The rise of mountain biking has been a summer recreation bonanza throughout the West. Now it’s time for the fall.
The season, of course.
Autumn is to mountain biking what spring is to skiing. The tail end of a recreational season is choice, partly because most of the crowd is burned out and looking for another diversion.
Autumn mountain bikers know the best trails have been cleared of the winter blowdowns, washouts and other obstacles that plagued riders during spring.
The summer heat has subsided and fall colors are offering visual rewards for a pedaler’s effort.
And the trail congestion is gone, in most places anyway.
Moab, Utah, is a notable exception. Fall was discovered there years ago, partly because the slickrock trails get hot enough to melt the knobbies off your Cannondale during August.
The Canyonlands Fat-Tire Festival was a small gathering of gnarly-looking characters a decade ago. But hundreds of riders running the spectrum of style and fitness are expected to pack into the tiny southwest Utah berg for this year’s event, Oct. 14-18.
Beyond such anomalies, autumn is still waiting to be discovered by mountain bikers.
The closest thing to a crowd in the Inland Northwest might be the 600 or so riders congregated at the Methow Valley Mountain Bike Festival, which is winding up today near Winthrop, Wash.
“This is our 11th annual festival, and we’re starting to reach capacity for some of the events,” said Jay Lucas, spokesman for the Methow Valley Sports Trails Association.
The festival combines racing and guided recreational rides complete with organized vehicle shuttles, a salmon feed and a spectator-pleasing bike rodeo.
“We’re a world-class cross-country skiing destination,” Lucas said. “But the bottom line is that more people ride bikes than ski.”
The infrastructure for making the Methow a destination biking hotspot is mostly in place, he said.
“Most of our ski trails are great bike trails. We can ski for 12 weekends a season. Much of the rest of the year is open for mountain biking.
“Right now, the cottonwoods are starting to turn yellow in the valley and the mountain hillsides are showing red. It’s really gorgeous, and really quiet.”
Fall is begging to be discovered in so many places.
Mount Spokane State Park is virtually deserted this time of year. Lookout Pass Ski Area on the Idaho-Montana border is surprisingly lonesome, even though the larch are turning golden yellow, a few huckleberries are still clinging to the bushes and a network of abandoned railway roadbeds provides a unique mountain biking opportunity.
“We’ve tried some poker rides and other non-competitive events, but they don’t attract enough riders to make it worthwhile - yet,” said Dean Cooper, spokesman for the ski area.
The key, he said, will be the opening of the St. Paul Pass Tunnel, a dark, two-mile passage through a mountainside on the abandoned Milwaukee Road.
“There’s a chance the funding will go through and we can get that open for riding next year,” Cooper said, noting that the tunnel is already getting national publicity in mountain-biking circles.
The opening of the tunnel, also known as the Taft Tunnel, will clear the way to more bike routes, seven more tunnels and seven trestles, all waiting for mountain bikers, Cooper said.
“That will open the the road for bike festivals, too,” he added.
The golden age of mountain biking has already arrived at some choice locations.
Brian Head, Utah, for instance, currently is ablaze in fall color, blessed with a sprawling network of single track trails and still is virtually undiscovered.
Only about 40 riders found their way to this tiny ski village near Bryce Canyon National Park for the annual Fall Colors Fat-Tire Festival last week.
“I’d travel across the country just to see this,” said one fiftysomething rider as he stared upward at the aspen leaves raining down onto the trail from a deep blue sky.
“This festival doesn’t have the big, wild packs you find at Moab,” said Kurt Little, a biker from Salt Lake City. “The trails are the best; it’s cooler up here; the trees are beautiful. You’re just as likely to see a deer or elk on the trail as another biker.”
Brian Head, at elevation 9,700 feet, is the highest incorporated town in Utah. With a year-round population of 119, the resort town supports three bike shops - possibly the highest per capita of any town in America.
Unlike Idaho’s Lookout Pass, Brian Head isn’t waiting for government funding to get the trail system in order.
The trails are there. Some routes lead past the stunning red-rock canyon scenery of Cedar Breaks National Monument. Other trails lead to the ancient bristlecone pines of the Twisted Forest.
The restaurants are operating, and the shuttles and other services bikers want are in place. Yet the dreamers here know the potential has barely been tapped.
That’s why new investors are bringing an infusion of cash. The Cedar Breaks Lodge, for instance, is undergoing $5.5 million in renovations to a resort that’s in the middle of nowhere - a four-hour drive from Salt Lake City and three hours from Las Vegas.
“Isolation is part of the attraction,” said Clark Krause, spokesman for Brian Head Resort. And it doesn’t hurt that a nice condo that sleeps six still goes for $70 a night.
Brian Head is the epicenter for 120 miles of single-track trails that branch into the Dixie National Forest.
Many of the trails were spontaneously created long before mountain bikes were invented. The main routes were carved by sheep herds in a landscape that’s still home to flocks of the woolly creatures.
But refinements to the trail system were no accident.
“The Forest Service employees here ride mountain bikes,” Krause said. “They know what makes a good biking trail.
“We may not be making any money off mountain bikers right now, but at the least, it’s a good way to keep the name of the ski resort in circulation during the off season,” he added.
Word is getting out, though.
While the banners for the fat-tire festival were coming down, two adult biking groups, complete with support vans, were trickling into Brian Head.
“This is one of the perks of being a senior citizen,” said a California woman getting ready to pedal with her group on the mostly downhill ride from Brian Head to Bryce National Park. “Look at the fabulous fall scenery, and there’s no kids getting in way of the view.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Biking info For information about mountain biking in Utah, contact Bicycle Utah, P.O. Box 738, Park City, UT 84060, telephone (801) 649-5806, or check the Internet at www.bicycleutah.com/ Information about Methow Valley mountain biking is available from the Okanogan National Forest, Methow Valley Ranger District, Winthrop, WA 98862, telephone (509) 997-2131. Ask for the pamphlet featuring 14 of best mountain bike rides in the valley. Cost: $2.95. Daily recorded trail updates are available from the Methow Sport Trails Association hotline, telephone (800) 682-5787. Information about mountain biking on abandoned railroads and trails near Lookout Pass is available from Post Falls-Lookout Pass Bike and Ski in Post Falls, (208) 777-7701.