Flat Pass. The name itself is an oxymoron. I live in Colorado and spend a great deal of time going over passes, and they are anything but flat. Since a “pass” is a notch between mountain peaks, the odds of a pass being flat are pretty slim. I suspect the very name is but the first of a number of problems this route faces vis-à-vis its more popular neighbors around Moab. The next is the composition of the route itself. To ride it as a loop requires nine miles of road, causing the ride to lose some of its luster. Either that, or it requires a significant shuttle and this particular shuttle, unlike the Porcupine Rim or Magnificent Seven, isn’t on the list of regulars provided by Moab’s various outfitters. Third, Flat Pass involves some route finding and lastly, even on the correct route, you’re going to encounter some tough sand and some major creek crossings. Yep—big water in Moab!
By this time, hopefully I’ve scared most of you off as I kind of like having this amazingly well-kept secret more-or-less to myself. If you’re still reading and intrigued, have I got a tip for you! Despite the difficulties, Flat Pass provides as much fun along its length as its more famous Moab cousins, and does so with a miniscule fraction of the traffic. Like the traditional Porcupine Rim and Amasa Back, Flat Pass was also originally a jeep route, and is still known to jeepers as “Steelbender.” Whether you call it Steelbender or Flat Pass, it remains a spectacular ride on a number of levels, even by Moab standards. It has a stiff, ledgy climb, plenty of technical goodies up top including some great huckortunities, and a screaming descent… all the while bombarding the rider with a fantastic variety of Moab scenery.
As one departs Highway 191 and heads east toward the rocks, it becomes increasingly apparent that this is at least going to be a special location. After bypassing the paved turn to Ken’s Lake and continuing on the dirt road, the rocks get ever closer and the road suddenly pitches up quite sharply. At this point, I was quite pleased to be shuttling rather than riding. Starting from the southern trailhead, there is a quick drop into the valley on the other side of the ridge and a sharp right turn, which runs directly below a wall displaying ancient petroglyphs. We had some difficulty finding these alleged petroglyphs, though, since the wall had been covered with much more modern glyphs (aka graffiti). Shame.
After studying the wall, we continued on our way and made the first major creek crossing. It was 10:30 am on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and the ambient temperature was a brisk 39 degrees Fahrenheit. We pressed on through three more creek crossings, each deeper than the last, and ended up bushwhacking for a good mile before we admitted we had missed a turn. After bushwhacking out and recrossing the icy waters (yes, there was actual ice formed at each crossing), we made our way back to the petroglyph wall and saw where we should have made our first crossing: just before the petroglyphs, not two miles after!
Once on track, however, the day became one of my all-time favorites. After a sharp, but short, climb, you reach the first of many level areas. One could happily spend the better part of a day just playing on the rocks right here. Then the climbing continues. The first four miles climb about a thousand vertical feet, mostly riding up awesome rock and stepping up innumerable ledges. This is a great place to get an excellent workout, but it’s so much fun, it doesn’t really feel like work. Since this is a jeep route of adequate width for the big four wheelers, the cyclist can choose from a variety of lines throughout much of its length, which adds significantly to the fun factor. While the first four miles does show a large uphill differential in vertical, there are lots of drops and rolls along the way as well, especially as you get closer to the top.
The scenery down low is jaw-dropping as the rocks seem to cradle you and show one great angle after another. As you near the higher points on the route, the scenery changes, but remains dramatic as your vistas become much broader, and you can see the entire Hanging Valley in between rock ridges on the far side of town across Highway 191.
After all that up, up, up followed by all that up and down and up, comes the down, down, down part. Actually, there are plenty of level spots and minor ups between the plummets, but the plummets are so fast and furious that you can generally salvage enough momentum to keep flowing up the ups. Many times it’s butt behind the seat, feather the brakes only as much as you have to, and let gravity carry you as fast as your skills and your bike will let you dare. The fun factor on this stretch is nearly indescribable! In spite of knowing I was going to kill flow, at one point partway down, I beckoned to Miniskibum to hold up so I could get a picture. As I caught him, I saw nothing but an ear to ear grin from which emerged the words, “this is an all-time top five trail!” High praise coming from a veteran of Fruita, Sedona, Moab, Hurricane/St. George, Salida, Breckenridge and many more. While I might not rank it quite that high, I had to agree this was clearly an elite trail and I was amazed at its lack of apparent popularity and its, up until that time, absence from the Singletracks database.
At one point, the route pitches down sharply and banks hard right into a sort of natural half pipe. This is a wonderfully unique feature which rounds out this very unique ride perfectly.
Once the rollicking good fun comes to an end, there remain three creek crossings, but all rideable and no doubt very welcome in Moab’s warmer months. Between and beyond these crossings lie some of Moab’s infamous sand, but again it’s all rideable and nowhere enough of a buzzkill to wipe the silly grins off our faces.
The now dirt road shortly runs into a T where a left turn provides a way out, delivering the rider to the last obstacle: a steep, rutted hill necessary to climb back out of the valley and over the ridge to the northern trailhead. Even that last kick in the gut can’t diminish the overall fun of this ride.
If you’re making your umpteenth trip to Moab and want to have a truly classic Moab experience, but keep it all to yourself, (not so) Flat Pass should be right at the top of your list. While Moab keeps adding new routes, this lesser-known oldie remains one of its best goodies.