Tired of the Snow? Ride These 9 Desert MTB Destinations


, by Greg Heil

Captain Ahab Trail, Moab, Utah. Rider: Greg Heil. Photo: Marcel Slootheer

As the doldrums of winter inevitably drag on, with the next unexpected snowstorm around the corner—or worse, rain and overcast skies—our dreams inevitably turn to the dry trails of summer. Fantasies of kicking up dust as we rocket around a corner, blasting down a rock slab, and sailing through the sky over the next tabletop jump play through our minds. If you just can't wait until your local trails dry out, then it's time to plan a trip to the desert!

Desert mountain biking is its own unique beast. The trails and traction are inevitably loose and drifty, which can quickly wreck those who are accustomed to dark, black loam or hardpacked clay. But once you get the hang of it, you'll love sliding around corners, ripping through rock gardens, and hanging on for dear life as you roll down near-vertical rock slabs.

One word of warning: everything in the desert hurts. The rough grain of the rock slabs will tear skin from flesh if you fall and aren't wearing pads. If you wander off trail, the cactus tines threaten to impale you. Even safe-looking shrubs and trees hide thorns along their branches. So keep it clean, stay on the trail, and have a riot in these nine fabulous desert mountain bike destinations!

1. Moab, Utah

Moab, Utah, is the mac-daddy of desert mountain bike hotspots and also reigns supreme as one of the oldest riding destinations on Earth! Ripping Moab's slickrock and sand is a bucket list experience that all mountain bikers need to enjoy at least once in a lifetime—and preferably, at least once a year!

Moab has singlehandedly made slickrock riding famous, and now mountain bikers around the world seek out slabs of exposed bedrock to pedal along. These epic routes are some of the most technical—and most deadly—in the world, with signs on trails like Portal cautioning riders to dismount as people have fallen to their deaths before. And yet, the talented trail builders in Moab—primarily Moab Trail Mix—have constructed newer, more beginner-friendly trails across the region, so now mountain bikers of any level can pull into town and find a ride they like.

If it's amenities you're looking for, Moab has more mountain bike-friendly amenities than almost any destination. From bike shops with massive rental fleets to bike repair services, shuttle services, guides, and all manner of lodging, you could easily show up in Moab without any gear whatsoever and get kitted out for a ride in less than an hour.

Must-Ride Trail in the Spring: Captain Ahab

2. Sedona, Arizona

Sedona, Arizona’s towering red rock cliffs and mystical vortices are famous around the world, making it a premier desert destination for spiritual types and adventurers alike. For mountain bikers, Sedona is renowned for some of the most technical and challenging trails in the nation. Famous lines like Hangover, Hiline, and The Hogs attract riders from around the world, but Sedona's trail system runs deep and can entertain every type of rider.

In the springtime, camping near Sedona can be fairly difficult, as most of the forest service campgrounds are still closed for the season. There's one overcrowded dispersed-camping area that's decent for van camping, but isn't ideal for larger rigs or even tent camping in most instances. To stay in Sedona you'll often have to foot the bill for overpriced lodging in the congested center of town. While the natural beauty and quality of the trails can't be argued with, Sedona's crowds and logistical difficulties continue to pose a challenge.

Must-Ride Trail in the Spring: Hiline

3. Grand Valley (Fruita / Grand Junction), Colorado

Fruita and Grand Junction are twin mountain bike destinations located just a few miles apart, both of which offer superb singletrack riding—making this not just one of the best desert destinations in the USA but one of the best mountain bike destinations on the planet!

The riding in the Grand Valley is extremely diverse. Fruita's 18 Road mountain bike trails are the stuff of legends—mountain bikers travel literally from around the world to fly down the flowing, exposed ridges of dirt in the North Fruita Desert. On the other hand, the Lunch Loops trail system is home to technical, gnarly lines like Free Lunch and The Ribbon, while the Kokopelli Trails provides a diverse network ranging from beginner to expert in difficulty. The trail catalog here is so deep that you'll inevitably find yourself returning to the Grand Valley over and over again to explore as many of these trails as possible!

Must-ride trail in the spring: Zippety Do Da

4. St. George/Hurricane, Utah

The small desert town of Hurricane, Utah, reigns supreme as the mountain biking epicenter of Southern Utah, thanks to long-time classics like Gooseberry Mesa paired with newer trail developments, such as the Jem Trails. The stunning beauty of the soaring rock-topped mesas and the endless views of the rugged red desert are truly awe-inspiring.

However, you shouldn't sleep on the nearby city of St. George. While St. George is more metropolitan (in a sprawling suburban Utah kind of way), the "big city" is home to a slew of superb mountain bike trails such as the Barrel and Zen trails, Santa Clara Preserve, Bearclaw Poppy trails, and so much more!

As an added bonus, the combination of easily accessible desert camping with plenty of bike-friendly amenities and fairly affordable city lodging and food means that you can craft the perfect spring getaway here in Southern Utah, no matter your tastes.

Must-ride trail in the spring: Gooseberry Mesa: Classic Loop

5. Tucson, Arizona

In the springtime, the Sonoran Desert is a magical landscape filled with vibrant life! Here, you'll encounter almost every type of cactus imaginable in all shapes and sizes and formations. In the spring, the cacti are covered with colorful blooms and the buds of new growth, and in between, wildflowers sprout in vast, colorful carpets from the desert floor. Birds flit from bush to tree to cactus, bees buzz amongst the flowers, roadrunners zip across the trail, and larger wildlife like javelina, coyotes, jackrabbits, deer, and more can be spotted at the right time of day. While yes, the desert is a harsh environment and every living thing fights hard to survive, life flourishes here in the rocky, rugged landscape around the city of Tucson.

The mountain bike trail options for exploring this fantastic desert landscape are seemingly never-ending. Sweetwater Preserve is home to some of the largest saguaro cacti in the region, but it's subsequently extremely popular with hikers, runners, and riders alike. The trails at Golder Ranch are rugged and challenging—perfect for advanced-level mountain bikers. On the flip side, the Honeybee-X Trails are easy and flowy, rolling for miles through the desert north of Oro Valley. And those are just the highlights—the deeper you dive into the Tucson scene, the more you'll discover.

Must-ride trail in the spring: Sweetwater Preserve

6. Palm Springs, California

The city of Palm Springs directly abuts the foothills of the San Jacinto Mountain, but it lies in a dry rain shadow on the eastern side. The mountain biking history runs deep in Palm Springs, and even though it might not be known as the hippest desert destination these days, the rugged singletrack trails that have laced the mountainsides for decades are still there—and are still as good as ever.

If there's one must-do ride in Palm Springs, it's the Palm Canyon Epic. Spanning 27 miles-point-to-point, climbing over 2,200 vert, and dropping over 6,200 vertical feet down to the edge of the city, this is a rugged, challenging ride that can beat down the unprepared. Many of the destinations on this list are home to an epic shuttle ride, but often the upper reaches are snowed in and inaccessible in the spring. The Palm Canyon Epic is an exception to that rule, and in fact, winter/spring is the best time to ride this massive point-to-point due to the cooler temperatures. Even so, pack more water than you anticipate needing and plenty of spare parts—including tubes! Remember the warning above: everything in the desert is sharp and out to get you!

Must-ride trail in the spring: Palm Canyon Epic

7. Mesa/Scottsdale, Arizona

The north side of the Phoenix Metro Area is veritably covered in singletrack mountain bike trails! Indeed, the greater metro area is surrounded by mountain biking on all sides, but if you have to pick one area to focus on, it should be Mesa/Scottsdale. This zone forms the northern end of the Sonoran Desert, so the towering saguaros and gorgeous spring blooms found in Tucson can also be enjoyed on many of the trails right here on the outskirts of Phoenix.

If cross-country riding is your thing, then you can't go wrong with McDowell Mountain Park. One of the original cross-country mountain bike trail systems, this park still attracts riders from across the nation to its many miles of easy-pedaling trails connected to an amenity-rich campground. Just around the corner of the mountains in Scottsdale is the Brown's Ranch Trail System. While there isn't any convenient camping for this trail system, the riding never seems to end!

Over near Mesa and Apache Junction, again, the trails never seem to end! But unequivocally, the go-to trail system is Hawes. In fact, Hawes is arguably the best mountain bike trail system in Phoenix and one of the best in all of Arizona! While the camping isn't as convenient as at McDowell, there's still plenty of options to be had just a few miles from the trailhead.

Must-ride trail in the spring: Hawes: Red Mountain Rush Loop

8. Las Vegas, Nevada

If you can pull yourself away from the flashing neon lights, towering skyscrapers, the beeps and chimes of the slot machines, and the allure of the blackjack and poker tables, you'll find that the western side of Las Vegas offers a spectacular array of mountain bike trails that's just getting better every year. A brand-new $6.5m bike park is under construction, but the current trails are already pretty damn enticing!

The new bike park will be located near the existing networks of Southwest Ridge and Bear's Best, which already offer endless trails. The Cowboy Trails are a technical MTB hotspot, while the nearby Flow Job trail provides a flowy alternative. Blue Diamond may be the most popular intermediate XC ride, while the Bootleg Canyon Trails to the south near Henderson may be the most famous trails in the region, thanks in part to the many years they played host to Interbike's Outdoor Demo.

Must-ride trail in the spring: Blue Diamond: Landmine + Mustang

9. El Paso, Texas

El Paso is the sleeper hit on this list. Resting right on the Mexican border, this Texas city is sprawling and filled with traffic, yes, but just to the north of the suburban sprawl is a beautiful mountain range known as the Franklin Mountains. Superb singletrack riddles this range, providing surprisingly entertaining mountain bike riding—all of which can be accessed directly from a campground in the state park. Thanks to the far southern latitude, the riding here is usually prime all winter long, with the spring bloom taking the beauty up a notch or two.

If you knock out all of the El Paso trails too quickly, head a few miles north to the town of Las Cruces, New Mexico, for even more great riding!

Must-ride trail in the spring: Western Franklins Sunset Loop

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