Refined, not redefined, is the tagline for the Santa Cruz Hightower 3. Much to my liking, Santa Cruz hasn’t gone out and radically changed the Hightower. The Hightower 2 was (and still is) an excellent all-mountain bike. I’ve always described it as the most all-mountain, all-mountain bike you can ride. It goes up, down, left, and right without any complaints. It’s the kind of bike you can take anywhere and be pretty comfortable riding. The third iteration takes that same idea and refines it with an updated suspension design and minor geometry tweaks. Santa Cruz says it’s their “Greatest hits compiled into one bike.”
Santa Cruz Hightower – What’s new
Let’s start with the suspension. The first few Lower-Link VPP bikes tended to be a little heavy on the traction emphasis and a little light on the fun factor for me. It makes sense, as Lower-Link VPP started with the V10. Each new bike Santa Cruz designs tends to get a little better and more refined. Things started to get really good with the Heckler 9 launch last year. Since then, Santa Cruz has been on a heater with suspension. The Hightower 3 is no exception. *NERD ALERT* It sees reduced anti-squat in the first 40% of the travel and a little more linear leverage ratio. It also sees more progressivity in the end stroke. What does that mean on the trail? The reduced anti-squat will help with suspension sensitivity. The updated leverage curve will keep the suspension more consistent with better bottom-out support—more on that in the ride impressions.
Next up, we have the minor geo tweaks. You’ll not be surprised to hear that the Hightower 3 gets slacker and longer. The Head tube angle is now 64.5/64.8° paired to a 76.6/76.9° seat tube angle. The reach stays about the same at 492/495mm in a size XL. The wheelbase is what grows the most due to the slacker head tube angle and new size-specific chainstays. The wheelbase on my XL test bike is 1276mm with 440mm chainstays. Each frame gets a specific chainstay length that varies from 431 on a size small to 443 on the XXL. All frame sizes see an increased stack height, keeping the front end taller and more confident on the descents. I appreciate that Santa Cruz doesn’t always go overboard when it comes to the slacker, longer and lower treatment. Some might see it as being too conservative, but not every bike has to push the envelope to be a good bike for a lot of people, myself included.
A new feature that many folks will love is the sag window cut into the shock tunnel. In the past, setting sag on Santa Cruz frames has been a little tricky. It’s hard even to see where the sag indicator is, let alone gets your hand in there to move it. The new Hightower features a cutout on the non-drive side of the shock tunnel, so you can more easily set up your suspension.
Oh, it also gets the Glovebox like the new Megatower—praise be! Now let’s get into how this thing rides.
Santa Cruz Hightower 3 Review
I did all of my test riding over a crash course (literally) in Oakridge, Oregon. The PNW has seen unseasonably wet conditions this spring. For a Utah desert guy like me, the conditions were a bit challenging, to say the least. The 2” of mucky pine needle stew didn’t make for fast-rolling climbs. That said, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the Hightower’s efficiency and ability to keep the rear wheel stuck on the ground.
The biggest change I notice with the Hightower 3 is the suspension platform. It feels vastly better up and down the mountain than older iterations. The same traction I’m used to with older Sant Cruz bikes is still present, but the bike has a little more giddy-up. I’d imagine this comes down to multiple factors, including suspension updates, geometry, and body position on the bike.
When I first jumped on the Megatower earlier this year, I couldn’t help but be surprised by how well it climbed especially compared to previous generation Lower-Link VPP bikes. It had some pep in its step that I hadn’t expected. The new Hightower is the same but shifted down the burly scale a few notches. It has an energetic quality to it on the climbs. You hit the gas and the bike starts moving. It put it up against the likes of the Orbea Occam, Giant Trance X, and Ibis Ripmo. It’s certainly a more efficient and adept climber than the gen. 2 Hightower.
The climbs on our test trails were steep, narrow, and slick. The rear suspension did an excellent job of keeping the rear wheel from spinning out. I only had a few instances where the back wheel spun on a root or wet rock. It’s a smooth climber too. It feels very quiet over small trail chatter, although our test trails were pretty smooth to begin with.
I’m tall and lanky, so I struggle a bit with slacker seat tubes. The Hightower 2 was about as slack as I can go. The newest Hightower is brought up to modern standards for steep seat tubes. Even with my saddle height which would be at armpit level for most folks, I don’t feel the seat tube is too slack. It makes it easy to keep your weight over the pedals and centered between the wheels. Not only is a centered bike more comfortable for long days, but it also makes tight technical climbing easier. As bikes get longer and slacker, the front wheel gets further and further in front of the bike. A proper steep seat tube goes a long way in mitigating the light front-end feel. The size-specific chainstays help here too. There’s a little more bike behind you to keep you from falling off the back of it.
The bike handles well in all types of climbs. It isn’t extremely long or slack so it manages tight uphill switchbacks fairly easily. I think the centered body position helps quite a bit too. It’s easier to maneuver a bike when you aren’t hanging off the front or back of it.
The Hightower leaves nothing to be desired on the climbs. It does a good job on just about everything. Nothing really jumps out about its climbing performance while you’re riding. For me, that’s one of the best things you can say about a bike. Usually, the things that stand out are the same things that slow you down.
Again the bike seems to disappear beneath you on the descents. The bike does everything you want it to do and nothing you don’t. You don’t have to think about it. You can just jump on it and hit your favorite trails.
The updated suspension curve is the standout feature for me on the descents. It feels very supported and consistent throughout the entire stroke. It doesn’t wallow but it doesn’t feel harsh. Especially compared to the Hightower 2, it feels more supported through the entire stroke. That bike tended to sit down into the travel a bit more, which was great for traction and comfort. The Hightower 3 has a much more energetic ride quality to it. It feels more responsive to pumping and rider input. You get more bang for your buck when you pedal, pump, and jump. It’s pretty easy to get off the ground, and you can generate a ton of speed through rollers and berms.
The Hightower’s suspension lends itself well to a bike that unweights and gets airborne easily. Being a Utah kid, I found myself terrified to let my tires touch anything that resembled a wet root. That meant there was a healthy amount of bunnyhopping my way down the trails. Luckily the bike is on board for that style of riding.
The trails I did my riding on, didn’t have particularly large jumps, drops, or features. What it did have plenty of were high-speed G-outs. The Hightower resists harsh bottom outs well. Because the leverage curve is more linear, the suspension feels more predictable and consistent. Instead of moving through the first two-thirds of travel easily and then encountering a wall of progression near the end, it’s consistently firm and supported throughout the entire stroke. There’s still plenty of progression to keep you from clanging into the bump stops with every big hit or compression.
The Hightower’s handling is sure-footed. It felt right at home on the high-speed, flatter, bench-cut trails in Oakridge as well as the slightly steeper and rougher ridge trails. From rough and rugged to flat and flowy, it never feels like a fish out of water. Between the firm supportive suspension and the useable geometry, it’s got you covered just about everywhere. I wasn’t able to find the end of the bike’s capability. I did find mine, however.
My XL frame struggled to navigate some of the tighter hairpin corners, but I’d chalk that up to old-school trails that a unicycle would struggle to corner on rather than a bike that’s too unwieldy. On normal corners, the Hightower was easy to lean and weight evenly. Because it’s not so slack and long, you don’t have to make such a conscious effort to keep the front wheel weighted. It’s easy to find center and do your best to hold off the brakes and let the bike do its thing. I imagine the frame-specific chainstay lengths have something to do with the centered feeling.
The best thing I can say about this bike, and please don’t take this negatively, is that it completely disappears beneath you while you ride. It does everything it’s supposed to and nothing it’s not. It lets you focus on your technique, the trail, and your riding. If my morse code translation is correct, the top tube graphics say, “just push play.” The Hightower embodies that idea. Jump on and go for a ride. It’s a jack of all trades that gets the job done no matter where you are or how you like to ride.
Santa Cruz Hightower Comparisons
Santa Cruz Megatower 2
I recently rode and reviewed the Santa Cruz Megatower 2. I enjoyed riding that bike so much that Santa Cruz will not be getting it back. The suspension stole the show, offering a plush, controlled ride without feeling dead. That bike is big and burly but rarely feels too burly.
In the past, I may have thought Santa Cruz struggled a bit to differentiate their bike lineup. They had a bike for every ~10mm of travel and there was quite a bit of overlap between them. That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. Although the Hightower sits just below the Megatower in the full 29” category, they now feel very different. The Megatower feels plush and squishy and the Hightower feels firm and supportive. The Hightower will climb all day without making you pay the price. It will cover a wider variety of terrain from easy to extreme. If you need a bike to take to any trail, anywhere, grab the Hightower. If you often find yourself on rugged trails, pick up a Megatower.
Santa Cruz Hightower 2
Have the previous Hightower and wonder if it’s worth upgrading? I’ve spent quite a bit of time on the HT 2. I can’t help but think the new version is better in almost every way. It climbs better and descends with more confidence and ability. The suspension feel suits my liking quite a bit better too. That said, the older Hightower is far from a bad bike. It’s an excellent option for going everywhere and doing everything. In fact, I think it will beat the new one in really tight terrain—looking at you New Englanders. A shorter wheelbase probably won’t hurt you there.
It’s tough to talk about a Hightower without bringing up the other quintessential all-mountain bike, the Ibis Ripmo. I now think they’re about as close as two bikes can get on climbing ability. They both have quite a bit of pep in their steps. The Ripmo maybe rides a bit lighter and quicker both up and down, while the Hightower is a bit more sure-footed and stout. The Ripmo’s suspension is softer and easier to get through, but the Hightower will handle rougher riding a bit better
Who is The Santa Cruz Hightower for?
Mountain Bikers. Plain and simple. If you ride mountain bikes, the Hightower is a good fit.
One-Line Santa Cruz Hightower review
It’s a mountain bike.