Mountain Biking in Southern Utah

Moab, Utah has long been a destination known for world class mountain biking, but in the southwestern region of Utah near Zion National Park, some of the best bike trails for all levels of bikers preside. As a newcomer to mountain biking, I was looking for trails that would ease me into this challenging activity, but I also wanted to experience the “thrill” mountain bikers relish when they successfully navigate tricky trails and come across breath taking vistas. I found this just outside of Hurricane, Utah on the JEM trail.

Street biking has long been a favorite activity of mine. It’s a great workout, gets me outside into the fresh air and relaxes my mind. A friend who knows my enthusiasm for cycling suggested that I try mountain biking. I hesitated. Trying my skills at this more vigorous mode of cycling drew up red flags. Uneven, rocky trails were the typical tracks for mountain biking, not the smooth asphalt I was used to. The potential for crashing was higher. How would I handle downward slopes that were made up of loose dirt or slippery bedrock? And even though I didn’t have a problem with heights, I knew the trails could skirt along 100, 200, 500 even 1,000 foot drop-offs. One bad turn of the wheel and it was “so long Sally!”

I didn’t own a mountain bike so I had to rent.  My friends led me to a shop called “Over the Edge.” Lovely! The name only served to increase my apprehension on the whole endeavor.  Located in Hurricane, Utah, it is the premier bike shop for mountain bikers. 

The staff at Over the Edge were terrific!  Jordon first asked about my biking background.  Then he set me up with a 27.5 inch Rocky Mountain Altitude.  I was told to ride it around the shop’s parking lot to get a feel for it.  As I took off peddling, I noticed that I started bobbing up and down as if I was sitting on a buoy in choppy waters.  It took me off guard. My front wheel swayed to the left and then to the right , and I found myself straining to maintain my balance.  After a few times peddling, I conceded to Jordon that I felt very shaking on the bike.  He made a quick adjustment on the bike by switching off the suspension.  It was a feature that my street bike didn’t have.  Mountain bikes are built with shocks for bump absorption on rocky trails, providing a more comfortable ride. I would definitely appreciate this feature later in the day.

Another thing that I needed to adjust to was that all my gear controls were on the right handlebar.  So if I wanted to switch from low to high gear, it was done with two switches on the right side.  On the left handlebar was a lever to move my seat up or down.  This was a great feature I had never experienced before.  When I rode on level ground, a higher seat was more comfortable.  But when I started climbing or descending, I preferred a low seat closer to the bike and closer to the ground.

After signing waivers that released all liability from the shop should I have a mishap while riding, we packed up the bike and drove on highway 59 to JEM’s trailhead.  Following a dirt road off the highway, we reached a parking lot packed with cars. A group of folks were just biking onto the trail when we arrived. I wondered what JEM stood for and found out later that it is an abbreviation for John, Ellen, and Mike who developed the trail back in the 90s.

A handful of branching singletrack trails intersect with JEM increasing the length of the trail system. The trails are marked and we veered off the JEM and took a mesa rim trail eerily named “Dead Ringer.” It had some of the most awe-inspiring vistas as cliff walls fell away with 500-foot drops.

Leaving Dead Ringer we dropped to More Cowbell. A switchback over layers of rocks had me walking my bike on this part of the track. It unnerved me. I mumbled to my friends that only 20 or 30 “somethings” could handle such a challenge, and was boldly corrected as a biker coasted past me, announcing that 50 somethings could also! At the bottom, we road along a wash and connected with a trail named Goosebumps. As the name conveys, it was populated with humps that made this track bumpy.  Goosebumps stretched out into desert flatlands where barbed wire fencing crisscrossed and range cattle roamed.  The JEM is built on BLM land.  “Ride-over” cattle grates broke up the fencing, and I quickly learned how to fly over these dome shaped rails after coming to a sudden stop half way up as my peddle got caught between the metal rods.

It was February and the desert air was dry and crisp. Both families and serious mountain bikers were enjoying the track which spread out far enough to diminish congestion. The more I biked, I developed an ease with the terrain but being alert never left me. After twelve miles of climbing, descending, flowing trails, I was beat, but ready to come back for another day.

Mountain biking on these trails require a set of skills that I’m determined to master. The trails, like ski trails, are categorized into three levels, green, blue and black. The JEM had enough green trails to ease me into the sport. For a first experience, this was a great trail.

Hurricane, Utah is a short two hour drive from Las Vegas. For more information on the JEM trail, the following links have been provided.

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