Tourists come to the Utah desert town of Moab to explore the sculptured red sandstone found in Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Mountain bikers come here to ride it.
Moab's reputation as the mountain biking capital of the world is well earned. As one of the sport's pioneering destinations, and with more than 350 kilometres of singletracks built and maintained with local council help, no place on Earth comes close to matching it.
I've come to Moab as part of a month-long family road trip around the American south-west, where we've arranged a full day's mountain biking with one of the area's oldest guiding services, Rim Tours. After meeting our guide, Julie Cornelius, outside Moab's Chile Pepper Bike Shop early one spring morning, I pile into her van with my wife and son and travel north out of town to the Bar M trail area, opposite the Little Canyon escarpment rim.
Bar M is one of 14 distinct trail regions scattered around Moab, where early adopters of the sport rode over gravel tracks that accessed since-closed uranium mines. The trails around Bar M make easy introductory rides that are perfect for families and beginners while also allowing us to familiarise ourselves with the surface.
The signature trail here – the one that put Moab on the map as a mountain biking destination – is Slickrock, just north of town. Julie describes it as "very technical, and physically demanding".
"But there are better trails than Slickrock," she muses. "I think there are others that are more fun."
The word "fun" peppers Julie's sentences. But what is fun when it comes to mountain biking? To some, it's fast, flowy, thrill-a-second downhills. Others prefer challenging uphill climbs, or navigating paths through tricky rock gardens. Many like to combine the various disciplines.
My son, Finn, definitely belongs to the first group, as do I. So when Julie says we're going to try some quicker trails, he reacts with a subtle fist pump. "Yes!" he hisses, just audible enough for us to hear.
After lunch, we travel a little further up the road to the Klonzo bike trails, where the Willow Spring Road that served as the original entry point into the Arches National Park divides the mountain biking area into north and south sectors. With Julie leading the way, we start by climbing an intermediate-level trail called Borderline, where the views extend across a desert plateau towards the snowy La Sal Mountains.
As someone once said, every great descent starts with a soul-sucking climb, and by the time we've pedalled 150 vertical metres through Moab's oxygen-stealing altitude, all of us are sweating hard and sucking in air by the lungful.
But as they also say, what goes up must come down, whereupon we tear down a series of intertwined trails that, combined, stretch for more than five kilometres. Finn sticks to Julie's rear wheel, with my wife Michelle close behind. As I've done all day, I hang back until the track is clear in front of me. With no one slowing me down, I can then ride as fast as I like.
Until I go flying over the handlebars.
I'm left bloodied and bruised, and chastened to learn that I'm not as skilled as I'd imagined. Slickrock might have to wait until another time.
Mark Daffey visited Moab courtesy of Cruise America and the Moab Area Travel Council.
SkyWest/United Airlines flies daily between Moab's Canyonlands Field Airport and Denver, where international connections depart regularly.
Moab has numerous RV-suitable campgrounds. Cruise America's campers and motorhomes sleep two to seven people and cost upwards of $45 a day, low season. See cruiseamerica.com
Rim Tours' half-day mountain biking tours start from $120 a person, depending on numbers. See rimtours.com