Biking in Moab: Tours, Tips and Etiquette

The first mountain bikes came to Moab in 1982, when they were used to herd cattle. That didn’t work out so well, but within a decade or so, Moab had become the West’s most noted mountain bike destination.

In addition to riding the famed and challenging slickrock trails (slickrock is the exposed sandstone that composes much of the land’s surface here, and despite its name, bike tires grab it quite nicely) that wind through astonishing desert landscapes, cyclists can pedal through alpine meadows in the La Sal Mountains or take nearly abandoned 4WD tracks into the surrounding backcountry. Beware: The most famous trails—like the Slickrock Bike Trail—are not for beginners. Other trails are better matched to the skills of novices. A good online resource for trails and advice is the Moab Bike Patrol.

The Slickrock Bike Trail. Photo © Bill McRae.
The Slickrock Bike Trail. Photo © Bill McRae.

It’s a good idea to read up on Moab-area trails before planning a trip; heaps of books and pamphlets are available. You can also hire an outfitter to teach you about the special skills needed to mountain bike in slickrock country, or join a guided tour. The Moab Information Center’s website also has good information about bike trails.

Most people come to Moab to mountain bike mid-March-late May, and then again in the fall mid-September-end of October. Unless you are an early riser, summer is simply too hot for extended bike touring in these desert canyons. Be prepared for crowds, especially in mid-March during spring break. The Slickrock Trail alone has been known to attract more than 150,000 riders per year.

If you’ve never biked on slickrock or in the desert, here are a few basic guidelines. Take care if venturing off a trail—it’s a long way down some of the sheer cliff faces. A trail’s steep slopes and sharp turns can be tricky, so a helmet is a must. Knee pads and riding gloves also protect from scrapes and bruises. Fat bald tires work best on the rock; partially deflated knobby tires do almost as well. Carry plenty of water—one gallon in summer, half a gallon in cooler months. Tiny plant associations, which live in fragile cryptobiotic soil, don’t want you tearing through their homes; stay on the rock and avoid sandy areas.

Mountain Bike Etiquette

When mountain biking in the Moab area, don’t expect an instant wilderness experience. Because of the popularity of the routes, the fragile desert environment is under quite a bit of stress, and you’ll need to be considerate of the thousands of other people who share the trails. By keeping these rules in mind, you’ll help keep Moab from being loved to death.

  • Ride only on open roads and trails. Much of the desert consists of extremely fragile plant and animal ecosystems, and riding recklessly through cryptobiotic soils can destroy desert life and lead to erosion. If you pioneer a trail, chances are someone else will follow the tracks, leading to ever more destruction.
  • Protect and conserve scarce water sources. Don’t wash, swim, walk, or bike through potholes, and camp well away from isolated streams and water holes. The addition of your insect repellent, body oils, suntan lotion, or bike lubrication can destroy the thriving life of a pothole. Camping right next to a remote stream can deprive shy desert wildlife of life-giving water access.
  • Leave all Native American sites and artifacts as you find them. First, it’s against the law to disturb antiquities; second, it’s stupid. Enjoy looking at rock art, but don’t touch the images—body oils hasten their deterioration. Don’t even think about taking potsherds, arrowheads, or artifacts from where you find them. Leave them for others to enjoy or for archaeologists to interpret.
  • Dispose of solid human waste thoughtfully. The desert can’t easily absorb human fecal matter. Desert soils have few microorganisms to break down organic material, and, simply put, mummified turds can last for years. Be sure to bury solid waste at least 6-12 inches deep in sand and at least 200 feet away from streams and water sources. Pack out toilet paper in plastic bags.

Bike Tours

Most of the bicycle rental shops in Moab offer daylong mountain bike excursions, while outfitters offer multiday tours that vary in price depending on the difficulty of the trail and the degree of comfort involved. The charge for these trips is usually around $200-250 per day, including food and shuttles. Be sure to inquire whether rates include bike rental.

Rim Tours (1233 S. U.S. 191, 435/259-5223 or 800/626-7335) is a well-established local company offering several half-day (around $90 pp for 2-3 cyclists), full-day (around $125 pp for 2-3 cyclists), and multiday trips. Magpie Cycling (800/546-4245) is a small local business that runs day trips, which include instruction on mountain biking techniques, and overnight rides, mostly in Canyonlands, including a four-day tour of the White Rim Trail ($955).

Western Spirit Cycling (478 Mill Creek Dr., 435/259-8732 or 800/845-2453) offers mountain and road bike tours in the western United States, with about one-third of them in Utah. Moab-area trips include the White Rim, the Maze, and the Kokopelli’s Trail (5 days, $1,200). Another Moab-based company with tours all over the West is Escape Adventures (Moab Cyclery, 391 S. Main St., 435/259-7423 or 800/596-2953,), which leads multiday mountain bike trips, including one into the remote Maze section of Canyonlands National Park (5 days, $1,295); some of the tours combine cycling with rafting, climbing, and hiking.

Rentals and Repairs

Rim Cyclery (94 W. 100 N., 435/259-5333 or 888/304-8219, 9am-6pm daily) is Moab’s oldest bike and outdoor gear store, offering both road and mountain bike sales, rentals, and service. Mountain bike rentals are also available at Poison Spider Bicycles (497 N. Main St., 435/259-7882 or 800/635-1792, 8am-7pm daily spring and fall, 9am-6pm daily winter and summer) and Chile Pepper (702 S. Main St., 435/259-4688 or 888/677-4688, 8am-6pm daily Mar.-Nov., 9am-5pm daily Dec.-Feb.). Moab Cyclery (391 S. Main St., 435/259-7423 or 800/559-1978, 8am-6pm daily) offers rentals, tours, shuttles, and gear. Expect to pay about $45-80 per day to rent a mountain bike, a little less for a road bike.

Shuttle Services

Several of the Moab area’s best mountain bike trails are essentially one-way, and unless you want to cycle back the way you came, you’ll need to arrange a shuttle service to pick you up and bring you back to Moab or your vehicle. Also, if you don’t have a vehicle or a bike rack, you will need to use a shuttle service to get to more distant trailheads. Coyote Shuttle (435/260-2097) and Roadrunner Shuttle (435/260-2724) both operate shuttle services; depending on distance, the usual fare is $20-30 per person. Both companies also shuttle hikers to trailheads and pick up rafters.

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