Thousands of visitors speed daily along Interstate 70 between the soaring cliffs of Colorado National Monument and the fantastical sandstone of Utah’s Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Compared with those marquee destinations, the borderland between them—an open range of cinnamon-colored sand and scraggly juniper—seems barren and anonymous. But out of sight, a backcountry mountain bike path, Kokopelli’s Trail, takes in 142 miles of slot canyons, bluffs, and desert mesas as formidable and astonishing as anything in the parks.
“It’s big, wild country,” says Chris Muhr, vice president of the Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trail Association, the group that has stewarded the Kokopelli since its 1989 completion. “When the guys first talked about biking out there, it seemed crazy. But it’s land that’s hard to resist.”
It’s also land that’s highly valuable. Every mile of the trail is on public property, a patchwork of Bureau of Land Management–administered rangelands, national forests, and the McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area. Linking so much public land is no small feat in Utah, a state with a vocal political movement for land transfers and privatization. In recent years the state’s land conflicts bubbled onto the national stage with the fight over Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monuments, both southwest of the Kokopelli. Those disputes, which pit preservation against development and extraction, are a microcosm of a larger struggle. According to a 2019 study in the journal Science, protected lands are increasingly in jeopardy worldwide, with 90 percent of reductions to public lands in the United States made since 2000.