Hero Dirt - A Look into Some of Utah's Most Accessible Expert Mountain Biking Trails

By Yeti Jun 21, 2019
A look into some of Utah's most accessible expert mountain biking trails within an hour of Salt Lake City.
Hero Dirt - A Look into Some of Utah's Most Accessible Expert Mountain Biking Trails

Words by Sean Zimmerman-Wall

The relationship many people have with the mountains of Utah spans all seasons. For those that trade planks of wood for carbon-framed conveyances, the level of enthusiasm continues to pique as the summer takes hold. From the rugged strips of red rock in the desert, to the many earthen pathways that intersect the highest ramparts, there is no shortage of adventurous options. Focusing on the quintessential Utah classics such as The Whole Enchilada, Gooseberry Mesa, or the Hurricane Rim are best left to the desert dwellers whose backyards are comprised of cryptobiotic soil and cacti. Therefore, the purpose of this piece is to deliver a guide to some of the more accessible trail systems in the northern and central portions of the state.

Nearly all of the trails listed below can be reached within an hour or less of driving from Salt Lake City, with one thrown in for those who want to get away from the mainstays.

Each trail was chosen to suit the riding styles of those who have honed their skills and feel confident riding on technical ground. From the off-camber and loose national championship tested tracks, to the grin-inducing flow trails, on through the alpine ribbons of tacky splendor, you will be sure to find something to challenge your mind and your body. 

Wasatch Crest - The Perennial Favorite

Getting there:
Personal car or van shuttle required. Take Highway 190 up Big Cottonwood Canyon, then take left on Guardsman Pass Road and park in the small lot at the top. 

12.5 miles point to point
1100’ climb
2700’+ descent

With iconic sections like Puke Hill and The Spine, this trail has all the hallmarks of a true classic. ‘The Crest’ is like the teacher who challenges you just enough to build your confidence; then drops some serious knowledge on you that sticks around for the rest of your life. First-time riders be forewarned, you will be punished.

Beginning with a seemingly benign single track from the top of 10,000’ Guardsman Pass, you’ll immediately feel the altitude as you pedal through a lush pine forest. A few quick maneuvers through quaking aspens and some old-growth roots of Scott’s Bypass puts riders at the base of Puke Hill. The double track road climbs roughly 400 vertical feet over less than a mile and tops out just below 9,800’. Reaching this vantage offers sweeping vistas in all cardinal directions. See if you can pick out some of your favorite winter-time descents as you look across Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons to your south and Park City to your north. Moving on along the ridge’s double track is a nice reprieve from the climb. You’ll find the next few miles rather enjoyable as you transition to single track laced with rocks that’ll keep you focused.

Rolling through the forest ahead there is a marked transition in the type of dirt under your tires. The dry red clay has a stunning contrast against the green canopy as you climb three distinct knolls before topping out just below Silver Peak. Catch your breath and stretch while clearing your head for what’s to come. The Spine looms just beyond the next ridge and demands exceptional timing and balance to clean. Its jagged and loose strips of prehistoric rock punctuate the otherwise smooth single track. Forget the magnificent view of Desolation Lake to your left and focus on the next few moves, lest you go OTB. For the discerning cyclist with gusto, try the far right line and match your skills against some of the most technical riding in the range.

After clearing The Spine, several choices lie ahead. You can either drop riders left and ride the precipitous slopes into Mill D, or soldier ahead towards Mill Creek and Park City. Mill D offers eight miles of deluxe single track, several pulse-pounding drops, and long straightaways for some warp-speed excitement. You will see moose, birds of prey and a slew of hikers making their way up towards the lakes. Emptying out on Big Cottonwood Canyon road you can pick up your personal shuttle or hitch back to your car. Make a pit stop at Silver Fork Lodge and Restaurant for a pick me up on their outside patio before returning to your car.

If you elected to stay up on the ridge, you will find more meandering single track and numerous rock gardens that threaten cranks and derailleurs. Large meadows of wildflowers and loose descents greet you as you reach the next decision point. The traditionalist will fade left into Millcreek Canyon, while futuristic shred necks might cruise over on the Ridge Connector and meet up with the Mid Mountain trail in Park City.  Favoring the original route, dropping into upper Big Water is fast and flowy before reaching some tighter switchbacks. After passing the Dog Lake turn off, the trail becomes akin to a dirt sidewalk. The thousands of annual hikers have packed the ground into a silky-smooth surface that begs to be ridden at mach schnell, so make sure and use your bell.  Finishing off at the upper parking lot in Millcreek Canyon marks the end of the dirt, but if you parked your car in the city and took the shuttle, then you’ve got another eight miles of twisty paved road ahead. Take the Pipeline turn off at Elbow Fork for some more dirty action and finish the ride in style through Rattlesnake Gulch. Arriving back at Wasatch Blvd, you can toast your buddies to a ride well done.


Tsunami and NCS- Deer Valley’s Most Wanted

Getting there:
Riders can purchase a lift ticket from Deer Valley Resort and take lap after lap on some of the best built downhill-specific trails in the state. Other options include parking at the Snowpark Lodge and pedaling up Deer Crest toward Mid Mountain, or parking off Empire Pass and pedaling up Tour de Suds and Ontario Loop to reach the upper meadows off Bald Mountain. 


Stats (chairlift):
1 mile point to point
62’ climb
545’ descent

This dynamic trail tests the mettle of even the most steel-nerved riders out there. Built by the world-class diggers of Whistler’s Gravity Logic, there is no doubt that this has become one of the most popular flow trails in Utah. Dropping in from the top of Bald Mountain on either Tidal Wave or Holy Roller allows for a bit of warm-up prior to launch. From the upper meadow, the Section 1 trail breaks off to the north and is well marked with flags to illustrate wind speed. There will be a few rollers as you approach the first set of 10-15’ table top dirt jumps. Speed is your ally here and finding your flow may take a moment. After the initial excitement, riders dive into Section 2 and are greeted by deep berms that transect a gorgeous aspen groove. Getting barreled in these monsters is memorable, but that quickly fades to the background as you approach the next set of tables.

Section 3 gives a short pedal-ly rhythm section before segueing into more step ups and berms. It quickly becomes apparent you will need to press repeat on this trail to get the full experience. Each lap will bring you closer to perfection and it will be hard to wipe the smile off your face. Once you have had your fill of air time, it’s time for the gnarly rough and tumble of NCS. 


Stats (chairlift):
1 mile point to point
236’ climb
1,000’ descent

Built by some of the sport’s OG downhill riders in the 90’s, NCS (National Championship Series) was one of the most difficult trails in the state for many years. It is now used on the Enduro Cup circuit and serves as a great test piece for expert-level riders who are keen to tackle a rugged track with vintage appeal. Taking off from the top there are several rock ledges to make sure your handling is on point. The next few features are intimidating cascades of roots and boulders that have various lines weaving through them. It is easy to get bucked around here, so calm nerves will serve you well.

The middle portion of the trail is narrow and festooned with jagged rocks that nip at your heals as you careen over them. Descending the ensuing rubble strewn throughout the pine forest is quite entertaining. There is nothing like acing a clean line to get the adrenaline pumping before the final section.

The last half mile or so is composed of large natural banked-turns that allow for a bit more speed as they drop back into the forest. Like a roller-coaster ride with ruts and roots thrown in for good measure, NCS delivers a special experience for those daring enough to commit to the task. Coupled with the air and style of Tsunami, a day on the slopes of Deer Valley will leave you begging for an ice bath and a sudsy beverage. Grab a beer from the Silver Lake Snack Shack and kick back on the lawn to finish up your day.

Point of interest: While you're riding at Deer Valley, check out the newest flow trail, Undertow, an intermediate trail put in by Gravity Logic that takes riders from Silver Lake Lodge back down to Snow Park Lodge.


Big Mountain Trail - Snowbird’s Crown Jewel

Getting there:
Take Little Cottonwood Canyon Highway 210 to Snowbird. Pedal up the Peruvian Gulch fire road to access the top of the trail. For a true crush-fest, ride the Big Mountain Trail from the bottom up before 9 am and reach the top before first Tram.

Stats (chairlift):
7.5 miles point to point
3,000’ descent

Little Cottonwood is better known for its skiing than its mountain biking. Snowbird saw an opportunity to change that years ago. They originally partnered with the aforementioned Gravity Logic to assist in the layout of a trail system that would take riders through multiple biomes on their descent from the top of 11,000’ Hidden Peak. While the original vision is still in the works, the backbone for the proposed network is complete. The BMT laces its way through the upper mountain and delivers an unparalleled alpine riding experience. Long straightaways and rollers into hand-dug berms mark the first few miles of trail as it crosses Regulator Johnson and Little Cloud Bowl. A lot of work went into the grading of this portion of the trail so as not to roast your brakes right off the bat. Reaching a high meadow of wildflowers and some wetland, the trail turns to custom wooden bridges that keep tires off the fragile soil below. 

Arriving at the top of the Gadzoom chairlift indicates the start of the second section of the trail. This portion wanders through a pine forest and gully systems with a few jumps and drops added to increase the difficulty. Ripping through the trees and into manicured berms keeps the stoke high as you approach Mid Gad Restaurant. From there, the trail crosses a massive boulder field where the trail builders have carved out some incredible stone pathways. Technically speaking, this is the most difficult set of features on the trail. 

Your pulse will eventually stabilize once you reach the last section of the trail. Starting from near the top of the Wilbere chairlift, this portion incorporates lots of poppy rollers and deep berms that weave through more dense pine forest and into sparse aspen glades. This is also when you will start to see uphill riders being permitted on the trail. Pull into the finish at the Tram base and cool down with some live music or a cold one on the Tram Plaza.

Point of interest: Snowbird throws quite the Oktoberfest party from August-October. Take a lap on the Big Mountain Trail and then join the festivities to wind down!

Jacob’s Ladder and Maple Hollow DH - Corner Canyon Classics

Getting there:
Multiple options exist for riders who want to earn their turns vs. using a car shuttle at Corner Canyon. For Jacob’s, park at the Draper Equestrian Center on Highland Drive and pedal up Clark’s to the upper corral. From there you will take a mix of single and double track to the top. For Maple Hollow shuttles, the trail starts from the top of Suncrest’s Highland Blvd. You can also pedal up Ann’s from the Equestrian Center to reach the highpoint. 

Jacob’s Ladder

Stats (includes up route):
7.5 miles round trip
1500’ climb
1500’ descent

Finding Jacob’s Ladder is a bit of challenge in and of itself. You must climb through several miles of scrub oak under the hot sun before reaching its entry point. Locals usually incorporate this into a big day of riding at Corner Canyon since the trail itself is only about a mile long. However, the vertical relief is nearly 750’ down a loose and exposed sub-ridge. Kitty litter is often used to describe the surface of this trail. Mix in some jagged bedrock and you’ve got a suitable track to push expert riders. The real thrill of this trail is finding yourself on the edge of your comfort zone when it comes to loose corners and steep rollovers.  Deft maneuvering is required to reach the lower portion of trail that weaves around truck-sized boulders and into some steep gully systems with natural banked turns. Popping out on the lower road you can then descend Ghost Falls and Gas Line back towards your car. If you are feeling spry, take the road back up towards the corral and then through the neighborhoods towards Eagle Crest. From this trail you can pedal up towards Maple Hollow DH and finish your route with a worthy challenge.

Maple Hollow

Stats (shuttle):
1.5 miles point to point
1100’ descent

You will know you are at the right trailhead when you see a contingent of groms in full-face helmets being dropped off by their mothers. Don’t be fooled, this is trail is no slouch. All-in commitment is required to descend into this trail and escape routes are limited. The first section is a steep and rocky slalom through scrub oak that demands absolute focus and precise braking. Finding a rhythm is near impossible and it is more akin to riding a bucking bronco than a mountain bike. Once you cross Ann’s trail, the pitch mellows for a few of the upper features and then it is right back into Gnarnia.

The middle section of the track has notable drops and step-ups before it dives into a steep-walled gully. The local trail builders have added in some wooden wall rides and take-offs to accentuate the earthen passageway. Blasting out of the gully you’ll find a series of tabletop jumps that resemble a flow trail. A few moments later its back into the mayhem as steep, loose berms mark the entrance to the final straightaways. Plenty of rollers populate this home stretch as you roll to victory. From the road, it is easy to hitch back up or grab your personal vehicle for a second helping.

Photography by Mike Saemisch

Timberline - The Weekend Warrior’s Getaway 

Getting there:
From I-15 take Highway 143 up to Brian Head Ski Resort. Riders purchase a day pass to the Brian Head Bike Park.

Stats (chairlift):
2 miles point to point
37’ climb
1,100’ descent

The Brian Head Mountain Bike Park is an up and coming destination for the expert rider. This enclave is tucked away near the Cedar Breaks National Monument and offers a unique experience for those looking to try something new. Teaming up with Momentum Trail Concepts, Brian Head is set to become one of Utah’s premier biking destinations. Taking the Giant Steps Chairlift to the top of the resort provides 360-degree views and peers over into the Monument. Brilliant red sandstone catches the early morning light and inspires the intrepid rider who made the voyage to this unknown paradise. The altitude soars to nearly 11,000’ and low-lander lungs will surely feel it.

Breaking off to the north is the Timberline Trail. Built by pioneering trail builders and refined year after year, Timberline serves expert riders looking for a new favorite. The old school meets the new with a ride that delivers some progressive character to this sleepy mountain. The grade steepens right from the get-go and keeps you honest with a few technical moves. Slopes here tend to taper into benches that provide a bit of relief and offer up scenic viewpoints.

Pouring into the lower section a handful of features remind you that this is a bike park and offer some opportunities for creativity. Then it’s back to the lift for another lap with your friends.

Brian Head’s master plan is to develop more delicious downhills like Wildflower and Lil’Gritty, which will step it up a notch for the Timberline crowd. You can also research some of the out-of-bounds shuttle options like Dark Hallow and Bunker Creek.

Point of interest: Brian Head is stacked with events each summer including bike festivals, live music, beer, fireworks and more. Last Chair Saloon is our favorite stop for Kansas City BBQ and an adult beverage after a good day of riding.

That’s the skinny on the knobby-tired cohort of expert trails. For more detailed maps or to download GPS files, visit trailforks.com or mtbproject.com. Keep us posted on some of your favorite rides as you get out and explore during Utah’s “other” season.