Ride Like a Local: St. George, Utah [Podcast #292]

Ride Like a Local is a podcast and article series dedicated to exploring the best mountain bike destinations in the world through the eyes of the riders who call these places home. We’ll find out about the must ride trails and the groups that maintain them, and also where to find pizza and beer after the ride.

Cimarron Chacon is the president and race director at GRO Promotions, which offers mountain bike event and trail development services in and around St. George, Utah. She also founded the Dixie Mountain Bike Trails Association which is now known as the Trail Alliance of Southern Utah.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the complete interview using the player above.

Learn more about mountain biking in St. George at tasutah.org and gropromotions.com.


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Tell us a little bit about your background. How did you end up in St. George?

I have a master’s in landscape architecture and my first career job, I was hired by the Bureau of Land Management. We, I guess, can no longer use the acronym BLM, because –

Right, it’s confusing now, yeah.

Yeah. So Bureau of Land Management as a landscape architect and my first task, right off the gate, was to evaluate the contentious Gooseberry Mesa as a potential project. I think it was my first day on-

This was before it was built? Or like after people were riding there and you were kind of doing the evaluation?

Yeah. It was built-ish. It was being ridden. I mean it has a long history of being ridden and routes being put in and so forth. So yeah, the question was to open it, or close it. If we opened it, what kind of system would it be? So I mean there were actually two police officers there and three rec planners and myself, as a new person, which was way overkill and then like two mountain bikers.

But we made a system, which is what needed to happen, because it was just being added to, there was no flow and so there was just some editing that happened. Small pieces got taken out. Some new pieces got put in and the system is the system that you know now.

Very cool. It’s interesting that a landscape architect would work for the BLM. Is that what you were doing, were you really doing landscape architecture, or was it something completely unrelated to sort of your education?

No. A lot of people misunderstand what a landscape architect is and how we’re trained. So they think of landscaping and that’s very little of what a landscape architect does. There are some that do planting plants. But my specialty was in recreation management, with an emphasis on environment and behavior. So understanding how people behave when they are on a hiking trail, for example. Why would they shortcut a trail, or why would they litter and what types of design solutions can you add to that, versus just a sign that says, “No.” We learn to design with the land. So trail design, erosion prevention, all of those things, fit exactly with what I do. So there are at the time, we are known as a scarce skill and we all specialized in large landscape planning. So an entire corner of the state, or some people had an entire state.

I think there are about 10 (at the BLM). The majority of them are at the state, or federal level, at this point. There are two on the monuments.

That sounds like a huge job. Just thinking about one trail system seems like a lot, but to consider like a whole portion of a state, or an entire state, seems like that’s a lot to keep up with.

It’s what I love. Big picture. I’m always thinking really long range. So 10, 20 years out, how many trails are going to be needed and how are recreation trends going to change and those sorts of things.

What makes St. George stand out among mountain bike destinations? It seems like maybe for a lot of people, it’s not one of the first names that comes to mind, but it certainly is a place that has a ton of trails and some really well known trails and events as well. So what do you think makes St. George sort of unique?

Yeah, I mean it is really a hidden gem. We’ve got slickrock singletrack. We are pretty much a year round destination. It gets quite warm here in the summer, but because the elevations change so drastically in this canyon, you can go from Vegas to Brian Head in a couple of hours and so you have this huge range of trail possibilities. Here in St. George proper, I’ve lost track of the number, to be honest. But we have multiple trail systems. We also have amazing gravel riding here and hiking and the famous Zion National Park, with its picturesque scenery. It’s just kind of the whole package.

Gooseberry Mesa. Photo: Singletracks member stumpyfsr.

For someone visiting for the first time, what are the two or three must ride trails or trail systems? You mentioned Gooseberry Mesa, I imagine that’s at the top of most people’s list?

Yeah, I think it is. I mean I have to be honest, and this is probably because I’ve been riding it for 20 plus years. I helped to create it. But to me, it’s no longer the first thing that you want to do. It really depends on the time of year that you’re coming, if you are into technical or long distance, etc. I am told statistically, that the number one trail that is rated the highest, that has the most uses, is actually the Barrel Roll System.

Oh, interesting.

Barrel Roll is located in Santa Clara. I think it is [so popular] because it’s accessible from town. You can get on there and you can ride six miles, or you can ride 23 miles, or you can ride 53 miles from the same place. You can customize your ride from beginner to expert.

Our area is divided into three segments, I kind of say. There’s the St. George area, which is incredibly diverse, but also serves now a growing mountain bike population. There’s also the Hurricane Area and then the Mesas. Those are three different experiences.

The Mesas are all about camping out and just having that whole mountain bike life. Then the other two areas have a little bit for everybody.

So would you say in terms of like family-friendly rides, is Barrel Roll going to be one of those areas, where you can take sort of the whole family, or people who are just getting into mountain biking?

No, I mean that’s not the first go-to place. But the Bear Claw Poppy Trail, which you can get to from the Barrel Rolls area, is the number one family trail system. It is just loved to death. The second one is the Hurricane Cliffs System. There is also the JEM Trail complex and More Cowbell, which is just perfect for kids and beginners. I mean it’s just beautiful. The Cryptobionic and JEM, Lower JEM, those are all perfect for families, all in the same region and then there’s a new area called Desert Canyon, which is actually a privately developed trail system and it’s quite family-friendly. It’s perfect for our budding riders. So yeah, we’re getting more. We started with the extreme trails and now I think it’s really fun to see more trails being added, but at all levels, so that the whole family can come and have a good time.

Zen Trail. Photo: Caren Villaroman. Rider: Dinno Domingo.

What are some of the more challenging trails? It sounds like there’s definitely mileage that can make some of these challenging and then also I imagine there’s some pretty technical terrain around St. George, as well. What are some of the stand-out like really difficult rides for people who want to punish themselves?

The south rim of Gooseberry. All of Little Creek and adding in the Mesas for more challenge. They’re very anaerobic with a lot of upper body work. Nothing bombing and downhill, but a lot of upper body work, a lot of skill is required to make the tight and technical turns, up and over rocks. The four mesas include Little Creek, Gooseberry, Wire Mesa, and Grafton. You put those together and you’re going to be trashed. You’re going to feel like you worked. In the St. George area, the Zen Trail is we call it, the hardest five miles of trail and we actually include it in our race course, just to punish people who were doing 100 miles and need some punishment. There’s the Kentucky Lucky Chicken Trail, which is a pretty small, fun local trail, that is really, really hard. Steep, punchy climbs. Some exposure and just if you want a quick fun ride from town. Then Suicidal Tendencies is also, that’s off of the Barrel Roll system. That trail lives up to its name. There is a lot of exposure.

Those sound like they would be fun and interesting trails, just based on the names alone. What are some of the lesser known trails where riders can get away from the crowds? I’m actually blown away by how many different trails you’ve mentioned in the course of like five minutes here. So is that even an issue, that like you’re going to go somewhere and it’s just slammed with people, or are there just so many trails that people tend to spread out pretty well?

There are two trails that get crowded, that I avoid on weekends and that’s the JEM Trail and the Bear Claw Poppy, because they are the most family-friendly trails. There’s one lesser known one and it’s called the Boy Scout Trail and it’s over by Quail Lake. It is quite technical. I don’t think a lot of people know it’s there, because you have to go over a dam to get to the system.

Church Rocks is a trail that is beginner to intermediate, but it has a lot of spurs, so it has the Dino Tracks off of it and it has Prospector and so again, you can make these big long loops and really get away from people. It is a sandy trail, so it’s seasonal and best to ride in the winter or on a rainy day. But I mean we’re very fortunate. We have pretty good soils. The worst is the Bear Claw Poppy, if it’s winter and it’s cold, you can ruin that trail. But you can drive up the road a few miles and still get a very similar experience on the Prospector Trail.

I remember when we first met actually, Leah and I traveled out to St. George and Church Rocks was one of the ones that we rode together and yeah, that was a great ride and one that if we were just kind of driving through town, or looking things up online, it’s probably not a trail we would have known about or chosen. It’s kind of like an undiscovered little gem there, that’s pretty close and accessible.

Well the nice thing about Church Rocks and Prospector is, they are right off the interstate and now they’re putting in a new trailhead that’s even more accessible. So you can take the Washington Parkway exit and it’s right there and you can jump on the system. So if you’ve got an hour to kill and you need some exercise on a long drive through St. George and you don’t want to actually go into town, you can just pop off the freeway and do that.

One of the things I remember from that trip, and maybe I just imagined this, and people always think that I’m crazy when I say this but, there are tarantulas there, right?

Yes.

Like wild tarantulas.

Yeah, you were here during the tarantula migrating season. Yeah, they come from Pine Valley Mountain and you’ll see them up on Gooseberry and through the sands. Yeah, it’s pretty cool. We have bats too.

Oh really? Well the tarantulas are just unusual and like I said, people never believe me when I say that, because you see them in movies, or maybe people have them as a pet. On Gooseberry I remember seeing the tarantulas just kind of like walking through the sand. Super cool.

Yep, yeah they just cruise on by.

So who builds and maintains the trails in the St. George area? I imagine there’s a pretty active local mountain bike club, or is it more of a group effort between multiple user groups?

It’s a group effort and it’s always been an ebb and flow. There is a very active group that is mainly engaged in trail development and some other tasks. But the Trail Alliance of Southern Utah, formerly the Dixie Mountain Bike Trails Association, has been a liaison with the BLM. The BLM maintains some trails. Red Rock Bicycle has put together a trail maintenance project that they have a give back project. Our company has a give back project. So we maintain a lot of the trails that we use frequently for our events and then as I said, some of them are privately held, so they’re done by BLM or private groups. All of the bike shops give back quite a bit. Over the Edge Sports does a lot of maintenance and trail development in the Hurricane area. So it varies, because it’s a big area to cover.

Yeah, for sure, especially since it is such a destination. To have such iconic trails like JEM and Gooseberry Mesa, that people come to ride. Are there ways for people to sort of give back and support that, because I know it must be exhausting to have to maintain trails, not just for the local riders, but for all the other people that are coming in.

Yeah, the best way to give back, is to donate via the Trail Alliance of Southern Utah website. That’ll spread the love.

Where are some of the best places to rent mountain bikes, or can you even do that? Is there much of a mountain bike rental opportunity in the area for people who maybe just want to ride for the day, or maybe they’re flying into Las Vegas or somewhere, sort of close by and driving a rental car.

It’s funny you bring up rental cars. I think it’s easier to rent a bike here than a rental car. It seems there is an ever growing amount of bike rentals. I mean we have a bike share program and a scooter share program in town, for people who just want to pick up something and tool around on the bike paths, which we have an extensive amount of at this point. They stretch from Santa Clara all the way to Washington. I think it’s 30 miles continuous one way.

Every single bike shop here, Red Rock and Over the Edge, have I think the biggest supply, but also Bikes Unlimited and Rapid Cycling. Those are our four biggest shops. There’s some shops out in Ivins and there’s a few that are popping up all the time.

Are most people going to be renting or bringing their trail bike and Enduro bike? Are those pretty adequate for riding most everything that’s around town?

All mountain, yeah. I mean I ride a Scalpel but-

But you’re a tough local and so yeah, I’m talking about the people coming from out of town. They’re going to want a little more suspension probably.

Yeah. We ride our shorter travel bikes and I did get stubborn and rode a hardtail for four years or so, and then regretted it.

Nothing more local than riding a hardtail. So are there tour operators in the area, or even bike clubs that visitors can connect with, if they want to ride with locals, or even bike shops. Are there any local standing rides that any of the bike shops host?

Over the Edge, they have a shuttle service. They have a Gooseberry shuttle, and they can get you up to any of the mesas. A lot of people like to get a shuttle up to the top of the JEM Trail and then just ride JEM and Hurricane Cliffs, or Goulds and just ride back down to town. It’s a nice 20 mile, fun, flowy, downhill. You get some techy in there if you want.

As far as tour operators, there are more than I can count. There are so many springing up, I saw a new one just the other day when I was riding. So Mountain Bike Buddy, I think has been around a really long time and that’s the oldest one I know.

Do they mostly do just sort of like day trip type things? Or are some of them doing overnight mountain bike tours?

The last I could track, Western Spirits and some of those folks were doing some; you can get on a big long like three-day Gooseberry trip. When I was working for the BLM — which I left about 10 years ago, maybe 11 — there were seven tour operators, one event, and I think there were like 147 SRPs, between tour operators events and other commercial ventures that are going on, in the area. Some of them just maintain their event, but they are not open for business. A lot of them do it part-time. So I don’t even want to throw out names, because you could look for them and they might not even be here this season, with COVID.

There are a lot of opportunities to find whatever you want when you come here. That I can guarantee you, whether you want a tour or to explore on your own. Our county has put together an excellent website, that has all of the top riding and hiking trails that you can look on. It’s GreaterZion.com. It’s also just a fantastic resource for visiting in general.

Where do people hang out after the ride? Are there any bars or breweries that tend to attract mountain bikers, or restaurants even?

Slowly, they are popping up. I mean there’s nothing that beats a beer at a tail gate. But there’s a new brewery, Zion Brewery. Another one is being built with a taproom. Our downtown has been completely transformed, it’s just amazing. There are two big developments that went in. They’re all commercial and they’re all restaurants and bars. So that’s really fun for us.

One of my favorite spots recently is called 700 Degrees and it’s an artisan pizza and they have a really good selection of beers on tap. Whatever you’re into. We have the whole host of restaurants now, from Mexican, to Thai food, to pizza. Take your pick.

In Hurricane there is a coffee shop called River Rock Roasting Company. It’s right on the edge of the Virgin River and it overhangs and it is one of the most popular destinations, if you’re heading up to the Hurricane Cliffs, or Gooseberry, Seek it out. It’s in La Verkin and they probably have beer now. They also have these really cool cabin Airbnbs called the Dwellings that you can rent, bike-friendly, right on the river, overlooking this canyon. So it’s amazing what has changed here, even in the last year and a half. It’s very tourism-friendly.

You mentioned that there were some places to stay, as well, in the area, that you would recommend. First off, is there camping available sort of outside of St. George, for people who are looking to rough it a little bit more?

So that is unfortunately what I consider one of our downfalls right now. I know that the county and the agencies have been working on that issue. So there’s always amazing camping on the mesas. Ff you’re looking for that destination experience, Gooseberry Mesa is where you want to go. However, if you happen to be coming here and it’s wet or cold, because as I said, the elevations change quite a bit. Gooseberry is almost at 5,000 feet and St. George is at 2,300 to 2,800 feet. So if you’re here on shoulder season, it might be too cold or too wet. The road up to Gooseberry can get really muddy.

We had some local St. George just kind of rough it areas, and development is changing those and just urbanization. There are some wonderful state parks. Gunlock and Quail are both really, really nice places. Snow Canyon State Park doesn’t have a lake, but it’s also a really gorgeous place to camp, if you’re here in town.

Are there bike-friendly hotels or motels in town that you would recommend? Or is there an opportunity to do Airbnbs? Is that a popular option?

If you’re looking into St. George, there’s actually a really cool new development, that’s called Desert Color. You can get a big house with your own pool that sleeps 27 people.

Oh boy.

They’re all over here, because we host big events. There are huge events between our events that we put on and Iron Man that comes here and that’s what people do. They just get a whole group of their buddies and they rent a big place. But Desert Color is the newest one. It’s right off of the freeway, as you’re coming in and if you fly into Vegas, and they’ve put in their own lazy river.

Oh my goodness.

Yeah, so you can have a two-story town house with a deck that overlooks this lazy river and they’ve got a five-star restaurant and a bar in there and it’s just coming online. So it’s one that we’re actually hoping to use as a venue, for our future events.

Let’s talk about the events. You put on several throughout the year. What are some of the events and festivals and races that bring people, mountain bikers specifically, to St. George?

Our events are some of the oldest. We put on the 6 and 25 hours of Frog Hollow. Those are done at different times of the year. But the six hour is a spring race; this year, it’ll be the first week in April. It is incredibly family-friendly. So we get a lot of first time racers that come. I say we have the oldest and the youngest, because we’ve had kids as young as nine, that have been able to complete laps. We’ve had people in their late 70s that are out racing. It’s just a blast. It’s just a fun event and we keep it small at about 350 people. Most people just come and camp out and enjoy being in the shadow of Zion while they’re racing bikes. Then the 25 hours of Frog Hollow is held on the weekend of the fall time change, when you get an extra hour. It’s always held that first weekend in November and it’s tough. You can do it as a solo. It’s a challenging course. It will beat you up in the middle of the night, if you’re doing solo, or even a duo race. But also our most popular is our people that come and do a corporate team, up to 10 people and just make a mountain bike retreat. Some people do it with big families, some people do it with their companies and it’s basically a three-day event. We finish it with a band and a big celebration when it’s over and so that’s a fun time. Both of those are done outside of Virgin, on the JEM/Hurricane Trail system.

I imagine that one’s popular too, because there really aren’t many 24 hour and especially 25 hour races that are still happening.

There is a come back and the Frog Hollow was part of the N24 Series, which is actually a 24 hour series, which includes 24 Hours of Oregon and Enchanted Forest. So most of the 24 hour races seem to be out here in the West. But there are a lot of 12 hour races and six hour races still out there. But I like the lap format. It’s good for racers. You get more time to have camaraderie with your fellow mountain bikers and kind of have more of a chill atmosphere, where you can come and you can camp and you can really be part of the venue, rather than race and leave.

Right. You get there, you’re nervous. You’re warming up and doing all that. That’s not fun. Then you do the race. You ride your guts out and then you’re tired and that’s it. You don’t want to talk to anybody and you go home.

Yeah. The third race that we put on, which is our biggest event, is the True Grit Epic. It’s in its biggest form, now a three-day stage race.

Stage one is a self-supported mountain/gravel ride that’s usually between 45 and 60 miles long. We change the route every year because of weather and just to make it interesting. The second day is a 80-90 mile gravel ride. It is long and it is tough and it is technical and a lot of people do it on a mountain bike, because it’s such a technical gravel ride.

But it’s absolutely beautiful. It goes up to over the top of Utah Hill and around the back. So it changes from the middle of the city in Santa Clara, these all start in Santa Clara, which is near St. George. So they go up over the Beaverdam slopes and around the mountain into the wild Joshua tree forest. So you go from high desert to Mojave. These Joshua tree forests are pretty rare and in the spring, if you’re lucky, if we get a good spring, the Joshua trees will be blooming. So it’s an absolutely gorgeous course.

Then the last day is our iconic, which we’ve had for I think we’re going on 12 years now, which is the True Grit Mountain Bike Course and if you do the stage you do the 50, which is tough in its own right. We also have a 100 mile option for those real crazy endurance people. They get to do the Zen Trail twice, which makes for a tough day. That’s usually seven, eight hours in the saddle even for pros.

Then we have a 15 mile option, which has been really popular and allows again, the whole family to get on board and race and be part of it. That’s held in March, the second weekend in March every year in Santa Clara. Most people come and they just make a full week out of it. We have a camp that we put on, because it’s a very technical endurance race, so a lot of people will come in January for a technical skills camp.

Yeah, that’s a lot of really good events. And of course, Red Bull Rampage used to be held in the area, right? The old Red Bull Rampage course. Is the new course also in the St. George area?

Basically around the corner from where we hold Frog Hollow is the new course. So it’s out just in Virgin, so we’re kind of on the southwest side of Virgin and it’s on the southeast side of Virgin.

People might think they can go out there and visit and ride the course, but that’s not possible, right?

No, no, no.

It’s private land. You’re not going to be riding Red Bull.

No. It’s private land and the access is closed, other than during the event. But you can go to Gooseberry and a really good, fun option are the Gooseberry Yurts. So if you’re lucky enough to rent one of the yurts you can actually look down on the course.

Are there plans to expand or improve on the trails in the area? It sounds like there’s already a ton and I imagine just maintaining them is a whole lot of work, especially given the number of riders that come through individually and during the races. So what’s kind of the roadmap for the next few years, in terms of the trails?

There’s a lot going on actually, right now. It’s pretty exciting. Our company, we still do consulting. We’re working on a couple of small projects, one in the area where Zen is, there’s a development and so one of our specialties is actually working with developers to route trails to track through their new development and maintain access and maintain the original systems. We’ve got a couple of those projects that are really exciting.

There are some new trail heads and connectivity coming to St. George. And there are new trail proposals in the JEM Trail area, Hurricane area, that will add more options up there, some more uphill options. So that’s pretty exciting. Then the Trail Alliance of Southern Utah is working on a huge network up in Pine Valley, which is at elevation, which is really going to expand. So if you think of St. George as this is where you ride in the winter, spring and fall you go up to Gooseberry. During summer you’ve kind of had to go all the way to Brian Head, which is two hours away. Pine Valley’s only 45 minutes or less, 30 minutes.

I don’t know how many there are going to get started, but I think they’ve got all their approvals and everything to get started on some downhill and different terrain type trails. Maybe some flow trail up there, so it should be pretty neat.

Are there opportunities to ride e-bikes on many of these trails? It sounds like most of the land around the St. George area is BLM, which I believe they allow e-bikes on a number of their trails. So is that a thing in St. George? Are you seeing more e-bikers?

Actually, we just had this discussion the other day. So the BLM does not have blanket allowance for e-bikes. It is by trail. What’s going on right now, is they’re actually creating a policy for this area by trail and the biggest concern is the sensitive soils. Obviously the other one is that there are a lot of people who do ride e-bikes. There are some people which we’ve seen, that want to get out into nature, but don’t necessarily have the technical skills and so those are just the concerns. I have no judgment one way or another. They’re obviously open to ride on any of our gravel roads, which we have amazing gravel roads, which take people into incredibly beautiful remote places. I would say stay tuned and if you’re wanting to e-bike on BLM trails, visit the BLM site for those current rules. Because they are changing right now.

Are many of the trails currently open to motorized use? Are there some that you can currently ride, just because they’re moto/bike trails?

Nope. No.

None? That’s surprising.

Almost all of our trails are purpose-built. I mean there are segments, but there’s a lot of trails in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. A huge majority of our trails are in special protected areas. Because of that, they were already closed to motorized and the solution to having recreation access was to build non-motorized mountain bike trails. Also, most of our trails are closed to horses. So they are only foot and bike. I mean if you’re coming here, I would keep that as your blanket statement, and there are a couple small exceptions.

Don’t bring your e-bike. You may be wasting your time, for now.

Yeah. I will say though that there are some areas out on the Arizona Strip, which is, sometimes you don’t even know it’s the line. But it’s south of St. George. You’re in Arizona and that is an area that’s got a lot of gravel roads and it’s open to motos, so you’ll find moto singletrack out there and e-bikes are more than welcome. Some of it’s really fun and I ride my gravel bike on most of that singletrack, because it’s just moto style. It’s fast and flowy and usually suitable for a gravel bike, if you want to get off the road.

That’s a great recommendation. So is there anything else mountain bikers need to know before visiting St. George?

Research your trails. Know your abilities when you get here. We do have higher than normal technical trail networks and also, beware of the trail conditions. If it is rainy and muddy, don’t ride Gooseberry, don’t ride the Bear Claw Poppy. You will ruin the trails, maybe your car, and probably your bike.

It’s a desert environment. It’s a harsh environment, I imagine. Are there a lot of rescues that tend to take place out there for mountain bikers, or people that are getting into trouble on the trails?

Yeah, believe it or not, the Bear Claw Poppy has the most accidents on it, because even though it’s beginner-friendly, it’s fast and it’s flowy. It’s a roller coaster of a ride and if you don’t know how to take those dips and you take those dips too fast, the iconic Clavicle Hill and Three Fingers of Death, they live up to their name, just about once a month.

Wow, is that literally the name of a trail or a trail feature?

Yes.

Oh geez. Okay.

Those are the literal names and they are literal. I talk to EMTs and they see a broken clavicle on Clavicle Hill at least once a month and on the Three Fingers of Death, if you take the middle finger, it’ll get you.

That’s good advice then. I understand what you mean by researching your trails ahead of time and maybe if the name of it is Clavicle Hill, you might want to avoid that one, if you’re prone to that type of injury.

Yeah and there’s a ride around. So yeah. Check your ego and ride around it.

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