The central range of the Wasatch mountains runs north-south from Salt Lake City to Provo. These are the mountains that are famous for ski areas like Alta and Snowbird and lake-effect snow. And in the summer, there are hundreds of miles of singletrack for hiking and biking. The iconic Wasatch Crest Trail straddles the ridge separating Park City and Canyons from Big Cottonwood Canyon. This ride can be 13, 25, or more than 40 miles depending on whether you pedal or shuttle from Park City, ride all the way to Salt Lake City, or even start in Midway if you’re up for a big grind. Each route shares the same high-alpine flowing singletrack and incredible views of Park City, Big Cottonwood Canyon, and Salt Lake City. The changing leaves are stunning in the fall, and wildflowers abound during the summer. This is a truly magnificent ride and one that every mountain biker (or hiker) needs to add to their bucket list. And within this iconic trail is an iconic feature called The Spine.
If you were to shuttle The Crest and start from Guardsman Pass, then The Spine is about six miles into the ride. I’ve never measured it, but the Trailforks app claims The Spine is 500+ feet long with nearly a hundred feet of descent. That’s pretty quick! And it’s rough—technical features make it additionally tricky. It’s literally an outcropping of jagged rock with multiple options for riding. It’s not for beginners and realistically should be checked out every time one rides it—even the experts. Here’s our breakdown of this legendary piece of trail.
The Spine has three distinct line choices: rider’s right, middle, and left. Each of these are difficult and require riding steep, rough, and exposed rocky surfaces. If you’re feeling intimidated, then the rider’s left line is the ‘easiest’ option; however, I still categorize it as difficult for intermediate riders. The middle is actually a bit of a ‘choose your own adventure’ with a few different options. And on the right is the highest line that’s most consequential.
Rider’s Left: This line was carved out over time by Crest riders who were not looking to ride the more consequential middle or right lines. It does require riding rough and jagged rocky surfaces, loose dirt and gravel, and navigating a few tight spots between rocks and logs. From the top, you have to skirt along the bottom of The Spine feature itself before navigating around an old log. Next, you’re on a bit of a bench cut in dirt, and then it’s up and over more rocks, but they are smoother. A good intermediate rider will have no problem with the left line; and it’s a solid choice if it’s your first time riding the Wasatch Crest Trail.
Rider’s Middle: The middle line shares the same rocky entrance as the right line (see section below). The goal here is to maintain momentum through the jagged rocks before you hit a relatively smooth rock shelf. I heard rumors that this part of The Spine was even jackhammered down to be smoother. But the real move comes after that when you have to roll down the back side. The smoothest way is through a narrow rock chute. Too far left or right and you’ll clip a pedal or your derailleur. The whole thing is roll-able and doesn’t require any airtime, but it’s a sniper move that drops about 20 feet of elevation on a very steep piece of trail. At this point, the middle joins the smoother and less consequential left line. Getting off-line here could be bad. If you don’t make the chute, then you may be forced into riding fall line toward the lower left line. Depending on your skills, this could be okay or bad. It’s best to look at the middle line and the exit chute before riding so you know where to line up.
Rider’s Right: As I mentioned above, the right line is highly consequential. It’s exposed and steep on either side.
If the wind is moving quickly, then it can feel very unnerving—essentially since you’re riding across ridges of rocks that are about six to eight feet above the lower middle line. At the narrowest point, the right line is about eight to twelve inches wide, although there are a few extra inches outside of these parameters on either side to put your foot down if need be. And at 500+ feet long, you have to maintain this thin ribbon with plenty of momentum to get up and over the rocks. On the south side of the right line is a steep run into the Fantasy Ridge area of Park City Mountain. If you’ve ever skied Canyons, then you know this is a go-to area for fun, technical terrain. But if you fall here on your bike, then you may roll for a bit until you can self-arrest. This is high consequence. I have personally opted out of riding the right line when it’s windy because of the risk of being blown off the side.
There are two entrances to the right line: a bit of smooth singletrack that flows along the right side with exposure to rider’s right and the more direct left entrance that’s much rougher since you’re riding right through the gut of the top of The Spine. Both entrances end with riding up and on top of a narrow shelf. At this point, it’s all about maintaining momentum and only using your brakes to control your speed and not necessarily to slow down.
The crux of the line is about 3/4 of the way through. You have to make a slight left at a narrow point and then right to set up for a fast descent down the far side. It’s easy to get lost in here, and the best way to know where to go is to walk the line beforehand. After that, keep a consistent pull on your brakes to measure your speed and point it straight off the back. This part is very steep and is a bit like riding down steep steps. If you use too much front brake, then you’re going over the bars here as your front wheel could easily get stuck in between two crossing ridges of rocks.
Riding steep, technical terrain requires the right form, braking, and momentum to navigate successfully. First of all, put that seat down! Most bikes nowadays include a dropper, so put that sucker all the way down. Your riding posture and body tension is important as well. Stay loose and centered over your bike. Your suspension, wheels, and tires will do a lot of the work for you, like absorbing the hits and maintaining traction. Staying loose will complement your bike and allow you to quickly adjust your body weight as needed. The jagged, rough rocks have lots of ‘holes’ that can catch your wheel—stopping you and potentially putting you over the bars. Keeping your momentum is key to staying on top of the rocks and rolling over or through them. Use your brakes to control your speed but not so much that you slow down and kill your momentum. This is a skill that requires practice and is necessary for riding a feature like The Spine.
Proceed With Caution
The best way to ride The Spine is to stop and look first. Each line is totally doable, but should be scoped out. The real issue is that the Wasatch Crest Trail is a long way from help. If you break a wrist or separate a shoulder, then it’s a long, uncomfortable walk out. And if something more serious were to happen (God forbid), then EMS will take a long time to reach you. The best way through The Spine is to understand your limits and your riding abilities. And there is absolutely ZERO shame in walking any part of The Spine.
It’s all for fun in my opinion, and the Wasatch Crest Trail offers more with incredibly fun, flowy, and fast singletrack—and not to mention incredible views of Park City, Big Cottonwood Canyon, and Millcreek Canyon. The ride is more than the sum of its parts, and one shouldn’t get too hung up on The Spine that requires advanced mountain bike skills. But hey, when you’re there, pick it apart, and give it—or just parts—a shot. After riding it once, you’ll be really excited to hit it every time you ride the Wasatch Crest Trail.
By Paul Boyle, Ecommerce Manager, jans.com