Isaac's Rad, Raging, Real-World Ride Review of His Santa Cruz Hightower
Late last year, Contender hosted a Santa Cruz Megatower demo which gave me the opportunity to use a Megatower for a full day of riding. I ended up doing a 43-mile adventure ride on the Megatower and absolutely loved it. It also confirmed to me that a full 170mm enduro bike is a bit too much travel for me to enjoy day in and day out, especially with the more relaxed trails in our area and the bike’s slower climbing capability.
Coming off of owning almost nothing but 100-120mm XC/downcounty bikes, I found the extra traction, travel, braking power, and descending-oriented geometry to be a world of difference. Compared to my XC bikes, I had no idea how hard I could push a bike on the downhill and how aggressive you could ride on super rough and chunky terrain. It blew my mind. I walked away wanting something I could push as hard as the Megatower on the descents, but something that would have more climbing capability. Enter the Hightower V3 into my stable. Recently, I reviewed the tech aspects of the Hightower that influenced my decision to purchase it. After spending some serious time on the bike, I am ready for a rad, raging, real-world ride review.
The Hightower is the “do-it-all” bike of Santa Cruz’s lineup. Want to hit an after-work lap of a relaxed flow trail? It can do that. A five-hour adventure ride with a decent bit of pedaling? It can do that. Go take it on some of the jump lines at I street or or your favorite park? That too. Want to get super rowdy on some of the roughest rock gardens in the Wasatch? Well of course! How about park laps at Deer Valley or Park City Mountain? Every day.
Santa Cruz has many bikes in their lineup, and they are all very good at what they are meant for. If you were to only ride those park laps I was talking about, the Nomad would be better suited. Super rocky and rough trail, the Megatower or Bronson. All-day adventure rides? The Tallboy. The super relaxed fun flow trail? The 5010. All of those bikes would perform better than the Hightower in those specific scenarios. These bikes are oriented to those specific kinds of trails, while the Hightower can do all of those almost equally. The Hightower doesn't excel in any category, it doesn't specialize in anything. To a lot of people, that means this bike has no allure. However, it will perform the same in almost every scenario. This is truly the do-it-all rig for me.
I picked the GX AXS C kit in a size large (I’m 6’1). This kit is spec'd with the SRAM GX AXS drivetrain, Santa Cruz's carbon frame and carbon 35 handlebar, along with SRAM Code RS brakes. The Fox 36 Performance Elite fork, Rockshox Super Deluxe + rear shock, and the RaceFace ARC 30 alloy rims with i9 1/1 hubs complete the kit. Overall, a pretty great build kit, but definitely not the nicest one they make.
On to my personal changes, I cut my bars down to 770mm and upped my front rotor to 200mm. I changed the tires out to make my rear tire have an EXO+ casing instead of just the EXO, and changed my front tire from a 2.4 Maxxis Minion DHR II to a Maxxis Assegai 2.5 EXO+ front. These would be my two "faults" I might mention about the bike, as a 150mm bike should already be coming with a 200mm front rotor, and at least an EXO+ rear casing tire. Luckily, these can be changed pretty easily so it's not a huge deal. As for moving my front tire to something with more grip, that was just personal preference. No hate to Santa Cruz there.
Climbing is where the Hightower really shines. The updated VPP lets you pedal with confidence, holds traction over steeper and rougher climbs, and has great small bump compliance making for a comfortable, yet supportive climbing bike. The bike has a very comfortable position when seated, making it easy for you to want to stay in the saddle all day long. When compared to other trail bikes with similar travel sizes, this bike has a slacker seat tube angle. While bikes that are super long and slacked out do need that steep seat tube angle to make climbing easier, the Hightower is not one of them. Due to the Hightower’s slacker seat tube, it feels more comfortable to pedal around all day when compared to bikes like the Megatower and makes it easier to get around in those winding climbs.
For those of you familiar with the Salt Lake and Park City trail systems, you might recognize the trail Road To Arcylon. This trail is fun, short, and has plenty of trail bike-sized features: gaps, drops, big corners, tables, rock gardens, and a nice short but winding climb. This also happens to be a trail I have done multiple laps on, with multiple bikes. I have done this trail on the 2023 Santa Cruz Megatower (Enduro bike, 170 mm of travel, 33.6 pounds), the 2022 Giant Anthem (XC bike, 100 R/120 mm F travel, 23.89 pounds), and finally the 2023 Hightower itself. This is considered my “test loop”. The Hightower was slower climbing than the Giant Anthem by 28 seconds on average, but was faster than the Megatower by a 22 second average. This was a perfect example of how the Hightower ends up being a perfect middle-ground bike, meant to be a “do it all”. On the uphill section of this trail I actually preferred to climb it with the rear shock unlocked, as the bike felt super comfortable in that range. However, on fire roads and other smooth long climbs, I did find myself hitting that pedal switch on the rear shock. Overall, I was fairly impressed. I did end up lowering my stem 20mm, to feel a little more reminiscent of my XC bikes, and I found that I liked the position more for tight twisty climbing.
When I first got this bike, I wasn't quite sure how the bike would handle while descending. I already knew it was going to do it better than any of my XC bikes. However, the bike I rode two days before was the Megatower, so I had no idea how it would compare to that descending monster either. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised when I dropped into my first downhill. The bike immediately made me feel at home and comfortable, all while being perfectly centered in between both wheels. It inspired confidence in my riding when compared to an XC bike. I didn't feel like it was lacking too much, even in rough terrain, and it blew through corners. I found this bike much easier to jump and pop for sending tables and gaps, and easier to rail through corners than the Megatower.
Road to Arcylon Profile & Map
When taken on my test loop, it performed remarkably. On the descent, The Giant Anthem set an average time of 1:38. The Hightower's average time was 1:16; 22 seconds faster. Surprisingly, the Megatower averaged 1:17; one second slower. The Arcylon trail could have been just flowy enough, and had enough tight corners to make the Megatower slow down. It was a totally different story on the Honeycomb Canyon trail. Honeycomb Canyon is a double black trail, 1.5 miles long, and loses 1500 vertical feet, with an average gradient of -19.6%. Super steep, technical, and known as the longest rock garden in the Wasatch. This trail almost has no corners or turns in it, so the Hightower was not able to edge out the Megatower here. The Megatower finished with a time of 6:40, and the Hightower with a time of 7:13, 33 seconds slower. To be fair, I wouldn't have even ridden the Giant down this in the first place.
I have always felt at home riding the Hightower on most trails in Salt Lake City. I’ve taken it down Bobsled, Dead Reckoning, the Crest, Honeycomb Canyon, Tidal Wave, Tsunami, Terror Ridge, Jacob’s Ladder, Redbull, WoW, and Rush - just to name a few. While not all of those trails are the most technical, it felt comfortable on them all.
The Santa Cruz Hightower is the company’s bread and butter, and it has quickly become mine as well. It's able to tackle nearly anything. It is always fun to ride and can go anywhere. I've ridden bikes that go downhill better, and I've ridden bikes that climb better. I've ridden bikes that are easier to throw around. However, I’ve never ridden a bike that can do as many things so well like the Hightower. While it doesn't specialize in anything, it’s capable of everything. It's an incredible bike, and if you were to ask me what mountain bike I would ride if I only could choose one, this would be my answer. It's definitely something that will remain in my stable for a while.
All of this does come with a price. At first glance, the GX AXS kit that I have is pricier in comparison to some of the other brands that we have at the shop. Santa Cruz’s lifetime warranty, lifetime bearing replacement, top-tier customer service and incredible quality all factor into that price. This bike has evolved and aged like a fine wine, which possibly was the inspiration for the beautiful dark burgundy paint job (called Translucent Purple). The Hightower is definitely a bike meant to be that easy to maintain quiver killer we all dream of.