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A grey haired guide to DIY mountain bike adventures in USA

01 September 2014

by Graham Allan

So, a variety of factors lead us to this. Five 50-somethings, male & female, are blundering about after dark in Sedona, AZ, their 28’ Campervan a manoeuvring nightmare. Day one of our 3 week road trip ends with a desperation meal at a deserted Burger King, and parked up overnight in a supermarket car park. A truck emptying dumpsters wakes us at 5am. This is not what we had travelled all the way to the USA for. Things could only get better.

3 weeks later we roll off Cattle Grate Trail on Gooseberry Mesa, SW Utah, and fall about with high fives, hugs & backslaps. WooHoo. 23 nights, 1500 miles (2400km) driven, 15 fantastic mountain bike rides – what joy, what scenery, what friends – old and new, what magic riding, what a great selection of IPA’s, highways, destinations & delights.

We had looped anti-clockwise from Las Vegas, taking in Sedona, Durango, Fruita, Moab, Bryce Canyon (actually Thunder Mountain/Coyote Hollow) and finally Hurricane - Red Bull Rampage country! All these are renowned mountain biking destinations and we cherry picked the best trails for a “trail rider’s desert country itinerary”. In addition to the RV we hired a ‘cargo van’ to carry the bikes and use as a run-about vehicle. This gave us flexibility - the two couples could take turns to have some alone time as we convoyed, we could park up and leave the RV in one place for days in a row, we could get to and from trail heads, the supermarket, or the craft brew bar without the stress of steering the cumbersome big rig.

By skirting around Flagstaff and Grand Junction our trip wandered predominantly through small-medium town America. In addition to the riding destinations we enjoyed Jerome, Cameron (for a side trip to Grand Canyon), Cortez, Silverton, Ouray, Torey, and Escalante. Mining in particular, plus agriculture, are the backstory to most of these towns, a mixture of derelict and done up houses and retail buildings, plus the all-important food and drink purveyors and establishments.

Nearby and in between settlements American highways feature lots of basic but perfectly adequate Bureau of Land Management (akin to DOC) camping areas. Most feature a concrete slab with large table and bench seats, a fire pit and a BBQ, plus nearby long drop loo, sometimes running water. Near Moab they offer Colorado River-side ambience, and at 18 Road near Fruita we had scrub, solitude and the warm glow of sunset. At Coyote Hollow we had scattered pines, freezing polar winds and a herd of deer grazing nearby at breakfast. For US$10 per night per vehicle they are almost universally excellent.

Living as we did out of an RV (the mothership) we prepared and ate good food, but also availed ourselves of diners, café’s, craft brew bars, copious pancakes, ribs, pulled pork, skillet, enchiladas, burritos, etc. Supermarket deli sourced cold cuts and cheese, with avocado, tomatoes and mayo on “Daves Killer Bread” (recommended) was a lunch staple, along with espresso shots courtesy of our wee stove top. To hunt for good coffee in USA is to be constantly disappointed, and only very occasionally surprised and satisfied.

And riding our bikes? We did a bit. Never more than 3 days in a row, but lots of dusty, droppy, steppy, rocky and rollicking singletrack disappeared under our wheels. With 5” of trailbike goodness, stans in the tyres, and only one burp, a dropped chain and a couple of cactus thorns to bother us, it was a mechanical drama free zone. Injuries? We had a few, the most impressive when Murray went down on a bar end on UPS / Whole Enchilada. The neat circle of contusion, smack in middle of the sternum, bruised out over following days and weeks into a nipples/nose/mouth smiley face, to be displayed and ooohhh’d over. We all threw ourselves at the scenery at one point or another, but no Emergency Room visits were necessary.

In Moab we set about sorting a shuttle for the classic “Whole Enchilada” trail combo and encountered age-ism. The 20-something shop boy at Poison Spider Bicycles looked askance at Pauline and I, then tried hard to dissuade these grey haired wrinklies from downunder. “It’s a pretty hard-out trail you know. 25miles, and pretty rough. There ARE bail-out options but I wouldn’t want you folks getting stuck up there, there’s snow and ice on Burro Pass you know”. Two days later we rode 98% of the 19miles of singletrack from Hazzard County to the bottom of Porcupine Rim at the Colorado River. Seriously if you can ride the Greenwood Park or Captain Thomas tracks in Christchurch, you can ride most of what we did. These would be Black Diamond trails in the USA.

Our last week we were based with friends Diane and Fred at their home in Hurricane, SW Utah. These fine and funny people are indefatigable hosts of Kiwi mountain bikers. I had met Fred & Diane online as they prepared to visit NZ from Boise, Idaho in March 2009. They stayed a week with me in Christchurch, we got on famously, we rode some mountain bike tracks, I broke my leg (an in-elegant dismount in a Wharfedale stream bed), we stayed in touch. Friends for life. I re-paid them by trundling into Hurricane with not five, but seven Kiwis for them to mock, cajole, feed & entertain. The examination of cultural, linguistic and colloquial origins of “yeah, yeah, nah” became comedy gold.

 The riding just out of Hurricane, atop the local mesa’s – Little Creek, Guacamole, and Gooseberry - delighted us with oodles of short, steep ups and downs, alternately and constantly changing slickrock and flowy singletrack, narrow wee canyons, tight turns and perma-berms to shred and savour. With the trails regularly skirting the vertiginous mesa edge, expansive views came at many a turn (including looking down on the Red Bull Rampage site). Less enamoured with this was Grum, who with Juliet had joined up with us in Durango. He suffers vertigo, and struggled with riding along exposed trails where you are at times just a metre or so from oblivion. (For more info about this region see the July 2013 issue of MBAction – “Utah’s Secret Singletrack”).

As we drove down off Gooseberry Mesa for the last time rain clouds were gathering, and a convoy of 4WD’s and RV’s were trundling in to set up on the Mesa edge for distant views of the 2013 Red Bull Rampage location. Good binoculars or other vision assist would have given them some view of the spectacle far below. We had to make do with sharing the Hurricane café with Kelly McGarry, so chilled out and with no outward sign he was contemplating the backflip he threw down three days later. By then were long gone, winging our way home to NZ, satisfied to have ridden and seen some amazing country. The trip was almost perfect. Next time we might just check the calendar of events a bit more closely. On our trip we had passed within days of Interbike (Las Vegas), Outerbike (Moab) and Red Bull Rampage (Virgin, near Hurricane). So near, yet so far.

Nitty Gritty

  • Auckland – Las Vegas via LA or San Francisco was painless, and we copped no excess baggage fees. Airfares approx. NZ$2400 (Air NZ / Virgin America).
  • Large campers/RV’s are around us$70 a night if booked well ahead. Smaller ones aren’t much cheaper.
  • Book campers at least 8 months ahead (prices climb steeply as time to pickup shortens)
  • Living Costs: max. NZ$3000 per person – camper hire, small van hire, gasoline, all food, beer, RV park fees, incidentals.
  • Timing: April-May (their spring), or September-October (late summer/fall) best avoids the summer heat of the desert.
  • There is oodles of info online; check out www.mtbr.com regional forums (you can just mine info, or ask locals for advice), and there are great maps / trail info at the many bike stores in each location. Search youtube for vids of trails to get a flavour of what you are in for.