Autumnal escape

Falling in love with The Kokopelli

Mens Journal (6/10/2002)

Brion's comments:
'September in the Land of Saints. Life, if you're a mountain biker, doesn't get much better.'

Feature article:

The sun is high, though not mind-altering, dead-of-summer high. It's warm but well within your comfort zone, maybe 80, 85 degrees - the slight chill that greeted you this morning has long burned off. You've stripped off the fleece vest and a light sweat feels ideal. At 5,700 feet, the air is crisp and the views spectacular. The desert's red dust congeals nicely with the red stream on your legs, the result of an earlier endo. You're pedaling along the high desert plateau known as the Squaw Flats section of the Kokopelli Trail, 30 miles northeast of Moab, Utah, bound for Colorado. Life is good.

Ah, to find yourself smack in the middle of autumn with time on your hands and the Kokopelli Trail under the wheels of your mountain bike. Built by the Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trail Association, the trail is named after the mythic humped-back flute player found in the lore of Native Americans from the Colorado Plateau. Legend dictates that this Hopi god of fertility could drive away winter with his melodies. In the fall, you ask him to keep it at bay. This 145-mile ribbon of dirt and sand connects two remarkable mountain bike playgrounds - Moab, Utah, and Fruita, Colorado. And contrary to popular fat tire belief, there's no better time to visit than the fall. Fewer riders, fewer RVs, longer days, near-ideal conditions, more predictable skies, same killer trails.

Yes, Moab is still the knobby mecca. With it's grippy, gravity-defying trails and double-take natural vistas, Moab fills the daydreams of treadheads everywhere. The acrobatic Slickrock Trail, the stunning views from Gemini Bridges Trail, the heart-thumping Porcupine Rim, and Poison Spider, an ominous tester of slickrock and sand that ends with the sphincter-tightening Portal Trail, have earned their reputations. Still, this dusty town has been relegated to a bizarre harbinger-of-spring status. Savvy mountain bikers are catching on that the best time to visit is on the flip side of the calendar.

"Through October and early November, it can be perfect weather," says Eddie Morandi, a local hammer guy and tour guide who left the quaint harbors of Boston for the arid climate of Castle Valley, outside Moab. "In the summer, it's just so hot - typically 100-plus degrees - that people can't ride those desert rides, and all the classic rides are in the desert. You just fry."

After Columbus Day weekend, the mercury hovers in the mid-80s during sunlight, 40-50 degrees at night. Long days, little precipitation. "We get rain that lasts one or two hours, and then the sun comes out. The desert just dries it right out," says Morandi. The heat's not a problem. Dehydration, at least on single day jaunts, is not a problem. Your only problem, in fact, is deciding which trail to sample next. This old uranium mining town is surrounded by jaw-dropping high desert beauty, dramatic rock and high desert formations created by wind and water erosion over millions of years. Trails can be found on public Bureau of Land Management property and in nearby Arches and Canyonlands national parks. Multi-day rides, such as the White Rim Trail through the breathtaking mesas, buttes and river canyons of the Island in the Sky section of Canyonlands National Park - potentially dangerous in the teeth of the summer - are not only possible but a pleasure.

If you head out of Moab along the Kokopelli Trail with plans to pedal to Fruita, your effort will be rewarded. Still, this trek requires substantial planning and adequate backcountry skills. Heavy rains and winds can move in with little or no warning. Riders are often exposed to the elements and should be comfortable in dealing with them. This is a difficult trip to support, since meeting sites are few and far between. There are areas that aren't accessible to outside help, even with a 4WD vehicle. Carrying your own gear - tent, sleeping bag, and warm layers for those chilly nights - is an option, but a sag wagon is the ultimate. Potable water is rare, so be prepared to take what you need with you. And make sure your maps are current - the Kokopelli is not a stagnant route. It has undergone numerous changes since it was first laid out 10 years ago. Be aware that any guidebooks printed prior to 1997 might have insufficient or misleading details. In short, the more recent the guidebook and/or map, the better. Make sure everyone, especially your sag wagon driver, is on the same page.

From Moab heading northeast, the Kokopelli climbs out of Sand Flats along the La Sal Loop road to the 8,500-foot pass at Fisher Mesa in the foothills of the La Sal Mountains. This lung-burner is fairly strenuous, but only moderately technical. Of course, it also finishes with a 6-mile howling descent along Thompson Canyon into Fisher Valley. From the valley, the trail rises slightly to Entrada Bluffs Road (6,000 feet), eventually winding down a gentle, 13-mile descent to Dewey at 4,500 feet. Here, cyclists point their tires to what the locals call the Squaw Flats section of Kokopelli, topping out at the plateaus at 5,700 feet. Many skip this section, because the sand can be a nuisance at best, treacherous at worst. Others say it's among their favorites - surreal, with a solitary peacefulness that's almost haunting. The dividend for your uphill endeavors? Spectacular views, preserved dinosaur tracks, a myriad of slickrock detours and an adrenaline-pumping 3-mile ridgeline freefall heading for the Cisco Desert.

Looking to kick up some dust and pick up some speed? Just south of the ghost town of Cisco, Utah, the Kokopelli winds along the Colorado River through lush terrain dotted with pinons and huge cottonwoods, offering up views of the striking La Sal Mountains in the distance. For the next 25 miles, from Cisco to Rabbit Valley, the trail is a cruiser's delight, primarily following an old Jeep road of packed dirt. Hills are few and far between. High speed and high miles are your only thoughts.

Cross the border into Colorado, and the Kokopelli takes on a different, more playful look. The closer you get to Fruita, the better the singletrack. For buff, fast ribbons with bookends of rocky, technical terrain, try Troy's Loop, about seven miles from town. "Almost the entire loop is an exposure ride, with tough ups and downs," says Jason Grove, a Washington state transplant who's sampled some of the best technical riding anywhere, on British Columbia's North Shore. "You've got to be on top of your shifting, and you've got to be on top of your brakes the whole time. This is some high-consequence riding. Once you start to fall, you'll fall for a while."

Saving the best for last, Mary's Loop, on the outskirts of Fruita, serves up entertaining singletrack and outstanding river canyon views. Branching off of Mary's is Kokopelli's dessert in the desert - Horsethief Bench. This 4-mile loop is the answer to any mountain biker who's peered over a canyon rim and thought "I wonder what the riding's like down there?" According to local riders, Horsethief can be and has been very dangerous. But for the technical adept, its worth the calculated risk. "Man, it just has it all, from wheelie drop-offs to loamy singletrack" says Grove. "One minute you're pedaling through this nice green field, the next you're in a dry creek bed going through a deep canyon."

And then you're in Fruita, preferably behind a draft Fat Tire Ale at The Endzone. Rest up. Not only does this western Colorado outpost offer real beer (remember, Utah is the land of the 3/2 beverage), but it's also the home of The Edge. This 28.5-mile tester is half singletrack, half doubletrack, features an elevation gain of 4,000 feet, and includes a waterfall rappel. It was recently named an IMBA Epic by the International Mountain Bicycling Association. Trust us, you'll want a full-strength brew afterwards.

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