PANGUITCH, Utah (AP) -- The crowds and hype of Moab got you down?
Not to worry. Utah mountain bikers still have Red Canyon, which remains uncrowded, although its high-elevation red-rock virtues are lauded in the guidebooks and across the Internet.
The 41,431-acre Red Canyon Scenic Recreation Area, located 220 miles south of Salt Lake City along Utah 12 between Panguitch and Bryce Canyon, offers a ''national park-caliber'' experience, but without the masses and fees, said Gregg Bromka, the Salt Lake City-based author of ''Mountain Biking Brian Head-Bryce Country.''
Buses stop along the highway, disgorging tourists onto a scenic parking area for a few minutes of sightseeing before the ride to the famous national park up the road.
''Red Canyon is one of those places on the way to the focal point,'' said Carl Gillette, Powell district ranger for Dixie National Forest. With the help of state parks and transportation funds, the Forest Service hopes to make Red Canyon its own focal point by upgrading the area's recreational amenities. In the works are a paved bike path along the highway and a 78-mile nonmotorized trail.
The most popular destinations are Losee and Casto canyons, which parallel Red Canyon a few miles to the north. Horse outfitters bring a lot of four-footed traffic to Losee and four-wheeled visitors motor through Casto Canyon to access the 65-mile Fremont ATV Trail.
But what makes Red Canyon special to mountain bikers is its 34 miles of single track on 14 trails through an eroded desert plateau high above the Sevier River Valley. Bromka calls Red Canyon the ''legal alternative'' to Bryce Canyon, which prohibits mountain bikes and other mechanized forms of off-road transport.
At 7,000 to 8,000 feet in elevation, Highway 12 winds through the deep-red Claron formation capping the Paunsaugunt. Travel authorities often rank this stretch of road among the nation's 10 most scenic highways. The plateau and its canyons, populated by stunted ponderosa pines, golden eagles and peregrine falcons, affords stunning views at almost every turn.
Despite its proximity to so much fine cycling and ski terrain, Panguitch offers few support services for human-powered recreationists. The town's only bike shop folded recently and the nearest bar is in Brian Head, so it's best to come well supplied.
On a recent sunny May weekend, Red Canyon's single-track was virtually empty except for a conspicuous group of about 20 male riders who had come from all over the West to attend a two-day bachelor party.
''Moab, schmoab,'' one of the die-hard bikers announced at the campfire in Corral Hollow where the group polished off a 15-gallon drum of Colorado barley soda and tormented the groom-to-be and anyone who tried to turn in early.
Lou Pisacane's friends were marveling at the quality of the 30-mile loop they strung together from their campsite that day. The real treat was Thunder Mountain Trail, an undulating eight-mile stretch of single track built five years ago south of the highway.
The preferred direction of travel starts at Coyote Hollow and heads west through several drainages before cresting Thunder Mountain amid a sea of knobby sandstone formations called hoodoos. Intermediate riders should have no problem negotiating this trail though some would want to walk the technical descents.
''Whoever constructed this trail is an artist and needs to be congratulated and put back to work,'' enthused one reviewer on the mtbreview.com Web site, which accorded Thunder Mountain consistent five-star reviews.
The seven-mile trail up Casto is suitable for novice riders, while the more adventurous can make a loop by cycling over the plateau and down Losee. Soon, equestrians and bikers will be able to ride the 78-mile Grand View Trail, a route under construction. It begins at Sheep Creek, eight miles west of Cannonville, contours under the rim of the Paunsaugunt Plateau south to the Alton area, then north to the Thunder Mountain trailhead on Utah 12.
''Some of the reasons we're doing that is to provide recreational opportunities to see some outstanding scenic country,'' said Gillette.
Red Canyon is already served with a visitors center and a 38-site campground, but there are alternatives for primitive camping up Corral Hollow. No camping is allowed with a quarter mile of the road except in developed areas.
People looking for an equestrian experience in Losee can choose between two outfitters that charge about $35 for half-day horse-back outings. Bryce Canyon Pines can be reached at (435) 634-5441 and Outlaw Trail Rides at (800) 468-8660. For more information, call Dixie National Forest at (435) 676-8815.
On the Net:
Dixie National Forest: http://www.fs.fed.us/dxnf/
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