Twenty years later, can Moab become 'the next Moab'?

MOAB, Utah -- When a new mountain biking trail opened in the slickrock desert north of town in March, local bikers had a perfect name for it: Baby Steps.

It isn't a beginner ride (the 17-mile string of rock drops and sandy washes twists through the hills like a startled snake), but the name is perfect because the trail is the first small step toward building a network of bike-only singletrack trails to help Moab keep its title as the mecca of mountain biking.

For 20 years, Moab's red rock scenery and seemingly endless selection of four-wheel-drive roads have made it a pilgrimage site for fat-tire fanatics from across the country.

So many bike-toting cars roll in from Colorado in April and May the town has a saying: "You know it's spring in Moab when the license plates turn green."

For most of Moab's reign as the top mountain bike destination, it hasn't had to do much. There was no competition. Then in the late 1990s, every town with a decent bike trail claimed to be "the next Moab."

The next Moab

First there was Fruita, just over the Colorado border, with its variety of loops of different lengths and technical difficulties. Then there was Sedona, Ariz.; then Saint George, Utah; then the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon; then Rossland, British Columbia.

They built trails. They threw festivals. They said their singletrack could blow the tires off anything in Moab.

"Everyone was trying to be the next Moab except Moab. We hadn't built a new trail in years," said Kim Schappert, a mountain biker who has lived in Moab for 18 years and now runs the Moab Trail Alliance, a nonmotorized trail group.

Moab bikers thought they didn't need new trails, she said. They continued to rely on an extensive network of old mining roads and four-drive trails that had made it a ready-made mountain bike play park when the first nomadic riders started poking around town in the mid-1980s. Back then, the trails seemed almost empty. Many had almost faded away from lack of use.

But when bikers discovered the awesome terrain, so did off-roaders, fourers and motorcyclists. Sales of off-road vehicles in Utah have grown 400 percent in the past 12 years, according to state registrations.

Off-road traffic

Now, on any given spring morning, bikers jockey for trail space. One Bureau of Land Management survey counted 800 jeeps on the Poison Spider Mesa trail on a single spring day. In some places, bikes and four-wheel-drive vehicles were backed up as if in city traffic.

Other trails have similar congestion.

"When I rode Porcupine Rim Trail we had to get out of the way so the dirt bikes could do laps. They are so dirty and noisy, they ought to be outlawed," said Billy Smallen, a mountain biker from Salt Lake City who was in Moab recently.

Long-time Moabites often point out that the four-wheel-drive vehicles and motorcycles were here long before the bicycles, and pioneered most of the classic trails in the area, including the famous Slickrock Trail.

But that doesn't change the feeling Smallen and thousands of bikers like him have: They didn't drive hundreds of miles to get pushed off the trail by smelly motorcycles.

Bike-only trails

Increasingly, bikers want a variety of singletrack loops built just for riding. Local bikers and business owners who cater to the mountain bike industry have been grumbling for years that there were no new trails where riders could get away from these crowds.

Baby Steps is part of the solution.

Schappert and other local riders suggested it to the BLM, which manages 1.8 million acres around Moab. The trail was then built by volunteers.

Most area trails are on public land, which has to be managed for different users, from hikers to bikers to ranchers. But land managers are increasingly trying to keep users separate.

"We want to give everyone a piece of Moab, just not all together," said Katie Stevens, an outdoor-recreation planner for the BLM.

The Moab field office of the BLM is drawing up a new management plan that, Stevens said, will add more nonmotorized trails like Baby Steps. At the same time, the BLM will likely close large areas to off-trail travel by motorized vehicles to protect the scenic aspects of the area.

Other regions around Moab are adding trails too. The Manti-La Sal National Forest in the mountains above Moab just opened the Moonlight Meadows downhill trail, which was built to reroute a renegade singletrack built by Moab locals. It allows riders to link the snowcapped La Sal Mountains with the desert below in one epic ride comparable to Salida's famous Monarch Crest Trail.

And most exciting for mountain bikers, said Schappert of the Moab Trail Coalition, a network of singletrack with loops of different lengths and technical difficulties is being considered for the scenic canyon rims of Dead Horse Point State Park.

Basically, Moab is trying to become the next Fruita.

"All this stuff is in the works," said Schappert. "And if we can pull it off, the bikers won't have to duke it out on the trails with the Jeeps anymore. It will be great."

What's new in Moab?

Baby Steps - 16.5 miles
A tight, twisty singletrack, ideal for strong intermediate riders. This ride is too new to show up in guidebooks. So take Out There with you, or ask at the bike shops in Moab. Since the trail is still faint, a map and compass might be a good idea.

To get there: Drive 17.5 miles north of Moab on U.S. Highway 191. Turn right on Klondike Bluffs Road. Drive three miles to trailhead.

The ride:

  • Start by heading north on a sandy doubletrack. Take a left at a sign for Baby Steps and ride .75 mile to a marked right turn. Start climbing bumpy slickrock.
  • At 2.7 miles from the trailhead, take a right onto a clear singletrack loop. The next half-mile is the most technical section of trail, with a few steep descents and rocky ridges.
  • At 3.5 miles, the trail hits a doubletrack along a fin of creamy sandstone. Turn left. At the top of a hill, turn left onto another marked loop of singletrack; 1.5 bumpy miles later it reconnects with the doubletrack. Turn left, climb a mile to a fork, and turn left.
  • Climb a short, steep section to a ridge and descend a loose, rocky road to a wide valley. Take a left, paralleling the ridge on a doubletrack.
  • At a T intersection, go left and climb over the ridge again, then descend and follow the road as it winds back up to the ridge. Sigh in frustration.
  • Finally, on the ridge, turn left on a well marked singletrack that descends the slickrock to the valley floor. Where the trail hits a dirt road, turn left and return 3.5 miles to the trailhead.
Sovereign Singletrack's Lariat Loop - 16.5 miles
This trail, built by motorcycle riders in 2003, has become a top Moab mountain bike trail because of its tight, rocky singletrack and varied loops. It's best for strong intermediate riders. Check local maps for shorter options.

To get there: Drive 11 miles north from Moab on U.S. Highway 191 to Willow Springs Road. Turn right and drive 2.5 miles to trailhead.

The ride (Note: Enter road only when dry):

  • Pedal east for .1 mile. Turn left onto a doubletrack, then left onto a singletrack at .6 mile. Follow a clear route as it drops into a valley, then climbs a steep mesa.
  • After 6 miles, cross the Dalton Wells Road. Follow a small wash for a few meters, then turn right.
  • At 7.1 miles, veer left after a stiff climb.
  • At 8.2 miles, hit a dirt road and turn right.
  • At 8.6 miles, veer right at a fork, then left at the next fork.
  • At 10 miles, turn right onto Dalton Wells Road. Head downhill and rejoin the path to trailhead.
Must-do classics
Check the guidebook for these, then hit them early, before the crowds.
  • Slickrock Trail: There is a reason this trail made Moab famous. Its 10.5 miles are like riding on a petrified cloud.
  • Porcupine Rim: Consistently the favorite of bike shop employees in Moab, this 15.6-mile shuttle ride serves up lots of technical ledge drops and rocky descents. For skilled riders only.
What's worth missing
Some are best left to fourers. A few include the Moab Rim Trail, Amasa Back and Poison Spider Mesa.

Contact Gazette writer Dave Philipps at

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