Long Term Review

2018 Santa Cruz Hightower LT

Words Cam McRae
Photos Dave Smith
Date Jan 12, 2018

Some bike tests follow a simple arc. The bike gets deciphered in linear fashion and I learn its foibles and superpowers incrementally. Other times it’s more of a rough ride, and after a solid start my relationship with the HTLT encountered some troubles.


This bike is not afraid of the tight and twisty...

My early rides on the bike showed real promise, as reflected in my first impressions piece. In retrospect these trails were relatively one-dimensional. I rode some steep and dusty interior B.C. sliders and some steep technical North Shore lines, but little else. Everything looked peachy at that point but varied terrain revealed what seemed to be tuning issues. Despite being systematic and careful with the set up, going over sag multiple times and methodically tweaking the damping, I couldn’t get the rear end to feel right.


or the steep.

Finding a balance of proper ride height, bottom out resistance/big hit performance and small bump compliance was like getting Donald to praise CNN. I settled on middle ground that made cornering a challenge because the mid stroke wasn’t cutting it, while high speed rough sections felt chattery and unstable. When I upped the pressure to prevent bottom out, most suppleness disappeared. The bright lights among you are probably realizing one possible remedy (it seems obvious in retrospect), but I kept thinking that it was me and that I hadn’t found the right settings.


The Maxxis Minion DHR2 rubber front and rear did a great job - even on wet wood.

When SRAM sent us a Shockwiz turning device, I thought deliverance was at hand. Unfortunately my initial readings told me I was almost dead on and after a couple of clicks I was getting perfect readings from the device without any improvement in the performance of the Fox DPX2. I was flummoxed.


According to Shockwiz everything was dialled.

Fortunately shortly after this I ran into Arthur Gaillot of SuspensionTherapy. Arthur had set up several riders on the HTLT and he felt that the factory tune wasn't ideal for our combination of continuous impacts of both high and low intensity. Luckily his solution was a simple one; a single 0.2 inch volume spacer (the smallest) added to the rear shock.


The HTLT is extremely eager when the throttle is wide open.

Arthur also suggested the damper in my DPX2 Evol needed a bleed. I had noticed an unusually loud squelch but I assumed this was normal having spent very little time on this particular shock. Arthur told me that having a bad damper bleed is like having air in your brake lines; everything is negatively affected. The damper adjustments become less effective and traction, support and compliance are all compromised. Arthur's tune, which put me at 165 psi, was based on the squelchy damper.

Things were a little better after the tune and then I took the rear shock to James Downing of Suspensionwerx for the bleed. When I got it back the shock sucked much less… er loudly, on return and compression and it allowed me to increase the pressure to 192 psi, which is where I started out. And finally the bike began to sing. Cornering became far more predictable and natural with better mid stroke support and big hit performance was wicked but without any compromise to small bump compliance. Game on.


The Hightower in the wild.

Downhill Performance

After the dust settled I began to get rowdy (for me) on the HTLT. Now that it’s predictable I find myself going into corners a little too fast, throwing the bike onto the side knobs to explore the limits of traction. The bike is now eager to get off the ground and swap lines in exuberant fashion. Can I say lively? How about playful?


Once I got the rear shock sorted I didn't feel like I had to get my belly button past the stem to corner properly.


Dave's favourite days in the woods are often the nastiest.


I'll put up with some rain for moody shots like this.

Traction on rough cornering ruts is decent but not as compliant as some other bikes I’ve ridden like the Norco Range 9.2 or the Yeti SB 5.5, which both carry speed very well in those situations. The HTLT however transitions between consecutive tight corners as well as any 29er I’ve ridden and on smoother curves or loose ground it’s excellent.


Clearing drains between shots.


Impromptu trail maintenance can be very satisfying.

Confidence on steep lines continues to be extremely high and only limited by the SRAM Guide brakes. The set on this bike has performed adequately but now that I’ve experienced the joy of new SRAM Codes it’s clear they belong on this bike.

This LT’s happy place is rough high speed straights. Once up to speed it seems to float over heavy impacts and remain confidently planted. Fromme was once traversed by horse-logging era corduroy roads, built by placing logs perpendicular to the direction of travel as a rough but supportive base. A few sections have been incorporated in current trails and I’ve never travelled them faster than on the born again HTLT.*

*these were the worst sections before I received help from Arthur and James


There isn’t a downhill I’d shy away from because of this bike; it’s generally ready for more than I am.


If you read my first impressions piece on the HTLT you will know that this is a bit of a Frankenbike. Santa Cruz wanted to turn this around quickly because the company's enduro racers wanted it and because the market was hungry for a big wheeler that devours big bumps. Instead of starting from scratch, the front triangle from the original Hightower was used along with a new linkage, swingarm and a longer stroke shock. Clearly you are going to have some compromises with a design like this and one was the seat tube angle, which tips back to 73.7º from 74.3º. Even the more dh focussed Nomad is steeper at 74.1º. Moving the saddle forward on the rails (thanks Arthur) put me in a more comfortable climbing position and helped me dig in but this might make things cramped for some longer limbed types.*

*I am 6' tall but proportionally longer of leg


At first I felt the HTLT was a little stodgy in the tight and twisty but once the shock was fixed it became slithery and willing.

The HTLT is a solid fire road climber. It provides a stable platform when seated even without any extra support but for out of the saddle efforts it was more efficient in firm mode. On rougher singletrack ascents the bike is capable but less active than other bikes in this category, the Yeti SB 5.5 being an example. Where the Yeti seems to move upward with ease or even give you a boost when obstacles bar your way, the HTLT is more likely to let you know, slowing your progress some. Even so the bike winched me up some very challenging sections of trail making this is a relatively minor complaint.


From the Fox 36 to the Eagle drivetrain, the component spec was almost spot on. The only improvement I'd ask for is Code brakes to replace the Guides. I even liked the WTB Silverado saddle, the Santa Cruz grips and bar and the Maxxis rubber. Nailed it. I never did try the fork at 160mm but the gravity set should consider that change.


The bike came adorned with Santa Cruz's new Reserve wheels and they have been passed around a little. Summer is a busy time for me and I knew I wouldn't be able to adequately abuse the Reserves so I passed them to my buddy Trevor who rides harder and more frequently and outweighs me by two stone. They came back to me well worn but true and round. Shortly after I put them back on the Hightower I caught a spoke on a branch and it shot through the rim strip breaking the seal. After repairing the flat, I rode the wheels for 5 or 6 rides without replacing the broken spoke to see how it would fare and it never veered from true.


The Santa Cruz Reserve wheels lived up to the hype.


We did our best to abuse them but we didn't even put them out of true - despite breaking a spoke.

Trevor felt that traction improved while riding the Specialized Enduro with the Reserve wheels, likely thanks to their good compliance. We couldn't find anything to complain about and they remain as true as when the bike first arrived.

Summing up

Despite being an amalgam of old and new frame components, the finished HTLT lacks very little. While it has strengths and weaknesses, there is nothing it does poorly and it's as good as they come in a few categories. In the end you're left with a Swiss Army bike; a downhill beast that'll easily conquer a four hour climb and a nimble singletrack sprite that obliterates rough straightaways. I rode this on some of the nastiest North Shore descents and also pedalled up to Lord Of The Squirrels in Whistler, and the HTLT was never out of place.

For more on the spec and my early impressions of the Hightower LT click here...

For info from the Santa Cruz website click here...

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momjijimike  - Jan. 12, 2018, 5:08 a.m.


thanks for your review!

May I ask you if you have a comparison to Santa Cruz Bronson?

Would you say the LT is like a Bronson on 29"?

Currently I'm very happy with my Bronson and I'm thinking of buying the reserver wheels, but on the other side could it be that my next bike is a 29". So may it would be wise to save the money for the next bike?

Thanks! Greetings, Mike


Cam McRae  - Jan. 14, 2018, 10:08 p.m.

I must admit that the Bronson is a gap in my knowledge. I have only ridden one for a few minutes but I would say that's likely an accurate comparison. Many of Santa Cruz's enduro riders were on the Bronson before the HTLT arrived and it seems most of them have made the switch.


Kenny  - Jan. 17, 2018, 10:34 p.m.

I would wait a year or so. To a degree, the high tower LT is the result of science project type bike building with the primary goal being to win EWS stages. I'm not saying it's not a good result, but I get the feeling Santa Cruz is going to keep refining its long travel 29er options and it might be worth waiting, especially since you are already on what is a very well sorted ride at the moment (I have a bronson 2 as well and also love it but am also intrigued by the new wave of 29ers). 

Another thought I have for the interim is to buy a modern 29er hardtail (probably a rootdown or  similar) to see how I like the concept in general. Ahhh the wonderful excuses we can come up with to buy more bikes eh? Cheers!


Merwinn  - Jan. 12, 2018, 9:55 a.m.

Cam, do you think Codes would be a better pick because of the intended use of the bike (enduro) or more because of the terrain on the West coast (read: steep, tech and occasionally fast)?


Dave Smith  - Jan. 12, 2018, 12:20 p.m.

Speaking for myself, I prefer the Codes for that exact reason of terrain. I've had a few versions of the Guides now on my personal bike and have tried the Codes on a few test bikes. The performance in snarly terrain is noticable and as I'm given to carrying a heavy load on my back I have appreciated the stopping power more when I have gone back to the Guide brakes - I would believe the Code-based hype.


Cam McRae  - Jan. 14, 2018, 10:09 p.m.

Both Merwinn. I'm certain that in some places Guides would do just fine, but why would you need 150mm of travel in those places?


Bogey  - Jan. 12, 2018, 9:55 a.m.

I just picked up a HTLT after demoing one this past summer (finding an XXL size was not easy). I went into the demo day looking for a Nomad3 replacement so I demoed a N4 and a HTLT.

On paper the HTLT didn’t hit the geometry numbers that the N4 did but I was blown away by the ride. No doubt there is a bit of suppleness lost through the VPP but the bike is so efficient and rides really well everywhere. 

The DPX2 was so controlled and so quiet that I put one on my Tallboy3. It work amazingly well on the TB3 too.  It certainly makes sense that yours was junk after hearing the noise from it because they’re typically silent.

I’m thinking of going with a Float X2 on the HTLT. I had one on my N3 and it brought the rear suspension feel up a notch or two. Thoughts?


Vincent Edwards  - Jan. 12, 2018, 2:14 p.m.

How big of an improvement did you notice putting the DPX2 on your Tallboy 3? Also, how big is the difference between the 2 bikes (HTLT and Tallboy3) - Do you feel like you gain a lot by owning both? I have a Tallboy 3 (which is awesome for 90% of my local trails) and have been thinking about picking up the HTLT for big days on gnarlier terrain.


Bogey  - Jan. 16, 2018, 8:30 a.m.

For me, the DPX2 swap on the TB3 was a great move. It feels better when climbing because it props the back end up a bit more than the stock Float DPS and it is far smoother on rough singletrack and downhills. The bike just flows better and skips around less. 

It is very obvious that the stock DPs is overtaxed compared to the DPX2. Now the shock is almost completely silent and goes about its business without any sort of complaint whereas the DPS was noisy and choked up when the going got rough.

I definitely need to add a volume spacer to stop it from using so much travel. That should bring it to a 9/10. 

There is a pretty big difference between the two bikes. The overall ride feel is similar which speaks to how well the HTLT climbs but with the increased travel, stiffer frame, slacker geo and Fox 36 up front it is hard to find the limits of the HTLT. On rough North Shore trails I can find the limit of the TB3 pretty easily when chasing faster friends.

On smoother, rolling trails I'd pick the TB3 all day but on anything steeper and rougher it is nice to have that extra margin for error (and comfort)  of the burlier bike.


Chad K  - Jan. 18, 2018, 1:18 p.m.

Bogey, I also am curious about your experience with the DPX2. I have wanted to put one on the back of my TB3 for a bit now, but never ended up doing so.

I have a few questions, if you wouldn't mind:

1) what do you mean by props the back up? As in it sits less into the travel?

2) Can you still fit a regular sized water bottle? I normally ride 1-2 hr rides with just a bottle and don't want to give that up

3) Did you get the shock tuned to match the bike? I know the bike comes with a light tune. Also, did you get the appropriate length shock?


Salespunk  - Jan. 12, 2018, 5:51 p.m.

The X2 makes the bike significantly more supple off the top while ramping up well.  Love my X2 setup.


Cr4w  - Jan. 15, 2018, 8:49 a.m.

Are you happy with the STA of the XXL?


Jitensha Kun  - Jan. 15, 2018, 9:11 a.m.

It seems a bit slack when you look at what GeoMetron  is doing.


Bogey  - Jan. 16, 2018, 8:41 a.m.

I'm completely happy with it. I test rode the bike several times before deciding to buy one and only on a couple of steep gravel road pitches did I wish for a steeper STA. As it sits, the bike is very well balanced and is perfect for 95% of the riding that I do. The eSTA is neither slack nor steep. 

Going only on feel, it is steeper than a Following and Slash. My legs aren't very long for my height so I don't have a ton of seatpost showing (I can fit a 170mm dropper with plenty of room though).

I've ridden bikes with steeper STAs and find that they can be a bit awkward on swoopy singletrack because the fore/aft balance is a bit off. They have to be REALLY long in reach to feel balanced and the HTLT is about as long as I can handle on our local trails. My Honzo isn't quite as long as the HTLT but I find that the STA is too speed and the cockpit feels too tight on many trails.


egoldmann  - Jan. 25, 2018, 7:46 a.m.

How does the HTLT compare to the Nomad 3? Thinking about making the switch and the only comparisons I can find are with the N4.


+1 Cam McRae
Raymond Epstein  - Jan. 12, 2018, 10:03 a.m.

I believe it was over at Vital where they tested the LT with a 160mm fork. This is exactly how I'd set it up and furthermore I think its interesting how every build option (outside of the base level R kit) only offers Fox for suspension. I'd love to set it up with a Lyrik and a Super Deluxe (likely with an Avalanche SSD tune) as I think it would destroy like this.


JVP  - Jan. 12, 2018, 10:59 a.m.

Having had both a 36 and a Lyrik recently on the same bike, I can confidently say the 36 with HSC/LSC is a far, far better fork in every way. Not even close. Lyrik lacks good damping and control, and ramps up too quickly at the end after blowing through travel, even after fiddling with spacers.  Feels fine on mellow rides, but gives up the ghost when you really need the support.

RS is a few steps behind Fox and the other top-end fork makers in terms of fork performance at the moment.  They need to step up their game.

I've been quite happy with the Rockshox Super Deluxe, no complaints there.


Raymond Epstein  - Jan. 12, 2018, 11:45 a.m.

I'm glad you like Fox. They've never been impressive for me. I've had no real issues with assorted Rock Shox products I've had over the last decade. They've been dependable, easy to dial in, simple to maintain and simple in general. On a handful of occasions when I've been able to ride comparable Fox equipped bikes on demos on the exact same trails at best they felt equal to similar Rock Shox set ups. The increased cost, poor maintenance history and complexity without any perceptible gains just doesn't work for me. Again though, whatever turns you on.


Salespunk  - Jan. 12, 2018, 5:53 p.m.

I have mine setup with a 160 36 and a single offset bushing.  65.5* HA FTW!


+1 Cr4w
Jitensha Kun  - Jan. 12, 2018, 1:09 p.m.

I was extremely close to buying a HTLT, largely based on the XXL size offering.  However, I couldn't get over the feeling that it was a slapped together design from Santa Cruz. Sort of a "we need a bigger travel big wheel so what have we got we can put together?".  

Being SC I knew it'd be a good bike, but I also feel the next bike they build will be better.  Hightower Vs. Tallboy.  Bronson Vs. Blur LT.  See where I'm going with this?

If SC can steepen up that ST, stretch the cockpit a wee bit, and add 10mm of travel I'll be first in line with my cash in hand.


Bogey  - Jan. 12, 2018, 1:29 p.m.

I was thinking the same thing until I got some tests rides in. After that my only thought was that they finally made a proper Hightower.

The XXL is a huge bike. You want more!?


TheBikeDads.com  - Jan. 12, 2018, 1:09 p.m.

I’ve been loving my HTLT. I’m having the same issue with getting my rear shock feeling right. 

What settings other than the tiny air spacer did you end up with Cam?


Jitensha Kun  - Jan. 12, 2018, 1:54 p.m.

It was the rebuild and the spacer that sounds like it did it.


Andrew Major  - Jan. 12, 2018, 5:49 p.m.

Not HTLT specific but with Fox EVOL air cans you can’t just rely on a specific sag number because with their air spring curve a range of pressures can deliver the same setting.

For example there could be a 30psi+ range with the HTLT that delivers the same sag number but if you’re running it too soft your fork will feel overly firm and you won’t get proper support cornering.

If you haven’t already, start with the HTLT Base Settings and then add 10psi if you need a bit more support to balance with your fork settings. Just remember the only hard and fast across platform rule of suspension setup - fork firmer (sag) and faster (rebound) than the shock.


+1 Cam McRae
Lowcard  - Jan. 14, 2018, 7:50 a.m.

I have a DVO Jade with Super Alloy Racing coil on my regular HT. Feels great! This frame has 13% progression, so a coil is a good option. There was virtually no set up time. I bolted it up, turned a couple dials and... done!


+1 Cam McRae
AdeMiller  - Jan. 15, 2018, 4:47 p.m.

Great review.


+1 Cam McRae
wrx  - Jan. 16, 2018, 1:13 p.m.

Nice review as someone see-sawing between the HT and HTLT. Incredible photos, not black and white more like brown and white? Whatever it is, I cant smell it and feel the dirt.


Mikeybikey  - Feb. 7, 2018, 4:08 p.m.

Great review!  At 6’ are you riding a large or an XL?


cstitz  - June 24, 2018, 2:45 p.m.

Mr. McRae,

Would you mind sharing your weight?  I'm setting up my HTLT and am trying to choose which volume spacer to start with in the DPX2.  Thanks!


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