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Adventure / July 9, 2017

Mountain biking the lonely West

Written by: Andrew Winohradsky

I love mountain bike towns. They’re usually deep in the mountains or the desert—small, isolated places with offbeat traditions and rich histories. In addition to miles and miles of trail, they usually offer rustic bars, small-batch breweries and quirky places to eat.

But mountain biking has gained widespread popularity in recent years and that’s brought something else to my favorite bike towns: a crowd.

It’s become harder and harder to find decent campsites and the coffee shop lines seem long no matter how early I arrive. The bars I used to belly-up to after a ride now almost never have open seats. And of course, all of those people share the same, once-open stretches of singletrack.

That’s what brought me to Sweetwater County, Wyoming. The area has untold miles of trail and a population density of about 4.2 people per square mile. Its two settlements, Rock Springs and Green River, are like all my favorite bike towns were 30 years ago.

Fast and Loose: an easy pedal from downtown Rock Springs, and a short climb out of town will get you the goods.

. . or, if easy rolling is more your style, White Mountain and Pilot Butte have literally endless gravel roads and gentle trail. Herds of wild horses will be the only crowds you'll have to contend with.

Fences out

Photographer Tony Wilhelms and I started our three-day Wyoming adventure in the town of Rock Springs: a scrappy little coal mining town with a population of about 20,000. Rock Springs is a true slice of western Americana—wild horses still roam the plains just a few miles away.

Mountain biking hasn’t hit Main Street yet in Rock Springs. Dusty pick-up trucks and cowboy hats are the norm for locals, not roof racks and Spandex. That gives the town a friendly, laid-back vibe that’s a far cry from the hustle and bustle of most mountain resorts.

Our guide was Jason Medler, owner of the town’s Bike and Trike bike shop. When I asked him how many miles of mountain bike trail were accessible in the area, he paused, then smiled.

“I don’t think anyone has ever asked that question,” he said.

Once we got out to ride, it was soon obvious why no one would ask that question: because nobody could possibly know.  Sweetwater is a “fence out” county. That means that there aren’t a lot of fences; most of the area is open ranch and grazing. As far as the eye can see—and it can see far in this place—it’s almost all free range for mountain bikers.

The ridge between White Mountain and the town of Rock Springs offers up plenty of challenging terrain through surreal landscape.

Something for everyone

The riding in Sweetwater is diverse. Just west of Rock Springs, the White Mountain area offers gravel roads and four wheel drive trails mellow enough for true MTB newbies and tame enough for any bike. Built around the towering Pilot Butte, it has enough terrain for several days of riding. The fields surrounding it are populated by herds of wild horses.

For something a bit more spicy, check out the ridge between White Mountain and the town of rock Springs. High on the ridge numerous short but butt-on-tire-steep descents snake though the steep drainages and scrub brush. These give way to various traversing trails lower on the ridge that wind back and forth through sun-bleached, white rock moonscapes. Rolling traverses with punchy climbs combine with high speed open sections and multi-minute lung-burner ascents. These trails will keep even advanced riders on their toes.

Most of the above trails are unmarked. Like most areas that boast awesome trail systems, these were created by off-road motorcyclists and ATV’s, and are still shared with these user groups. In our entire time in Sweetwater (a bluebird weekend with mid-70s temps), we just saw exactly three ATVs on the trails.

For well-marked, MTB-specific trails, check out Wilkens Peak in Green River. Wilkins Peak offers up 30 miles of well marked singletrack with beginner, intermediate and advanced options. The Pick Your Poison trail winds along the Green River and offers up some amazing views. Ride Brett and Mike’s clockwise for a super fun, fast, swoopy, descent.

Unmarked and raw singletrack in Rock Springs for breakfast . . .

. . . and some maintained and mapped trail at Wilken's Peak, in the nearby town of Green River, for lunch.

A trail with no name

My favorite ride of our trip came on Monday morning, just before we split town and headed back to Colorado’s front range. We met up with Jason for some delicious and proper-teeth-chatter-inducing espressos at the Java Peddler Espresso Bar, which is housed in the front of Jason’s Bike and Trike shop.

Then, after a weekend of providing Tony and I with stories, jokes, history, beers at the Bitter Creek Brewery right next to his shop, beers at his shop, more jokes, more stories, more beers, etc., our guide took us on a nice little spin right from the door of the shop.

Jason grew up in Rock Springs. As we weaved through the quiet streets, Jason pointed out all the things that a guy would point to a couple of visiting riding buddies; the house where he grew up, the locations of long gone impromptu jumping spots and pirate BMX tracks. Landmarks from a biker’s life lived in the classic American West.

We climbed out of town on unmarked trails. Trails that Jason had grown up on, trails that he built. We got up to a high point and you could see snow capped mountain ranges in the distance. 360 degree views with no fences, no trail closures, and endless possibilities for tires on dirt.

Then we descended, chasing our host as he ripped through the dusty loam, drifting through corner after corner, diving into the shadows of the scrub brush and Ponderosas, eventually back to town, through streets and alleys. Then we stopped by the shop, where Jason sent us off with a tub of local guacamole.

That ride was the perfect send-off from our stay in Rock Springs—a trail without a name, delivered with the laid-back personal touch that can be found around every corner in Sweetwater County.

Taking in the views off the Pick Your Poison trail at Wilken's Peak.

If you go

Fly: Into the Salt Lake City International Airport. From there, it’s about a three-hour drive to Rock Springs.

Eat: Sandwiches at Bosqhetto’s European Market and Deli on Broadway and authentic Mexican at Las Primos on Front Street.

Drink: Quality local brew at Bitter Creek Brewing. The Boars Tusk is a favorite.

Gear up: At Jason’s Bike and Trike shop. They carry all the stuff you forgot at home, and the attached coffeeshop makes a mean espresso.

Do you have any questions or comments about this feature? Email them to us at [email protected].

Photos by Tony Wilhelms. 

about the author

Andrew Winohradsky

Andrew Winohradsky has been having a blast working and playing on two wheels his entire life. Starting with BMX and motocross as a kid, mountain bikes came into the picture in the early ‘90s.

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