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Carston Oliver and local guide and friend Eric Porter climb the skyline near the Book Cliffs in Green River, Utah; Photograph by Max Lowe

Utah by Dirt: Desert Mountain Biking Near Green River

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Carston Oliver, Eric Porter, and Jess Pederson ride Porcupine Ridge Trail outside of Moab, Utah; Photograph by Max Lowe

For Utah by Dirt, four friends find as much Utah adventure as possible accessed by dirt roads. Follow their story on The Adventurists blog.

With a backdrop of striking shadows cast from back-lit rock spines, a mountain biker stirs a billowing cloud of dust as he or she descends an impossibly steep line, pops off of a stout looking drop, and rides away at breakneck speeds, weaving through golden sandstone boulders in the run-out. This is a common vision of freeride mountain biking in the desert, but riding here can be more reasonable than you might think.

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Our UT by Dirt team stops at an overlooking, edging the massive cliffs that line the lower step in Canyon Lands National Park, Utah; Photograph by Max Lowe

I’ve made drive to Green River, Utah, several times before, but this time I note that I don’t have the usual slight flutter in my chest and hint of sweat on my palms as I think of what is ahead. I see flashing images and emotions from previous trips to the desert. The exuberance and elation in the run-out of line ridden well. That momentary drop I feel in my stomach as wheels leave the dirt on a blind take-off. The jumps that scare me and lines that inspire me that tempered by memories of pain and frustration from hard crashes and miscalculated attempts and sprinkled with the movie clips of mountain biking’s greats riding the same zone to spark inspiration for new things to attempt.

I’m more relaxed this time around because we have only a short timeframe to ride, so the likelihood of stepping beyond what is normally a warm up for longer trips into more committed lines is pretty low. It takes away a bit of the apprehension for what could go wrong that comes with the excitement of going to ride in the desert, which brings a moment of concern that it won’t be worth it and I’ll just leave less fulfilled and wanting more. I always want more, so it’s always worth it, I realize, and smile… no matter what, this is going to be just plain fun.

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Carston Oliver and Joey Schusler prep their bikes for the morning ride by the light of our Toyota 4Runner at our camp at the Book Cliffs, Utah; Photograph by Max Lowe

The following morning we got up before the sun. As a crew we decided that given our timeframe we wouldn’t even bother with the full face helmets or downhill bikes (standard equipment for freeride mountain biking in this kind of terrain) and would keep things a bit more mellow, more or less just choosing lines that could be ridden on sight, with minimal scouting, and no trail work. That’s the beauty of riding down here, you can bite off as much as you want to chew. Armed with trail-bikes and half-lids, we still had a riot, and the riding options available still felt more or less limitless. Ww had a sunrise jump session for breakfast, a short bout of rain, then a handful of spine lines before lunch. Laughs, smiles, and high-fives: good times where had by all. Next stop is a total change in style with some scenic riding on the iconic White Rim Trail.

Though it might seem like something reserved only for the superheroes we watch in bike films and contests like the Red Bull Rampage, riding mountain bikes on the ridges and spines of southern Utah is actually quite doable for us mere mortals.

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Kalen Thorien soaks in the immensity of the environment around here on the rim of Neon Canyon, Escalante, Utah; Photograph by Max Lowe

Though the terrain is rough and intimidating, it’s easy to ease yourself into things. You can ride anything from fun rolling, low angle ridges to the exposed, committed lines and airs that you see in the movies, and everything in between. You just need a good head on your shoulders, solid skills on your bike, and a sense of adventure.

6 Desert Mountain Biking Tips

1. Anyone looking to get into this style of big-mountain riding needs to already be very confident rough downhill trails, be reasonably comfortable in the air, but by no means do you have to be a pro. In the desert you can ride things that are arguably much mellower than your local downhill trails, but the terrain is more visually intimidating (making it hard to judge) and the locations are remote, so you don’t want to worry about getting in too far over your head. Take your time to get comfortable.

2. Bring water—and lots of it. It’s hot, dry, you’ll be working hard, and you’re likely a good distance from town. This is the desert.

3. No chairlifts here: Make sure you know how to hike with your bike on your back or over your shoulders, as almost everything is too steep to pedal up.

4. Stick to established riding areas. The ecosystems of the desert are very sensitive, and there’s no sense in doing extra damage. Not to mention, if you only have a short time frame there are already loads of jumps and lines ready to go. Stay off of cryptobiotic soil—it’s critical for plant life to survive in the desert and is easily destroyed under your feet and tires. If you do any digging or trail-work, keep it within the areas that are already well trafficked, make it as low profile as possible.

5. You’ll want a vehicle with four-wheel drive and decent clearance, as the roads that access to most of these areas are rough and often get washed out. Bring shovel.

6. Most important, be safe and have fun.

Up Next: Mountain Biking on the White Rim Trail

The Adventurists blog series “Utah by Dirt” is sponsored by Toyota 4Runner, which provided vehicle for this adventure.

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