After 30 years, trail founder is fascinated with popularity of Slickrock

No trip to the moon, but it was a big step for Moab

Note: The T-I recently reprinted this story, originally published in 1999, as Moab celebrates 50 years after the founding of the Slickrock Bike Trail.

by Dick Wilson
Founder of the Moab Slickrock Bike Trail

Dick Wilson riding the Slickrock Trail during a visit to Moab last year. Photo by Ron Georg

Creating the Moab Slickrock Bike Trail was no walk in the park.

The process of laying out the bike trail was in the feel of it, such as you cannot get in a walk on the rock. I hiked trip after trip up the Sand Flats Road, past the city dump, to a massive wedge of solid rock, slickrock that stretched as far as the eye could see, rock stripped naked by the elements.

Once on the rock I repeatedly rode mile after mile, memorizing my routes as segment after segment I rode, seeking the best features to include in two major loops of the trail and adding spurs that led to scenic wonders not previously described, at that time in the ‘60s, in writings of any kind.

Some 30 years ago I laid out a proposal to Doug Wood, Moab BLM area manager, for the creation of a bike trail on the area of slickrock hidden away a level or two above the town.

Following the trails dedication by the BLM on July 22, 1969, personal responsibilities took me away from Moab. I turned my back on my adventures in the Canyonlands, and buried myself in the daily grind where making a living became more important than exploring bald rocks.

I never looked back until about three years ago. Last year in May, I made my first return to the bike trail in nearly three decades. I came back to a town far different than it was when I left, the only town in the world where bald rock riding has made an economic impact, and where mountain bikers are now thicker than a plague of locusts in a corn field. I came with the wide-open, anticipating eyes of a child on his first trip to fairyland. I saw motels sprouting and mountain bikes coming in by the hundreds.

In the years before my return, hundreds of thousands of mountain bikers had ridden the trail I conceived, yet I had never ridden the Slickrock Trail on a mountain bike, as there were no mountain bikes in those days.

The bike I had used was a now extinct small breed of motorcycle with a 90 cc engine, not the noisy dirt bikes so often pictured in recenthistories of the bike trail.

Nevertheless, it was not motorcyling that brought popularity to the trail. Without the subsequent invention of the mountain bike and hundreds of thousands of bikers discovering the trail through promotional efforts, Moab might have remained at a much lower level of economic growth.

So, my return to the trail last year was preceded with mountain bike lessons from local slickrock riding experts, as if I were stepping upon the surface of a new world. My wife, ‘ Alberta, and I were royally provided highpriced bikes and oriented to techniques of mountain bike slickrock riding by the staff of Chili Pepper Bike Shop. We were hosted by Russ von Koch of the BLM, and his daughter Lynn. We were accompanied by several members of the local bike patrol, The bike news columnist Ron Georg, and Craig Hansell of the Salt Lake Tribune.

I first came to Moab in 1963, lured by an article in National Geographic Magazine (May, 1962) about the then proposed Canyonlands National Park. By 1964 1 had landed a position as a school teacher in one of Americas last little red school houses in the isolated uranium camp of Fry Canyon, at that time 80 miles by dirt road to the nearest town.

This introduction to Southeast Utah resulted in my eventual move to Moab, working first as a teacher in a church school and at the same time starting a weekly outdoor trail column for Sam Taylor at The in 1967. My association with The became fulltime contract work and 1 was listed in the masthead of the paper in 1968 as the News and Outdoor Feature Editor.

I named or researched the names of spectacular features sort of casually, never realizing I had the right to name them, nor that those names would stick. These included Abyss View Point, Swiss Cheese Ridge, Updraft Arch, Shrimp Rock, and near the trail, hidden deep in a canyon. Morning Glory Bridge, now considered the sixth largest natural bridge in the world.

That great bed of slickrock was considered a wasteland, the Navajo sandstone yielding nothing of monetary value. The mostly bare rock, interspersed with sand flats, provided barely enough grass for seven or eight cows at a time. Longtime Moab cowboy and horse wrangler Karl Tangren told me the slickrock got its name from the fact that horse shoes couldn’t grip the smooth rock. It was a horses curse.

In recent correspondence to me. Wood recalled some pressing challenges facing the administration of the BLM lands at the time I approached him with the bike trail concept.

The Bureau of Land Management was still a rather young governing agency in the 1960s, Wood said. Although it was becoming a multiple-use agency, its primary function was still associated with livestock grazing on public lands. Other uses, recreation, wildlife, mining and oil and gas, and forestry took a back seat to livestock grazing.

Though it was first promoted as the most indestructible trail in the world the area is now called a sacrifice area. Its not the trail itself that’s in danger, but rather the surrounding area, the state and private lands leading up to the BLM lands, that are sometimes overridden by mountain bikers and enthusiasts.

Five or six bikers were as many I ever saw at any one time on the slickrock above Moab in the 1960s. When 1 returned last year I saw 200 or more pedaling the trail at the same time including more brave women bikers than I could dare believe. BLM sources report that 150,000 or more now ride the trail annually. In 1992 the trail was designated a National Recreation Trail and the first of its kind for public lands administered by the BLM.

From its dedication on July 22, 1969, the trail has been noted as a prime example of government and citizens working together. In my opinion, it would take a book to acknowledge all who were involved in making the Moab Slickrock Bike Trail a reality and what it means to Moab and to the worlds mountain bikers. Im looking back now 30 years in the sandstone of time, when I literally marked all 12 miles of the trail with chalk marks for the BLM paint crews to follow. Looking back, I see in a small way the Moab Slickrock Bike Trail is how I made my mark on the world.