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Slow Roll

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.