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Desert Mountain Biking: What to Know, Where to Go

Desert mountain biking is where towering buttes meet tantalizing rock bowls. Where sticky rubber grips dry sandstone and spiky cacti nip unprotected calves. Where exposed ledges spill into exposed everything. Where vertical rock rolls and vertiginous bluffs are the way of life. Where high-octane singletrack gives berth to enormous slabs of open spaces. Where slickrock is religion. Where burritos and cervezas are king. 

In short, there’s nothing quite like desert mountain biking. Here, we’re unpacking some of the key things you should know before hitting the sandy singletrack—plus a handful of North America’s best desert tracks.

What Makes Desert Riding Great

A landscape view of a desert canyon For starters, the scenery is as good as it gets. Photo by Perry Kibler(Se abre en una ventana nueva)

Desert mountain biking is truly a different animal. Equal parts breathtaking scenery and unforgiving elements, the desert is a place for outlaws and off-their-rocker adrenaline junkies. Here are a few reasons why it’s awesome.

Striking Scenery

The desert isn't just rock and sand. It’s snowy summits looming in the distance, carved-out canyons etched into the landscape like eons-old scars, and blood-red buttes and bluffs burning at sunset. 

Put simply, desert scenery is breathtaking. From Moab’s famous arches to Palm Desert’s equally famous Joshua trees, the variety of landscapes is something to behold. We’re talking vast expanses of red rock formations, high plateaus and mesas, winding rivers, and sun-baked terrain that stretches into mirage-melting horizons—all of this shaped by millions of years of geological activity. In terms of flora, there’s a mind-altering amalgamation of agave and ocotillo, cholla and saguaro, juniper and sagebrush, prickly pear and barrel cactus that reigns supreme. Other spindly, spiky, shrubby creations straight from the mind of Dr. Suess join in on the act as well. Coyotes and road runners and kangaroo rats flitter in and out of the picturesque picture.

To experience all of this from the saddle is something special indeed.

A Unique MTB Challenge

Perhaps the best part of desert riding is how different the riding itself is. Desert mountain biking isn’t like the other guys. It isn’t loamy singletrack or neon-choked green tunnel. It’s a chance for riders to test their skills (and mettle) in raw, rugged, arid terrain with endless networks of punchy uphills and technical descents. The carte-blanche landscape is a veritable playground for two-wheeled tourers, with trails snaking through labrynthine canyons, across mellow stretches of slickrock, and over steep inclines. In the desert, riders encounter a smorgasbord of terrain, from sandy washes to rocky ridges, with towering cliffs and chunky rock rolls providing the perfect canvas for riders to test their technical skills. The slickrock, with its undulating curves and textured surface, offers a thrilling ride that demands balance and control.

In short, desert mountain biking is a true adventure, demanding both physical and mental fortitude. For those willing to take on the challenge, the rewards are unmatched. Thrilling and awe-inspiring, the experience of riding through the desert is one that every mountain biker should have.

A Few Things to Know About Desert Mountain Biking

A group of bikes laying down on slickrock Desert riding is truly a different animal. Photo by Tim Foster(Se abre en una ventana nueva)

Here are a few tips to ensure a safe and enjoyable ride in desert terrain.

Be mindful of the altitude

Here’s the thing—most desert riding gets pretty elevated. Many of the best desert MTB towns are situated around 4,000 feet to begin with (looking at you Moab, Sedona, Fruita, and Grand Junction). And many more of their trails reach heights significantly higher, even into 10,000+ feet territory. 

What this means for mountain bikers is obvious: ascents are harder and exposure is amplified. If you’re coming from sea level, be prepared for thinner air and harsher sunshine. 

Heat stroke is real

Lava, boiling water, the desert in summer—in that order. Aka, mountain biking in the desert is HOT. Without any hint of hyperbole, attempting to ride mid-day in July could even be deadly. The sun can be blistering, and temperatures can soar to triple digits. Plan your ride for early morning or late afternoon when the sun is less intense, and the temperatures are lower. Better yet, if possible, plan your mountain biking trip to the desert in late fall, winter, or early spring instead of summer. And be sure to wear a lightweight long-sleeve shirt and always lather up your skin with the geekiest SPF you can find.

Bring more water than you think

You know what heat brings—dehydration. Combine heat with high altitude, severe aridity, and the physical expenditure of mountain biking, and you’re staring down the quadruple barrel of a perfect dehydration storm. And because the desert is so dry, you often don’t realize how much sweat you’re actually losing because it evaporates as soon as it exits your pores. Staying properly hydrated is essential for desert riding. One bottle of water in your cage mount simply isn’t going to cut it. You’ll want to bring at least 2.5-3L

Tubeless tires are the way to go

In an unforgiving place comes unforgiving obstacles. Sharp rocks, gnarly cacti, and loose gravel can puncture your tires like it’s their day job. Tubeless tires, meanwhile, mean fewer flats and no more pinch-punctures. Without tubes, you can also drop your tire pressure much lower, which massively improves grip levels and ride quality too. Just be sure to bring extra sealant and a tubeless repair kit.

Leave No Trace

As ever, remember to respect the desert environment. Stay on designated trails and avoid disturbing the fragile ecosystem. Carry out all your trash, including food wrappers and water bottles. Remember, we are guests in this environment, and we need to leave it as we found it. 

5 Desert Trails for Your MTB Bucket List

A group of people resting on a rock ledge, with mountain bikes laying around them Moab is the crown jewel concentration of world-class desert mountain biking. Photo by Anjuli Anjuli(Se abre en una ventana nueva)

When you think of desert mountain biking, chances are you’re picturing Moab. This Eastern Utah gem is the poster child for slickrock mountain biking, and may just hold the highest concentration of world-class desert trails in the world. Obviously, our list of must-hit trails features some of Moab’s finest. But we’ve tried to include a few farther-afield destinations as well.

The Whole Enchilada | UT

Located in Moab, the Whole Enchilada(Se abre en una ventana nueva) is also the MOAB (mother of all bucket list rides, that is). This 35-mile point-to-point trail (with shuttle) is downright legendary, featuring everything from technical descents to flowy singletrack, with incredible views of the La Sal Mountains and the Colorado River. MTB Project captures it best: “From black humus to red slickrock, singletrack to paved bike path: the Whole Enchilada covers every type of riding and scenery that Moab has to offer in one massive, magical, mind-blowing sensory overload.”

Slickrock Trail | UT

Moab’s Slickrock Trail(Se abre en una ventana nueva) is eponymous with slickrock and synonymous with a damn good time. This trail is one of the world’s most famous and offers a grand introduction to what desert riding is all about. Not too long in distance and featuring a glorious natural terrain park of sticky slickrock and smooth sandstone domes, the Slickrock Trail is a must-ride for any aspiring MTBer. Follow the white blazes and stay on the trail.

Phil’s World | CO

Hey Siri, how do you say “insanely fun” in mountain bike lingo? In Osprey’s very own backyard, Phil’s World(Se abre en una ventana nueva) features 27 miles of roller coaster singletrack in the high desert of Southwest Colorado. Fast and fun with more rolling terrain than Mario Kart’s Rainbow Road, this track is pure dopamine. The Rib Cage section of trail in particular is what mountain biking dreams are made of. In short, Phil’s World is world-class.

Hangover Loop | AZ

The Hangover Trail(Se abre en una ventana nueva) in Sedona is a white-knuckle, adrenaline-pumping ride that's not for the faint of heart. This 8-mile loop weaves along the slickrock ridges high above the red rock canyons below, offering heart-stopping views and challenges that keep even the most experienced riders on their toes. The trail's steep drops, tight switchbacks, and rock slabs require expert skills and nerves of steel, but the reward is worth it: the rush of conquering one of the most iconic trails in the Southwest. It's no wonder mountain bikers flock to Sedona to experience the Hangover Trail's pure, unbridled technical singletrack.

18 Road Trails | CO

The 18 Road Trails Area(Se abre en una ventana nueva) are the trails that put Fruita on the mountain biking map. Home to a mix of everything—from lung-busting climbs to long continuous descents, a playground of desert valley floors and sharp ridges—this network of trails is a conglomeration of controlled chaos, with some ridiculously fun (and delightfully named if we do say ourselves) trails to match: Zippety Do Dah, Chutes and Ladders, Down Uppity, and Western Zippity just to name a few. Bombing down smooth singletrack along the dragon-back ridge of the Book Cliffs is an experience worth riding home about.

Here’s to desert riding. May your trails be dusty and bright.