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A Ski Holiday To Colorado and Touring In Utah, March 2001 Part 2

By John and Trudy Lymer

Colorado and Utah are ideal for sightseeing and other activities after skiing in either state. Even allowing for half term, March is a fairly quiet time for this, so that's an added bonus.

Speed limits on the American "inter-states" are mostly 75 mph, but vary from state to state and with the standard of road/terrain. Light traffic, wide straight roads and cruise control makes the driving quite relaxing by UK standards. The 370 miles return leg of our journey from Moab in South East Utah back to Denver took about 6 hours, plus stops, despite running into some snow as we passed through Vail. On the outward leg, from Steamboat Springs to Moab we stopped at Grand Junction, Western Colorado for lunch, followed by a drive along the "scenic by-way" running over the Colorado National Monument. This is a large flat-topped mountain with plenty of red rock cliffs, canyons and other spectacular features. Nearby, is the Grand Mesa, the largest flat-topped mountain in the world, with over 200 lakes on it - no time on this trip for that, but perhaps next time?

A small ski resort called Powderhorn is on the North face of the more than 2000-foot high mesa, so that may be worth a day's skiing another time too. Walking on the Grand Mesa or Monument Mesa would be very nice if you set the time aside. There are also various dinosaur museums and fossil sites (some of the biggest fossils in the world) in Western Colorado and North East Utah, so if you're minded to ski in Utah after the dust settles from the 2002 Winter Olympics, these might be worth a visit. Salt Lake City would be at least as good a destination airport for some touring as Denver.

Moab lies 4 miles South of the Arches National Park, which contains dozens of natural red-rock sandstone arches, most of them named. You can drive through the park and stop in various places to walk the half mile, 1 mile or more to as many arches as you wish. Along the way are cacti growing in pockets of sand, features like "balanced rock" - a boulder standing on a column of rock some 50 feet or more high, the rock fins of the "fiery furnace", petrifed sand dunes and much more. The snow covered La Sal Mountains stand in the background, as a contrast to the warm glow of the red rock when the sun is out.

On the other side of the town lies "the world-famous Slickrock Trail" (well I know some people that have heard of it!), a mountain bike ride which I had read about in a UK magazine some years ago and been wanting to do for a while. It's 4 to 5 hours of cycling on rock, some of it quite steep and all of it living up to expectations.

Moab is a veritable cycling mecca and has many evocative route names, like "Poison Spider Mesa. Rides at home like the Oldham Way, don't quite conjure up the same image. The town's 5 shops each seem to hire out up to 40 bikes daily and every other car in the town has bikes on the back. Most rides are along "4-wheel drive tracks" in the desert and the need to take plenty of water is always emphasised. Route guidebooks are plentiful and the aerobic capacity for almost all rides seems to be "strenuous", or "moderately strenuous"; serious stuff then.

I'd looked forward to the Slickrock Trail for many months. There was something about being on a bike several thousand miles from home, in a desert, on rock and with stunning scenery - it was just so unlike anything I would get the chance to do nearer to home. Months ago it had seemed even more unreal looking at details of the ride on the internet, and photographs too and all from the other side of the Atlantic.

I hired a mountain bike with suspension front and rear for $32 for the day. It retails for $950, but I'm sure it would cost more in the UK. The day I chose to do the Slickrock Trail it was 64F, a mixture of sun and cloud and there was a strong wind. I drank 1.5 litres of water and can hardly imagine cycling in that environment in mid-Summer, with no shade to be had at all. The start point of the ride is 3 miles from the town centre where I hired my bike, but what I hadn't realised was that there was a climb of 800 to 1,000 feet in between. Good for a warm up. The Trail is 10.5 to 12.7 miles long, depending on who you quote and lies at about 5,000 feet above sea level. It took me 4 hours, plus nearly an hour to reach the official start and another 1/2 hour to descend back to the town.

Imagine mile after mile of moguls ...... now think of them 30 to 50 feet high and made of rock. That is the Slickrock Trail! The whole area is formed from petrified sand dunes. Maybe for this reason, it's quite dis-orientating. The 4 hours on the main trail is spent all on rock, with the route marked by a dotted white paint mark. You can see for miles, but you can't tell where the route runs. I often found myself wondering how far I'd cycled and how far remained. Gradients of the humps vary between 1 in 1 and about 1 in 4.

My hire bike had 21 gears, but I only needed the bottom 3 for the main 4 hour ride and mostly just the lowest gear - up, down, up, down, up, up! I've certainly never been on a bike ride like it. Physically tough it certainly is (even after 9 days skiing at much higher altitudes) and a sign at the start warns of past injuries "unfortunately some of them have been serious". You quickly realise that a broken leg would require several people to carry you several miles, or a lift from a helicopter. Best avoid that then.

I actually had 2 falls during the ride, despite a fairly cautious approach. The worst was when I had a sudden attack of bravery and decided to cycle down one particularly steep descent, standing up and "hanging off" the back of the bike. I'd noticed a couple of 4" high "knobbles" on the rock near the bottom and was intent on avoiding them. Alas, I can only concentrate on one thing at a time and forgot that my American bike had the brakes connected "the wrong way round". At the vital moment, I locked the front wheel instead of the back and dismounted slowly forwards over the handlebars, at the feet of several people cycling in the opposite direction and waiting to begin the climb. Fortunately, just a cut knee and not too embarrassing - it was a steep descent after all.

The ride offers fantastic views of deep river canyons, ridges, outcrops of red rock, slickrock humps everywhere and occasional small pockets of sand with cacti growing in them. I found it exhilarating, tough, a bit scary in parts, but well worth doing. Anyway, been there, done that and, to complete the cliché, so satisfied was I, I even bought the T-shirt!