High-altitude riding adventure

Summer fun beckons sprocketheads in southwestern Utah's color country.

Note: The following is an updated version of a story I wrote several years ago for Utah Outdoors magazine. It's mountain biking season, and I've been thinking about returning to Brian Head for another go at it.

Brian Head


BRIAN HEAD tops out at 11,307 feet. Not really a peak in the classic sense, the mountain might better be described as a large knob sitting atop the Markagunt Plateau. Nonetheless, the view from the top is impressive. To the south and down from the summit, forest-clad mountain slopes wrap around the red cliffs of Cedar Breaks like the rind of a watermelon. Several thousand feet farther below, at the base of the mountains, lie the sun-bleached floors of southwestern Utah's desert valleys. Not that it really matters. however. We came up here to mountain bike, not sightsee.

As we remove our bikes from the shuttle van, the driver, Chris, goes over the route we'll take. He has doubtlessly explained the ins and outs of this route hundreds of times to other apprehensive bikers. The instructions are important; a wrong turn on these backcountry trails would mean trouble. More than one biker has gotten lost and ended up dozens of miles off course, on the opposite side of the mountain from the intended destination.

Stone building at top of Brian Head Peak

The original opening page from my Utah Outdoors magazine story

Our plan is to follow the Bunker Creek Trail down to Panguitch Lake, 12 miles below. The Brian Head area offers more than 100 miles of prime single-track mountain biking trails, and it seems that most of these incredible trails start near the summit of Brian Head Peak. You might have already guessed that the trails generally head downhill. Not the white-knuckle variety of bone-jarring steep, just persistently downhill until the end of the trail.

We cinch up our helmets and brush the dust from our bikes as we watch Chris drive away in the van that brought us here. We'll catch the shuttle for the return trip to Brian Head two hours later at the bottom of the trail near Panguitch Lake. Brian Head Resort runs regular bike shuttles throughout the day to both ends of most trails.

The first part of the trail is one of the few uphill sections — several hundred feet of huffing and puffing. This minor climb serves as a humbling reminder of the elevation; heights of over 10,000 feet are notorious for sucking the strength from even well-trained athletes. It doesn't matter how hard you breathe, the fact is that at these altitudes most of the planet's air lies below, and the heavy exertion leaves you scrambling for oxygen.

Much of the trail is exposed and above the tree line — not a wise place to linger in a thunderstorm. Traversing rolling alpine meadows and skirting ridgelines, this easygoing stretch of single-track provides panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and canyons. As we race down the trail, fat marmots scamper for cover in large piles of boulders. Eagles can sometimes be seen soaring on the thermal updrafts adjacent to the ridges and canyons below us. Life doesn't get any better than this; the trail is incredible, the scenery even more so, and the air so clear that we can see forever.

Stone building at top of Brian Head Peak

A smooth section of the Bunker Creek Trail

After a few short miles, the trail begins its descent into the heavily forested right fork of Bunker Creek. Unfortunately, the trees in the Brian Head area have seen better days. An infestation of bark beetles has killed the majority of the spruces. Logging operations are clearing much of the dead timber from the area, and creating something of a mess in the process. Several bike trails are blocked by felled trees or are off-limits altogether — officially closed to permit logging. The dead trees are a sorry sight, but it's part of the natural process that happens every several hundred years. Anyway, most bikers can largely overlook the logging operations; there are plenty of open trails in the area — including this one.

Descending rapidly through dense forests of fir, pine and (mostly dead) spruce, the trail steepens considerably. Officially rated as intermediate, portions of this section are steep and rocky. The rocks are more like small boulders, mostly buried at odd intervals into the trail. These are the kind of rocks that can bounce a mountain bike and its rider right off the trail and into the brush. Playing macho and riding without a helmet is not recommended — the rocks are considerably harder than most bikers' heads.

Ken Jenson, bike mechanic at the rental shop, recounted a story of finding an injured college student on this trail. It seems his bare skull took and brunt of a head-first encounter with a good-sized rock. Imagine tossing a ripe cantaloupe into the air and observing its impact with a sharp boulder; this is about how well an unhelmeted head fares in a similar situation.

Several miles later, the single-track connects up with a seldom-used 4-wheel-drive road for the remainder of the journey. This stretch of double-track continues down through drier juniper-covered hills until it reaches the paved highway just above Panguitch Lake. This is a part of the trail where a rider can really pour on the speed; it's mostly downhill but with enough bumps and small hills to make the ride interesting.

At the highway, we meet a biker from California waiting for a ride. This is his second trip down the Bunker Creek Trail — the first, earlier in the day. It seems that he enjoyed the first trip down so much that he had his wife haul him back to the top for a second descent. The Brian Head area is gaining a well-deserved reputation for world-class mountain biking. A number of national magazines have rated the trails in this area as among the best high-mountain trails in the country.

View from trail

Don't get so caught up in riding your bike that you neglect to enjoy the amazing views.

Relaxing in the bike shuttle van on the return trip up the highway. Ken Jenson mentions bikers who ride the Bunker Creek Trail the other direction — going uphill. These ultra-beefy bikers, with upper legs as thick as tree trucks and lung capacities equaling Atlantic hurricanes, actually tackle this uphill gut-buster after first swimming across Panguitch Lake. It strikes me as, well, crazy, but this trail is apparently part of a triathlon for the genetically enhanced.

Feeling lucky that I missed this event, and long-resigned to mere moral status. I'm perfectly content to cheat a little as the bike shuttle hauls us back to the top.

Stone building at top of Brian Head Peak

Stone building on top of Brian Head Peak.

OTHER TRAILS: Many single- and double-track trails in this extensive network are generally well maintained and a real kick in the pants to ride.

Names are frequently a good reflection of the personality of a trail, and the Brian Head trails are no exception. Blow Hard, for example, is a steep, molar-cracking technical descent around the red rock perimeters of Cedar Breaks National Monument, while the Town Trail is an easy but interesting 5-mile warm-up loop around the outskirts of Brian Head.

Other trails cut through heavily forested sections of up-and-down terrain. The Scout Camp loop, for instance, is a great trail if you're after a good workout — heart-pumping uphill sections, lots of rocks to make the trail interesting and plenty of downhills to catch your breath. If your tastes run toward steep descents, you might try Brian Head Resort. Here, you and your bike can catch a ski lift to the top of the mountain, where, assuming you can hold on, you might enjoy an intense ride down the ski slopes.

Although the area attracts hundreds of bikers during prime summer weekends, the dozens of miles of backcountry trails offer plenty of room to spread out and find high-country solitude. Adam Rue, of the Brian Head Chamber of Commerce, says that summer activities actually rival the more traditional snow-centered sports in popularity. This suits the local businesses just fine, but it also means that you might want to make advance lodging and bike rental reservations — especially during some of the busier summer weekends.

Brian Head is a welcome destination during mid- and late summer when Utah's slickrock biking temperatures start pushing the century mark.


As usual, the web is an ideal place to get information. Several excellent sites provide event calendars, trail maps and general information. The Brian Head Chamber of Commerce maintains a great site (VisitBrianHead.org) full of ideas and details on making your trip to Brian Head more enjoyable. Other great locations include Brian Head Resort's website at BrianHead.com and BrianHeadTown.utah.gov.

Information on current trail conditions is available from the knowledgeable staff at Brian Head Resort. In addition to great advice and biking gear, they offer a good rental selection of expertly maintained, current-year Kona mountain bikes.

Cory Maylett

Cory Maylett

I'm a proponent of developing practical solutions to communication problems through good design. My career has included newspapers, magazines, books, websites, corporate branding and typefaces.