“A lot of people say that the Slickrock bike trail is what first put Moab on the map,” said Andrea Brand, who has been the director of the Sand Flats Recreation Area for 16 years.
The route, which winds through the petrified sand dunes within Sand Flats Recreation Area, has brought hundreds of thousands of adventurous visitors to Moab since it was made official by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in 1969.
On Saturday, Sept. 14, the Sand Flats Recreation Area is hosting a celebration for the Slickrock Trail’s 50th anniversary. Now popular as a mountain biking trail, the iconic route originally began as a motorcycle trail.
“Its use has kind of evolved through the decades,” documentary filmmaker Mark Finley said of the trail, “and so has Moab—going from a small uranium mining town in 1969, when the bike trail was formed, to what it is today.”
Finley has spent a lot of time on public lands around Moab and connected with Andrea Brand while working on other short films in the area. The result, “50 Years of Slickrock,” will premiere during the 50th anniversary celebrations.
“This idea to make a short film celebrating the history of the Slickrock Trail really just came up in late May,” Finley said, “then just a few weeks later we were up there. It was pretty intense filming”
Finley and his partner, Kevin Christensen, filmed interviews with over 25 people connected with the trail, collecting over eight hours of footage.
“There’s a lot of enthusiasm and passion for the Slickrock bike trail and Sand Flats Recreation Area,” Finley said.
“I was surprised at what a long connection there is between the trail and the community.”
A LOCAL SECRET
Before the sandstone hills and fins above and east of town became known as the Sand Flats Recreation Area, it was a lonely place where Moab residents could explore and enjoy the desert. There were no crowds then.
Dale Parriott remembers that time, exploring the Sand Flats-area on homemade scooters in the early sixties. before the Slickrock trail was officially designated.
“I’ve restored one of those scooters at my shop, and we’re going to have it at the celebration,” Parriott said.
Now on the Sand Flats Recreation Area Stewardship Committee, Parriott operated a machine shop and later started Elite Motorcycle Tours, a motorized guiding service.
Local motorcycle enthusiast Dick Wilson had the idea to make an official, BLM-sanctioned route through Sand Flats and persuaded the BLM manager at the time to endorse the proposal.
The trail was marked out and there was a designation ceremony in 1969, complete with a Moab beauty queen riding a scooter through a ribbon at the trailhead.
Wilson is now in his eighties and will be attending the anniversary celebration with his family. The Moab Adventure Center will be taking him and his family on a tour up to the Sand Flats Recreation Area so he can see how his advocacy years ago has changed the area.
“He and his wife are really excited about that,” Brand said.
Even after the trail became official, Parriott remembers it was still a wide-open place through the 1970s.
“We’d go play, sometimes until one or two in the morning on a full moon,” Parriott fondly recalled.
“We'd just ride over the slickrock until we got too tired, and then we’d come home.”
A NEW ERA IN BIKING
As the new sport called mountain biking began to emerge in the 1980s, the Slickrock trail turned out to be the perfect place for the sport to define itself. Enthusiasts came to Sand Flats in greater and greater numbers.
At almost the same time, the industry which had sustained Moab’s economy was collapsing. The uranium mine closed in 1983.
“Most people in the town worked for the mine—it was that big of an operation,” Finley said, remarking that many people interviewed for the documentary talked about this era.
“Everybody lost their jobs at the same time, and the town went into economic depression. You could buy a house for nothing.”
With the closure of the mine and the popularity of mountain bikes, brothers Bill and Robin Groff saw an opportunity. The Moab locals opened a mountain bike shop, Rim Cyclery, which is still a bustling business today.
The trail continued to gain fame through the eighties and nineties, impacting the development of new mountain bike technology.
“The Slickrock trail was a testing ground for a lot of the early shocks for mountain bikes,” said Matt Olding, who works at the Sand Flats Recreation Area.
“They would come over here and test out their front forks quite a bit,” Olding said. “If it could handle the Slickrock trail, it could usually handle any place in the world.”
FROM RIOTS TO A NEW SYSTEM
Visitation to the Sand Flats area grew swiftly from a few freewheeling local motorcyclists to thousands of bikers each year.
There was no infrastructure—no bathrooms, no trash pick-up, no designated camping areas.
The over-visitation and lack of oversight came to a head in the spring of 1993. In what became known as the Easter Riots, thousands of partiers in the Sand Flats area got out of control. Revelers threw beer bottles at police trying to disperse the crowd, and a BLM law enforcement vehicle was almost overturned. Police were outnumbered and could only muster the forces for damage control.
After the riots, concerned community leaders met to come up with a management plan for the area. At Sand Flats, the county would partner with the BLM to hire staff, build infrastructure and collect fees. This partnership allowed the park to keep the fees they collected locally and use them for maintenance and improvement of the area.
By 1998, when Brand was first hired as a seasonal staff member, the park was sustaining itself using the fees collected at the entrance booth. Parking areas, campgrounds, designated trails and toilets now facilitate visitor use while protecting the ecosystem. The partnership is generally considered a success, even by those who remember when the Slickrock trail was unrestricted.
“It’s a good thing, the way Andrea does it. I’ve just really got to commend her,” said Parriott. “It’s really handled well, I think. And there’s a lot of good help and good workers that are involved with the Sand Flats resource area.”
LOOKING FORWARD: MEETING CHANGES WITH RESPECT
From his midnight rides as a child to today, Parriott has been a lifelong trail user and advocate.
In 2002, he started the organization Ride with Respect, which urges all user groups, from hikers to bikers to motorized vehicles, to treat the land with care and be considerate of each other.
While there has been friction between motorized and non-motorized users over the years, Parriott believes the groups have learned to work together to advocate for trails.
“I think we’ve reached a time where everybody’s pretty much getting along together,” said Parriott. He foresees the next issue of contention will be an emerging technology that doesn’t fit neatly into any existing category of trail users.
“In the next couple of years, you’re going to see more and more electric bicycle people, and they’re going to lobby to take their electric bicycles on some of the trails that are ‘bicycle-only.’ And there’s going to be some very heated discussions on that,” Parriott predicted.
The staff at Sand Flats Recreation Area is trying to stay ahead of the curve, responding to increased use and changing times. Visitation has increased 50% just over the last five years, and with it, entrance revenue has increased.
Brand reports that with the extra revenue, more infrastructure projects are planned. Two of the Sand Flats campgrounds were expanded over the summer, and managers are in the planning stages for a pedestrian bike trail alongside the Sand Flats road.
CELEBRATING FIFTY YEARS OF HISTORY
On Saturday, Sept. 14, the Sand Flats Recreation Area is hosting an entire day of events to celebrate the Slickrock Trail’s 50th anniversary. Events include a pancake breakfast, a trail service project, activities for kids, a silent auction, a vintage motorcycle display and more. Entry to the park will also be free on that day.
In the evening, attendees are encouraged to ride their vintage mountain bikes or motorcycles to Star Hall for the debut of Mark Finley’s half-hour documentary on the history of the trail.
The BLM will have a restored vintage Honda 50 motorcycle and Parriott’s childhood scooter will be on display. Local Christy Williams, the evening’s emcee, will interview trail founder Dick Wilson and filmmakers Finley and Christensen before the documentary premiere.
“There has been a lot of people, a lot of ideas, a lot of enthusiasm for the event, from the mountain biking community to the motorcycle community and others,” said Brand. “So I think it’s going to be a big party to celebrate this. Fifty years is a big deal.”