The Must-Do 3 Days of Mountain Biking in Moab, UT

Rider: Chris Daniels, photo: Andrew Jensen

Moab is considered to be one of the premier mountain biking destinations in the world, and has been ranked by singletracks as the Mountain Biking Capital of the United States. With hundreds of miles of trails, in addition to limitless jeeping trails and climbing routes, it is the perfect destination for any outdoor enthusiast. Aside from the heat, elevation, and technical rock features, riding in Moab presents an intangible challenge: where to ride. One glance at a local topo/trail map, and it’s clear that you could spend weeks in Moab and not ride everything. Having spent considerable time in Moab the past few years as an “outsider,” here is what I consider to be the ideal itinerary for a long weekend, if you have the legs and lungs and want to hit the highlights.

When to Go

In case you didn’t know, Moab is in the desert, and the temperatures can vary dramatically from noon to midnight, season to season. If you are not familiar with this ecosystem, the summer can be brutally hot, and the winters can be very cold (even during the day if it is windy). Moab can be ridden year-round, but some trails, particularly ones at higher elevations (i.e. The Whole Enchilada, or TWE), may be snowed in during the winter. I’ve ridden Moab in every season, but if you want to maximize your opportunity for good riding weather, I suggest that you plan your 3-day adventure in May or in September/October. Even in May, the upper sections of TWE may be too snowy or muddy to ride.

Where to Ride

So, you’ve rented your $10,000 bike, donned your enduro kit (in blue, of course), loaded your hydration pack with food and water, and started your Strava. Now, what? Here are some friendly suggestions based on your interest and ability.

Day 1

Morning Ride: Beginner/Intermediate

Moab Brand Trails: The Brand Trails are made up of about 15 interconnecting loops that are geared toward the beginner and intermediate rider (though there are 4 “expert” sections). The trail system is conveniently located off of Hwy 191. What’s nice about this system is that you can connect the trails any way you like, and use the green, blue, and black (beginner to expert) trails for skills progression. The scenery is pretty amazing here, and it is easy to rack up 15 or more miles of singletrack. You can ride as little or as long as you want, which makes it a great “warm up” for the rides to come.

MOAB brand trails are where Outerbike is held every year...a perfect place to test bikes and make a custom series of loops to warm up to Moab
Moab brand trails are where Outerbike is held every year…a perfect place to test bikes and make a custom series of loops to warm up to Moab

Morning Ride: Advanced

Hymasa to Captain Ahab to Hymasa to Rockstacker to Jackson: Ok, this is a big ride and a heck of a way to start out three days in Moab, but a must-do if you’ve never ridden this area. The new Hymasa climb to Captain Ahab, designed by Tyson Swasey, is an absolute blast on a trail bike, with big and little hits and a plethora of rock features. You can opt to cut out Rockstacker and Jackson (which is what makes this such a big ride) and loop Captain Ahab twice. I would recommend, either way, that you cut off at the halfway point of the Hymasa climb and skip the upper section of Ahab, and that you stash extra water at the intersection of the end of Ahab and Hymasa to refill for the second lap (or the Rockstacker/Jackson part). If you opt for the whole ride, count on 4-5 hours and 3,000 feet of climbing over 18 miles, so start really early and bring water.

Will showing us how it's done at bottom of Ahab...and on a 29er. Can you believe that??
Will showing us how it’s done at bottom of Ahab…and on a 29er. Can you believe that??

Evening Ride: Intermediate/Advanced

Slickrock Trail: This is the Moab classic, is a must-do if you have not done it, and it will likely be the most difficult 10.5 miles you’ll ever pedal in your life. It’s hot, all rock, and I’d suggest doing it early in the morning or as a late evening ride. Honestly, if you do this after doing the Advanced ride, you are a deity, and I bow to you. Even if you don’t do all of it, however, it’s nice to do an out-and-back just to get on the slickrock, a unique place to pedal and get well-acquainted with your granny gear.

Nowhere on earth can you test the limits of your bike's traction and the ability to function anaerobically than on the Slickrock punchy climbs
Nowhere on earth can you test the limits of your bike’s traction and the ability to function anaerobically than on the punchy climbs of Slickrock

Day 2

Morning Ride: Intermediate

Sovereign Trail: this is one of my favorite areas in Moab, and a perennial lesser-known favorite for the seasoned Moab rider. Finding it can be difficult, and there are two trailheads with several interconnecting loops, so get a map and plan your ride. It’s roughly 16 miles of ups and downs with several optional rock features. Make sure to check with a local bike shop before going out, though: sometimes motos can tear up some of the trail and bring out the sandy areas–it’s nice to know that in advance. FYI: this is a great place to ride a fat bike or plus-sized bike.

Although most of Sovereign is benign and designed for the intermediate rider, it's pretty easy to find the gnar. Photo: John Fisch
Although most of Sovereign is benign and designed for the intermediate rider, it’s pretty easy to find the gnar. Photo: John Fisch

Morning Ride: Advanced

The Whole Enchilada: this has replaced Slickrock as the unofficial signature ride in Moab, and for good reason. It is a 26-mile downhill run (with 1,500ft of climbing mixed in) made up of 6 trails that traverse several ecosystems over the most demanding terrain Moab has to offer. This ride requires a shuttle, where you’ll start in alpine forest at 10,400ft and climb above treeline to 11,200ft. You’ll then experience the steep DH-like Burro Pass, which mellows into a meandering aspen grove before it spits you out into the oak groves and pinons of Hazzard County and Kokopelli. After a super fast road descent, you’ll begin the technical, rocky sections of UPS and LPS, before it blends into the famous Porcupine Rim. Plenty of opportunities to go fast and hit big jumps along these last sections. Note that if you have to pedal back to town you will capture almost 35 miles of riding! It will be the ride you remember for the rest of your life.

TWE is chocked full of postcard views interrupted by crap-eating-grin rocky singletrack
TWE is chocked full of postcard views interrupted by crap-eating-grin rocky singletrack

Evening Ride: Intermediate

Pipe Dream: Still got some legs? Take the no-dab challenge! This 4.8-mile trail parallels the main drag of downtown Moab and offers a nice cool down with rock-armored up and down sections. There is a “game” whereby if you can ride this trail out-and-back without dabbing, you’re… well, pretty awesome. Me? I’m doing it one way and riding my bike back to town for some local suds.

The no-dab challenge is a lot harder than it sounds with 2-way traffic! Photo: maddslacker
The no-dab challenge is a lot harder than it sounds with 2-way traffic! Photo: maddslacker

Day 3

Morning Ride Intermediate

Klondike Bluffs: It’s day 3 and you’re excited, but your body is telling you to throttle back. The Klondike trail system is the perfect place to do that. Similar to the Moab Brand Trails, but with more elevation and advanced riding, this system is built with miles and miles of loops that allow you to customize your route. I personally recommend a 15-mile route with about 1,100 feet of climbing: Alaska to EKG to Megasteps to Dino. The scenery is amazing, and there is nothing an intermediate rider cannot handle here.

The climbs at Klondike are sustainable and reasonable, and the downhills sections are fast and flowy. Perfection.
The climbs at Klondike are sustainable and reasonable, and the downhills sections are fast and flowy. Perfection.

Morning Ride: Advanced

Magnificent 7: You thought that the Whole Enchilada was tough? Magnificent 7 will do it’s best to chew you up and spit you off the side of the cliff. This trail also requires a shuttle. “Mag 7” is actually seven trails linked together by sections of road to create a 23ish-mile monster: Bull Run, a section of Gemini Road, Arth’s Corner, Little Canyon, Gold Bar to upper Gold Bar Rim, Golden Spike, the north end of Poison Spider, Blue Dot (now legal), and the infamously-deadly Portal Trail. This trail has it all: rolling singletrack, short, punchy climbs, insane technical features, exposure, and ripping hold-on-to-the-seat-of-your-pants downhill.

Mag 7 is full of exposure and intimidating features
Mag 7 is full of exposure and intimidating features

Evening Ride: Intermediate/Advanced

Bartlett Wash: This technical play area is just outside of town and is the perfect place to just get on your bike and find the line that feels good to you. Without any true trail to follow, there are plenty of rocky washes to roll over and down and find lines that match your flow. This is a great place to come and ride if you just have a the desire to experience the traction of slickrock but don’t want an epic multi-hour ride.

Bartlett Wash is the ultimate apres-ride slickrock playground full of steep rollers, big drops, and smooth lines. Photo: Trailbuilder1
Bartlett Wash is the ultimate apres-ride slickrock playground, full of steep rollers, big drops, and smooth lines. Photo: Trailbuilder1

Where to Stay

Camping is often the preferred option for travelers on the cheap, and Moab has abundant sites. Dispersed camping on BLM land is free (but fills up fast), and there are pay sites such as the Slickrock/Sand Flats Recreation Area. These facilities have no showers/toilets, but Moab has quite a few places that offer pay showers for riders, such as the Poison Spider Bike Shop or Lazy Lizard Hostel. Speaking of which, the Lazy Lizard has the cheapest lodging in town, and is a staple for Moab travelers, though it is no secret that you get what you pay for. Moab is a very popular place, and is represented by most major hotel brands, but expect to pay close to $200/night in the busy seasons for a room that sleeps four. Another option is a relatively recent explosion of online home rentals from sites like VRBO.com–a perfect option for larger groups looking for private digs.

No matter what bike you bring to Moab, make sure it is in good working order. These trails are rough
No matter what bike you bring to Moab, make sure it is in good working order. These trails are rough

Where to Eat

Despite its small size, Moab is full of eateries, cafes, breweries, and restaurants. Local “touristy” favorites include the Moab Brewery and Eddie McStiffs, which not only serve great microbrews, but also have a great menu for lunch and dinner. If Mickey Ds isn’t your thing, the JailHouse Cafe is a kitschy place to have a pre-ride omelette.

Bike Shops

Obviously, mountain biking is one of Moab’s principal attractions, but it still surprises me that a town with a permanent population of around 5,000 has so many bike shops with high-end rides and gear, each with their own special flare. Chili Pepper Bike Shop, for example, has the best espresso in town IMHO, and the mechanics always treat me like I am a frequent, regular customer (maybe I am?). Poison Spider Bicycles has fast, friendly mechanics, but also a huge demo fleet of bikes that they sell for a discount at the end of the season.  My experience with Moab Cyclery has also been favorable, and they are known for extended trips/shuttles.  Rim Cyclery is Moab’s oldest bike shop… and it seems like they have a lot of everything in their shop! Bottom line is: you cannot go wrong if you need parts, service, a rental, or a new bike while in Moab. All of these shops have shuttles that depart for the signature rides daily during peak seasons.

Shuttle Services

It’s worth mentioning that many rides in Moab require shuttles because of the time, elevation, and distance that they cover. There are several in Moab such as Coyote Shuttle and Porcupine Shuttle  (which I’ve used and they are great), but I’ll be honest that I now use and endorse the Whole Enchilada Shuttle, co-owned/operated by local shredder Kyle Mears (yes, the same Kyle Mears that rides with Nate Hills in the Follow Cam Friday videos like this one). He has a lot of cool stories, and I’ll leave it at that.

Shuttles AND climbing are required to get to places like Burro Pass near 11,000 feet, but the downhill and scenery is totally worth it
Shuttles AND climbing are required to get to places like Burro Pass near 11,000 feet, but the downhill and scenery is totally worth it

What to Bring

Moab eats bikes. That’s a common saying for anyone who has spent any significant time riding there. The trails can be punishing to both gear and self, so riding prepared can save you a lot of trouble if something goes wrong. Moab is a big place with limited cellular service. You already know the essentials to take on every ride, but here are some friendly suggestions.

  • Take lots of water: whatever you think you need, take extra, especially in summer.
  • Bring lots of food: some trails seem like they are mostly downhill, but every ride in Moab requires pedalling, and rides will often take you hours longer than you think they will, especially when bike issues occur (and they will).
  • Start your adventure with a tuned bike: fresh tires and sealant, and new(er) brake pads are a must if you plan on riding hard in Moab for 3 days. Make sure your bike is tuned, shifting and braking properly, and there are no mechanical issues that need attending before you venture out.
  • Make sure you work on your fitness as much as possible before you ride Moab: the lowest elevation is around 4000ft, with some rides topping out over 11,000ft of elevation!
  • I also recommend a map, sunscreen, appropriate body armor, spare parts, mobile phone, and electrolyte tablets.

Final Thoughts

Moab may seem daunting to newer riders, but rest assured there are trails for every ability, from first-timers to professionals–which is what makes this place so great. The goal is to have fun, and if you get too tired or become injured, there are plenty of other activities to try in lieu of trail riding. If you have the fitness, means, and desire, you can plan a 3-day trip to Moab that will set the standard for every future biking trip until the day you stop riding.

Go for it!

More information