A CRF230 on the Slickrock Trail

H. Marc Lewis -- August, 2005

On my trip to the southwestern USA's canyon country, and to Mesa Verde, I spent a couple nights in Moab, Utah. The reason for the second night was that I wanted to rent a real dirtbike and ride the famous Slickrock Trail, which is on the high ground just above and east of town.

I found a place called Highpoint Hummer & ATV Tours that rented Honda XR400s and CRF230s just a couple blocks north of the Bowen motel where I stayed ($50/night for a nice room). I owned an XR400 myself for several years, and knew it wouldn't be really suitable -- it doesn't do well in slow, pick-your-line type situations, and it can be a bitch to kick start. Particularly for someone 5'7" tall like myself. So I opted for the much smaller and lighter CRF230 (with electric start, yeah!). It was a wise choice.

The perfect ride for the actual Slickrock Trail would, in my opinion, be a modern trials bike. But nobody rented those. The use of a dirtbike helmet came with the bike, and I had with me enough other gear (dirtbike gloves, motorcycle boots, CamelBak, jeans, long-sleeved t-shirt) that I was ready to go. Except for the getting to the trail part. More on that in a 'sec...

Being anxious to get an early start, I arrived 20 minutes before they opened, only to discover that the bike I wanted to rent had a flat rear tire, and their mechanic had the day off. I told the proprietor that I'd changed plenty of dirtbike tires by hand, and if he'd help, we could knock it out in less than 1/2 an hour. They only had 2 tire irons, but we got the job done and replaced the old tube (with 6 patches already) with a brand-new heavy-duty inner tube. I think the owner was impressed, as he gave me the bike for a full day at the half day rate.

Turns out that the local law enforcement allows considerable leniency with regard to "street legality" if you're wearing the right gear, are riding sedately off the main street, and are on a rented dirtbike with no lights, turn signals or license plate. I passed a LEO in town on the way to the trail, and another one on the way back, with only a cursory glance from each. Whew!

It was still pretty early (before 9am) when I got to the start of the trail, and much of it was still in shadow. The trail itself is about 10 miles in length, and there's a "practice trail" about 2 miles in length right at the beginning. I started there. You can see in the photo above that the trail is well marked with a white dashed line.

Even though the trail was originally created 35 years ago for motorcycles, it's now primarily the domain of the mountain bike crowd. All of the other riders I saw on the trail that day (several dozen in all) were on bicycles.

There are more views like the above than you have time (or memory stick space) for. The photo doesn't do it justice, as you don't get a feel for the scale, or the depth or breadth of the formations. But it's still pretty darn gorgeous, eh?

The rock itself is slick only to a metal-shoe shod horse, to a motorcycle or bicycle it's as grippy as that non-slip tape they put on boat decks. Excellent traction. Better than excellent.

I put the bike in most of these photos, 'cause I love motorcycles and because it also lends a bit of scale to the photos. Above, just to the left of the bike's handlebar, you can see a black mark snaking over the rock -- that's one of the 4-wheeler trails which also criss-cross the area.

There's quite an industry in giving tourists rides in Hummers through this area. I didn't see any when I was there, but I did see quite a few of the old open-style Jeeps, most with very oversized tires/wheels and roll-bars.

You can also see, just under the bike, one of the frequent informative markers painted on the rock, this one showing that I'm one mile from the trailhead. The trail is very well marked.

This was a fairly tricky descent, which required some pretty good off-camber riding plus one very sharp turn (for a motorcycle, not for a bicycle) with little room for error. You can see the special DANGER marking above a sharp drop-off at the right edge of the photo. I'd just stopped to scout it out on foot when these three guys pedaled past, so I took their photo.

I had my Canon EOS 350D (aka Digital Rebel XT) in a padded triangular camera bag hooked to my belt, so it was pretty easy and quick to get the camera out. I never fell, or tipped the bike over, so the camera survived without damage, as I'd hoped it would.

This was called "Mountain view cave", as it looked to the south towards the La Sal mountains. I considered hiking up to it, but the guide brochure said to stay on the rock to avoid damage to the microbiotic soil (sand with a brown-black lumpy crust) which is very fragile.

On one of the ridges I encountered this guy on a recumbent bike, wearing a lot of clothes. He was riding the loop counter-clockwise, the so-called "hard way". Talk about trying to make an already hard ride even more challenging!

This isn't a very good, or very clear, shot, but it shows that in the distance you can see Arches N.P. In the upper center you can even see one of the arches.

One of the highest points on the trail, above the Colorado River valley just north of Moab. The river runs down that canyon you can see behind the darker cliff on the left, above the buildings.

Looking south towards the La Sal mountains (12,000'), with the southern edge of Moab just visible in the upper right. There's a paved 2-lane road that exits the south end of Moab and runs up into those mountains, and comes out on the road that follows the Colorado River up to Interstate 70. It's a favorite motorcycle ride of the Moab locals. I didn't try it myself, but will the next time I'm there.

Another pretty little canyon shot. I'm a sucker for these. The formations sometimes look like petrified sand dunes. In fact they are old sand dunes, now quite weathered and eroded, that were laid down during the Jurassic Period, about 200 million years ago. In any event, you don't want to get too close to the edge when riding on their tops.

I sat under an overhang and drank some water and ate a PowerBar and just soaked in the view for awhile. I can't imagine doing this without water -- I drank 2 liters myself in the short time I was there. One of the Hummer drivers in town told me they carry a lot of bottled water, and every time they go out they find thirsty bicyclists that don't have anything to drink. He also said they pick up 5-10 bicyclists every year who have broken collarbones, or broken wrists, and can't ride back to the trailhead on their own.

This final shot shows how steep some of the climbs are. On the little Honda, I was leaning forward enough that the handlebars were touching my waist. This guy started out riding, then hopped off. His female riding buddy tried an easier route behind the tree, but also ended up walking her bike.

This is an amazing place to ride, whether on a motorcycle or bicycle. If you get the chance, don't pass it up. But don't forget the CamelBak!

Copyright © 2005, by H. Marc Lewis. All rights reserved.