CYCLING: Fall mountain biking off the busy, beaten path
As a cyclist, heck as a human being, living in this high-desert climate, we are all yearning for that first crisp fall morning. A morning that lets us know we can ride during the middle of the day and not be reduced to a heatstroke victim, covered in salty sweat,reeling from mild hallucinations brought on by the unrelenting heat.
Fall has always been my favorite season for riding; the racing is over (if that is your thing), the heat has subsided, there is no need to drive far from home into the mountains to enjoy a road or mountain bike ride. In fact, the trails right outside our door beckon us once more, and not since early spring have we taken as much pleasure in riding what was, just a month or so ago, a fiery furnace akin to the Gates of Mordor.
Fall in the Grand Valley has always meant, not having to get up at some ridiculous hour to ride my favorite trails and not running out of 100 ounces of water in 45 minutes or so.
One of my favorite fall riding destinations is Rabbit Valley. Rabbit Valley’s dozens and dozens of miles of shared-use trails are often overshadowed by the more popular Grand Valley trails such as Kokopelli, 18 Road and the Lunch Loops. Unlike their more popular brethren, the Rabbit Valley trail system is comprised of shared-use trails with most open to motorcycles and a few that are open to ATVs as well.
Two miles east of the Colorado/Utah border lies the trailhead for Rabbit Valley just off of I-70 exit 2. From this trailhead riding options abound in all directions. Over the years I have grown to love a big loop that takes riders north of I-70 and then west into the Utah desert along a double track that eventually takes riders under the interstate and onto a trail known as the Zion Curtain. After about five miles of rolling doubletrack and the aforementioned trip beneath I-70, the shared-use singletrack spurs off to the west and travels back toward the Colorado/Utah border.
Twisted, ancient junipers line the chunky sandstone singletrack as it winds in and out of arroyos until it bears south along an old fence-line climbing steadily until about mile 9-ish when it spits riders out onto a bench overlooking the entire Rabbit Valley trail system to the east and just inside of the westernmost part of the Colorado desert; pale veins of trails spider across the low valley floor in all directions. This is a popular spot for photographs and gulping down a gel or Snickers bar or perhaps a cool-ish can of PBR.
From the overlook, the trail climbs gently southward through an eerie patch of juniper remains where a not-so-long-ago wildfire raged. Tipping slightly west, the trail climbs more steeply and tops out on a rock-strewn plateau where the wrong line will likely result in a flat repair session as the trail points downward and speed builds crossing shark-finned sections and a few slick rock moves. The trail then spills out into a wash and climbs slightly to the precipice of what is arguably the trails steepest and most difficult descent. Many riders choose to walk this section, depending on how loose it is or if the normal lines are obliterated by coffee table-sized slabs of stone.
Once riders have made it beyond the crux of the ride, they are rewarded with a mostly downhill roller coaster of a descent, crossing washes and racing through stands of tall grasses for about three miles or so until the trail crosses a wide (usually dry) wash and climbs slightly toward a doubletrack that intersects the Kokopelli trail, which is a primitive jeep road at this point. From here riders have three choices; a right turn (north-northwest) takes them back to the Rabbit Valley trailhead via doubletrack that reconnects with the I-70 underpass, going straight ahead (due west) takes riders on a steep climb up to the deceptively difficult and ridiculously fun Westwater Mesa trails and a left (south) will roll toward the Colorado River and takes riders to the can’t miss ribbon of trail known as the Western Rim and eventually back to the Rabbit Valley trailhead. This final option provides the most fun-per-mile without getting as epic as the Westwater Mesa option.
Regardless of which trail you choose from the Rabbit Valley trailhead, the one thing that it has always impressed upon me is the sheer feeling of being isolated “out-there” as there are many sections where the only signs of civilization are tiny glints of light reflecting off of the windshields of vehicles along I-70. Even on the weekends, the Zion Curtain trail is relatively free of anything resembling a “crowd” and the dirt bikes are few and far between. For first-timers, a map or a local with knowledge will reduce the anxiety of getting turned around or stranded by a mechanical. The nearest services are in Mack so plan accordingly.
Todd Mallow is a long-time Grand Junction resident who has dabbled in both mountain biking and writing. Last year, he placed in the top 50 in the Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race and has contributed several articles to the Ruby Canyon Cycles website.
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