As this trail is a popular undertaking within a popular national park, you’ll need to secure a permit, plan logistics and arrange campsites well in advance (see below). The Canyonlands mountain biking trail is also known to beat up bikes (and hey, over the course of a hundred miles and many hours, something is bound to break), so you’ll want to carry a solid toolkit, with additional supplies in the support vehicle for those times that something truly goes haywire. Temperatures vary wildly between night and day, so your sunrise puffy jacket will quickly give way to a mesh cycling jersey mid-morning.
Your reward for this level of preparation and effort? A multiday odyssey through some of the most gorgeous terrain imaginable as you loop around the Island in the Sky mesa top within Canyonlands. It’s a tour you’ll definitely want to take plenty of pictures of along the way, and they will surely make your friends at home jealous. You’ll pass countless stop-offs and scenic overlooks, admiring both the Colorado River and the Green River far below you at various points.
The Canyonlands park is part of a delicate desert ecosystem, where part of this wildlife includes the living cryptobiotic crust that weaves together soil particles with handy erosion-fighting microbes. This means you should stay on the main road or bike-approved side trails — off-roading is not allowed. Trust us, there’s no shortage of photo opportunities or stuff to see and do along the way, so there’s no need to be a rock-hopping hero.
Most physically fit bikers can handle this ride in three or four days. A three-day trip will give you one major climb each day, which is plenty. Some insanely fit endurance riders choose to make the loop in a single, yet very long day.
As part of your homework, carefully review the detailed local guidebooks and feel free to consult the national park staff with questions about where to camp and how to handle logistics. Everything about this ride, both before and during, is a lot of work. But you’ll never forget the feeling of having completed it.
Plan Your Ride
Do your homework to plan mileage and reserve camp spots in advance (you will need a backcountry camping permit), and be sure to work your fitness endurance up to it. Most intermediate to advanced mountain biking riders tackle the loop clockwise because it puts the sandy slopes on the downhill sections.
The best time of year to hit the Canyonlands mountain biking trail is spring or fall when the weather is more moderate. Summer can be very hot on the ride. The Island in the Sky Visitor Center is closed in the winter, from December 31-early March, but the park is open daily year-round. Check the NPS website for current fee rates.
It’s best to ride this route on a bike you’re comfortable and familiar with, but if you need a rental mtb, there are several bike shops in Moab that can assist you.
Coming from I-70, take the Moab exit onto US-191. In about 20 miles, turn right onto Utah State Route 313, the highway towards Canyonlands National Park. Pay the entrance fee and continue to the Island in the Sky Visitor’s Center, where you will register. Backtrack to Rt. 313 and you will find a parking lot at the top of the Horsethief Trail.
GPS Coordinates: 38.583944, -109.813020