The Little Known History Of Moab’s Slickrock Trail

Where have all the skateboarders gone?

Moab is known around the world as a mountain biking mecca, and much of that fame can be attributed to the Slickrock Trail. Arguably one of the most famous mountain bike trails in the world, thousands of riders flock to Moab each year to ride Slickrock’s steep, smooth, and rounded rollercoasters of sandstone, as well as take in the amazing views along the way. Even though hundreds more miles of superb trail have been built in Moab over the last 15 years, some of which feature as much (or more) slickrock riding surfaces, this famous trail remains a mountain biking Shangri-La for many riders.

Despite its legendary status—or perhaps because of it—many readers may not know that long before the Slickrock Trail was discovered by mountain bikers, it had been busy putting Moab on the radar of many other sports, including skateboarding.

Slickrock Trail was originally created for motorcycles, specifically the then new breed of ultra-lightweight Honda 90 trail bikes. The first mention of the Slickrock Trail in Moab’s local weekly newspaper, The Moab Times-Independent, is a March 27, 1969, article titled “Proposed New Slickrock Trail Would Provide Thrills for Trail Bikers,” by Dick Wilson.

In the story, Wilson wrote that “the Slickrock Trail is a proposed route for trail-adapted motorcycles which provides access to a pure, unspoiled wilderness seldom visited presently, and even though it is within two to four miles from Moab, many of its features are not well known.” As part of his reporting, Wilson joined BLM managers for a ride on the proposed route as an exposé of sorts. The following day, there was another demo and hike that included the chairman of the Grand County Safety Council and Jerry Christian, who Wilson described in the article as “a trail-bike enthusiast from Greeley, CO.”

Early trail map | Photo: Times-Independent Archives

“The Slickrock Trail has been laid out tentatively on knobs of bald Navajo sandstone whose undulating slopes and rounded surfaces provide a great deal of sport to riders of light bikes,” Wilson continued. Again, he was referring to motorcycles, not mountain bikes, and at this point, it wasn’t even certain whether the Slickrock Trail would become a reality.

This first article was essentially a pitch. “If the BLM decides to establish the Slickrock Trail, it will provide visitors the opportunity of seeing a unique slice of terrain peculiar only to Southeastern Utah. The trail, which would be marked in some way, would be on rolling red rocks situated within sight of Arches National Monument, the Colorado River, the La Sal Mountains, and many other geological wonders.” It’s important to note that Moab was still in the throes of its uranium boom and tourism was a minor side note at the time of the article’s publication, so such a project was definitely not commonplace. The BLM approved the project and history proved Slickrock’s early visionaries correct in their assertion that the trail would be a destination-worthy attraction.

Slickrock Trail Completed

The first official sign marking Slickrock Trail | Photo: Times-Independent Archives

The June 5 issue of the Times-Independent featured an article titled “Slickrock Bike Trail Completed on Hills Northeast of Moab,” which stated that “five cyclists from Hill Air Force Base rode a portion of the trail over Memorial Day weekend.” One of the riders was noted as “a race enthusiast” who was seventh in overall Utah competition and whose specialties were in hill climbing and desert scrambling.

The trail was repainted at the end of the following season and in 1971, a trail bike rental operation, “C” It By Cycle Rentals, opened its doors in Moab. Apparently, the operation had trouble keeping up with demand, though. “There have been many requests about bike rentals in the past, especially with national publicity occurring about the Moab Slickrock Bike Trail,” Wilson reported. “One person last year, for example, flew to Moab for a ride on the bike trail but could find no bikes for rent.” (Note: Again, the story was still referring to motorcycles, not bicycles.)

Slickrock Trail’s First Fatality

Apprehensions about Slickrock Trail’s potential dangers existed since the trail’s inception due to its steep grades, exposure to the elements, and proximity to large cliffs. In the same issue of the Times-Independent, which introduced the proposed trail, a sidebar article detailed safety recommendations by the county that strongly recommended solo riding (one person to a machine), as well as discouraged people from making the trip alone, holding contests, and riding close to the edge of cliffs.

The first fatality on Slickrock Trail was reported in an article on May 26, 1975. “Two motorcyclists from Salt Lake City and Provo were reportedly riding the trail when one stopped near the edge of a cliff. He saw that his companion was accelerating and tried to wave to him to stop,” the article detailed, recounting the witness’s experience. The rider either failed to see or understand his partner’s signals and was unable to stop when he realized there was a cliff. He fell over 600 feet to his death where the story reported that “a person fishing on the river below heard the motorcycles and looked up as the incident occurred.”

Since that incident, the Slickrock Trail has been the scene of many an accident, though few as dramatic as that one. In fact, the Grand County Search and Rescue unit, the busiest unit in the entire state according to a 2014 article in The Moab Sun News, singled out the Slickrock Trail as being one of their biggest accident hot spots. (Riders are advised to take extra safety precautions when heading out on this trail.)

Skateboarders Discover Slickrock

Skateboarders on the Slickrock Trail | Photo: Times-Independent Archives

An article in 1978 notes that “Moab has already become a haven for backpacking, fishing, 4-wheeling, motorcycling, and rafting” (note the absence of any mention of cycling) and proclaims the next sport to find Moab “may well be skateboarding.” A group of local skateboarders–David Urbanek, Joe Arnold, Ricky Berry, and Charlie Gonzales–had started riding the Slickrock Trail a few years before, and were featured in The Wide World of Skateboarding. Afterward, the paper mentions that “skaters started calling,” especially from neighboring Grand Junction, CO.

Though, in this writer’s memory, having lived in Moab for 25 years, I have never once seen a skateboarder riding the stone waves on Slickrock. I did, however, once work a film shoot for Rollerblade, which featured three very brave and skilled rollerbladers riding new prototype off-road blades on the all natural half pipes and bowls of the Slickrock Trail. The film shoot was for an in-house promotional, to help introduce the new off-road product to the sales team. But for some reason, the skates were never produced and were never seen in Moab again.

It would be years before mountain bikers began riding Slickrock Trail, or Moab gained its first mountain bike store, Rim Cyclery, which opened in 1983. This was the year after Moab’s uranium processing plant closed, signally the end of an era and the beginning of a new one.

Soon after, Moab started making the news as the Mountain Bike Capital of the World, largely due to media coverage as the Slickrock Trail was adopted by its third principal sport, mountain biking.

This article was originally published on RimTours.com. Rim Tours offers guided, all-inclusive day tours of all the area’s many wonderful mountain bike trails, if you’re of a mind to try them out.

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