Between April and October, Moab, Utah, is a holy grail for mountain bikers throughout the West, and some excellent bike trails are easily accessible from nearby CNY airport. Pilots can revel in the delightful irony of combining the speed and convenience of flight with the physical enjoyment of biking through some of the most spectacularly scenic terrain to be found anywhere.
April 4, 1998
|About the Author ...
Mike Looney is a
"retired" junior high school English teacher, now working in retail management,
and living in Salt Lake City, Utah. He enjoys skiing, kayaking, biking, flying, and
driving the boat while his wife waterskis. Mike started flying in 1981, when he used a
summer off teaching to get his private ticket in hot and high Flagstaff, Arizona. Since
then, he's accumulated 330 hours in a variety of rental aircraft ranging from Tomahawks to
Cessna 150s and 172RGs to Turbo Dakotas, with a little Citabria and even some Hughes 269
time thrown in for good measure.
Few things define spring in Utah better than the change in sports
seasons. Skis get tuned and hung in the garage, and creaky mountain bikes and dusty
river-running gear get cleaned up in anticipation of rides and runoff. Airport junkies are
no different; hangar doors are more likely to be open, and GA activity around Salt Lake
City's several airports increases as skills and equipment shake off winter's chill. Spring
is nothing if not unpredictable though, and plans for longer junkets take careful account
of the winds and the occasional late winter storms. I decided to take advantage of the
first available weather window to load my mountain bike up for a ride on the slickrock
trails adjacent to Moab's Canyonlands airport.
The entire area around Moab has become a holy grail for mountain
bikers throughout the West. Using trails and four wheel drive roads leftover from the
uranium mining and exploration boom of the late '40s and early '50s, hordes of bike riders
crank through the back country from spring break until October's "Fat Tire
Festival". The trailheads for routes such as the famous Slickrock or Poison Spider
Mesa rides are frequently jammed with bike-topped sport utilities and BMWs, a phenomenon
which largely coincides with the closure of Colorado and Utah ski resorts. Thanks in large
part to the development of more comfortable and capable mountain bikes, riders can cling
to and climb amazing slopes on a vast network of trails scattered throughout the area's
sandstone domes and mesas. Many of the most popular and spectacular rides are quite close
to town, but there are a group of trails easily accessed from the airport.
Canyonlands Field lies
eighteen miles to the northwest of the town of Moab. Home to a half-dozen local aircraft,
and served by a scheduled commuter flight from Salt Lake City, it is a vital part of the
transportation picture for Grand County. Local FBO Redtail Aviation maintains a fleet of Cessna
206s and 207s, which are kept busy throughout the summer on sightseeing charters and
shuttling passengers to and from area river trips.
The short hour and a half flight from Salt Lake makes the trip reasonable for a day's
outing, so I planned for riding bud Joe and myself to load a rented 172 with bikes and
lunch for a Sunday ride. I arrived at Salt Lake's Airport #2 at Oh(!) seven-hundred and
load my bike into the back of the plane. Wheels off, the bike makes a manageable but
awkward pile of tubing which lies on the reclined backseat. I muse briefly about the
practicality (and legality) of removing the backseat, and then begin my preflight. While
not the prettiest sight, bikes do make a reasonable though bulky load, so weight and
balance for us and our gear won't be an issue. Satisfied that everything is safe, secure,
and within limits, I depart the airport for the short hop to Provo to pick up Joe.
As it turns out, we could not have wished for a more stellar day to take this trip.
Spring weather cycles can bring long days of pre-frontal southerly winds, but today the
weather gods have smiled. Conditions are outstanding, with high pressure over the entire
state, and there is little or no wind and no turbulence to affect the flight. While
visibility in the low morning sun leaves something to be desired from a photographer's
standpoint, the haze does not affect the flight, and soon after leaving Provo we are
climbing over snowy ridges crisscrossed with snowmobile tracks. While it's still chilly at
altitude, we look forward to temps in the low seventies at our destination.
Few signs of life broke the terrain below us; it's too early on a Sunday for much
activity, and deer and elk normally seen on summer flights have forsaken the high ridges
for lower, warmer ground. After a long, gradual climb, we left the last ridge behind us
and began the flight across the desert plateaus south of Price. Summer trips across this
route are frequently accompanied by turbulence from the thermals cracking off the desert
floor, but we have no such distractions today, and we reflect over the intercom on the
riding and exploration prospects of the largely uninhabited landscape below. I'm glad for
the relative quiet afforded by the headsets; having spent plenty of time in aircraft not
so equipped made me realize why some non-pilots are uncomfortable with flying in light
We began our descent above Green River, tracking into the VOR at Canyonlands Field, and
began to look for the mesas and jeep trails we would shortly be riding. I checked Unicom
— no response — and announced my intention to land on runway 3.
We turned onto final, and after a second pre-landing checklist and a brief explanation
of the VASI lights, we landed uneventfully and taxied to a tiedown spot. While it is now
about 2½ hours since I arrived at the departure airport with my bike, we would not be
halfway to our destination had we driven, and we estimated we would be riding before
Let's Go Biking!
After we shed enough clothing to match the conditions, assembled our bikes, and
organized our water and riding essentials, we rode off through the tiedowns and out the
gate to the highway. Our first destination was the trailhead for the Klondike Bluffs
trail, just1½ miles south on highway 191. A relatively easy ride on hard packed dirt and
sandstone slickrock, the trail winds 7½ miles through saltbush and juniper desert to the
northwest corner of Arches National Park, and a beautiful view of the valleys to the south
As we opened the gate at the trailhead, three fellow bikers drove up; here, as it
turned out, after a 28 hour cross-country trek from Clemson University. The lengths some
people will go to ride in Moab, I thought. We would leapfrog this group several times
throughout the rest of the day, as they intended to ride the same trails. We left the gate
open for them, and I wheezed up the gradual incline of dirt road that is the initial
segment of the trail. My breathing gradually fell into a cadence more appropriate for an
Everest climber, while I wondered if the brakes were locked up on the bike or I was
dragging an anchor or something. After a couple of small hills and a mile or two of
riding, my brain finally convinced my muscles that complaining would do no good, and the
scenery became more enjoyable.
Three miles or so into the trip, the road becomes impassable to
all but the most determined four wheel drive fans, and then follows a narrow stream bed to
the base of a slickrock ramp leading up to the plateau. Along with literal square miles of
other outcroppings and formations, tilted benches of sandstone like this are the meaning
of life for Moab-bound mountain bikers. Lumpy, pockmarked with waterholes, smoother than
the best pavement, or dropping precipitously into vertical-walled canyons, these petrified
beaches and sea beds are the vistas for several nearby national and state parks, and
provide traction for incredible feats of mountain bike daring, as well as some unintended
opportunities for helmet testing. Fortunately for us, helmet tests were avoided, and we
paused at the top of the slope to contemplate a view of a low 5-mile final for
Canyonlands' runway 21.
After 2 miles or so on the Entrada formation slickrock, we again hit the dirt for the
final trail segment through the junipers. A couple of mining prospects visible from the
trail provide a clue as the origin of the route we have taken; historically it provided
access to a copper mining venture abandoned near the end of the trail. Just as I
remembered it, the trail meandered across the basin to the base of a short, steep climb up
the final ridge. We took a short break to reflect on the near perfect riding conditions
and weather, and then resumed riding in the lowest possible gear the 75 or so yards uphill
to the trail's end.
In years past, bikes were permitted to enter Arches National Park at the boundary
midway up the slope, but a sign admonished us to abandon our bikes and walk the remaining
distance into the park. We leaned our bikes against junipers and proceeded on foot the
rest of the way up the trail and onto the slickrock domes at the top. The view was more
than rewarding enough to make us forget any misery endured on the trail or climb, and we
wandered around for several minutes taking in the sights and scents of dirt, rock, sweat,
juniper, and boundless sky. Though it had been several days since the last storm,
rainwater still filled pockmarks in the sandstone. Off on the horizon the La Sal Mountains
shrugged still snowy shoulders against a sky almost painfully bright. We found a lunch
spot out of reach of the breeze and contemplated our good luck.
We made our way back to the bikes, and reorganized and remounted
for the reward of a downhill ride. My first trip up the Klondike Bluffs trail had been on
an unsuspended mountain bike — one without front fork shocks — and midway through the
descent my hands and forearms were literally numb from the vibration. Fortunately, my
current bike is not so primitive, and my hands were thanking me for it as Joe and I
rocketed down the trail. Joe enjoys the comfort of a full suspension frame more closely
related to a motocross motorcycle than a bicycle, so I have no sympathy for him. After a
short stop to let some ascending bikers pass and quiet my rattling seat bag / toolkit, we
resumed our descent of the slickrock ramp. Somewhere near this point I managed to miss
(both on the ascent and descent) a group of dinosaur tracks in the sandstone, a reminder
of the geologic history of the petrified beach we were riding.
While the dinosaurs were not so careful where they stepped, like most desert outdoors
people we were careful to remain on the rock or in previously used tracks. In this dry
climate, the soil is frequently anchored by an organism that forms a dark gray crust. Once
disturbed, the soil is more likely to blow away in the next storm than to recover.
At the bottom of the hill we pedaled along the dirt road back to the highway, having
ridden the fifteen-mile trail with plenty of time left for further exploration. Our water
supplies were quite seriously depleted, though, so we rode the short distance back to the
airport to re-water, relax, and dump unneeded items from our packs.
Taxiing to Bartlett Wash
After a well-earned break, we set out for the Bartlett Wash
trail, southwest of the airport. Rather than ride back down the highway and out the Blue
Hills road, we decided to ride down the parallel taxiway to the airport fence, lift our
bikes over, and ride off on the intersecting road. This saved a mile or two of highway
riding, and once on the sun-baked surface dirt of the Blue Hills road we made up even more
time. When we reached the base of the Bartlett Wash trail loop, bad decision making took
over, and I unwisely chose the sand-infested and non-recommended exit trail. Sandstone
is a wonderful surface to ride on, but this same material eroded into its constituent
grains and blown together in dunes or deposited in stream beds makes for excruciatingly
slow going. This is the stuff bad dreams are made of; the ones in which you are trying to
run and you don't get anywhere. Pedaling requires much more effort than walking, steering
the bike requires the concentration of a Zen master, and pushing the bike requires
infinitely more effort than complaining, in any case. But, whining mightily, we pressed on
until the four-wheel-drive tracks exited the sandy streambed, and bike tire tracks were
seen leading off the across sloping slickrock walls of the wash.
Alternately pushing, riding, and carrying our bikes, we made our
way up to the salmon sandstone plateau of Bartlett Mesa. The area atop the mesa was as
rewarding to ride as the sand trap had been frustrating. Additionally, we again crossed
paths with the Clemson riders, who were getting a workout on the mesa top. However, after
nearly 25 miles on our bikes for the first time this season, riding across the jarring
rocks was beginning to take its toll on our backsides. We were secretly relieved when they
said they were headed back, and offered us a ride in their truck back to "wherever we
We zoomed, bounced, and hopped our bikes along the last ½ mile stretch of sloping pink
slickrock to their truck, taking advantage of any opportunity to challenge our bike tires
to remain stuck to the sandpapery surface. Joe was shocked at the angles he could ride
while still keeping the bike under him. The Clemson trio delayed for a few minutes to work
out on the rock gymnasium, so we thanked them for the offer of a ride and rode down the
last slope to the wash. But after riding all day, and within 50 feet of their truck, I
managed to pinch the tube in my rear tire and earn a flat. I whipped the bike upside down,
changed out the tube with my spare, and had the wheel back on the bike when our fellow
riders arrived, but it was too late. We just had to accept their offer. Just couldn't
ride the five miles back to the airport. We loaded up all the bikes and installed
ourselves in the bed of their truck, grateful all the while.
When we arrived at the airport, we jumped (stiffly) out and began to unload our bikes.
"Where y'all parked?" was certainly a reasonable question, but "
we flew" was the best we could do for an answer. "You flew yourselves down here?
"If I'd known that I'd have made you ride back!" was the friendly rejoinder
from our hosts. Once we'd cleared up our transportation arrangements, I recommended a
tavern to them in nearby Green River famous for its burgers, and we thanked them again for
the chance to avoid experiencing the last five miles seated on a bicycle.
Had we been inclined to ride more I would have stopped in Green River on the flight
back and ridden the four miles into town for a burger at Ray's, but the very thought of a
bicycle seat was more than enough to ruin my appetite. It's a shame the Green River
airport was moved outside of town; the east end of the former runway was about two blocks
from the best hamburgers in central Utah.
A Little History
We had enjoyed ourselves entirely
too much to worry about a missed burger, though, so we disassembled our bikes and loaded
them into the plane. I walked some of the stiffness out of my knees and seat (under the
pretense of checking out the other aircraft on the ramp), and we preflighted for the trip
back. While looking at the other planes I remembered that one of the founders of Moab
biking was at one time a corporate pilot. Bill Groff stayed behind in Moab after the
departure of Atlas Minerals during the fading days of the uranium boom, and opened the
town's first bike shop just before the local mountain bike craze. His Cessna 320 was
profiled in AOPA Pilot magazine some years ago, and while he doesn't fly now,
Rim Cyclery still caters to visiting and local
After departing early enough to fit the schedules of our patient wives, we gradually
climbed over the desert landscape back to the ridges and valleys leading to Provo and Salt
Lake City. Haze and high, thin clouds had set in, but with a lock on the Fairfield VOR we
navigated directly toward the approach for Provo. After landing I taxied over near Joe's
car and we unloaded the bike frame and wheels. Though I've made several of these fly/bike
trips, I am always amazed that good health (and a license) permits me to enjoy them as I
do, and since this is Joe's first such adventure he no doubt feels the same way. I
rechecked the remaining load, stowed the extra headset, and taxied off to complete the
last leg of the flight, basking in the glow of a day well spent.
Additional information available at http://www.airnav.com/cgi-bin/airport-info?CNY.