The Mighty 5: Mountain Biking near Utah’s National Parks

If you have a family, you are more than likely planning on taking a vacation this summer. Some of us come from a family where only one person (i.e. the person reading this article) in the family is an avid mountain biker who would drive to the ends of the earth to ride a bike. Chances are, if that’s you, you’ve done your best to diabolically plan that trip to destinations where you could ride your bike on your “family” vacation, then spent weeks or even months craftily sweet-talking your significant other into allowing you to bring your bike along. You know, so you could sneak away for “a couple of hours” here and there to explore some novel singletrack.

A lot of families this summer will be capitalizing on Utah’s big advertisement to visit the Beehive state’s “Mighty 5,” or five incredible jaw-dropping national parks that should be on any traveler’s bucket list: Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, and Zion. Each of these parks offers unique, picturesque adventures for the entire family to enjoy. The one problem for riders like us: most national parks don’t offer much in the way of mountain biking. So what is a rider to do?

Having just completed an 11-day circuit that included The Mighty 5, among others, I have a few suggestions to help you fit some quick rides in, especially if your time is limited, because you have justifiably higher priorities: spending some much-needed time to bond with your spouse and kiddos.

Arches National Park

Capt Ahab is a fairly quick advanced ride close to town, perfect for a quick ride while the kiddos are taking a nap
Captain Ahab is a fairly quick advanced ride close to town–perfect for a quick ride while the kiddos are taking a nap

This destination is the easiest for getting in some quick, sick rides. Anyone who has ever visited Arches NP knows that it is situated adjacent to Moab, the mountain biking capital of the United States. There are plenty of activities to do inside Arches with the family including hiking, climbing, and even road biking, but for the eager mountain bike rider Moab is choc-a-bloc with rocky singletrack. For shorter rides near town, try the Hymasa/Captain Ahab loop or the classic Slickrock. If you get a pass for a few hours of riding, grab a shuttle and do as much of The Whole Enchilada as time will allow (you can get dropped off at several points if time really is a factor). There are dozens of other options around Moab, though: long and short, easy and hard.

Bike problems or need some parts? Check out Poison Spider, or Chili Pepper–which also has the best espresso in town.


Dead Horse Point State Park has some amazing views. The Intrepid trails is a perfect intermediate trail
Dead Horse Point State Park has some amazing views. The Intrepid trail is a perfect intermediate trail

Canyonlands National Park, like others in Utah, is immense. It is also very near Moab, so you have the same access to shops, rentals, and shuttles. Although there is no true singletrack in Canyonlands, you can pedal the 103-mile White Rim Road, a brutally-sandy and/or muddy jeep road that follows the contour of the rim. Steep grades and rocks also make this very challenging, and the circuit often takes 2-3 days, even for seasoned riders. It also requires a permit.

A more “practical” alternative on a family trip for a short ride would be the Intrepid Trail at nearby Dead Horse Point State Park. This trail offers beautiful overlooks and a well-thought-out series of hiking trails that are also mostly shared by mountain bikers. Depending on the trails you choose, you can cover about 16 miles in around two hours.

Check out this sweet video from Tyson Swasey:

Intrepid Trail from Tyson Swasey on Vimeo.

Bryce Canyon

I was chased by wet, slushy snow most of my ride, but the red dirt was tachy and the views were jaw dropping.
I was chased by wet, slushy snow most of my ride, but the red dirt was tacky and the views were jaw-dropping.

My bike mechanic, who is also a talented photographer, once told me that Bryce Canyon NP pretty much blows every other park out of the water–including the Grand Canyon–in terms of views. After visiting Bryce for the first time in March, I would have to agree. Though smaller than many other parks, its other-worldly sanguine hoodoos are breathtaking, particularly in morning and afternoon light. Though mountain biking is not allowed on trails inside the Park, there is a hidden gem of singletrack close by: Thunder Mountain.

See Also: Trail Report: Thunder Mountain, Panguitch, Utah

Best done as a one-way shuttle from east to west (or looped via the bike path that parallels Hwy 12), this 10-mile ribbon of bliss is one of the most interesting and unreal sections of singletrack I’ve ever ridden! Starting out by winding through pine and pinon forest, this undulating trail has flowy sections balanced with some steep, punchy climbs on red dirt singletrack. The east side is smooth and rolling, while the west becomes more picturesque and technical with orange hoodoos, deep red rocks, tight, rocky switchbacks, and ridgeline sections reminiscent of Zippity Do Dah in Fruita. The last section is a super-fast downhill ribbon that will make you want to lap this thing again and again. There are no bike shops in the area, so come prepared.

Capitol Reef National Park

Goblin Valley from the highway, getting pounded by afternoon spring storms, warning me and my bike to "come again another day". We shall.
Goblin Valley from the highway, getting pounded by afternoon spring storms, warning me and my bike to “come again another day”. We shall.

Comprising over 378 square miles, Capitol Reef NP is a very, very large swath of land with some interesting history. It’s fairly remote, and there are few hotels and restaurants near the main entrance, but this park is definitely worth visiting with the family. Though there are quite a few dirt and jeep roads in the park, you’re out of luck if you are looking to sneak away for a quick bike ride.

There is, however, a solution about an hour east of the national park’s visitor’s center: Goblin Valley State Park. Worth a visit just to see the crazy rock formations, Goblin Valley is proud of its seven-mile Wild Horse Mountain Biking Trail System, made of five loops that allow riders to travel in often unvisited areas of the park. As you can clearly see in the video below, this intermediate trail is worth the drive if you are in the area (and it’s conveniently-located on the way from Capitol Reef to Fruita). Unfortunately, my opportunity to ride Wild Horse was thwarted by a series of spring storms as I was passing by, but I definitely plan to go back in the near future! Of note: there are no bike shops near either of these two places.

Zion National Park

Mark finds one of the many areas to play and roll on in Gooseberry Mesa.
Mark finds one of the many areas to play and roll on in Gooseberry Mesa.

From hiking the Narrows to canyoneering the challenging “Submarine,” Zion is more adventure-oriented than some of the other Mighty 5. That said, there are plenty of things to see and do for the family even if you don’t want to engage in risky backcountry endeavors. The entrance of Zion NP has a saturated small village of shops, hotels, and restaurants to keep your loved ones occupied while you sneak away to explore one of the southwest’s best trail systems: Gooseberry Mesa.

Gooseberry is a big system that will take you at least an hour each way to access from Zion, with roads that are literally impassable when wet. Some level of orienteering is required to negotiate the rocky playgrounds of intertwining trails. Plan on at least four hours of riding plus travel time… but it is worth the effort!

If you’re pinched for time but want a similar experience, an alternative is the Holy Guacamole. It’s much closer to Zion (in Virgin), is more intermediate, and has amazing views of the back side of the Zion Temples with some of the same rocky playgrounds found at Gooseberry. You could easily crank out most of its 13 miles in just a couple of hours… if you don’t get lost (follow the cairns!!).

A third option for traditional singletrack is the J.E.M./Gould loop, an IMBA epic trail between Hurricane and La Verkin. I opted to shuttle the now one-way-only J.E.M. section, which was a hoot and a half! One of the four Over The Edge bike shops is located in Hurricane if you are looking for repair or rentals.

The Mighty 5 are amazing National Parks to visit by yourself, with friends, or with family… even more so if you can bring your bike along and explore some of the surrounding trail systems!

Your Turn: Have you ridden these trails? What did you think? Do you have any other trail recommendations near the Mighty 5 national parks?