If you build it, they will ride

New trails, added terrain keep Moab on top when it comes to biking

Brooks Carter on the Intrepid Loop near Dead Horse Point, Utah
Elizabeth Miller

I’m probably too young to be making jokes about dating myself with cultural references, but I’ll take this one — remember the T-shirts about biking in Moab that boasted “I survived” and when you came home bloody after a weekend on slickrock, you felt like, yeah, I did survive. Just barely.

Moab may still be king of tough biker country (and we mean spandex, not black leather), but every year additional trails are popping up to add new terrain — and that includes tough enough terrain to keep experts entertained, but let the intermediate and beginner riders get some miles in, too. A collaboration between trail developers and land managers has let up to 80 new miles of trails be opened or proposed in the last four years and cut back the number of illegal trail miles. The model is one other places, including trail developers in Colorado, are looking to mimic.

But I didn’t know any of this when I got in a van with Brooks Carter, who retired from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and started guiding mountain bike rides with Rim Tours in Moab seven years ago, and headed out toward the singletrack trails at Dead Horse Point. It’s a 45-minute drive to Dead Horse from downtown Moab, and while passing other cyclists unloading at areas along the way, Carter starts talking about the latest addition to the Moab trail system, 7-Up. Carter designed that route with Trail Mix, a volunteer committee that assembles trail users, particularly bikers, to create, update and maintain Moab’s classic bike rides. Their work includes Magnificent 7, Pipe Dream, the Colorado River-Gemini Bridges bike/pedestrian path, the Moab Brand Trails (Bar-M, Circle-O, Rockin’-A and Bar-B) and the Whole Enchilada Trail System. Volunteers remove brush from trails, rake them, line the trails with rocks, and move dirt and rocks into and out of the trails, sometimes with a grip hoist.

In August, they opened the 7-Up trail, a new seven-mile trail that starts from the same trailhead as the Magnificent 7 trail on Gemini Bridges Road before arching through pinyon forest and connecting back to Highway 313, the road to Dead Horse Point. The trail is in a group of new trail developments, including Getaway, the main section of which was finished this year and will eventually connect to 7-Up, Great Escape, which is a year old, and Bull Run, a two-year old trail.

“One of the things that we’ve been looking at in Moab is the need to develop some trails that just aren’t all the hardest thing you can think of to ride — because that used to be what Moab was known as. Come to Moab and if you can survive it, you get a T-shirt that you’re still alive and you made it through these trails,” Carter says. “We were like, well how about something for the intermediate biker that’s really fun and challenging but it’s not death defying, and that’s what these trails are like. They’re really fun, there’s a lot of technical in it, but not so hard technical that only expert riders can ride it.”

The trails flow above red rock canyons and provide enough of a challenge to keep expert riders entertained, but still allow intermediates to get some mileage in.

Photo by Elizabeth Miller

Most mountain biking trails — legally developed ones — have a longer gestation period than humans. Carter started work last year designing another new trail on the north end of the Klondike Bluff area, beginning initially with aerial photographs then walking the trail, setting up cairns for where it would go.

“I got that partially done, or at least I thought I was done, then you have to take Trail Mix, the group, with you, to go out and walk the trail,” he says. “You spend your time and you say, ‘OK, now come see if this looks like what Trail Mix wants to spend its money and its trail miles to build.’ They looked at it and they liked 80 percent of the trail.”

But the end, they said, wasn’t working. He’ll have to go back and remap and rewalk that trail in the next month before submitting the application to the BLM. Construction might not start for another year, Carter says. In total, it could take two or three years before the trail is open to ride.

Once the BLM gets to take a look, its staff will review the trail for its proximity to sensitive areas, which can include buffers around nesting raptors, migrating desert bighorn sheep, cultural resources and hiking-specific sites.

The BLM’s resource management plan, which was signed into action in 2008, allows for 150 miles of new trails.

“We understand that Moab is a mecca for mountain biking and at the time there was quite a worry that Moab was going to lose its hegemony to Fruita, both from recreational opportunities but also from an economic opportunity,” says Katie Stevens, recreational technician with the BLM Moab Field Office. “A lot of people who do come to recreate in Moab come specifically for biking, so it’s quite an economic engine and we were really sympathetic to that and, you know, part of our mission is to provide recreation opportunities too and mountain bikers are a big portion of our recreators.”

Trail Mix represents the interests of non-motorized trail users, but because there are no laws against horseback riders and hikers going wherever they want — though that’s not the preferred use of BLM land — the bulk of the attention goes to maintenance and development of mountain biking trails.

The collaboration between the two has made it easier on both ends — the BLM has seen a significant reduction in illegal trail development, according to Stevens, and Trail Mix, in learning more about the sensitive areas the BLM protects, has learned to check those maps and work around them.

“We had a considerable illegal trail issue and since we’ve set up the mechanism of how to do this right — you just don’t go out and do it, you go with proper environmental consultation and looking at all the issues — I think, it probably hasn’t stopped but it’s certainly much less of a problem,” Stevens says.

And some of those new trails that opened in the Magnificent 7 area were created specifically to reroute illegal trails — saving the BLM a perpetual thorn in its tire while keeping riders happily pedaling along highly coveted terrain.

They’ve shut down 30 or 40 miles of illegal trails, she says, and they probably didn’t know half of it. Illegal trail riding is punished by fines and an officer can require a mandatory court appearance — meaning coming back to scenic Moab to stand in front of a judge instead of a canyon vista.

Overall, Stevens says, the collaboration has led to more sustainable trails — ones that don’t threaten the rest of the desert environment, but also don’t wash out in the rain.

“I’ve got a few bike trail proposals from Trail Mix in front of me right now, and we look at a whole host of issues,” Stevens says. “I’d say the biggest issue we’ve had so far has been wildlife.”

BLM wildlife staff and archeologists will go out during trail routing and make suggestions to re-route around resources.

Trail builders also know to call the BLM when they find something like a shard of pottery, and once called in an orange and black fragment that contributed to a developing theory about the trade routes Native Americans used, because its style is so different from that native to the area.

“Our archaeologists have turned all the Trail Mix people into junior archaeologists,” Stevens says.

Trail designers like Carter also know to check the maps for wildlife migration patterns before submitting a proposal. And when the proposals come in with all those considerations in mind, Stevens says, and are in the areas designated for biking, not all of which even have trails yet, they’re pretty much a slam dunk — or insert the equivalent biking metaphor.

“We try not to say just ‘No,’ but ‘Where could move it that this could work?’” Stevens says.

When development reaches the end of that 150 miles, Stevens says, they’ll look for other places, like closed motorized vehicle roads that can be reclaimed as bike routes — but wouldn’t count against those 150 trail miles.

“I’m actually not worried that we’re going to bump up against that ceiling,” Stevens says.

Trail developers in Fruita are among those looking at the model in Moab. But while those trails are great, Carter says, personal opinion — it’s not much of a competition. Cooperation, however, could see developments that expand on routes like the Kokopelli trail, connecting the two towns and letting riders pass between.

“There’s so little resources in federal land management in terms of economic and human resources that there has to be some kind of public private partnership to make anything work,” says Ryan Schutz, Rocky Mountain regional director for the International Mountain Bicycling Association. And around the region, having those partnerships in place has cut back on illegal trail development.

“If you program for your users, then they’ll stop trying to do it for themselves, so providing great trails generally solves the illegal trail building issue,” he says.

Setting out on the Intrepid Loop, Carter has us geared up to cruise along the canyon rim, peeking down on stretches of red desert. It’s a good intermediate ride with plenty of corners to lean into and a few bumps uphill to whoop over. We survive — better than just barely.

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