Destination: St. George, Utah

The next great mountain bike destination?

St. George, Utah

It was February of 2011 and living in the mountains of Colorado, I hadn’t seen a dry patch of dirt or a temperature above 15 degrees in months.

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When I arrived in St. George, Utah for a mini-training camp and found myself surrounded by the classic desert landscape of red rocks, sand, and warm temperatures, I wondered why St. George had never been on my radar before for a wintertime riding destination.

My theory is that St. George has remained hidden because of the lack of a large race or event in the area. If so, that is about to change as the True Grit 50/100 links together 50 miles of some of the best trails in the St. George area and was greeted with excellent reviews in its inaugural year in 2011.

With a stern warning on the website to pre-ride at least two of the trails on the course because of technical sections, the race definitely showcases some of the classics in the area.

Located in the middle of Dixie County in the far southwest corner of Utah, St. George lacks the small-town feel that has made other destinations, such as Moab and Fruita popular. But what it lacks in tourist attractions, it makes up for in quality and quantity of trails a stone-throw from city limits and a wide variety of amenities not found in the smaller towns.

The Trails
One of the prime areas for mountain biking in St. George is the Santa Clara Preserve. The trails are located in a relatively small area but the remote and harsh nature of the desert gives the impression of being much farther away from civilization than you actually are. The trails range from completely benign to ‘People ride that?!’ with the perfect mix of technical challenges and miles of roller coaster trails.

Barrel Roll/Rim Rock Trails
On the northern end of the Santa Clara Preserve is the Cove Wash trailhead with a series of loops sprouting from a single point.

Barrel Roll, a 6-mile loop is a classic introduction to St. George riding. As the trail winds through the desert landscape, it stays mostly smooth with a few rocky sections to wake up technical skills that have been lying dormant all winter. My skills woke up quickly after bobbling a move and giving a friendly cactus a high-five.

With a moderate amount of elevation gain in the form of singletrack, the Barrel Roll is a classic to the area.

Just to the south, starting from the same trailhead are the Rim Rock trails. The ‘loop’ can be made up of any combination of Rim Rock, Rim Runner, Rim Reaper, and Rim Rambler depending on desired ride length. The whole area is fairly non-technical desert riding while still being plenty entertaining for riders of all levels.

Stucki Springs/Bearclaw Poppy
Ridden north to south, Stucki Springs is the definition of a roller coaster ride on a bike. The 10 miles of trail resembles a 10-mile pump track on a hard surface that seems to never end. Ridden with a line of riders, this trail is nothing short of a Disney World amusement park ride.

From the southern terminus of the Stucki Springs trail system, the Bearclaw Poppy trail is well worth the time to ride. Just on the outskirts of town, the area is preserved to protect the endangered Bearclaw Poppy flower. The trail is one of the most popular in the St. George area as it is easily accessed from a variety of trailheads, and provides excellent, clay surfaced riding for a wide variety of skill levels.

As the name implies, one must find Zen while riding the Zen trail. The trail climbs directly from the parking lot and immediately provides entertaining rock features to negotiate on the way up.

Locals have found lines through the large and small rock moves and the climb rewards those with strong technical skills. Once at the top, as with most climbs, it’s mostly downhill back to the car. While there are a handful of sections of smooth trail on the descent, there are several hairy steep sections and rock moves that require total commitment. It’s a perfect blend of trials skills and speed.

A final descent through a scenic mini-canyon and a screaming fast finish returns riders to the trailhead where most turn to look back up the trail, determined to ride some of the sections smoother and cleaner the next time around.

The True Grit 50/100

The True Grit 50, created by Gro-Promotions (also the promoters of 25 Hours in Frog Hollow) combines the best of the trails in the Santa Clara Preserve to create a route with 46 miles of dirt and enough technical challenges to qualify it as one of the most demanding ultra-endurance courses created.

The newly created 100-mile option will traverse the stunning loop twice. With a March 17th date, it’s the perfect early season fitness test and escape from colder climates. The route starts with Barrel Ride, yet another technically challenging trail in the area, does a loop of Zen, and heads south then north on Bear-claw Poppy and Stucki Springs before finishing with Rim Runner and Barrel Roll.

While the race had to be canceled halfway through last year due to unseasonal torrential rains that threatened to destroy the trails, racers raved about the sections of trail that were ridden before the deluge. The technical nature of the course gave locals a distinct home-course advantage and other racers stayed glued to the wheels of those who knew the smoothest lines through the rocks.

Once rain-soaked chamois had been peeled off and bikes put away, participants were treated to a buffet of food ideal for hungry and cold racers. Many were clearly disappointed by the cancellation of the race but most agree that the promoters made the right call with the long-term interest of the trails in mind as well as knowing that many of the final miles would consist of a muddy hike-a-bike and that the rescue of hypothermic racers from the section would be difficult.

By that afternoon, the sun was shining brilliantly, leaving riders scratching their head at the squall that had left so many shivering that morning.

With the addition of the 100-mile option and the word-of-mouth reviews of the race, the True Grit is poised for a year of record growth. Then each person will tell three of their friends about the mountain biking in St. George and all of sudden, there may be an influx of fat tires to this year-round riding Mecca.

Be sure to check out more destinations to go get your tires dirty.

By Eszter Horanyi

Eszter Horanyi lives and mountain bikes in Crested Butte, CO. She has dabbled in road racing, cyclocross racing, and cross country mountain bike racing, but has gravitated towards ultra endurance and multi-day self-supported racing in the more recent past. She firmly believes that nothing tops a good ride with good friends on good trails, thus she spends her life in search of all of the above. More by Eszter here.