First Ride: The 2023 Santa Cruz Hightower Gets Tweaked, Not Transformed

by | June 21, 2022

When it comes to mountain bike geometry, the pace of change seems to have slowed down slightly this season. Yes, there are plenty of new bikes being released that are longer and slacker than before, but rather than seeing two degrees slashed off a bike’s head angle and 10 – 20mm added to the reach, the revisions are more subtle, refinements rather than drastic transformations.

All of that holds true for the new Santa Cruz Hightower, which has undergone a slight geometry update and received a few new frame features, including a snack storage compartment, for 2023. It retains its 29” wheels and 145mm of rear travel paired with a 150mm fork, and it still slots into that do-it-all category, that sort of nebulous zone between shorter travel trail bikes and longer travel enduro machines.

Hightower 3 Details

• Wheel size: 29″
• Travel: 145 mm, 150 mm fork
• C & CC carbon frames, aluminum option on the way
• 64.5º or 64.8º head angle
• 76.4º seat tube angle (size L, low)
• 438mm chainstays (size L, low)
• Sizes: S, M, L, XL, XXL
• Weight: 31.5 lb / 14.3 kg (size L, Hightower C GX AXS RSV)
• Price: $5,499 – $10,699USD

According to Santa Cruz, “It’s a mountain bike.The mid-length travel and confidence-inspiring geometry means anywhere tires will roll, then so will this bike. No fussing, no nonsense, no silly category names.”

There are two different carbon frame options – CC and C – and there’s an aluminum version in the works. As for colors, riders can choose from translucent purple or a matte evergreen option. That purple option is one of the best-looking paint jobs I’ve seen in recent memory – the red / purple blend looks absolutely amazing in person.

Frame Details

The Hightower’s overall frame shape remains the same as the previous version, with a lower link-driven VPP suspension layout and a 210 x 55mm shock. Grease ports on the lower linkage simplify service, and once the bearings are too far gone for fresh grease to salvage Santa Cruz will replace them for free.

The in-frame storage first showed up on the Megatower, a panel that sits under the bottle cage with a small latch that allows access to the inside of the frame. The storage capacity is quite generous – there’s plenty of room for a small pump, a tube, and tools with space to spare. Santa Cruz includes two padded sleeves (a tool wallet and a tube purse) to keep the Glovebox’s contents from rattling around.

Another feature that adds convenience to the frame is the cutout on the non-driveside portion of the shock tunnel. That port makes it easier to check say – with the previous design it was tricky to get a straight-on view of the shocks o-ring. One feature that hasn’t been added to the Hightower is coil shock or Float X2 compatibility – by keeping the shock tunnel just big enough to fit an inline shock Santa Cruz was able to gain an extra centimeter of room for dropper post insertion.


The slight geometry updates mentioned earlier come in the form of a .5-degree slacker head angle and size-specific chainstay lengths. On a size large, that equates to a 64.5-degree head angle and 438mm chainstays, which are paired with a 472mm reach (that’s a scant 2mm longer than before). The seat angles remain roughly the same, hovering between 76.4 and 77-degrees depending on the frame size and flip chip position.

Speaking of flip chips, that little thing hasn’t gone anywhere. Changing its position results in a head angle that’s a whole .3-degree different and a 4mm alteration in bottom bracket height. I feel like Santa Cruz could scrap the whole flip chip thing and most riders wouldn’t complain at all, but it’s there if you feel like tinkering in tiny increments.

Suspension Layout

The new Hightower has slightly lower anti-squat values for the first 40% of its travel compared to the previous version, a change that was implemented to improve suspension sensitivity. The values are still on the higher side, sitting in the neighborhood of 135% at sag, and then dropping off further into the travel.

The leverage ratio was adjusted as well, and it’s now a little higher at the beginning of the travel and a little lower at the end in order to maintain consistent damping and bump up the bottom-out resistance a little.

Spec Check

The bike that I have in for review is the Hightower C GX AXS Reserve model, which retails for $9,799 USD. That’s a whole bunch of money, and this isn’t even the top-of-the-line model. Bike prices have increased across the board over the last couple of years, but to me it seems like Santa Cruz’s prices have gone up more than others – this isn’t the place to look if you’re on the hunt for a killer value.

This particular model has a parts kit that won’t hold anyone back, but there are a few items that don’t seem to align with that hefty price tag. The shock is a RockShox Select Plus, which has a stubby lockout lever instead of any low speed compression adjust. Not the end of the world, but at this price point some more adjustability would be nice. The brakes are Code RS, with 180mm rotors front and rear. Once again, they work well, but lack the pad contact adjust of the RSC version, a feature I find very useful, and I’d prefer 200mm rotors front and rear, or at least up front.

While I’m nitpicking, EXO+ tires would have been a more appropriate choice rather than the EXO casing versions that are spec’d. At least the front uses Maxxis’ MaxxGrip rubber – I’m a big fan of that softer compound. And finally, the size large comes with a 175mm RockShox Reverb dropper. There are lots of adjustable cable actuated dropper posts on the market these days that work great – I’d much rather have a 200mm cable actuate post over the Reverb with its hydraulic remote.

Product managers don’t have it easy these days, and I’m sure that supply chain issues and delays played a part in some of the parts selected for this built. Still, for a bike that’s nearly $10,000 I’d expect to see higher end parts, even if this one does have carbon wheels and a GX AXS wireless drivetrain.

Ride Impressions

I’ve only managed to squeeze two rides so far, so I won’t be digging in too deep just yet – that’ll have to wait until I rack up more miles on a wider variety of terrain. That said, my initial outings did allow me to get a decent handle on the Hightower’s character.

The trait that stood out the most was just how well this bike jumps and corners. My local trails are littered jumps and berms, and I instantly felt at home on the Hightower. It has a lively, poppy feel to it, and its slightly shorter dimensions compared to some of the longer enduro machines out there make it extremely easy to maneuver in the air and on the ground.

I really enjoyed the previous Hightower’s handling, and so far that remains the case with the new version. The wheelbase has grown, but it’s still an easygoing ride, one that doesn’t take much effort to get to the top of a techy climb. There’s enough travel to take the edge off bigger hits, but not so much that it feels like overkill on mellower trails.

Of course, part of me does wonder what a 160mm fork, some bigger rotors, and some beefier tires will do to its manners. There’s a chance it could dull some of the liveliness that I like so much, or it could turn it into a really fun not-quite-an-enduro bike, one that feels even more at home just about everywhere. I’ll start playing around with different setup configurations and report my findings in a longer term review later this year.