cycling utah October 1998
By Gregg Bromka
Fall has arrived all too quickly this year and has effectively cheated me out of an entire summer of biking. That's what happens when you write mountain biking guidebooks - my latest being Mountain Biking Utah's Brian Head-Bryce Country - you ride a ton and then you wither away behind the keyboard. I swear Labor Day was Memorial Day. Ski swaps are a weekly event but I'm hellbent on squeezing in the miles until Alta opens.
Most bikers make a beeline for Moab this time of year, and I too will make the fall pilgrimage to the annual Canyonlands Fat Tire Festival. But I'll also seek solitude in a land that most travelers glance at briefly through the windshield as they zoom across I-70 to Slickrock. I'll head to the San Rafael Swell. No festival, no motels, no bike shops, no beer on tap, no nothing. I look forward to the chilly star-speckled nights, the distance howl of coyotes, and being awakened by walls of ruddy stone irradiated by the rising sun. That faded anthropomorph, which hasn't budged a mutated limb for over 1000 years, insists on sweetening my cowboy coffee with a dash of Navajo Sandstone. Silly humanoid.
Black Dragon Canyon is a San Rafael Swell classic, a ride of which I never tire. As its name suggests, the San Rafael Swell (pronounced san ra-felī) is neither a mountain nor a plateau, but a colossal geologic blister on the earth's surface. Most stunning is the San Rafael's eastern perimeter marked by a formidable, sawtooth ridge of protracted strata that juts abruptly from the surrounding desert plains. The "Reef" as it is called is not a cliff or a straight crest, ". . . but a row of cusps like a battery of shark's teeth on a large scale," described by geologist C. E. Dutton in the 1880s. Seemingly impenetrable from afar, the Reef is actually breached by sinuous canyons, or "narrows." Some of these slots constrict to less than shoulder width and block all but a mere sliver of sky above.
Black Dragon Canyon is a trip through one of the Reef's sandstone hallways. The route begins up high in the Swell's Sinbad Country where low rising mesas mingle with high desert prairies. But the route draws you toward the Reef's menacing cusps until you are swallowed whole by Black Dragon Canyon. Although this passageway does not pinch to claustrophobic widths, it is bound by vertical walls nearly 1000 feet tall and overhanging alcoves. Fremont Indian rock art adorns the canyon, including the elusive "black dragon" pictograph. In a cave along the way, you'll see hand prints and drawings that resemble necklaces, plus what appears to be a primitive form of accounting, a Fremont-age abacus of sorts.
This 16-mile point-to-point ride is perfect for intermediate cyclists and for strong novice bikers who have a grasp on basic technical riding skills. It's virtually all downhill. The entire route follows doubletrack trails. Early on, you'll race across Sinbad on smooth dirt tracks. Then you'll rattle down a pebbly stretch and finally plow through soft sand in the canyon. If you have to dismount and walk occasionally, don't worry. Use the time off the saddle to crane your neck skyward and become entranced by the repetitive streaks of desert varnish on the canyon's walls, nature's bar-coding.
Black Dragon Canyon is typically ridden as a point-to-point route with a car shuttle via I-70. To reach the trail's end, travel west of Green River and past the junction for UT 24 to Hanksville. As you near the jaws of the Reef, turn off the highway's shoulder to the right on a dirt road 0.8 miles after crossing the San Rafael River (just past milepost 145). There is no exit ramp, so use caution. Go through the gate and follow the doubletrack for one mile to the mouth of Black Dragon Canyon. Drop one vehicle here, return to I-70, and head west through the Reef and across Sinbad Country. Take Exit 129 for "Ranch Exit," and double back on the all-weather road. Travel 6 miles to a doubletrack signed for Sinkhole Flats and Jackass Benches. Park and embark.
Ride the doubletrack eastward across the prairie to a wire gate and cattle guard. One-half mile farther fork left on a good dirt road at a Y junction. Ride like the wind for 2.6 miles to an unsigned but prominent Y junction. Fork right and circle around the low platform of Jackass Benches. Continue around a 90 degree bend, ignoring a faded track to the right, and come to the signed turnoff for Black Dragon Wash .5 mile farther. Descend along the base of the benches for 4.5 miles and enter the Reef. Wind through the canyon, pondering the sights, and exit the Reef to your vehicle. Awesome!
If you nary broke a sweat on this cruisy ride, that is easily remedied. Upon exiting Black Dragon Canyon, you can ride up the inclined sandstone ramp (say slickrock) and gaze into the 1000- foot gash you just rode through. Keep in mind that there are no painted-on dashes to guide you nor "fried eggs" to warn you of impeding doom like on Moab's version. Prerequisite are solid legs and low gears for the ride up and unfaltering brakes for the descent.
Gregg Bromka is author of Mountain Biking Utah (formerly The Mountain Biker's Guide to Utah.