Going Down?

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside Magazine, September 1999

Going Down?
Brian Head's 6,000-foot vertical red-rock relief should do the trick

You can be forgiven for snubbing Brian Head during ski season. For while tiny Brian Head Resort does amass a whopping 450-inch annual average of powder-dry snow (it's perched advantageously at the edge of southwestern Utah's Markagunt Plateau), and, for Californians, is the closest Utah ski option (seven hours' drive from L.A.), the slopes are only minimally challenging. However, if it's peaceful autumn hiking and adrenalinized knobby-tire descents you're seeking—and if you've whizzed by Brian Head en route to Moab or Zion—the time has come for you to admit the error of your ways.

After all, runs that aren't steep by ski standards are positively vertical by mountain-biking measures. And, as the region's fat-tire set started discovering during the sport's big boom a few years back, the Markagunt's rolling meadows, red-rock canyons, and immense vertical relief—6,000 feet in 20 miles—make Brian Head an epic alternative to the hallowed rock of Moab. With fewer than 150 year-round residents, the town itself (Utah's highest, at 9,600 feet) projects an unpretentious, seventies-era antichic, a refreshing change if you find Moab's miner-cum-yuppie ambience a bit rich. And while nearby Zion has a six-story cinema, and neighbor Bryce Canyon National Park often resembles an RV demolition derby, second-fiddle Brian Head has kept its priorities straight: Bike shops outnumber cappuccino dens six to one, and the most exotic food you'll find is a basil-chicken pizza.

But it's the riding that's tastiest, especially on the Left Fork of Bunker Creek, one of the local crown-jewel singletracks. Dropping 3,000 feet in 12 miles, the bomb chute starts at Brian Head Peak's 11,307-foot summit, then shimmies and shakes through three ecological zones—alpine, subalpine, and montane—that play host to 150 species of wildflowers. Hugging a gully formed by Bunker Creek, the trail is a roller coaster of berms, rock drops, and high-speed luges through aspen groves. Like most Brian Head rides, Bunker Creek is about 90 percent downhill, and you typically get to the top by catching a shuttle to the trailhead, or riding a chairlift most of the way there. (You'll drop any moral qualms about motorized assistance when you experience the heart-pounding workout involved in simply descending in the thin air.)

If you want to see the scenery at a slower pace—that is, if you actually want to see scenery as opposed to blasting through it—try hiking into 6,154-acre Cedar Breaks National Monument, a few miles south of town. A natural amphitheater three miles across and 2,500 feet deep, the Breaks are Bryce's twin, only smaller. Massive spines of limestone stair-step westward into the Ashdown Creek watershed, with soaring buttresses, giant fins, and hoodoos shaded red, white, and purple by manganese. No official trails descend into the Breaks, but there are two hikers-only rim trails with stunning vistas: four-mile Spectra Points and two-mile Alpine Pond Nature Trail. Nine-mile Rattlesnake Creek Trail skirts the rim, then plummets 2,500 feet to Ashdown Creek and another thousand feet while crossing the Ashdown Gorge Wilderness.

Come December, by all means maintain your loyalties to Alta and its Wasatch-Range brethren. But during dirt season, you no longer have any excuses for speeding past humble Brian Head. —STEVE CASIMIRO

Living the Life of Brian
Through the end of September, the forest-encircled, rusticCedar Breaks Lodge (888-282-3327) offers an exceedingly reasonable package: $45 per person per day for lodging, breakfast, and shuttle. Brian Head eateries specialize in distinctly non-nouvelle fare: pizza, subs, and meat and taters. Locals favor the Bump & Grind (435-677-3111) or, for fancier eats, Cedar Breaks Lodge. Arrange bike logistics through Brian Head Resort ($12 per shuttle, $30 per day to rent a full-suspension Cannondale; 435-677-3101). Finally, for beta on climbing the area's routes—5.7 to 5.13, bolted or traditional—call Dan Mullins at Cedar Mountain Sports (435-586-4949).

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