Dixie National Forest’s Red Canyon and Thunder Mountain

Everybody knows that Utah is the wild west of mountain biking. Rugged, untamed trails cut through the landscape of sandy, rocky wilderness, moving freely over an open landscape. Ridgelines flow in a thousand directions from every hill and mesa, slickrock oceans become moonscapes to traverse at will, and ledgy staircases of sandstone create natural descent lines and features everywhere. We knew many of the famous trails that make it into magazines and videos, such as Gooseberry Mesa, Amasa Back, Virgin River Trails. But we also knew that there is a wealth of trails outside of the realm of common knowledge to explore. We wanted to find our way to the cache of locally known trails, but where to start?

A local bike shop along the way gave us a useful list of things to check out. After some research, one trail among that list stood out as an obvious must have – Dixie National Forest’s Thunder Mountain Trail. The placard at the Red Canyon Visitor’s Center read:

“One of the premier mountain bike trails in Southern Utah, this singletrack trail travels through a Bristlecone Pine forest along the upper section, and spectacular red rock scenery in the lower section. Be prepared for some steep sections, loose rock, and narrow ridges.”

This description gave us only a mild projection of the incredible ride ahead of us.

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The trail can be ridden three ways: First and easiest, if you’ve got an extra vehicle to shuttle, you can leave a vehicle down low at the mouth of Red Canyon and drive a second to the Coyote Hollow Trailhead above. Less easiest, you can park at the trails terminus and ride the paved trail which runs beside route 12 to reach Coyote Hollow, beginning the ride from there. Least easiest, you can treat the trail as an out and back from the Thunder Mountain Trailhead, riding up to Coyote Hollow on Thunder Mountain Trail and returning the same way. If you choose the third option, more power to you.

We chose the middle option, leaving a car at the visitor’s center and pedaling up the canyon from there. Even the road climb was scenic, offering a glimpse of what was to come. Ascending through the pine forest along the riverbed, stacks of vibrant red and yellow hoodoos populated the hills around us. As we wound out of Red Canyon onto the high plain above, we took the right hand turn on FS-113 which would deliver us to the Coyote Hollow Trailhead.

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After pedaling the gravel OHV road for a few miles, we began up the trail. It begins as a long series of rollers which constitutes a climb of roughly 600ft. Some sandy, flat corners, but mostly gently banked turns split up by steady, scenic climbs, and fast smooth descents through the pine forest. After a couple of steeper climbing sections, we got high enough to unlock some sweeping views of the Paunsaugunt Plateau spreading to the East and high buttes in sharp relief in the far distance, beyond the small towns of Tropic and Cannonville. As we pedaled, one by one and two by two, hoodoos began to march by us. It was a clear day and we could see the Black Mountains to the North, the world lay before us.

Though there is climbing in the beginning, it quickly pays off. If you ride point to point from Coyote Hollow down you’ll climb about 700ft, but you’re rewarded with about 1700ft of descent. After one last spit of climbing, we reached an obvious segmentation where the character of the ride changed distinctly. At the top of the hill, the view to the West opened up and we could see the landscape as it spread in front of Red Canyon’s mouth. Distant peaks shimmered, and we could see storm systems roaming the land in the far-off.

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The trail became less buff, with some mild rock gardens and loose chundery sections soon after the beginning of the descent. Switchback by switchback we wound downwards, following high ridgelines which which had a very open aspect so that the land just fell away from us in all directions. We could see the switchbacks of the trail two miles ahead of us and six hundred feet below. Bryce Canyon-esque formations of limestone and sandstone surrounded us, and armies of hoodoos marched by. It was a deep crimson and gold landscape of stone, trimmed by the largest horizon I’d ever seen.

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Though MTB Project’s description warns of serious technical sections, nothing in the trail was too challenging. Lacking any drops or steep rolls, the trickiest part of the descent was a handful of rock gardens through which you’d want to choose lines discerningly. The most challenging part of the trail, I would judge, is the high exposure in sections as you round corners along a cliffline. The descent was punctuated by a few mild climbs to regain elevation, but too soon it reached the canyon floor.

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As if the ride wasn’t already fun, at this point it kicked into high gear. The trail joined the drainage for the canyon, and followed a smooth ribbon of trail along a scantly declining grade all of the way out. Though only a mile or two, one could hold a blistering speed through the pine groves as the trail wound out, joining Grand View Trail (take a right hand turn at the intersection), and eventually spitting out at the Thunder Mountain Trailhead on US-12.

Talk about a reward. We’d only stumbled upon Red Canyon on our way to Bryce, who would have expected a trail of such caliber to be hidden among the hoodoos. When ridden as a loop it laid out to roughly 13mi, and only took about two and a half hours of our time. The riding aside, the day was well spent even for the scenery of the incredible place that the trail wove through. Next time we’re driving though Southern Utah, Thunder Mountain will be on the itinerary.

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