Saturday, July 4, 2020


Moab, UT

79 F

    Tales of Trails: Amasa Back’s many challenges

    Network has one of area’s two ‘proline’ bike trails

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    I have a special place in my heart for the Amasa Back trail network. As I have written before, I typically ride my bike on weekdays between the time I leave work and sunset, and Amasa Back provides options that allow me to squeeze out every last drop of sunlight I have left by the time I reach the trailhead.

    Bicycle on Captain Ahab trail
    Near the bottom of Captain Ahab, bikers ride sections of trail inches away from sheer cliffs of deadly height. Some of these sections feature sloped rocks that nudge riders closer to the ledge. Photos by Carter Pape

    Recently, I have opted for later rides that necessitate lamps; I do this primarily to escape the 100-degree heat of midday in Moab. If sunset is 8:30 p.m., I’ll set out at 7:30 and wrap up after twilight. It’s significantly less hazardous with respect to the potential for overheating or dehydrating, but more hazardous with respect to my ability to see.

    Captain Ahab obstacle
    Some of the common challenges riders face descending Captain Ahab are rocky slopes such as this one that jolt around handlebars and threaten to catch riders’ pedals.

    However, Amasa Back is different. Roughly two hours before the sun starts setting, the mesa where the trail network sits creates large areas of shadow that protect the rider from direct exposure during the first part of the climb, which has most of the steeper sections. For me, this means I can start a ride at 5:30 p.m. without worrying about losing the sun or getting burnt up by it.

    Amasa Back overview

    Another nice feature of the Amasa Back network is that most of its trails have chevron-shaped elevation profiles. They’re not uphill grinds the whole way through like Slickrock; you climb up and, once you’re at the top, you ride down. Either can be fun, but there’s something cathartic about reaching a single peak.

    Cows roam Bureau of Land Management areas.
    Cows roam Bureau of Land Management areas during the winter and spring, including the Amasa Back trail network off Kane Creek Road. This photo, taken in March, was taken just up the trail from the gate that separates the cows from the road.

    The two main routes I have in mind are Jackson’s Trail (also known as Rocky Jackson) and Captain Ahab. Both get double black ratings at minimum from both Trailforks and MTB Project, two major trail directories that offer information about rides across the U.S. Before I get into those two routes, I’ll quickly run through the others.

    Mountain bike and gate
    A gate near the trailhead of the Amasa Back network implores riders, hikers and jeepers to keep the gate closed from Nov. 1 to March 31, “no matter what the cows say.”

    Hymasa, a primarily uphill route that leads to both Captain Ahab and Jackson’s Trail, is fun as a descent though not as challenging or technical as the others. I ride it every time I’m on the Amasa Back network; it’s singletrack and easier to climb than its alternative, Cliffhanger. The climb gets slippery in a few spots but is generally surmountable without trouble.

    Cliffhanger parallels and in many spots intersects Hymasa. It’s suboptimal as a climbing route (which is perhaps to be expected from a 4×4 trail) but fast and flowy as a downhill bike route. Riding up Hymasa and down Cliffhanger is a shorter and easier ride than going in on Jackson’s Trail or Captain Ahab, but in no way does it lack on fun. If you take Cliffhanger to get back to the parking lot, don’t blink; I always get to the bottom sooner than I want or expect.

    Rockstarter and the Pothole Arch trail are the two other main lines in the network. I haven’t allocated enough time to get all the way out to either, so I can’t speak to their difficulty or flow directly. Rockstarter is rated double black and the Pothole Arch route is rated single black.

    Jackson’s Trail and Captain Ahab

    Jackson’s Trail is rough. It is the most dangerous ride in Moab, second to Portal, which has a sign that reads “riders have died here.” The two are not as popular as other rides in the area and for that reason claim fewer victims, but they are much more deadly.

    Kane Creek Road
    The Amasa Back trail network is connected to the trailhead parking lot by both a singletrack connector and Kane Creek Road, both shown in this photo.

    “After a mile or so of traversing a sidehill that makes you feel like you’re flying free above the Colorado River, the technicality and exposure bump up a notch at a steep, tight left-hand switchback,” reads the MTB Project page about Jackson’s Trail. “While totally rideable (stay inside), many riders will want to walk this section due to the penalty of failure (read: possibly falling off a cliff).”

    That might give you an idea of why Jackson’s Trail gets the dangerous rating it has. The trail runs down the side of something between a cliff and a hill, but it feels much more like a cliff.

    Captain Ahab is similar but less obviously scary. I say “less obviously” because it can still cause serious harm and has its own cliff exposure. It is, though, largely regarded as an easier route. It’s officially a double black diamond, whereas Trailforks ranks Jackson’s route as a “proline,” the next category up from double black.

    Cliffhanger stream crossing
    A recently dried stream crosses Cliffhanger, one of the trails in the Amasa Back network, near the trailhead. The sand in this section makes biking up the rocks ahead a challenge for even seasoned mountain bikers.

    Captain Ahab has some obstacles that were, for me during my first time riding them, gateway drugs to harder stuff. The first time I came up on the first such obstacle, a three- or four-yard descent with uneven rocks that threaten to clip the pedals of inattentive or unlucky riders, I walked it. Now being much more familiar with the track, I need only a moment to pause to collect before bombing it.

    Indeed, I would say “bombing it” is the best way to describe how I now ride Captain Ahab. It’s just more fun that way. I may well hurt myself because of it, but that is the nature of the beast. All you can do is respect the difficulties and accept the small falls as reminders to avoid worse outcomes.

    Jackson’s Trail I feel much less confidence overcoming than Captain Ahab and don’t anticipate being able to bomb anytime soon. I’ve only ridden it once, which is probably the biggest reason it intimidates me. It is a worthy adversary, and as the MTB Project page on it says, the penalty for losing is steep. Literally.

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