Nature's Yard Stick

Moab's Slickrock Bike Trail

Morning Glory

Everyone has heard of the Slickrock Trail. I mean, not everyone everyone, but practically everyone. At least everyone who mountain bikes, and then some. The trail, all 12 tortuous miles of it, is like a mantra among bikers, a sort of against-all-others gauge. Slickrock, they ask, as climbers might ask K2 or Kiliminjaro, or as kayakers might ask Cataract Canyon or Zambezi. Slickrock is, in a word, both beginning and end, first and last. Yes and no.

It is also, for all practical purposes, what put southeastern Utah on the map, and is also really what can be credited with launching the sport of mountain biking itself. Say Slickrock and you have said Moab, say Moab and you have given the code word for a whole burgeoning outdoor sports market, one that in new ways has placed emphasis on self-reliance and testosterone. And exhilaration.

I don't mean to pump this up too much. I mean, after all, it is only a 12-mile loop. A lot of Moab locals do it before or after work, or after a day of skiing, or before an afternoon of kayaking, or after driving back from a weekend in Salt Lake City or Telluride. You aren't guaranteed a spot in Warren Miller's next film if you make the trail, you won't get your caricatured mug on the bar wall of the Rio, and no guide book writers will call you up asking, How? All you are guaranteed, frankly, is sunburn and a powerful thirst and two burning thighs. And yet the trail and its reputation endures.


Shrimp Rock I started too late. I knew that the moment I started, the moment I pedaled away from the car and onto the rock and felt the sun burn both on top of me and from beneath, reflected off the rock as though the rock were snow on a bright spring day. It was hot and still and heat rippled off the rocky bluffs in mirage-like waves and the white painted dotted lines marking the trail seemed to melt and drip off the rock. But it was Sunday, I had to be home by sunset, and it was impossible to wait for cooler weather and pointless to pine for the cool morning hours that had passed. Press on.

I had begun on time, washed my face and checked out of the hotel (Gonzo Inn: interesting place) and had my dry cereal and double mocha and about a half-gallon of water (dehydration in Moab: a real danger, and rather unpleasant) and was at the trailhead by 9 a.m. or so. And then I pulled the bike out of the car and saw the front tire was flat. Took it off, patched the hole, put it back on, pumped it up, and air leaked immediately. Take it off, patch hole again, put on, pump up and - leak, this time in a different place. Repeat procedure in shade of car. People come and go, pull bikes off of roof racks and take off, others come back already from the trail, get in cars and head off back to town. I toil under shrinking shade. Throw small tantrum. Finally I give up - the rim itself is cutting into the tube - and drive back to town, get new rim protection tape and put it on and pump the tire and up and drive back to the trailhead. It's nearly 11 before I push off across the rock.

Truth Be Told, It's Really Not Slick

About, oh, a few million years ago (the exact number of millions of years can become a tedious measurement, don't you think?) great inland oceans covered what was to become the Colorado Plateau and southeastern Utah. The oceans came and went several times and left wavy beach sediment. The land then dried, rose and tilted and the beaches became sort of petrified dunes. It eroded, climate changed again, and now what we have is a pink and red plateau of Navajo sandstone between Moab and the Colorado River which sees hundreds of thousands of bikers and campers a year, most of whom come in the spring or fall.

Lizard Trails The Slickrock trail was established in 1969 for motorcycle riding, though by the late 1980s motorcycle riders had largely left it to the pedal bikers. There is a main loop - that's the 12-miler - and a shorter practice loop and several spurs lead from the main loop, usually to overlooks. 'Slickrock' is really just a name. Unless it's covered in snow 'smoothrock' would be better. The Sand Flats area, the plateau where the Slickrock trail is, does not look too dissimilar from a deeply swelling ocean. Small 'waves' rise and crest and drop and occasionally lead to taller waves. These waves are what make the trail so difficult: many are too steep for most bikers and they come relentlessly. There are few flat spots on the trail. Because of this, many bikers plod along at only two-and-a-half or three or four miles per hour and end up pushing the bike almost as much as they ride it. The practice loop, just less than two miles long, is easier than the main trail but not exactly a walk in the park.

Hate to Bike?

There is, of course, a lot more biking around here than the Slickrock trail. Many of the trails - and I realize it is somewhat heretic to say this - are as good or better than the Slickrock trail. From north to south, there is the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Trail, which leads to the Determination Towers and Merrimac and Monitor buttes, the Gemini Bridges Trail, which leads to two identical natural bridges, the Hurrah Pass Trail, with its spectacular views back to the Moab area and the surrounding mountains and desert, and the Porcupine Rim trail, a strenuous single-track trail. These are just some of the popular ones. There are dozens more.

And after biking, or instead of it, there are world-famous Jeep trails, cross-country and backcountry skiing, amazing rock climbing, first-rate river running, difficult canyoneering, and year's-worth of hiking.

Little Lionsback Negro Bill Canyon, with its gentle shady trail is a good introduction to canyon hiking. The trail, which dips in and out of a cool creek, leads contemplatively on for a few miles before reaching Morning Glory Arch, the seventh longest in the country. I walked the canyon in sweet afternoon light and warmth, watched lizards make swishy trails in the sand and bugs dance on the water. Other good trails lead to Professor Creek, Corona Arch, Hunters Canyon and Behind-the-Rocks. And then, of course, there are Arches National Park, with the highest concentration in the world of natural arching - even free-standing arches - and Canyonlands National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park, which offer views off into Grand Canyon-like terrain. For the more sedentary, try the Scott M. Matheson Wetlands Preserve north of town.

I fell in with a group of three from Colorado who were affable if out of shape. They seemed to enjoy both complaining about the route and Utah and then praising them. Moab, they said, was a place they came to once a year or so for a desert experience. A place to walk barefoot and smell the sterility of the air. Within a few miles I left them behind and plowed through the rest of the route, both thrilled and scared by it. Just an hour before there had been bikers clawing across the sandstone like ants in a rock - look out across the slickrock and let your eyes relax and you could see their bikes and helmets in the sun - but now the plateau seemed nearly empty. Towards the end you begin to descend, almost imperceptibly, but within a few miles you have lost all the elevation you gained in the first two-thirds of the route. The end, after just over two hours on the trail, was rather anti-climactic. The parking lot seemed to melt in the sun. A woman with a bloody, twisted knee was being shaded next to a Suburban as a man rubbed ice on the wound. The car was hot, painfully hot, and I got in and drove back to town.

Interest Piqued?

The Slickrock trail and the Sand Flats Recreation Area begin about 2.5 miles from the center of Moab. Follow the Sand Flats Road from the intersection of Mill Creek Drive - about 300 South Street. Signs mark the way. There is a $5 per car entrance to use the area for the day, more to camp or for a week-long pass. Proceeds and maintenance are shared between Grand County and the Bureau of Land Management. The Sand Flats area is surrounded by the Negro Bill Canyon and Mill Creek wilderness study areas, meaning there is a lot more around than just biking. The Sand Flats area has eight designated campgrounds with limited facilities. More 'independent' campgrounds abound. Bring your own firewood, stay on marked routes and trails, and take out all your trash and waste - even the human waste if you can't find a toilet.

Lasal Mountains The Slickrock trailhead has a paved parking area, restrooms, a Dumpster and information booths but no running water. Once in Moab and ready to go think about the weather. Summer temperatures typically top 100 degrees and when it is 100 in Moab it can feel even hotter on the rock. Take heed. However, it always cools down at night and with low low humidities morning and late-afternoon rides are perfectly fine. Winter brings cold temperatures (average lows in January are around 20) and snow, with snow typically covering trails from December until February, though there can be stretches of warm weather and no snow. Even when temperatures are low, however, water and hydration are perhaps the foremost safety concern. Many local bikers have not one or two water bottle cages on their bikes but three. Most popular, though, are the backpack-like water pouches that hold more water and can stay cooler.

Moab has all services for all price levels. Most importantly, it has good coffee shops and a wide variety of bike and gear shops which can sell, rent or service bikes of all qualities. Other shops sell everything from backcountry ski gear to Jeep accessories. Jeeps can be rented in town, too.

For more information, start at the town's good information and visitors center, at the corner of Main and Center streets, or try the Dan O'Laurie Canyon Country Museum at 118 E. Center St.

A Articles update:

Back in November I told you about the small town of Helper, with its immigrant communities , art background and interesting history. One of the women I told you about, the sculptor Karen Jobe Templeton, has officially opened her studio. She also recently awarded an honor's award in sculpture and a first place award for her portfolio at the Portrait Society of America's International Portrait Competition 2000. Her studio is at 148 S. Main Street in Helper. See her at

A special thanks to Gonzo Inn.

Moab Guides and Outfitters
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