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Marathon Trail

For years I ignored the "Marathon Trail." After all, the decent parts were already on this web site as other rides. But now it's time to publish. It's not that Marathon is suddenly awesome. It's that there's so much confusion about what, exactly, this "trail" is.

I'm seeing all sorts of rides uploaded to cycling websites labeled as "Marathon Trail" -- Bunker Creek, Dark Hollow, Sydney Peaks and Lowder Ponds -- because of the "Marathon" label on trail-posts in the Brian Head area.

The road portion does have some pretty meadows and groves of trees. Here lava boulders are giving way to aspens. Photos from rides 2001 through 2015, review based on latest ride by Bruce on July 23, 2015.

Here's what you need to understand:  The Marathon Trail is NOT a single, specific bike trail. It's a ROUTE, cobbled together from a bit of singletrack on the Lowder Ponds ride plus an awful lot of forest road. Some of that road is cindered Dodge-truck-pulling-camper type road and some is rough and bumpy, but it's road.

The Marathon route was 26.5 miles long, which was the rationale for the name "marathon." The trail was to link the south end of the town of Brian Head to the west end of Navajo Lake. And I say "was" because you cannot do the ride in the official trail description. If you found and printed the Forest Service Marathon Trail map showing a connection to the west end of the lake during your Google search, throw it away.

Heading east on the Sydney Peaks trail, one short part of the "Marathon Trail."

So this web page will tell you what you can do. And with the downloadable GPS files and trail map, perhaps you won't spend the night on the Markagunt Plateau hopelessly lost and unprepared for the cold.

Why would you want to ride the Marathon route? It's a way of pedaling your bike from Brian Head to the Duck Creek or Navajo Lake campgrounds that doesn't involve long miles on busy highway. Or something to try after you've done everything else.

First, find the trail. The trail connector shown on the Forest Service map no longer exists. You may spot a carsonite post marked "Marathon" at the roadside as Highway 143 exits the south end of Brian Head, but there's no trail there.

View of one of the Lowder Ponds in the singletrack portion of the Marathon route.

Instead, use the trailhead up on Brian Head Peak, starting your ride on the Sidney Peaks trail. This is the route for the Lowder Ponds loop, and also the beginning of the Bunker Creek and Dark Hollow rides. If you start at Sidney Peaks, your ride will have 4.7 miles of trail, and the remaining 20-whatever miles will be dirt road.

An alternative is to climb from the main resort parking lot via the Color Country Trail (see the map). It's a surprisingly long 5 miles (and 400 vertical) from the resort base up to the Sidney Peaks trail parking. This is your route for a loop ride with road return to Brian Head. See the GPS tracks below. This loop has 9.7 miles of singletrack, 14 miles of dirt road, and just over 13 miles on paved road (37 miles total).

Approaching Highway 143 (the road to Panguitch) on Sidney Valley Road.

Once you're on the Marathon Trail route, there will be trail markers (at first). You're following the Lowder Ponds loop ride, except that you'll turn downhill on the cindered Sidney Valley Road. From that point, the rest of the ride is now dirt (or cindered) roads.

A mile or so after crossing Highway 143, the road turns from cinders into regular dirt road. You'll pass a lot of spurs to primitive campsites, as well as forks to major forest roads. When in doubt, go straight south.

Looking east at Hancock Peak, a cinder cone from a prehistoric volcano. The sagebrush flat is called the Red Desert.

A bit further on, all "Marathon" signposts disappear. You'll need to navigate via the ATV trail designations and signposts. The roads have a forest road number and a separate ATV route number, as well as a name based on the road's destination, so any official map you take along may not correspond to what you see on a trail marker.

As you progress south, more of the forks are unmarked. So I highly recommend you navigate via a GPS device using my GPX files. (There's no cell reception in this area, so you can't download satellite images or other navigation helps.)

Several days since the last rainfall -- but still plenty of puddles.

The road will pass over a low hill where old chunk lava alternates with water-filled pits on the road surface. Slow going but satisfying in a perverse sort of way. No big trailers here.

The path then descends to the critical Duck Creek "T" intersection. To the left, the trail heads east then south to reach Highway 14 between Duck Creek Village and Duck Creek Campground. (There's an ATV route parallel to the highway that takes you to either destination.)

Climbing through a section studded with volcanic boulders. Missing that boring cindered part yet?

Even if you're heading for Navajo Lake, use the left Duck Creek path at the T. You can cross the highway at the Duck Creek Campground and follow dirt roads west to the lake.

The right fork takes you through the lava desert, where the surface is covered with volcanic boulders. Improved cindered roadway heads west to Highway 14 north of Navajo Lake. The main reason you'd ride this westbound road would be riding a loop with a road return to Brian Head.

The lava desert starts about 1/4 mile west of the "T" intersection to Duck Creek. It might be worthwhile to make a quick visit, even if Duck Creek is your destination.

FYI, the old official route leaves the main road about a mile before Highway 14. It heads south to cross the highway and meanders through a maze of forest roads down to Navajo Lake. Don't try it. Trust me, there's no cheese at the end of this maze. Pop up Google Earth (or GPS Visualizer or whatever) and eyeball the unbelievable bulldozerstorm of roadways between Highway 14 and west Navajo Lake. And on the ground, there are no "Marathon that-away" markers. Seriously. Don't go there.

Eastbound toward the highway -- the route for the "road return" option.

Bottom Line:
The Sidney Peaks and Lowder Ponds portion of the Marathon route is worth doing, but I'd suggest you simply do the formal Lowder Ponds ride. Or if you don't care for climbing, have your shuttle vehicle at the spot where Sidney Valley Road crosses Highway 143 southeast of Brian Head.
The full version of the official Marathon Trail route doesn't really exist at either end, so be careful what resources you use to plan your ride. The road portion of Marathon doesn't warrant recommendation as a stand-alone ride. Navigation can be challenging. But the forest roads provide a viable dirt route to Duck Creek if you don't get lost on the way.
Getting there:  On U-143 from Parowan, head up the canyon to Brian Head. Continue uphill past the resort for a mile or so. Just 1/4 mile past the summit sign, turn left on a gravel road (GPS N 37 40.136' W 112 50.350'). Drive 2.5 miles to the ridgeline of the mountain. Turn left into the parking area at 1.8 miles from the paved road. Cross the gravel road to singletrack to start riding.
Alternate:  Start from the main resort parking lot and follow Color Country, then the Marathon signs, uphill to the ridgetop parking lot.

Shuttle service:  Brian Head Resort can deliver you to the upper trailhead and pick you up at Duck Creek. It isn't one of their regularly scheduled shuttle runs, but they're happy to do it if you give them enough notice and can meet their minimum charge. See the resources link below for contact info.

Riding resources for this trail:
GPS track files (right-click and "Save as..."):
     GPX track, resort parking to east Highway 14
     Brian Head peak to Highway 14 at Duck Creek
     Multi-track file
High-res topo map for printing:   View map
Lodging, camping, shops: 
     Links to Cedar City - Brian Head area resources