Thunder Mountain and a Storm on the Horizon
Thunder Mountain Loop Mountain Bike Ride
Public Land: Dixie National Forest
Area: Red Canyon
Trails: Thunder Mountain
Mileage: 15 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,099
Elevation Loss: 2,099
Difficulty: Rated Black Diamond and strenuous because of the climbing.
Local Advocacy Group: Dixie Mountain Bike Trails Association
Thunder Mountain wasn't on our radar until a friend of mine, who is an avid mt. biker, was giving me some information on trails in the Hurricane area. She added that we should definitely ride the Red Canyon / Thunder Mountain trail. I love getting good intel from people who have the same interests as we do.
So on our way from Page Arizona to Hurricane we stopped in to the Dixie National Forest office to check on conditions. On Trailforks someone had ridden the trail two days before and said there was snow on it and it was closed. We thought we’d get the inside information from the local FS visitors center.
The ranger said the trail was open and that some horse back riders had been on the upper section and said it was fine. The volunteer next to her said he hiked up 3.5 miles and it was all clear. So with that information we headed to camp in the dispersed camping on FS land near the red rock hoodoos.
The next morning we parked at the Red Canyon trailhead and rode the paved Red Canyon bike trail that parallels highway 12. It’s a nice gradual climb that has views of the orange hoodoos, two arches over the road that the highway passes under. On the other side is a wide wash that has seen recent flashing that did some damage along the edges. The trail passes turns inward on a rise and then opens up into a Paunsagunt Plateau and heads towards Bryce Canyon City. Clouds hung on the distant snow covered peaks. A head wind made the incline of the paved trail feel steeper. We turned off on a dirt road that to the Coyote Gulch campground. The wind switched directions and we had the head wind riding up the dirt road.
We rode uphill another couple of miles up to the Thunder Mountain Trailhead.
Just ahead of the kiosk and trail sign we saw a Pronghorn Antelope just standing in the middle of the road looking at us. I pulled out my camera and quickly took some photos. He just stood there until I moved forward. Then he slowly ambled off the road to the edge of the forest. He was the stockiest Antelope I’d ever seen. Usually I saw them in the open desert. There they were lean and looked more agile. This one looked more like a cow.
Upon our arrival at the Thunder Mountain trailhead we were greeted by a lone Pronghorn Antelope.
Now the fun started. We climbed up into the forest toward the orange hills. The trail ran along the side of the mountain ridge and undulated between drainages. We passed a few fifteen to twenty foot patches of snow with bike tire tracks cutting a route through them along the trail. Nothing we couldn’t ride. We climbed and descended and rolled around the terrain. Sometimes it felt like the climbing went on without end. On Trailforks it says there is only another thousand feet of climbing after we get to the trail.
The first section of trail is through forest and along the side of the ridge before topping out along the ridgeline.
Finally we came around a corner and the terrain opened up. We could see rain clouds over the mountains to the north. To the west the trail opened up and we approached the first hoodoos. Two large orange rocks suspended on tiny bases attached to a narrow ridge that our trail tracked across. Behind the hoodoos was another mountainside of sculpted orange sandstone and deep green colored Pinyon pines. Clouds whipped overhead in white puffy formations adding depth to the formations and shadows across the mountains.
From the forest to the hoodoos.
The trail got more interesting as we climbed further into the hoodoos. Instead of forest hills we wound through the hoodoos on a narrow track of orange between more sparsely placed trees. We continued to climb to another overlook that was absolutely stunning. In front of us was an orange mountain range of canyons and hoodoos mixed with white and orange ribbed hills of eroding sandstone. Beyond that were distant snow covered behind a green valley. Up above was a white spire surrounded by the windy blue sky.
The trail changed. We rode a trail that dropped off 400-600 feet on both sides. The buffeting of the wind added an element of risk as we rode the narrow path and tried not to get blown to one side or the other. Then we transitioned from gradual climbing to a steep descent down into a canyon. The trail ran along the side hill and then abruptly dropped down a rocky corner into the next side hill. Most we were able to ride but one was a series of rocky drops with a very tight corner and not much room for error.
We finally arrived at Inspiration Point trail. We decided to hike up instead of ride. After a quarter mile we arrived at the inspiration. A view of the trail, canyons, and hoodoos we had ridden around. We could see a narrow opening with a small waterfall pouring into a small canyon below us. We were now surrounded by the orange landscape.
As we descended we transitioned into a layer of deep red rock along a wash. Much different than the orange and white sandstone we had encountered. I wondered if this was why it was called Red Canyon. It was mostly downhill from this point.
We finally arrived at an intersection and turned right back to the Red Canyon trailhead. At first the trail climbed again much to our disappointment. But quickly it sloped downward at a mellow grade and the trail crossed a long rocky wash. We passed a family, the only people we had seen on the trail all day. Now it was a fast glide to the end. Just before the trailhead we crossed the wide wash we had followed earlier in the day and arrived at our van for the end of another great day of riding.
Other Route Options
Looking at the route we had taken it was very scenic with lots of variety. If we just wanted to ride through the hoodoos and focus on the more interesting part of the trail we would have ridden up to the horse camp about 4 miles up the route and then turned around and came back down. There is a short section that most will walk where it is really steep but then you cut out the long approach via the paved trail and dirt road. The other option is to do a shuttle and start at the top of the trail and ride back to the lower Red Canyon trailhead.