Right in my own backyard
By Christian Olson
As a child, I often dreamt of riding my bike in the wispy pines of Whistler British Columbia, the sanotes found in the western desert of Mexico, or the staggering and green hilled ridges of the Italian Dolomite range. I wanted to travel the world with my bike and see what the world has to offer. Where could I feel the most free? Where could I truly experience the pure euphoric feeling known as ‘hero dirt’? I wanted it all. But with time, my perception has changed. Now, do not get me wrong, I would sell my arm and leg to be able to ride at some of these destinations. But as I have gotten older I have realized something very key. I have come to find that I was looking beyond the mark. I guess the quote from Sandra Lake explains how I feel best, “With age, comes wisdom. With travel, comes understanding.” As I met new people on my local trails, I realized how backwards my view was. I was the spoiled one, taking for granted how great of a place I live in. Those I passed on Lower Porcupine Rim, Jem trail, or Pushing Tin, had traveled thousands of miles to ride the trails that were right in my own backyard. Some have spent thousands of dollars, taken vacation days, and sacrificed much to put their own rubber on the coveted Southern Utah sand.
One of my most favorite places to ride are the trails shadowed by the Gooseberry Mesa. I have fallen in love with these trails over the years because they combine everything a mountain biker could ask for: Grueling double track ascents, treacherous rock gardens, and downhill so fast and flowy, you'll feel like you are weightless. In addition, the Jem loop can be done by itself or combined with other trails like the Hurricane Rim trail, Goosebumps, or the Gould rim trail. It really is something out of a Teton Gravity Research film. Grab your gloves, fill your tires with sealant, and strap that helmet on because you are in for a treat that you will not find at Disney World…sorry Brooklyn ;).
My favorite loop is as follows. A short 10 minute drive from Hurricane, UT on old State Road 9 is the Sheep Bridge parking lot. Your journey begins with a climb of course. The climb starts out on an old double tracked 4-wheeler trail that winds itself up the side of the bluff. Along the way you are bound to see treasures that the desert herself hides for passerby's. Things like Grand Canyon Black Tarantulas, Kangaroo mice, and abandoned mining trucks rusting in the sun are sure to be found. After about 5 miles, you will find yourself at the summit. Because of the relatively smooth and packed dirt road, those 5 miles will only have felt like 10 minutes. From this vantage point, you will be able to see Hurricane, the Pine Valley Mountain range, Monkey Mesa, and the skirting edges of the majestic Zion National Park. The red orange and pink pigments surrounding the Virgin Valley will surely cure the mind of stray anxieties and weights of the mind.
This point in the ride there is one way down: The coveted Jem Trail. This is where the fun begins. Dropping 900 feet over the course of roughly 6 miles, this trail is what gave Utah its slogan, “best dirt on earth”. Jem will carry you down the spine of the bluff when at this point you hit your first rock garden. Stttep slabs of stone line the descent to which gravity carries you and your bike to the bottom of a wash. You fly down the wash, avoiding sagebrush and sand pits, forgetting you ever had brakes. I can’t help myself but smile from ear to ear, hollering at the feeling of flying. You are now about 10 miles into the loop.
The next part of this sacred loop is not for the faint of heart nor for anyone with less than 110 mm of travel. The single track levels out and wraps itself atop the virgin river. Looking down, you can see the crystal cold water flowing from the high lakes and streams after having passed through Zion. Your riding skills are instantly tested in the rocky sections which continuously dot the trail. These were purposely left in the path to test you, I, and even the veterans of the sport. I always curse those trail-builders for knowing exactly what they did. The ‘Sidewalk’, or the giant hunks of banded together rock create an off kilter alley that needs careful attention when riding. You will see fellow riders walking this section, in fact once I completely emptied my under-the-saddle bag because of how bumpy the sidewalk really is.
Once you are 12 miles into the ride, the parking lot is in sight. You have now ridden the best trail in all of Southern Utah. You can now stop your strava and brag to those who follow you that you have ridden it all. You can now die and go to MTB heaven. This inevitably calls for an ice cold LaCroix in the parking lot. Truth be told, it might not be the fastest ride, nor is it the trail with the steepest descents, but it is the trail that holds the true core of mountain biking in its hills. If you really want an unforgettable ride, do this loop under the star-lit night sky. The emerald stars and shining moon will light the way all while beating the heat of the day. I would also recommend you muster up the courage to sign up for the race, 25 hours in FrogTown. The daylight savings thronged race is riddled with other riders, cowbells, and midnight pies along this same network of trails.
What a treat of a trail this has become in my heart is something that I hope I can share with my kids in the future. I also hope that each of us can truly appreciate this fragile ecosystem by caring for and treating it with respect.