Spring Biking at Moab's Canyonlands Airport

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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.

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.

Moab mapThe 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.

Day Tripping

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 aircraft.

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 2 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 10:00.

Let's Go Biking!

TiedownAfter 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, just1 miles south on highway 191. A relatively easy ride on hard packed dirt and sandstone slickrock, the trail winds 7 miles through saltbush and juniper desert to the northwest corner of Arches National Park, and a beautiful view of the valleys to the south and east.

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.

Klondike BluffThree 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.

Bluff viewWe 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

Hidden CanyonAfter 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.

Bartlett MesaAlternately 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 were parked."

We zoomed, bounced, and hopped our bikes along the last 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 "…um, we flew" was the best we could do for an answer. "You flew yourselves down here? Cool!"

"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

Rim CycleryWe 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 riders.

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.