The American Southwest Is Like One Giant Bike Park
Hit these dusty Southwest trails for an epic two-wheeled adventure.
Bicycle sales are booming right now, which makes perfect sense -- is there a better way to exercise, explore, and get some fresh air, all in one go? Along with camping and road trips, a cycling adventure is one of the safest ways to satisfy your travel bug this summer.
Some of the most beautiful bike trails in the US snake through the Southwest, land of red rocks and quaking aspen, alpine lakes and saguaro forests, vast deserts and bizarrely beautiful geological formations. The region is basically one giant outdoor theme park.
Utah, Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico all offer world-class mountain biking, each with their own distinct vibe. This list is by no means exhaustive, but when it comes to the most scenic routes for a variety of skill levels, here are a few primo trails to check out.
Best for: Well-balanced riders with the technical chops
Moab, Utah, is a red rock wonderland with out-of-this-world landforms like natural stone arches and massive balanced rocks. Not too far from this Mars-like landscape is Slickrock Trail. Conditions may prove too slippery for hikers, but those traversing this 12-mile trail on two wheels will notice their tires grip almost effortlessly to the finely textured sandstone surface. Expect this ride to take just over three hours if you’re making the trip from Moab.
For slightly less experienced riders, try the 2.3-mile Slickrock Practice Loop. It’s a solid intro to this type of terrain, and despite its name, is still pretty challenging. Both loops are located within the Sand Flats Recreation Area, which requires a modest entrance fee.
Best for: Absolutely everyone, even if you don’t have a bike (yay, rentals!)
Forget cranking up steep terrain; Park City Mountain -- Utah’s only lift-serviced riding park -- does the work for you. Designed for intermediate riders, this bike park offers access to a variety of trails via lift that span from easy to difficult for a $27-$37 fee. Weave through tall aspen trees and navigate switchbacks along John’s to Sweeney’s, or conquer Mid Mountain, one of the park’s most popular singletrack trails that boasts an elevation of 8,800-feet. And that’s just scratching the surface. There’s so much more to explore.
MORE: Don’t sleep on Utah’s incredible state parks
Best for: Mountain bikers with chiseled calves and endurance for days
South Boundary is mostly classic sidehill singletrack that’s tucked inside of New Mexico’s Carson National Forest. Clocking an elevation of 8,700-feet and topping out at 10,800-feet, this high-altitude passage requires grit and stamina. You’ll wind through spruce forests and aspen glades, encountering scree, boulders, and rock ledges along the journey. Keep your eyes peeled for Wheeler Peak, New Mexico’s tallest mountain.
“If you want to ride the whole thing in one go, either loop it from town (30-50 miles depending) or hire Shuttle Taos. They are the only legal operator, owned by one of our local bike shops, and your driver will likely be a local mountain biker who last rode SBT, oh, yesterday?” says Loren Bell of Taos Mountain Bike Association.
MORE: Discover more of New Mexico’s natural wonders (including the tasty green chile)
Best for: Avoiding tourists
A ridiculous 20 million people visit Lake Tahoe every year. But only a fraction can say that they’ve seen Big Blue from the Tahoe Rim Trail. Home to world-class mountain biking, the Tahoe Rim Trail spans 168-miles and circles around the majestic sky blue lake, giving riders up-close encounters with wildflowers, waterfalls, alpine lakes, and scenic vistas. While the majority of the trail permits bike access, some areas are off-limits to mountain bikers and will be marked as such. Find all the trail info you’ll need right here.
Best for: Experts and rookies captivated by the pull of Sedona’s red dirt trails
Inside the Coconino National Forest, Mescal Mountain is an out-and-back trail loaded with iconic red rock photo ops. The initial climb is rocky but short, which means you’ll be breezing by the red sandstone buttes in no time. Expect to cover just over 5.5 miles of red dirt, slickrock, and some occasional steps and boulders. The grand finale is beautiful Boynton Canyon, a vortex hotspot popular for its spiritual energy. If you’re game to extend the journey, this year-round route connects to a series of other nearby trails. And, the Grand Canyon is a short trip away -- add a visit to the national park to your summer bucket list.
Best for: Everyone from hardcore cyclists to electric bike enthusiasts
Spanning three mountain ranges and covering 16,000-acres, Phoenix’s South Mountain Park & Preserve is one of North America’s largest urban parks. Easily accessible from the downtown area, South Mountain features more than 50-miles of explorable trails ranging from highly technical options to easier routes, like the popular 17.5-mile Desert Classic Trail. Winding through desert washes and cactus-dotted preserves, the DC will get your heart rate up while providing incredible panoramic views of both the Sonoran Desert and East Valley.
Best for: Basically anybody who can ride a bike
Tucson ranks as one of the best bike cities in the country. There are countless trail systems to crush throughout the city, and each year thousands of cyclists show up for El Tour de Tucson, a charity ride that spans 100 miles.
At Tucson Mountain Park, the Starr Pass Trail system has just under 10 miles of rocky trail to conquer. This intermediate loop is one of the most popular places to ride near Tucson and offers a good mix of chunky rock sections and smooth single track with sweeping desert views. You can even catch a glimpse of the city in the distance from one of the numerous lookout points, and hit up some of the other impressive biking trails inside of Tucson Mountain Park.
MORE: 10 great bikes under 500 bucks
Best for: Seeing Denver and the surrounding area in a whole new way
Denver is a choice starting point for all manner of thrilling Centennial State adventures. Connecting Downtown Denver with the foothills of The Rockies, Bear Creek Bike Trail flaunts impeccable views throughout the tree-lined corridor, like scenic woodlands, meadows, and even the city skyline. At the entrance into Morrison you’ll cruise by Red Rocks Park & Amphitheater. Pedal up those red rocks for bonus points and some epic metro views. And after, snag some post-ride takeout BBQ. You’ve earned it, rider.
Best for: Top level riders and backcountry campers
Two words: high-alpine. This 22-mile stretch is perched at an elevation between 11,000 and 12,000-feet. Thrilling downhill descents and high-country sweeps come together to make one hell of a ride. Cascade Creek merges with a segment of the popular Colorado Trail so you can extend your adventure for as many miles as you like.
Although it can be somewhat challenging to access, it’s worth the trip for the backcountry camping ops, alpine lake views, and waterfalls.The spring, summer, and fall seasons are all optimal times to plan your adventure to Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. I mean, there’s never a bad time to visit Colorado, really.
Lauren Topor Reichert is Phoenix-based writer and photographer. She can patch a tire and fix a skipping bike chain, and yes, she’s pretty proud of those things. Follow Lauren to South Mountain and beyond on Instagram.