Southeastern Utah, marked by huge expanses of sandstone, deep canyons, and striking buttes, is about as close to lunar travel as you can get without leaving the ground. Under the desert’s brilliant blue skies, bizarre reddish statues, arches, and domes soar out of the earth.
Decades ago, mountain bikers started pedaling the craggy old mining roads that thread these lunar landscapes, and the town of Moab became a center of adventure. Since 2008, locals have dramatically expanded Moab’s trail network by building more than 100 miles of new single-track trails that cater to a wide range of abilities.
“You have slickrock, forests, alpine meadows, and outstanding views from pretty much anyplace,” says Sandy Freethey, committee chair for Grand County Trail Mix, the trail-building group that led the expansion. “To me it’s one of the most beautiful places on Earth.”
> Getting Started:
It’s helpful to have a basic level of cardiovascular fitness to enjoy mountain biking. Rent a full-suspension mountain bike (from $55) and helmet at one of the downtown stores, such as Poison Spider Bicycles or Rim Cyclery. These bikes’ front and rear shocks dampen jolts, and their knobby tires grip the trails. If you brought your own bike and have experience, simply buy a trail map, and ride right from town to expert trails like Amasa Back or Pipe Dream.
Want more guidance? Hire an outfitter in Moab for everything from introductory half-day lessons (from $90 per person, including bike rental) to full-day tours for intermediate riders and multiday camping-and-biking adventures in nearby Canyonlands National Park (three days from $800).
> Test Your Wheels:
Even experienced bikers must get used to riding on exposed slickrock. “People get freaked out at first,” says pro mountain biker Kelly Magelky. “Just commit and believe in the ability of your tires to stick to the rock.” Magelky also advises starting small. The Bar M Loop, a new 30-mile nest of single tracks, features beginner, intermediate, and advanced loops that lead over petrified sand dunes with views of Arches National Park.
> The Whole Enchilada:
Seasoned cyclists arrange rides through companies such as Coyote Shuttle and Roadrunner Shuttle to the top of famous routes like the Porcupine Rim Trail, a 13.3-mile ribbon of double and single tracks. Studded with rocks and drops, it traverses slabs of slickrock and piñon-juniper woodland to views over scenic Castle Valley.
Looking for more? Moab’s most hair-raising challenge is the Whole Enchilada, a 26.2-mile route from the alpine meadows and aspen grove of the La Sal Mountains 7,000 vertical feet down to the Colorado River.
> Post-Biking Rituals:
After riding, dusty spandex-clad bikers head to Milt’s Stop & Eat, a beloved 1954 diner that sells local beef and buffalo burgers and milkshakes whirled with handmade ice cream. Come evening, bartenders at the Moab Brewery sling beers named for local trails and bike parts to sun-bleached bikers, hikers, and climbers.
> Sunny Weather:
In summer, Moab swells with vacationers and the temperatures can top 100 degrees, but because the air is so dry, mornings and evenings stay cool for biking. Temperatures typically hover in the 70s in fall and spring, and in April, wildflowers and cactus blooms freckle the desert.
This piece, written by Kate Siber, first appeared in the May 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.