I-70 underpass.

The Western Rim
Few rides combine so much scenery with flowing, intermediate trails. Many think this is the best ride in Rabbit Valley. This area has lots of intersecting trails -- a map is recommended.

Take the Rabbit Valley exit (No. 2) off I-70 and turn south. Drive south for 2.6 miles to McDonald Creek and park. From here, bike west on the road across a wash and turn right onto trail No. 2. The trail crosses the Kokopelli trail in 2.5 miles, then drops to join a sandy all-terrain vehicle road. Keep dropping for half a mile, staying left, until an obvious singletrack by a tree on the right. Here begins the Rim Trail. It contours above the Colorado River for the next five miles with thrilling views and riding. When you finally hit a road, turn right and climb one mile to the Kokopelli trail. Turn right and ride two miles to a junction with trail No. 2. Turn left and retrace your tracks to the trailhead.

To contact the writer, email him at Source for trails: Fruita Fat Tire Guidebook.

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