Mountain Biking Manti-La Sal National Forest: A Guide to Lesser Known Trails Outside of Moab

No other place has quite captured the imaginations of mountain bikers like Moab. For decades, fat-tired thrill-seekers have journeyed to its hallowed mesas, steep slickrock, and dry trails for a taste of some of the best riding in the world. It was the original mountain bike destination, and its presence in our community has wavered little since.

To this day, we are constantly surrounded by photos of riders struggling up Slickrock Trail‘s grueling climbs, tracing the dramatic red rock ledges of Porcupine Rim or the Portal Trail, or navigating the chundery tech of Captain Ahab. And every year, some of mountain biking’s hottest new products and bikes are showcased at Outerbike, one of the largest MTB events in the world.

In spite of all of this, even Moab has a quiet side. To get away from the crowded trails and soaring summer temperatures in the desert, there is no better place to go than the Abajo and La Sal Mountains of Manti-La Sal National Forest. Apart from the famous Whole Enchilada Trail, which is always busy, this alpine wonderland sees little traffic for no good reason. In fact, enormous vistas, clear mountain lakes, aspen groves, scrubby canyons, and a variety of trails all await those willing to drive out of the desert.

To prove how exceptional the riding in Manti-La Sal National Forest is, here’s a quick guide to make sure that any trip into the mountains east of Moab is well worth the effort.

The 8 best mountain bike trails in Manti-La Sal National Forest

The Whole Enchilada

Photo: ForrestGladding

The Whole Enchilada is epic by any measure. To start, incredible vistas, including the one pictured above, linger around every corner of the trail. Those views are constantly changing as well because the route traverses countless different ecosystems and at least four of the world’s nine major biomes. For example, in the beginning, at about 11,150 feet, riders border the treeline. Throughout 7,000 feet of descending, they wind through aspen groves, gamble oak forests, desert scrub, and the barren landscape of the red rock desert.

For those more concerned with the riding than the views, the Whole Enchilada serves up everyhting from flowy bliss on Hazard County Trail to steep, loose riding on Burro Pass Trail and brutal technical bits on Porcupine Rim. If one thing is guaranteed on this 27 mile epic, it’s that you’ll be ecstatic by the time you finish.

7,000 feet of descent through huge variation of ecosystems, climate and trail type. How can that not be 5 stars? EPIC!

– Trevor Warne

One of the epics. From high alpine forest to desert landscape. No other trail in the world like it. It’s also a real mountain bike trail.

– ForrestGladding

Robertson Pasture Trail

If getting far away from the crowds of Moab is your goal, look no further than the Robertson Pasture Trail. Located high in the Abajo Mountains south of Moab, this flowy track descends 2,600 feet through alpine meadows and dense forest. Like most of the other trails within Manti-La Sal National Forest, Robertson Pasture Trail also given riders a chance to stop and soak in views of the mountains meeting the desert far below.

Hell Canyon

Although this 2,200-foot descent begins playfully in aspen groves, Hell Canyon is by no means a smooth slice of heaven. Instead, after a beautiful view overlooking Moab, the trail becomes a steep, exposed, rock-strewn romp down toward the valley floor. Both slow speed rock picking and high speed precision is necessary to clean this trail, so be sure to eat your Wheaties.

Moonlight Meadows/Clark Lake Trail

While most of the trails in Manti-La Sal National Forest dive down from the mountains into the desert, Moonlight Meadows provides an exclusively alpine experience; in fact, the low point is still above 8,500 feet. It may be a little harder to find views that extend to the desert on this mostly smooth ride, but the vibrant meadows, aspen stands, peaks, and lakes that dot the area more than make up for it.

Lower Indian Creek Trail

Just across from Robertson Pasture Trail in the Abajos is Lower Indian Creek. After a quick descent from the road to the creek’s banks, the trail winds along Lower Indian Creek’s broad bed and continues out of the mountains. Without much in the way of technical challenge, Lower Indian Creek Trail allows riders to fully soak in the landscape as it transitions to desert.

Hotel Rock

On the southern fringes of Manti-La Sal National Forest, Hotel Rock 4×4 Trail gently winds up a dry creek bed before ascending loose, steep, and tight slickrock slopes. This ride is about more than biking, though. At the top, breathtaking Anasazi ruins provide a window into the area’s Native American heritage. After examining the ruins, a technical slickrock descent back down to Highway 19 awaits!

Fisher Mesa

The cliff-side views of Porcupine Rim may be some of the most famous in mountain biking, but nearby Fisher Mesa provides stunning views with a fraction of the crowds. In addition, its extended slickrock sections and loose singletrack make it a great desert-like option when Moab’s singletrack is too hot to ride.

La Sal Backside Singletrack

The side of the La Sal Mountains facing Moab certainly has a large quantity of high-quality singletrack, but that doesn’t mean the other side of the mountains isn’t without a couple hidden gems. The La Sal Backside Singletrack is a 14-mile shuttle run from Dark Canyon Lake to the edge of the national forest near the Colorado border. Over about 3,500 feet of descending, riders will work their way down from mountain scree fields to a brushy desert environment via pristine trail.

5 best campgrounds in Manti-La Sal National Forest

Mason Draw Campground

On a trip to Moab a long time ago, the thick aspen grove and cool air at Mason Draw provided a needed change from the 110-degree heat of July.

In my humble opinion, Mason Draw Campground could be one of the best campgrounds in Moab, Utah, or maybe even the whole country. Hidden along the La Sal Mountain Loop Road, Mason Draw is within spitting distance of the Whole Enchilada and many other trails. The 5-site campground itself is nestled in an enchanting aspen grove that sees few visitors, and the grass beds of the sites prove a little more forgiving than campgrounds’ usual dirt surface.

Warner Lake Campground

Although Warner Lake Campground is not in the best position for running shuttles higher into the mountains, it does provide great access to trails like Moonlight Meadows, Hell Canyon, and the Whole Enchilada’s Hazard County segment.

Buckboard Campground

Unlike many other national forest campgrounds, Buckboard offers easy access to both wilderness and civilization. The town of Monticello might only be 15 minutes away, but Buckboard provides great access to classic trails in the Abajo Mountains like Robertson Pasture and Lower Indian Creek. Plus, in classic Manti-La Sal fashion, the campground is nestled among breathtaking aspens.

Flat Canyon Campground

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Although few realize it, Manti-La Sal National Forest does have a branch in the Wasatch Range of Central Utah that is surprisingly devoid of good biking. The area’s best campground, Flat Canyon, can still be a great place to stay on the way to classic trails like Bennie Creek and Three Forks Loop in nearby Uinta National Forest.

Nizthoni Campground

Nizhoni Campground, a 17-site loop on the opposite site of the Abajo Mountains from Buckboard Campground, is a great base camp for exploring the southernmost portion of Manti-La Sal National Forest. Like Buckboard, it is within striking distance of the Abajo’s trails; however, it also can be used as a launch off point for a Hotel Rock ride. It might get a little hot during summer at only 7,000 feet, but at least the ponderosa pines will give you some shade.

Other things to do in Manti-La Sal National Forest

Hike the summits of the La Sal Mountains

Above the La Sals’ great biking trails towers Mount Peale, the highest mountain on the Colorado Plateau at 12,726 feet, and other high peaks like Manns Peak. Loose footing, steep slopes, and a healthy dose of exposure can make climbing these mountains very difficult, but the jaw-dropping views at the top keep climbers coming back.

Drive to the top of Abajo Peak

The drive up to the top of Abajo Peak is a fun excursion into the mountains that will give your legs a much needed break. There is little vegetation on Abajo Peak’s south-facing slopes as well, so views stretching toward the four corners are everywhere. The hardiest of souls can even bring their bikes with them to the top and descend towards the Robertson Pasture Trail to create a massive shuttle run.

4×4 La Sal Pass Road

In the southern La Sals, La Sal Pass Road ascends the range and crosses it between Mount Peale and South Mountain. After picking your way up the talus fields and through lush forest, the meadows just on the other side of the pass are ideal for a picnic. The road also provides access to many hikes on Mount Peale and South Mountain.

Visit Bears Ears National Monument

Photo: visitutah.com

A whole trip could be dedicated to Bears Ears National Monument. To start, according to the Utah Office of Tourism, the Indian Creek Unit has excellent crags for rock climbing, hiking trails with epic vistas of the surrounding desert, and great camping. The area also protects a number of Native American petroglyphs and ruins, many of which can be easily accessed by car. To the south, the Shash Jaa Unit contains cliff dwellings of many ancestral tribes while Newspaper Rock in Indian Creek is covered in petroglyphs that illustrate what life was like for groups such as the Clovis people or Ancestral Puebloans.

Events in Manti-La Sal National Forest

Abajo Enduro

Photo: roamutah.com

Roam Industry, which is based out of Monticello, puts on this two-day party in the Abajo Mountains every August. Over three stages, racers are thrown into the best red rock and alpine trails the Abajos have to offer. There are only 50 spots, though, so register early to join the fun.

Racing might not be everybody’s cup of tea, so Roam Industry also offers guided trips and shuttles for the area’s best trails. You can even pick up some bike parts at their shop in Monticello.

Best bike shops near Manti-La Sal National Forest

Rim Cyclery

Photo: rimcyclery.com

While Rim Cyclery isn’t the flashiest bike shop around, its soul is what makes it such a gem. A great, homey atmosphere, passionate staff, wide selection, and wealth of trail knowledge makes every visit a good one.

Poison Spider Bicycles

In addition to having a myriad of rentals, parts, accessories, and shuttle options, Poison Spider has an awesome mountain bike-themed mural on the shop’s side (Photo: Poison Spider Bicycles Facebook Page)

In addition to having a good selection and knowledgeable staff, Poison Spider Bicycles focuses on making a vacation to Moab as hassle-free as possible. They run shuttles regularly to Moab’s Mag 7 route, the Brand Trails, and the Whole Enchilada and pride themselves on their ability to assemble a shipped bike with lightening speed.

Moab Cyclery

Photo: Moab Cyclery Facebook Page

Like Poison Spider Bicycles, Moab Cyclery offers much more than the average bike shop. Beyond basic amenities, they provide shuttles to most major Moab area trails, custom shuttles for any other trails, an enormous selection of rentals, and both day-long and multi-day tours.

Chili Pepper Bike Shop

Photo: Chile Pepper Bike Shop Facebook Page

Chili Pepper Bike Shop, also located in Moab, is a great option for any bike-related problem you may come across. With a wide selection of components, service, rentals, and tours, there is little that they can’t help you with.

Are there any epic Manti-La Sal National Forest rides we missed? Comment below!

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