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Thunder Mountain
Red Canyon, Utah

Just outside Bryce Canyon National Park, Thunder Mountain combines technical riding with amazing views. And you can ride it as a "scenic loop," a kick-butt downhill, or a serious hill climb. Before tackling Thunder Mountain, you should be comfortable riding on loose surfaces, near steep drops, and through tight switchbacks. The singletrack "business end" of the trail is 7.9 miles on narrow, slightly rough and occasionally loose surface. From the trail head to the top of the mountain, it's 1200 feet, but it feels like more. Adding the Red Canyon paved trail and the Fremont Trail forms a loop. 

Jackie pauses on the ridgeline, heading towards the top of Thunder Mountain. Photos by Bruce, July 17, 2001.

In the past, most riders did Thunder Mountain as a top-to-bottom with a shuttle vehicle. But with the construction of the Red Canyon paved trail (so you don't have to dodge traffic heading uphill on the highway), the 14.7 mile loop is a great ride.

Out-and-back is a brutal proposition, because it's easy to underestimate the beating your legs will take from the up-and-down of the top 4 miles. If you ride the trail as an out-and-back, it's 15.8 miles, and you'll probably do 3000 vertical.

Brucie attacks through the Claron Formation limestone. September 2003.

The trail begins at 7050 feet elevation, just off U-12, right where "Red Canyon" officially begins. If you elect the "hill climb option," you'll head south through a loosely-spaced forest of long-leaf pine and cedar then climb into an otherworldly area of open rock and strange vistas. After cresting the hill at 8200 feet elevation, you'll cruise through a moonscape of orange hills with sparsely placed trees.

View alongside the trail, lower on the Thunder Mountain Trail. The rock is very similar to Bryce Canyon.

Riding through the forests of the Thunder Mountain Trail will seem strange to bikers who are used to the dense brush and trees of the high Wasatch. Here, long-leaf pines stand well-apart, with low manzanita scrub on rocky soil, and a few cedars sneaking in between the pines.

View over the handlebars shows spaced long-leaf pine among manzanita. Manzanita is a handsome spreading shrub with round, firm light-green leaves growing on dark red branches.

Most riders do Thunder Mountain as a downhill with a shuttle. For this option, leave a car at the lower trailhead, then go to the Coyote Hollow trailhead at elevation 7800 feet. You'll climb slowly to 8200 feet, then begin a serious downhill. One of the ride's unforgettable moments is the 1/4 mile along the top of a sharp fin projecting from the valley floor 300 feet below, with rock falling away at 70 degrees on each side.

Some wierd trailside rock formations.

There are a couple of short climbs within the canyon, but it's a pretty fast ride when done from the top end.

For those without a shuttle car, consider doing the uphill on the paved bike trail (see Red Canyon Trail) that parallels U-12, up through Red Canyon. Turn right on the Fremont Trail and proceed to Coyote Hollow, then do the singletrack as a downhill. The loop option is 14.7 miles.

Walk up to one of the tall long-leaf pines and stick your nose in a crack in the bark.
Seriously. It smells like vanilla.

Riding the trail uphill, you must work your way up switchbacks out of steep Red Rock Canyon, among orange spires and odd shapes reminiscent of Bryce Canyon. It's 3.9 miles of tough climbing to the top of Thunder Mountain.

Preparing to drop down and through the creek in Red Rock Canyon.

Riding the ridgeline in the middle of the climb is wierd. You may hope that the climb is almost over, but no, you'll descend off this fin before the final attack on the summit.

View north as Dominic, Matt, and Mike thread along the top of the ridgeline fin. Headed downhill, we'll be dropping off this fin towards the rocks in the background via a series of sharp switchbacks into Red Rock Canyon. Photo September 2003.

The eastern 4 miles of singletrack is undulates up and down, back and forth. If your legs are fresh, you may consider this a cruise. But most riders will find this portion of the ride a satisfying bit of work. The soil here is colored like a giant melted orange creamsickle, with scattered trees and scrub struggling to survive.

Near the Coyote Hollow trailhead, the trail rolls up, down, and around mounds of orange and white rocky soil.

This soft rock originated at the bottom of a large lake that extended from eastern Utah into the Bryce Canyon area. It's called the Claron Formation, dating from about 40 million years ago, long after the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Bruce attacks an uphill section of Thunder Mountain.

Getting there, Coyote Hollow Trailhead:  Driving east on U-12, go all the way up Red Canyon until the road levels out in a steppe area at the top (about 8 miles from US-89). Watch for a gravel road GPS N 37 43.169' W 112 15.322' (on both the right and left sides of the road) about 1/2 mile after reaching the top of the hill. The road is labeled "Fremont ATV Trail." Turn right and drive 2.1 miles to the Coyote Hollow trailhead at GPS N 37 42.156' W 112 16.758'.
Thunder Mountain Trailhead: Drive east from US-89 on U-12 (about 3 miles) until you reach the Thunder Mountain parking area on your right, just before "Red Canyon" sign. GPS is N 37 44.595' W 112 19.747'.

Riding resources for this trail:
One-page guide to this trail
GPS track file (right-click and "Save as..."):
     Garmin      GPX
Topo maps for printing:   View Low-Res    High-Res
Lodging, camping, and shops:
    Link to Red Canyon area resources

Copyright 2004 Mad Scientist Software Inc

Thanks to Jon Parker for GPS track file.