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Why Care for Greater Zion? Three Locals Talk About the Land, Community and Responsible Recreation.

Many locals here have deep roots. Some venture away, but most come back. One thing they all have in common? A deep connection to this terrain paired with a sense of ownership.

Ask any Greater Zion local what their land embodies to them and you’ll get as many answers as there are stars in its celestial night sky. Harmony and wonder dance on these horizons, where the sun illuminates a flawless, blue sky and blazes over a sculptural landscape. No one understands the emotional attachment to Greater Zion — a Land of Reverence — better than the ones who live, work and raise families here. 

One multi-generational native recalls childhood memories of St. George as a little highway town. A teacher-turned-adventure-guide churns out facts about volcano calderas and homogenous sandstone. And a Greater Zion boomerang describes his triumphant return home after 20 years away. 

All testify to a collective reverence of Greater Zion. Beyond its geographic anomaly, the land houses a proud community driven by hospitality and kindness. The residents welcome all visitors to do what locals do best: Shop and eat locally, seek out safe adventures, volunteer for events, and practice trail etiquette. There’s no better guidebook to why this Land of Reverence is worth preserving than their stories here. 

Hospitality Steeped in Pioneer Roots

“I’m as local as they come and never want to leave.” Shayne Wittwer owes plenty to his pioneer ancestors. Long before the Wittwers became hoteliers, the family’s heritage was etched in stone using wagon axle grease — still viewable today along Snow Canyon State Park’s Pioneer Names Trail.

Shayne’s Greater Zion story dates back to the 1860s. “We’ve been here forever, primarily as farmers and ranchers,” he states. Not long after a short stint in Las Vegas where his family opened their first hotel, they returned to Santa Clara in the 1950s and opened their first Utah hotel on St. George Boulevard. 

Shayne Wittwer

“Come and fully experience and enjoy it. But leave it so others can experience the same thing 100 years from now.”

Shayne Wittwer, Wittwer Hospitality

The Wittwer Hospitality CEO has had a front-row seat to Greater Zion’s growth, first as a child and today as an entrepreneur, avid mountain biker, family man, and community spokesperson. “Instead of being a stopover, we’ve become a destination from both directions. I’m amazed at how much business we see from markets like California and Arizona … and even Washington, Oregon, and Texas.”

It’s no wonder travelers seek out Greater Zion. “There’s something here for everyone,” he says. “You can do 20 different things in a day that are so dissimilar from each other yet and all are enjoyable.” 

That variety is what makes Greater Zion a place to preserve for future generations of locals and explorers. “I’m of the mindset that the land was meant to be seen and used. That’s why we all live here. And that’s why people come to visit. Come and fully experience and enjoy it. But leave it so others can experience the same thing 100 years from now.” 

Getting Schooled in the Great Outdoors 

Rick Praetzel takes adventure to the next level. “When I see somebody come back from an experience and they have that look in their eyes, that shining light, and they try to put it into words. I just say, ‘It’s fine. You don’t need to explain.’” 

But Rick is not driven solely by the adrenaline rush. For him and his Zion Adventure Company team, experiencing Greater Zion is all about the human experience — one that should be gifted to the next generation. 

Rick never lost his ability to teach or connect with students, even though he launched an adventure company in 1996. The former math and physics teacher enthusiastically imparts his wisdom to today’s students of the great outdoors. 

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“It’s within everybody’s grasp. Just bridle yourself a little bit so that everybody can access this amazing place.”

Rick Praetzel, Zion Adventure Company

The geographic phenomenon of Zion — owning the thickest layer of homogenous sandstone, the largest super volcano caldera, dinosaur tracks, and three major geographic zones (Great Basin, Colorado Plateau and the Mojave Desert) — continues to impress him daily. “When you put sandstone with water and gravity inside a slot canyon, it’s beyond anything. Its beauty consumes every human attribute. You can’t help but be happy or experience joy and wonder. Living in Greater Zion for me is a never-ending supply of those moments.”

Cultivating these moments for future explorers to enjoy is key. That’s why sustainability bleeds into Rick’s curriculum of science and sport. Along the way, guides point out cryptobiotic soil or sandstone fins and explain the importance of bringing an extra trash bag to pack it out. “When you take on a sense of responsibility, not a sense of obligation, but a sense that it’s yours, on behalf of your children and grandchildren and everybody else, then there’s really no loss of joy or experience in factoring those actions into everything you do. It’s within everybody’s grasp. Just bridle yourself a little bit so that everybody can access this amazing place.”

The Native Returns Home 

“Love it or lose it. It’s as simple as that.” If there is one thing Hank Van Orden wants travelers and locals to know about protecting Greater Zion, it’s this.

“The desert is so beautifully rugged, yet so delicate at the same time. When we don’t respect the terrain, we will lose access to it,” Hank says. “One of the things that make Greater Zion so great is the level of access we have to these beautiful lands. That access could easily be stripped from us if our actions are not respectful to the terrain. Protection of the lands should first and foremost come from those that use them.”

Hank takes pride in Greater Zion for a number of reasons, but two attributes stand out most: community and scenery. The people and the landscape, plus a chance to manage a new luxury hotel and restaurant in his hometown, are why he returned to Greater Zion recently after 20 years away. 

Hank VanOrden

“Love it or lose it. It’s as simple as that.”

Hank Van Orden, The Advenire Autograph Collection

“I moved around between six different states [after high school], only to realize that everywhere I moved never stacked up to Greater Zion. When the opportunity to move home and manage such a great property as The Advenire, Autograph Collection, I did not hesitate for one second. It was a drop-everything-and-run-as-fast-as-you-can scenario!” 

In his line of work, Hank frequently hears visitors recount their stays. “We recently hosted a Red Bull-sponsored pro mountain biker from New Zealand for a month. This world traveler said that the Greater Zion terrain is unlike anything he had ever seen in all his travels. The dirt, mountains, and mesas were the best he had ever ridden. But he also said that he had never experienced this level of hospitality before. Everyone he met was just so friendly and helpful throughout his whole trip. That really stuck with me and is something the whole community should be proud of.” 

How to Visit the Land of Reverence Responsibly 

Rick Praetzel best sums up a Greater Zion day like this: It’s about “creating intimate experiences, like finding a quiet corner of the park where you can watch the light change over the course of the day and see some very small special part of a big, general area.” He likes to sprinkle this “human experience” into each of his journeys. “This gives a visitor the same slice of the life that a local has here.”

This holistic human experience is simple to attain while paying it forward to the next season of visitors. All it takes is a little reading and preparation. Sustainability actions are a simple add-on benefit to enjoying the action. Refer to our Land of Forever checklist for all you need to know about how to visit Greater Zion responsibly, with reverence. 

Written by Stephanie DeGraw

Destination development projects in Washington County are chugging full steam ahead. According to the Greater Zion Convention and Tourism Office, more than $25 million tourism-generated funds have been distributed throughout county projects over the last 10 years. 

The tourism board released current updates on projects in development in 2022 the week of June 20-26. The list includes upkeep on existing venues and infrastructure and new assets. The Utah legislature requires counties statewide to spend at least 47% establishing and promoting tourism. Greater Zion spends 53% on tourism-related projects and infrastructure, Greater Zion Convention and Tourism Director Kevin Lewis said.

He also said that the mission of Greater Zion is to use the funds generated from tourism to create a superior experience for locals, not just visitors. In addition to developing infrastructure, trails and facilities, they address the area’s future needs. The group works closely with community leaders, land managers and residents to do so.

“As the city grows, the amenities grow, and there’s a little bit of a give and take there,” Lewis said. “If you look at major metropolitans, as they grow, they start building and private investment goes with that. It’s not all public investment, and I think that’s what you’ll see happen here. As we continue to grow out.”

Money from temporary visitor lodging is known as transient room tax and funds the projects. Lewis explained a city or group in Washington county might seek support from Great Zion’s tourism board. They apply through the board, which recommends specific proposals to the County Commission. 

“The commission ultimately authorizes the use of the funds, which will take the information we have in the application process,” he said.

Local projects have benefited from tourism dollars, including:

  • The Zion Corridor Trail 
  • State Route 18 Paved Path
  • St. George Little Valley Turf Improvements
  • St. George Little Valley Pickleball Improvements
  • Spring Hollow and Grass Mountain Biking Project
  • Santa Clara Canyon View Park/BMX Track
  • Sand Mountain OHV Staging Area (Waddy’s Parking Corral)
  • Hurricane Trail System (600 N. Trail)
  • Hurricane Equestrian Park
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The Zion Corridor Trail is a paved project that connects La Verkin to Springdale to Zion National Park along state Route 9. It will feature about 18 miles, including an underpass, bridges and boardwalks. The goal is to narrow the gaps and improve the active transportation options in the Zion Corridor, Leslie Fonger, destination development manager, Greater Zion, said

The estimated costs are $13.5 million, of which $10.8 million will come from the Utah Department of Transportation and $2.7 million from Washington County. The groups involved include the Zion Regional Collaborative, Virgin, Rockville, Springdale, La Verkin and Washington County. Fonger said community input is being sought. The project will be finished in 2026.

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State Route 18 is receiving a face-lift and combines road widening projects with a paved path. The trail will connect Veyo to Central, running along the east side of state Route 18. 

“Bicyclists will have a much safer route,” Fonger said.

Lewis added that the increased traffic on that highway and many events happening in that area led to this project’s approval.

“The marathon is one of the events where people are up there on state Route 18, running that highway all the time and preparing for the marathon,” Lewis said. “Like two months before, if you’ve ever been up there, you’ll see people every morning. In that section, it’s a little more remote, but they want to run the course. And so, one of the things in the design was keeping it road grade, so that they can train at the same grade, but they won’t actually be on the road.”

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St. George Little Valley Turf Improvements focus on replacing most of the natural grass with artificial turf on soccer fields. Fonger said it reduces water usage and lets the natural grass rest. It will also provide off-season use for tournaments and lower maintenance costs. 

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St. George Little Valley Pickleball Improvements expand the complex with an additional 10 courts and add a championship court with stadium seating. Besides attracting regional and national tournaments year-round, the local usage of the courts is very high, she said. The project will cost approximately $2 million and is expected to be completed in summer 2023.


Spring Hollow and Grass Valley Mountain Biking Project showcase new mountain bike trails in the Dixie National Forest to be built in phases over the next few years. Fonger said it includes 44 miles of new pathways in the Spring Hollow area and 11 miles of new trail in the Pine Valley area. 

There will also be new trailheads, an event staging area and a dispersed camping area. Added will be about 20 miles of trail in Spring Hollow and a trailhead and the staging and dispersed camping areas.

Fonger said the goal is to provide new mountain biking elements not currently available in Washington County. It also is designed to accommodate competition races, downhill and jump lines. Another plus, she said, is providing trails at a higher elevation the public can use during the summer heat.

Funding is estimated at $508,464 for Phase 1 and $288,204 for Phase 2. Washington County tourism funds came to $800,000 for these costs. The Utah Office of Outdoor Recreation has provided grants worth $560,000. The rest of the funding is provided by the Dixie National Forest and donations from the Southern Utah Trail Alliance, Trails Utah and Vacation Races. Fonger said Phase 1 is underway and should be finished by 2022. Phase 2  will begin later this year and is expected to be completed by year’s end.

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Santa Clara Canyon View Park/BMX Track focuses on the Canyon View Park. It includes a BMX track, softball fields and other amenities. New features include a trail, parking and restroom improvements in three phases. The thrust of modifications will increase the ability to host larger BMX, softball and youth baseball events through the upgrades. Expenses are around $800,000 with Washington County tourism monies contributing $260,000. The completion is expected for later in 2022, Fonger said.

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Hurricane Trails System (600 N. Trail) is a paved trail that will connect Grandpa’s Pond Park to 200 East in Hurricane. For 5 miles, it will partially follow 600 North and is regarded as a regionally significant trail project, Fonger said. This fulfills Hurricane City’s Active Transportation Plan and improves safety on 600 North while connecting with the regional trail system. Funding is estimated at $2 million, with costs shared by the city and Washington County tourism funds. 

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Hurricane Equestrian Park is on 40 acres southeast of the airport and will double the capacity of the American Legion Rodeo Arena presently used. The new venue will include rodeo grounds with 2,000 seats, a restroom building, concession stand, pavilion, parking areas, announcer’s booth, walking trails and picnic areas.

The new venue will double the size of the American Legion Rodeo Arena currently in use.

“Llike with a lot of these other projects, the demand is outpacing the facilities,” Fonger said.

This will not only benefit Peach Days but also new events and provide family riding space, Fonger added. The funding is provided by Hurricane City and supported by Washington County and other stakeholders. The cost is estimated at $2.4 million. The project also includes nighttime lighting and bleachers, and a playground. This project is projected to be finished in 2022.

In addition to the 2021 and 2022 IRONMAN 70.3 World Championships, IRONMAN turns to Greater Zion to host their postponed Championship, bringing millions more in economic impact to Washington County

Read IRONMAN’s press release regarding the 2021 IRONMAN World Championship in St. George here.

St. George, Utah (September 23, 2021)– On the heels of the prestigious IRONMAN® 70.3® World Championship held in St. George last week, IRONMAN announced today that it is bringing its 2021 IRONMAN World Championship event, traditionally held in Kona, Hawaii, to St. George on May 7, 2022.

The IRONMAN World Championship is the longest running and most distinguished endurance event in the world, but due to Covid-19 restrictions in its home state, the culminating experience in IRONMAN’s full-distance triathlon (140.6-miles) circuit has not happened since 2019. The 2020 race was scrapped entirely and in early August, the 2021 event slated to happen on October 9, 2021, was postponed. As travel restrictions and accessibility in Hawaii continued, IRONMAN executives looked for solutions and found one in Greater Zion.

“We are fortunate to have built such a strong and trusted relationship with our friends in the greater St. George region over the past 10-plus years,” said Andrew Messick, President & Chief Executive Officer for The IRONMAN Group. “St. George stepped up to ensure IRONMAN athletes will have a 2021 world championship, even if delayed into 2022. We all just witnessed why this special place has been dubbed the ‘Land of Endurance’ and we are confident that we will have an outstanding championship in May.”

“The honor to host the first IRONMAN World Championship outside of Hawaii is as humbling as it is glorious,” said Kevin Lewis, Director of the Greater Zion Convention & Tourism Office. “There are few events that hold the prestige and respect of Kona. To be chosen as the destination with the capacity and character to host this event takes my breath away.”

“Hosting the IRONMAN World Championship is yet another example of the Utah Sports Commission’s sport and Olympic legacy efforts that showcase globally why Utah is known as the State of Sport,” said Utah Sports Commission President and CEO Jeff Robbins. “Together with our partners, we look forward to welcoming the world to Utah.”

The 2021 IRONMAN World Championship will replace the previously scheduled IRONMAN North American Championship on May 7, 2022. The 2022 World Championship is slated to return to Kona in October 2022.

“I think we understand the weight and responsibility we now have to carry forward the cherished significance of Kona and we don’t take that responsibility lightly,” said Lewis.  “We have the deepest respect for the IRONMAN legacy and all that has gone on before – the passion, the dreams, the gut-wrenching persistence and the human spirit of caring for one another, as we push forward to build something better. We now have the opportunity to truly honor that legacy in a place where the land holds a familiar spirit and the people comprehend what it all really means.”

With continuing uncertainty of travel around the world, officials felt confident in the opportunity in St. George. Moving the race to St. George in 2022 gives world-class international athletes another chance to race in the Land of Endurance, and it rewards the local efforts and the community’s commitment to success.

“It’s clear that IRONMAN officials respect and appreciate St. George and our surrounding communities,” Lewis said. “They have confidence in our ability to host a World Championship. They have witnessed the professionalism in our communities and the agencies that support the race. They’ve seen our capabilities, they’ve felt the spirit of our people and they’ve reveled in the beauty of our landscapes. In a time when many things in the world are unclear, IRONMAN officials are certain of our hosting abilities and our hospitality.”

With today’s announcement, St. George will now play host to three World Championship events over a 13-month period bringing millions of dollars in economic impact to the region. Last week’s IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship brought an estimated $18 million in economic impact to Washington County. The event featured over 3500 athletes and brought more than 12,000 visitors to the area. Next year, St. George will host two additional World Championship events. On May 7, the IRONMAN World Championship is slated to host 4,000 athletes, and up to 20,000 guests and spectators. An independent study for the IRONMAN World Championship in Kona estimated economic impact of more than $70 million to the island annually. Then on October 28 and 29, the 2022 IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship will feature nearly 7,000 athletes in an expanded two-day race format. Economic impacts from that race are estimated at $20-$25 million. Since its first event here in 2010, IRONMAN has infused more than $118 million directly into the local economy. With the World Championship events in 2022, that number could easily rise to over $200 million. “We’re already seeing substantial benefits from the IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship, not just economically, but in positive exposure throughout the world,” Lewis said. “Much like what the Winter Olympics did for northern Utah in 2002, hosting these three back-to-back world championships showcases the qualities of this area and strengthens the fundamental economic value of our communities in an unrivaled way. Through them we gain credibility and respect across the globe. The benefit to our overall economic development efforts from the media exposure we gain is unlike anything this area has ever seen.”

“This is an incredible privilege and we are grateful that we’ve earned the confidence and trust of the IRONMAN organization,” said Gil Almquist, Chairman of the Washington County Commission. “The positive characteristics symbolized by IRONMAN blend perfectly with the qualities of the people in our communities. The enduring effort of athletes and volunteers inspires us to be better people, to be more caring and to support each other through challenges and adversity. Throughout history, our communities, agencies and volunteers have accomplished remarkable feats by working together. Those who’ve been here understand what makes this place so special. Those who haven’t are about to find out.”

“In spite of challenging conditions in the world, we’re honored to be able to host these elite and prestigious events,” said Lewis. “We live in a ruggedly beautiful place. It’s a place where hearts beat with passion, sweat weeps for the good of others, and blood flows with determination. I think we understand the weight and responsibility we now have to carry forward the cherished significance of Kona and we don’t take that responsibility lightly. We have an enduring legacy of success here, and once again, we will rise to it.”

Upcoming IRONMAN events in St. George

2021 IRONMAN World Championship – May 7, 2022

2022 IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship: – October 28 and 29, 2022 (Women’s Race Friday; Men’s Saturday)

IRONMAN 70.3 North American Championships: 2023, 2025

IRONMAN North American Championships (140.6): 2024

About Greater Zion

Located in the southwest corner of Utah, Greater Zion is a destination that offers more than 2,400 square miles of adventure and inspiration. Zion National Park, the fourth most visited National Park in the United States, is the premier attraction, but Zion is only the beginning. Four state parks and a multitude of year-round recreational lands set the stage for a burgeoning mountain biking scene, some of the best off-highway vehicle riding in the country, scenic and challenging play at 13 top-rated golf courses, world-class cultural performances at Tuacahn Center for the Arts and so much more. The vibrant communities of St. George, Springdale, Hurricane, Ivins and towns in between offer a wide range of lodging options, dining experiences and access to outdoor pursuits through local outfitters and tour companies. Home to the 2021 and 2022 IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship, and the 2021 IRONMAN World Championship, Greater Zion also is a world-class destination for sporting events, conferences and meetings. The Greater Zion Convention and Tourism Office is a transient-room-tax-funded entity of Washington County, Utah. For more information, please visit

Experiencing Greater Zion with Good Morning America

As part of Good Morning America’s recent Rise & Shine feature, Greater Zion was highlighted when they made a stop in Utah. Talking of their vast experiences, they broadcast live from Snow Canyon State Park with the early sunrise lighting up the majestic red rocks as background. Their video segment not only showed the diverse terrain inside of Utah’s Mighty Five National Parks  but also gave viewers an inside look into the adrenaline-filled experiences right here in Greater Zion. Their via ferrata adventure just outside Zion National Park took them above and between towering canyon walls, while their exhilarating ATV ride on Sand Mountain, inside Sand Hollow State Park, led them through 17,000 acres of off-roading trails.

Written by Devon O’Neil for Bike Mag

Southwest Utah’s rise to riding fame

As I climbed out of a truck in Utah’s Gooseberry Mesa parking lot, toothy, redrock peaks filled the view to the north and east, highlighted by the world-famous skyline of Zion National Park. I’d been told to expect a two- to three-hour ride that was rugged and technical. But perusing our flat surroundings made me skeptical.

Perhaps sensing my apprehension, Jake Weber, a retired Army combat engineer-turned guide with Utah Mountain Biking Adventures, offered a measure of reassurance. “We get a lot of people who show up and say they want to ride 30 miles every day of their trip,” he told me. “But after about 15 miles on their first day, they’re like, ‘Yeah, we’re good,’ and they’re ready for a beer at the trailhead.”

Welcome to the land of “mesa miles.” Maybe you’ve heard of them. In short — no pun intended — they’re harder than standard miles which makes them feel longer. The more you ride them, the more comfortable you get disclosing that you “only” rode 10 miles today and it still took two hours.

I had never ridden a mesa mile when I got to Washington County, Utah, which is well known to desert aficionados as a singletrack oasis and has hosted the world’s premier freeride competition, Red Bull Rampage, off and on since 2001. Still, it remains something of a hidden gem to the rest of the riding world, in part because it’s remote: four hours from Salt Lake City, six hours from Phoenix, nine hours from Denver.

St. George, the county seat and a city of roughly 90,000 people, spent decades as a retirement community for golfers and still attracts celebrities like Michael Jordan to its greens come winter. But starting around the mid 2000s, adventure took a bite out of golf’s place as the area’s top attraction. The number of local outfitters swelled from a dozen to more than 50. Mountain biking overtook road biking as the most popular two-wheeled pursuit. With an almost 90-percent population jump since 2000, Washington County ranks as the fastest-growing metropolitan area in America. It also has a warmer climate than its sometimes-rival, Moab, five hours to the northeast, and offers legitimate riding and 60-degree temps in the belly of winter.

On this beaming morning in early October, photographer Margus Riga and I had joined a local crew for a spin along the South Rim and through Hidden Canyon. Gooseberry, the original mesa ride and still a lot of locals’ favorite mesa of the five with trails, carries an almost-mythical reputation among those who know about it. Mostly that is due to Goose’s sandstone features and their surprising, albeit intimidating, ridability.

“They’re like giant rock biscuits that you can just roll up onto,” said 54-year-old Kenny Jones, who owns Gooseberry Yurts and once finished 14 straight Leadville 100s back-to-back. “A lot of the bottom sections of the rocks have a nice, roll-y out. So they look really steep but then the tranny grabs your front wheel and gets you out of the vertical position.”

We followed Quentin Morisette, owner of Over the Edge Sports in nearby Hurricane, as he weaved between puddles in the rock — and the brine shrimp they hold, making it a no-no to ride through them — and abided by the local code not to leave tracks in the dirt. He led us to a playground that he called the Skatepark: two deep, connected bowls that mimic the flow of a purpose-built concrete bowl. From there we swooped between stands of juniper, piñon and cedar trees, as well as the mesa’s namesake gooseberry bushes. After 15 minutes of wrestling our bikes up, down and over the sandstone landscape — a full-body workout that longtime local Bill Bergeron compares to “being stuck in a cage with a gorilla” — we came upon a 20-foot-tall biscuit that looked like a soft-serve ice-cream tower. It was steep and layered, with a small drop at the entry over significant exposure. Morisette hiked to the top for the second time in his life and prepared to drop in.

The line, my riding partners explained, was not to be confused with the Wall of Considerable Consequences, which we’d pass later, or the Wall of Death, which we’d skip. Morisette rolled in, landed the initial drop and rocketed out the bottom as the rest of us filmed it with our phones. “You’ve got to be kidding me!” shouted Weber, who served two tours in Iraq and left the military after a pair of traumatic brain injuries saddled him with PTSD. Now he coaches a local high school team and rarely sees someone test the sharp end, hence his incredulous response.

Morisette let out a sly grin. “I’ve been riding here for 23 years, and it just gets better,” he said. “When you’re on the rock, the sky’s the limit.”

As we continued toward Gooseberry’s high point, I realized why locals pay attention to their tires’ side knobs here: You need a lof of support to grip the off-camber sandstone. It helps that the trail is marked by white dots on the rock, too; otherwise it’s easy to wander off track.

We pedaled over a 4-foot-wide plank to the Point, an airy perch overlooking the valley and Zion. The trail only gains 300 vertical feet from the White Trailhead (elevation: 5,100 feet above sea level) to here, but the entire ride includes about 900 feet of gain. “It’s all 10 feet at a time,” Morisette quipped.

We ogled the old Rampage venue to the north, which includes the notorious King Kong descent, as well as Flying Monkey, a mesa across the valley where the government, legend has it, used to send furry primates down a rail propelled by a rocket at supersonic speeds to test military ejector seats.

Then we returned the way we came, back to the trailhead. Slightly under the weather, I collapsed in the gravelly shade, feeling like I’d ridden 20 miles if not more. Someone informed me it was actually less than 10. I sighed, chalked it up to the mesa effect and closed my eyes for a nap, while the others tipped back beers in the sun.

According to Washington County’s GIS department, the local mountain biking scene encompasses 296 miles of mapped trails to go with a gnarliness spectrum ranging from sublime cross-country favorites like Hurricane Rim, J.E.M. and Dead Ringer, to the five local mesas and their sandstone playgrounds, to big-boy gravity lines that attract the world’s best freeriders every October.

The area’s rise to prominence happened neither quickly nor due to a mass movement. On the contrary, it started in late 1993 when a pair of native sons took up the sport at age 49. Twin brothers Morgan and Mike Harris had grown up in Rockville, a tiny town on the Virgin River at the mouth of Zion Canyon, but because their father forbade them from riding dirt bikes, they didn’t start until they were 26. As Morgan tells it, they rode motos for 20 years, then performance ATVs for three, at which point they grew wary of the danger and turned to mountain bikes.

In the early days, Morgan rode a primitive bike with a shoddy fork. “Boy, I went home bloody a lot,” he chuckles. A few other locals were riding at the time, but they mainly stuck to the mellow Green Valley Loop. “There wasn’t any real anchor trail to draw people to the area,” Harris recalls.

He and Mike used to hunt deer, coyotes and rabbits on Gooseberry Mesa, and they often heard visitors talk about slickrock riding in Moab. They knew Gooseberry contained similar features and started poking around, starting with the slab that parallels the White Road. They built a short trail through one of the mesa’s mini-canyons, then found out they needed a permit. So they met with the BLM in 1994 to talk about expanding their work to the north and south rims and Hidden Canyon. “Originally they wanted 15 cents a foot, per year, for the use of the land,” Harris says. Then the agency softened its stance. “They said if you can have everything completed by Trail Days of 1996, we’ll do a trail dedication. We had it done, but it took them until ’98 to dedicate it.”

With Gooseberry complete, the Harris brothers turned their attention to Little Creek Mountain, which they’d been staring at for years from Gooseberry. They started exploring its slabs, ancient petroglyphs and fossils (there’s actually a dinosaur bone embedded in the sandstone in one spot) and potential trail corridors that didn’t require slaughtering flora. After a year-and-a-half of building there — with unofficial permission from a BLM official, Harris says — the agency changed its mind and asked them to stop. So they did, again shifting to where they thought the next destination could be. In this case it was a long redrock spine that would come to be known as Church Rocks.

Mike Harris quit riding after Little Creek, leaving Morgan to continue alone. Luckily others picked up the slack, and soon enough a growing community of riders had built Guacamole, which fostered its own mini-network on the mesa including The Whole Guacamole, Holy Guacamole and Salt on the Rim.

Harris left to build trails in Nevada after constructing Holy Guacamole, and now, at age 73, he just maintains existing routes. But the foundation he and Mike laid continues to anchor the network. If you ask 20 locals to name their favorite trail, like I did, you could get 15 different answers. The scene now includes a 100-mile race — True Grit, held every March in St. George — and a respected advocacy organization, the Dixie Mountain Bike Trails Association (DMBTA), which was launched in 2010 by True Grit founder Cimarron Chacon. (‘Dixie’ is a common moniker in Washington County because the early settlers grew cotton, which led to the area being known as ‘Utah’s Dixie.’)

DMBTA only counts about 75 official members, but more than 2,000 people follow the organization on social media, “and a lot of them come out to our volunteer days,” says club president Kevin Christopherson. Others hand him money on the trails, even if they’re not from the area. In addition, the Rampage organizers have donated about $14,000 to DMBTA each of the past two years.

The roots and robust support keep the area on the broader map, attracting riders from around the world — with a healthy dose of freeriders each spring, an influx that Morisette affectionately calls the Canadian Invasion. The key to providing such a reliable product when so many other destinations in the region cannot, he says, is the geography. Just north of Hurricane, Interstate 15 goes from 3,500 feet in elevation to above 5,000 and stays there, which places Zion on the northern edge of viable winter and early spring riding.

Although a lot of local rides, particularly the mesas, require driving a fair distance to park at a trailhead, not everywhere does. One of the guys we rode Gooseberry with, a diehard XC fanatic named Josh Wolfe, lives in St. George and doesn’t own a car. We bumped into him the next morning in the nondescript parking lot for Zen and Barrel Ride, just over a dirt mound from St. George’s subdivisions and commercial sprawl. We had just finished up an ambitious combo ride in a group of eight.

Wolfe was on his way out for a midday loop, and after our morning figure-eight on Zen and Barrel, I understood why he lives so close to these trails. Zen features the kind of ledgy, technical terrain that makes your forearms cramp. Kenny Jones called it a “rim-basher trail,” and halfway through our descent it delivered. Jake Miller, a Red Rock ambassador and standout local rider, buckled an $1,800 carbon wheel in two places without crashing. Despite its ride-from-home proximity to a city of 90,000, you still feel like you’re away from the hectic rush of civilization when you reach the top. Then the real fun begins. Both Riga, who lives in Vancouver and calls the North Shore home, and I deemed it our favorite trail of the week.

We continued on to the freeride-friendly Barrel from there, led by longtime St. George rider Bryce Pratt, who built it 15 years ago, and Mitchell Curwen, who recently refurbished it and added some features. “If you want to see what a bike can do, this is a great place to take it,” Curwen said as we pedaled up a wash toward the top. Pratt designed the trail to snake through a series of barrel cactuses, which look like stunted pony kegs with 3-inch-long thorns.

I followed a mother of three named Angie Anderson down the Waterfall, an aptly named chunky section that serves as Barrel’s crux, if you don’t count the jumps below. Some of those jumps dropped blindly off of giant boulders into perfectly sculpted transitions. Others were gaps, including one over a creek. Everything seemed to flow just as it should until we were back at the parking lot.

“Doing Zen and Barrel in the same day is a big day. They’re probably our two most technical trails in St. George City,” Curwen said. “If you can get out of here without a broken bike part or broken body part, that’s a win.”

Victorious, Riga and I returned to St. George later that afternoon to check out the Snake Hollow St. George Bike Park — the newest addition to the area’s stable of radness. Built on 80 acres of city-owned land through a collaboration between DMBTA, the Southern Utah Bicycle Alliance and the Washington County Tourism Office, the facility was funded by $1.6 million in tax dollars and was slated to open the month after our visit. But there were already dozens of kids testing it out after school. This winter, city workers and volunteers are planning to add a 5.5-mile NICA racecourse through the lava field on the lot’s southern end. According to county tourism director Kevin Lewis, it will be the only year-round bike park in Utah.

The most recent addition to Washington County’s singletrack menu arrived two years ago when DMBTA finished a 7-mile intermediate loop on Wire Mesa. In its first year of existence, trail counters recorded 16,000 visitors — or an average of 44 a day. It’s close to Gooseberry and Grafton mesas, so you’d expect it to see traffic, but the number still quantified the area’s growing renown. (In total, 178,000 people rode BLM trails around Washington County last year, including 30,000 on Gooseberry.)

The numbers are a far cry from when Morgan Harris broached the idea of a Gooseberry trail to the BLM 25 years ago. “At that first meeting, they said, ‘Being that remote, 7-and-a-half miles off the highway, you’re probably only going to see 36 riders a month, at most,’” Harris recalled. Within three years of Gooseberry’s trails being open, the local bike shop owners told Harris they’d seen a 60-percent increase in sales. Five years later, when Harris’ fork fell apart, Zion Cycles founder Fred Pagles gave him a new Trek Remedy and free service and parts for life. When Harris protested, Pagles said: “If you hadn’t done what you did, I wouldn’t have a business.”

There is still a touch of uncertainty about what will happen to unofficial trails on BLM land that have become wildly popular and mapped, like Little Creek and Dig It on Grafton Mesa. A long-in-the-works travel management plan is nearing completion, and locals are optimistic the BLM will bring them into the fold and declare them legal, since closing them would be more complicated and potentially hurt the area’s economic growth.

But whatever happens, the local scene is plenty healthy, as evidenced by a recent show of support for Harris after he was diagnosed with gum cancer. In mid-May, Harris underwent surgery to remove a tumor, and doctors removed his fibula from his lower right leg and used it to rebuild his jaw. Locals held a fundraiser to help cover his medical bills, bringing in nearly $25,000. Over the Edge built a new Ibis Mojo HD for Harris to ride into his 80s. At a post-ride barbecue in October, Harris said he still didn’t have the leg power to ride technical terrain, as much as he wanted to.

Instead, he had been maintaining trails he built a generation ago. “I get out there at daylight and get done before it gets too hot,” he said. “Me and the dog, Hazel.” His tools were hidden in the bushes as he spoke.

I asked Harris what he thinks of the community that he and his brother helped to create. “It amazes me what’s happened here,” he said. “When I was building trail, I never expected any payback. Payback was people having a smile on their face, loving what you built. I can’t believe this came out of us wanting to ride a trail on Gooseberry.”

RIDE: Although most trails are on MTB Project, for a more localized resource check out, a brand-new, one-stop tool for trail descriptions, photos and videos with downloadable maps and GPS navigation. Trails are sorted into geographical zones to showcase the various regions throughout the county.

STAY: You’ll find ample lodging options throughout the county via Google. We stayed at a rental house in Sand Hollow Resort, which suited our large group well and was convenient to both Hurricane and St. George. You can also check out Gooseberry Yurts for a more primitive, adventurous option — with four days’ worth of riding from your front door. The 20-foot-diameter yurts sleep five to seven adults and cost $150 a night.

EAT: Again, options abound, but you can’t go wrong with Lonny Boy’s BBQ in Hurricane, George’s Corner Restaurant in St. George and the Bit and Spur Restaurant and Saloon in Springdale. Affogato is a worthy coffee shop in St. George, while River Rock Roasting Co., in La Verkin, serves tasty food and everything from coffee to beer on the edge of a canyon carved by the Virgin River.

SHOP: Over the Edge Sports in Hurricane treated our team well, whether that meant providing TLC to the day’s testing steeds each evening, sharing local beta on where to ride or leading the way on hard-to-follow loops (OTE also runs a free shop ride every Saturday, which is a great way to see the area’s nooks and crannies). Red Rock Bicycle Co., Rapid Cycling and Bicycles Unlimited have everything you need in St. George.   

Written by Travis Engel for Bike Mag

10 Years and Pedaling

Time flies.

This is the 10th annual Bible of Bike Tests. We five-fingered creatures love measuring milestones in multiples of 10. But it’s just another number. Really, the most impressive landmark in the Bible’s history was in launching the very first one. It was 2009, and we had no idea if this thing was even possible, let alone profitable. That year we dove headfirst and blindly into British Columbia’s cold shoulder season, facing rain days, snow delays, customs holds, lift closures, illnesses and injuries. But we knew right away we were onto something. The night we sat down to roundtable the first bike, we shared more diverse criticism, enthusiastic praise and pithy one-liners in one hour than a single tester could come up with in a month. Eight frantic weeks later, the first Bible was born.

In its second year, the Bible was staged in a cavernous Bellingham basement. The third was out of a dormant North Carolina Girl Scout camp. In our fourth year, we added videos of the roundtable meetings. In the fifth year, those videos actually became watchable. We’ve come to include female testers, honed our focus to trail-oriented bikes and invested in growing our journalistic team to better cover the bikes, the testing and the host location.

And the Bible continues to land us in magnificent locations. This year, it’s the iron-tone mesas of southwest Utah. The trails have a gritty, ancient feel, almost as if they predate the invention of the wheel. But mountain biking didn’t actually reach the Zion Corridor until the mid ’90s when The Knobby Wave was sweeping the entire globe. It busted the monopolies once held by our sport’s hallowed alpine shrines and distributed their shares to countless hidden hamlets in between. Each gave rise to scenes as unique to their respective environments as are the beasts of the Galapagos.

The trails around St. George, Hurricane and Virgin, Utah, are surely unique. The aesthetic that emerged is unlike anything we’ve ever ridden. The valley trails feel barren and endless, but roll smooth and fast. The cliffs that birthed the Red Bull Rampage inspire either fear or confidence, depending on which line you’re eyeing. The mesa trails rapidly alternate between tech and flow, up and down, punishment and reward, each working in endless synergy with the other. It also just happens to be the perfect place to expose bikes’ weaknesses and strengths.

Our test loops challenged every aspect of every bike, and those challenges rose without a moment’s notice. One-trick ponies would need to be put down, and there were none to be found in this year’s stable. Versatility has overthrown the lesser virtues in good bike design, but that hasn’t made our jobs any easier. Whenever a bike “does everything well,” it’s a sign that we need to look closer. And we did look closer this year. Testers spent more time riding, discussing and evaluating each bike than we ever have before, and we dedicated more space to bringing it all to you. This newfound patience was inspired by the focus we achieved in our Bible Summer Camps, shorter, specialized test sessions that will be continuing throughout the year. But also by the fact that, as it always has, the Bible should continue to evolve. Whether you’re just joining us or you’ve been here all decade, welcome to the 2019 Bible of Bike Tests.

In the feature “Slow Roll,” by Devon O’Neil, southern Utah’s rise to riding fame is examined and the history of its most prolific trails laid bare. From formerly quiet, remote retirement towns to a sprawling slickrock trail metropolis, over the past 25 years Utah’s Washington Country has slowly made a name for itself with its crooked, rough and winding trails leading to views worthy of inclusion into an Edward Abbey novel.

If 2019’s crop is to be defined by one bike category, it’s long-travel 29. Big-wheeled bruisers offer compliance and sheer-smashing speed with tall hoops and plush suspension, all while resisting the sluggish, ground-hugging attitude of full-blown DH bikes. As seen on the Enduro World Series circuit, these bikes can handle the climbs too, although they won’t be winning any XC races.

In the past, a short-travel 29er was almost always an XC thoroughbred. In recent years, that has drastically changed, and many big-wheeled, small-traveled bikes can hold their own in terrain that was previously thought to be only rideable on much bigger bikes. Granted, they might not keep pace with the big boys on descents, but they make up for it in climbing capability reminiscent of their spandex-clad past.

Speaking of thoroughbreds, let’s not forget about the bikes that just won’t take no for an answer. No, you can’t huck that ledge to flat. No, that chute to way too steep to ride. No, you can’t blindly jump into that rock garden. This batch of long-travel 27.5 bikes have a mind of their own and the will to get you into, and out of, situations far more dire than comfortable.

Perhaps you’ve had your fill of near-death experiences and want a steed that will take you off into the sunset with only the occasional urge to boost a side-hit or cutty a corner. The short-travel 27.5 bikes are the realest mountain bikes — two-wheeled machines built to get you there and back again with a whole lot of fun in between. Equally suited to climb mountains as to conquer gravity, these bikes are the Jacks and Jills of all trades and the masters of fun.

So, without further ado, we release to you Bike’s 2019 Bible of Bike Tests — may the great bike hunt and tales of souther Utah’s trail cornucopia keep you occupied for many days to come. Be sure to pick up a copy in newsstands now and stay posted for the digital rollout too.

The airplane bucked quite a bit with about 10 minutes of flight time remaining. The second of two flights that day, the first of which started in Philadelphia, saw me in the aisle seat of a tiny CRJ200 aircraft during a short hop from Phoenix, Arizona to St. George, Utah when the plane suddenly began to hit some moderate turbulence. I was somewhere in between sleeping, but not really sleeping when this happened, and opened an eye to check the reactions of those around me.

Many people were out cold, with their necks craned back and their mouths wide open, while others seemed intent on finishing their books, and still others were content with whatever was being transmitted to their brain through some oversized, noise canceling headphones. I noticed that a handful of people seemed to have their faces pressed up against the windows, and as I craned my head around the nice lady seated to my left by our row’s window to have a look for myself, it became immediately clear what had a few of the passengers excited: we were flying directly over the heart of the Grand Canyon. I have been to the Grand Canyon once in my life, and it was as humbling an experience as I can remember; standing on the rim’s edge will remind you of your place in this world in ways not much else can. I’ve flown over it quite a few times as well, but never flown over it at such a low altitude. The updrafts from the canyon and surrounding mountains might have jostled the plane a bit, but they reminded me that I was about to spend a week in a landscape unlike any elsewhere on the planet.