Thursday, May 7, 2015

St. George: Mountain Biking in Paradise

A few weeks ago, I had the good fortune to go and do my favorite thing in the world in my favorite place in the world: I went mountain biking in southern Utah.

Mrs. V and I were visiting her parents in St. George, which is fast emerging as a competitor with Moab for the United States Mecca for mountain biking. Before arriving, I found a local store to rent a bike from, and researched good beginner trails. There are so many systems in the St. George area, it was hard to choose.

After a day spent catching up with friends and family in the Salt Lake area, Mrs. V and I got in the rental car and drove from the massive alpine mountain ranges of northern Utah to the unearthly desert paradise of the south.

I only get to this part of the world every five or ten years, but as soon as I see the cliffs turning to red rock, I get high as a kite. I have the overpowering feeling that I’ve transcended to a higher plane.

When we arrived at my in-laws' house in St. George, I couldn't believe my eyes: a huge network of unmarked trails ran right out their back door, a latticework of options that stretched out to sun-baked, red-rock mesas in the distanceThe region seems to have alluring trailheads like this every few miles. To drive around there is to be constantly nettled by the itch to get out there.

I rudely took my leave and shot over to the bike store and picked up my 2015 Specialized Camber Comp—a full-suspension, 110 mm travel 29er that walks the line between cross-country and trail bike. Since I spent my whole first year of mountain biking on a rigid bike, and just upgraded to a hard-tail a month ago, this was a major upgrade for me and I couldn't wait to set it up and fool around on it.

My last mountain biking experience in this part of the world turned out pretty sadly -- I’d never ridden a mountain bike before, and an exuberant friend talked me into starting on the famed Slickrock trail in Moab. I crashed badly, bruised my hip bone, and was off the bike for weeks. Though I have more trail experience now, I still had fears about transferring my newbie New England MTB skills to the Southwest. They proved unfounded. Partly due to the confidence-inspiring bike (about which, more below), and partly because I stuck to basic trails, I didn’t have one close call the whole trip.

I did, however, get in three adventursome rides, each delightful in its own way. The first was a shakedown sunset ride in the hills behind the house the day we arrived. It was blissful.

The first major trail I tried was Bearclaw Poppy, apparently the most popular route in the area. The trailhead was only 15 minutes from where we were staying. 

After about six miles of flowy, rolling climbing on desert terrain, interspersed with a couple of ridiculous steeps, you turn around and fly down what the locals call the Acid Drops (huge, multi-pronged drop-offs). Full suspension means never having to say, "Oh, no!" I would just pick a line, commit with full confidence, and be rewarded with stomach-heaving drops. Fun! 

From there, on to the ridiculously, absurdly, illegally fun roller-coaster BMX course close to the Bloomington trail head. 

I was laughing out loud on those flowy hillocks, just one swoop and stomach flip after another. It was like jazz on a bike. When it was done for the morning, I badly wanted to do the last part again, but age brings wisdom, and I conserved a few watts for the plentiful hiking and biking to come in the next few days.

The following day brought an extended hike in Zion National Park, a place with mythical status in my life. I spent four or five weeks there many years ago, in the summer between high school and college, conserving and blazing trail, and sleeping under the stars. It quite literally blew my mind and brought me my first tangible experience of what I would come to know as God. I left with a heavy heart, and with a touchstone I never lost. Needless to say, my return last month was a very rich experience, but that's a topic for another post. I took the photo below from a precipice about 800 feet high, floating in the middle of the canyon. If my wife and father-in-law hadn't been waiting for me, I might have stayed til sundown, dreamily soaring the canyon in my mind. Do yourself a favor and click on this one to see it full-scale. Imagine a biting desert sun, cool shade, the smell of baking minerals in the rock, and the sound of distant crow caws breaking the huge silence.

A bonus image from our hike, a couple days later, to the marvelous Kolob Arch in the northern end of the park:

The next day, I took off after breakfast for the popular Anasazi Trail in the Santa Clara River Preserve, also about 20 minutes from our door. The proximity of these major trails added to my feeling that St. George is just teeming with special rides.

"Anasazi" is the locals' name for the trail (and is the name of the native people who lived here a thousand years ago); it's technically named Tempi'po'op, reportely a Piute phrase for "rock writing." There are indeed petroglyphs there somewhere, but I didn't do quite enough research before heading out and, believe it or not, I missed them. No worries; I've seen plenty throughout the Southwest.

What I did find was a trail winding gently up to and along the rim of a mesa that looks out over an impressive canyon, and across to looming, red and brown cliffs.

I had planned a mellow ride, as I was going on a long hike with the family that afternoon and was already pretty cooked from all the travel, time-change, and loss of sleep. Getting lost put the kibosh on the mellow, adding three or four miles of up and down. I always get this fun mix of anxiety and excitement when I get lost, and truly, if you're going to get lost, this is the place to do it. 

On Anasazi, I got my first experience with full suspension in truly technical terrain. (See the rockiest part of the picture just above? That's the trail.) There's a mile or so of very slabby rock out on the mesa edge, and the Camber just rolled right over it, no matter which line I chose. I even had no fear rolling right along the cliff-edge on an off-camber section. I seriously have to get a full-suspension bike; it was like I'd won three free skill tokens in a video game.

A word or two more about the bike. I needed almost no adjustment time for the full suspension. It's not a bike with a ton of travel, and it felt natural under me. The low bottom bracket and big wheels provided confidence aplenty. The automatic sag adjustment for the shock definitely helped: I set it and forgot it. Once in a while I’d use the middle compression setting if I was headed uphill on a long, smooth stretch, but mostly, the rear took care of itself, and the confidence and handling it provided definitely raised the level of terrain I could handle. I gave it an melancholy pat as I dropped it off at the shop at the end of the trip.

Mrs. V and I were scheming ways to return to St. George next year, before my in-laws have to leave the area. I wouldn't trade New England mountain biking for the Southwest; they're both wonderful in different ways. But I know for sure I need more of that desert fix, just as soon as I can get it.

[A big shout-out of thanks to Mrs. V's wonderful parents for their hospitality—and for their understanding when I disappeared for a few hours every day.]

No comments: