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MTN. BIKERS LIKE CHALLENGE OF RUGGED SLICKROCK TRAIL

For years, it was only occasionally used, mostly by hikers and those on power-driven cycles. Those who pedaled for recreation stayed off the Slickrock Trail northeast of Moab. It was too rugged. Regular bicycles broke and riders routinely suffered scrapes and bruises.

That changed with the introduction of the mountain bike. The result is that now the loudest noise coming from most riders is the huffing and puffing that comes from arduous pedaling.Last year, more than 100,000 people set foot and/or tires on the trail. More are expected to ride or walk it this year. Most of those will be people on mountain bikes.

Slickrock has become the preferred choice of many riders. They like the hard surface, uneven terrain and positive traction it offers. For the past four years, usage has climbed between 15 and 20 percent annually.

It is not an easy ride even on high-end mountain bikes. It takes some skill, endurance and most of all common sense.

"The trail requires good mountain bike skills," says Alex Van Hemert, outdoor recreation planner for the Bureau of Land Management. "People shouldn't be afraid to get off and walk their bikes on occasion. A lot of people do fall on this trail. It is one of our more difficult, and safety is a concern to us."

The trail is 12 miles long and loops in an irregular circle. At the gated entrance there is a two-mile practice loop. It is intended to give riders a pretty good representation of what they can expect on the trail. With some, it discourages any attempt, but with others in only challenges them.

Nearby is another popular trailhead called the Porcupine Loop. It is 20 miles long and loops around the slickrock, to the Colorado River and back into the Sand Flats area. Only a portion of the ride, however, is on slickrock.

Those familiar with the trail will notice some changes this year. Concern for the area and some much needed funding have put a new face on the Sand Flats Recreation Area, of which Slickrock is a part.

Under a program overseen by AmeriCor, the area has been transformed from one that was used and, in places, abused, into a respectable camping/recreation area.

Funding allowed the hiring of eight people, all from the Moab area, who call themselves the "Sand Flats Community Action Team." In October, the group began to clean up and identify camping areas outside the trail's fences.

In March, the group began collecting camping fees for the BLM for the 120 units now available . . . For day use, $3 per vehicle with two occupants and $1 for each added party, and for camping, $4 per vehicle with two occupants and $1 for each additional person.

In the first month, $20,000 was collected, says Susan Kittler, a member of the Sand Flats team, and expects April to be even better. And the money?

"All of it stays right here. All of it will go back into the Sand Flats area. Once people know that, they've been more than willing to pay," she says.

Van Hemert admitted that the numbers thus far have surprised him.

"We knew the trail was popular, but we underestimated the amount of use it was getting. It helps to have someone on-site so we can get an actual count," he notes.

One project recently completed by the team was the repainting of lines guiding travelers over the trail and to put up warning signs in the more difficult sections. A volunteer bike patrol has also been formed. All of this, says Kittler, to promote safety.

The team also went to the local high school and had students write letters to other schools around the state, encouraging those coming to Moab for Spring Break to behave and respect the land. Kittler admits that things were much better this year.

Trail use will begin to taper off as summer approaches. Despite the warm weather, however, people will continue to come to ride.

"Summertime is when most people have their vacations. Also, we're getting more people from foreign countries visiting," says Van Hemert. "The trail is getting a lot of international attention right now."

He strongly urges people coming to the area to bring along a helmet and to carry enough water. He recommends at least one gallon per person on hot days.

Last year about 500,000 people came to ride the roads and slickrock around Moab. One-fifth of them went on the Slickrock Trail. And while visitors can expect crowded conditions on holidays, Kittler says most days there is room for campers at Sand Flats.

And its certain they will come, given better camping and riding, and the promise of better things to come from their entrance fees.