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October 10, 2010

Brian Head: Dark Hollow and Bunker Creek

Filed under: 2010, MTB Travel, Southern Utah — anotherheader @ 9:58 pm

Becky on the ridge high above Panguitch Lake

Brian Head Utah is situated at 9,600 feet in the southern Wasatch Range. Aside from lift assisted biking at the ski resort, the area offers numerous mountain biking options. Though some of the trails, like the Navajo Lake Loop, are circuit routes, many of the premium routes are shuttle-enabled descents. After all, at such a high altitude, there’s much more mountain available to descend than to ascend.

Dark Hollow (old and new branches), Bunker Creek (left and right forks), and Blowhard trails are the featured downhill shuttle drops in the area. Dark Hollow and Bunker Creek start from a trailhead just down the hill from the 11,300-foot high Brian Head Peak. The Dark Hollow descent, including extended dirt and paved road segments, leaves you at 5,900 or so feet in the self-proclaimed “Mother Town of Southern Utah,” Parowan. A ridge over from Dark Hollow, the descent of the Bunker Creek trails leaves riders at Panguitch Lake, a natural lake enlarged by 24-foot dam that sits at 8,400 feet amongst rolling sagebrush-covered hills.

In theory, all of these rides could be done without a shuttle. But be warned. The road loops required are long, steep, and at high altitude. For example, the Parowan to Brian Head return is brutal, climbing around 4,000 feet and reaching a 13% grade. On a bike, this route would warrant the Hor Categorie or HC rating in the Tour de France.

Flaming aspens and the bark beetle ravage forest

We were not so bold to attempt these trails as sicko loop rides. Instead we elected to shuttle the route. The commercial shuttles drop the riders off a few miles out of Brian Head near Brian Head Peak. When you reach the end of the ride, a phone call is placed and the shuttle vehicle comes down the hill to take you back to Brian Head. We used Georg’s Ski Shop in the upper end of Brian Head (435-677-2013) for our rides. Georg’s has no fixed shuttle schedule; they run shuttles when customers come to the store.

The Dark Hollow and Bunker Creek trail experience is similar. Both trails start with a high alpine traverse along a ridge covered with alpine grass and occasional mixed spruce and aspen groves. Lower down in their respective drainages, the feral treads wind through the trees. Since our first visit four years ago, many of the older spruce trees have died due to the bark beetle infestation. In mid-September, it was a forest of contrasts. The blue-green of the young spruces, the grays and blacks of the dead spruce, and the intensely flaming fall shades of the turning aspens comingled.

Dark Hollow turns off the ridge first. Just in from Hollow’s trailhead is the most technical section of either of the two trails. For a short distance the route covers rock gardens and shelf drops made sketchy by the parched late summer conditions. After the initial drops, the challenge eases as the trail continues steeply down the hill. Not far in, we reached an open clearing with an unmarked trail junction. We were told that this was the intersection between the old and the new Dark Hollow Trails. This time we took the trail to the right for the Old Dark Hollow. On our last visit we took the left fork on what we now understand to be the New Dark Hollow. (We had been advised that trail realignments had left a portion of New Dark Hollow loose and rocky, in an undesirable way.)

Ross on the high alpine ridge heading to Dark Hollow

Old Dark Hollow is fun. The trail is feral, narrow, and minimally maintained. It winds through meadows, under the tree canopy, and passing over an occasional rock garden. My memories favored the pre-realignment New Dark Hollow, but both trails are good. The only problem is that the singletrack ends too soon. The rest of the descent to Parowan is on a forest road passing by Second Left Hand Canyon’s striking rock formations and then a long coast down Highway 143 to the shuttle pick up point in Parowan. It only took us, even with frequent picture taking stops and the road sections, a little more than two hours to complete the drop.

Becky climbs a log jam on Old Dark Hollow

The Bunker Creek trailhead is on the ridge well past the Dark Hollow turn off. Entering in, you have an immediate choice between the left and right forks. Confusingly, you take the right path for the left fork and the left path for the right fork. (I guess it would all make since if you road the trail up the hill, but few do that.) On two separate days, we sampled the tread on each option.

Though we had been advised to take the left hand trail, Right Fork option, we found that both of the Left Fork and the Right Fork trails are very similar. Perhaps the Right Fork is in slightly better condition, but it is close. Each path winds consistently downhill through a forested singletrack. The character of the trail is similar to the lower section of Dark Hollow with periodic rock gardens presenting the biggest technical challenge.

On Brian Head peak, the bikes wait for their riders

In a meadow, the Left and Right Forks of the singletrack section of Bunker Creek Trail rejoin. On fast, forested double track, the descent continues. The double track terminates in a forest service road. It is a short, mostly downhill ride on the dirt service road to Highway 143. A left turn on the highway took us down the hill to the shuttle retrieve point near Panguitch Lake. From the top, the ride takes about 2 hours without pushing the pace. It would be easy enough to plan on a second drop in the same day for energetic riders.

Speeding through Second Left Hand Canyon

Clearly the shuttle drops at Brian Head are fun, but is this a destination worthy trail system? Should you travel a great distance just to ride these trails? Must you book the next flight from the far corners of the Universe to ride Brian Head’s best trails? I’d say no. The riding in Brian Head doesn’t reach the classic level. The trails off of Brian Head Peak are relatively short. They’re good fun, but the joy is over way too soon. Now it is true that in Brian Head the rides start at high altitude and the alpine riding experience is worth seeking out. But, for your riding dollar, you might find better options.

The colors of the Southern Utah (panorama)

Brian Head is worth a visit if you are in the American Southwest in the peak of summer. It can bake in the summer at the lower altitudes in Southern Utah. You can escape the heat for a ride at higher altitudes where the air is cooler. Riding high in Brian Head or Thunder Mountain are the only sane options in the area on hot summer days. Even then, I wouldn’t drive from Chicago just for the Brian Head mountain biking experience.

More pictures from our Dark Hollow and Bunker Creek are on Picasa.

Peak fall colors near Cedar Breaks National Monument (panorama)

More on mountain biking in the Brian Head area:

–Two other trail options that we did not get to on our visit are the Virgin River Rim and Marathon trails. VRR can be done in segments or as one long epic. A shuttle can be useful for both of these options.

–Though shuttles are available, the mountain biking infrastructure in Brian Head itself is minimal. With no new trails being built in the area, Brian Head may fade off of the map.

1 Comment »

  1. Great story and photos! I have been there many times Mountain Biking from 1993 – 1998. Dark Hollow and some of the other runs are the best mountain biking that I have ever done. I remember freezing at the top of Brian Head, and by the time we were seeing red rock, it was 80 degrees. Thank you for bringing back the great memories!

    Steve T.

    Comment by Steve Thomas — January 17, 2012 @ 3:50 am

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