Whether backed by Moab’s sandstone towers or the slanting red cliffs of Las Vegas’ Red Rock Canyon, desert trails all over the southwest offer distinctive character, challenge, and charm. In our More Trail Landscapes series, we’re highlighting what makes the terrain of a few distinctive environments so unique. In our first installment, we tapped SoCal rider turned Vegas local and PI Crew Member Randy Barcena to share with us what to expect from desert riding.
What to Expect?
“It’s raw,” Randy says of the trail riding in the Vegas area, where he’s called home for the past eight years. Compared to the distinctive slickrock of Moab, Randy points to Vegas terrain as having a bit more bite—sandy sections over hardpack, sharp rocks in the form of broken down limestone, and of course plenty of prickly things that reside in the Mojave Desert along trails, like the easily recognizable Joshua Tree and cholla cactus. Randy also cautions riders to keep an eye out for rattlesnakes in the warmer months, while other commonly-spotted wildlife include tortoises (protected, so give them their space), scorpions, roadrunners, and jackrabbits.
But whether you’re riding around Sin City, Moab, northern New Mexico or another arid southwestern locale, desert riding shares a couple defining characteristics that you should factor into any ride:
1) Don’t underestimate the sun. Although he’s now well acclimated, when he first moved to Vegas, Randy routinely rode with a hydration pack and sometimes additional sun protection in the form of sun sleeves upon first moving to the area.
2) “Prepare for the Worst” Randy cautions when setting up your bike and gear for desert riding. Riding an aggressively lugged tire can help provide more traction on loose, sandy corners, and a double-ply casing can be a good insurance policy against the dreaded sidewall slash when riding through chunky rock gardens, or close to thorny vegetation.
When is the Best Time to Ride in the Desert?
Randy points to Spring and Fall as being the best times to visit Vegas specifically, but allows that a motivated rider can enjoy the trails there year round. To beat the sun’s relentless rays, Randy suggests to “start before 6am and be done by 9am” in the summertime, or wait until dusk, and that winter can be okay too in the middle of the day, so long as the trails are relatively free of snow. Sitting at low elevation, Las Vegas (2,100’) typically comes into season the earliest among popular desert destinations, while higher elevation areas like Moab (4,026’) Los Alamos (7,320) and Santa Fe (7,199’) experience an extended cold weather window and winter precip often plays more of a role in dictating the start of the riding season.
What to Carry?
Randy enjoys ripping around the Vegas singletrack on either his full-suspension short travel mtb and or his mid-travel rig for more enduro-style trails. He advises riders new to the area to pack the usual repair kit (tube, CO2, pump—if desired—etc., with an emphasis on extra plugs!) along with more water than you think you’ll need!
Where to Go?
In Vegas, Randy cites two main destinations as offering the best assortment of trails to visiting riders. The Cottonwood Valley trail system to the southwest hosts more moderate terrain (and the Cottonwood Station can’t be beat for a post-ride meal and beer) while Bootleg Canyon to the southeast generally caters to more advanced riding.
Perhaps the mecca of American desert riding, visitors to Moab hardly need recommendations as the trail offerings truly run the gamut—from ultra-distance monsters like the 143-mile Kokopelli Trail, to single-digit distance loops perfect for a quick sunset lap.
Northern New Mexico cities Los Alamos and Santa Fe also both offer quality high desert mountain biking experiences.
How to Get Involved
For more information on where and how to help maintain your favorite trails all over the country, check out IMBA’s Group Finder.
The Best Part About Desert Riding?
“Night riding is my thing!” says Randy. The simultaneous thrill and heightened focus that comes with riding at night just can’t be beat, according to this Vegas nighthawk—when the stillness of the night is only broken by the distant howls of coyotes is when the desert feels most alive.