Utah & Arizona – Canyon Country
Something about Utah clicked immediately with us. Perhaps it had something to do with the orange sand, the rich red of the rock and the huge blue skies … reminding us of the Aussie outback and deserts where we’ve spent so much time.
Out of Las Vegas it was a quick sprint to St. George, where we took refuge in the home of Bob and Carol – our ‘Warm Showers’ cyclist network hosts. They made us so at home that we had trouble leaving – taking an ‘extra’ rest day just to loll around and re-organise a few things.
Once back on the road we headed off to Zion National Park. Another hugely popular place, the Zion Canyon road used to turn into a giant parking lot each season, until the National Parks Service finally closed the road to private vehicles and started a free shuttle service. It makes for a wonderful ride, and we spent a couple of days exploring before heading into the east of the Park.
Desert bighorn sheep have been locally extinct here since the mid 1900’s – disappearing from a combination of habitat loss, hunting and disease. An initial reintroduction of 14 animals in 1978 was slow to respond, but the herd has now grown to over 400 and appears to be thriving – we saw several dozen as we rode through the wonderland of rocky mesas and smooth rock sculptures.
En route to the Grand Canyon’s north rim, we passed through the town of Kanab, where even the local op shop sported a colourful mural.
Taking full advantage of the Forest Service’s positive attitude to ‘dispersed camping’, we spent a couple of peaceful nights in the Kaibab Forest as we made our way out to the Park. On the verge of shutdown for the winter, the north rim was very quiet – although we were less delighted to find that although the campground was ‘open’, the showers and laundry were not. At least the biker/hiker campsites were spectacularly located right on the rim of the canyon …
Returning from the rim we decided to head out to camp at Point Sublime – about 30km off the main road along a rough 4WD track. It was a slow grind, alternating steep rocky climbs through ponderosa pine forest with faster open sections. Recent tree fall blocked the track in several places, and when we finally reached the point we were delighted to have this incredible place all to ourselves, soaking up the 180 degree views and intense silence.
With food supplies dwindling we made a dash for Page, an unexpectedly scenic ride which took in expansive views of the Vermillion Cliffs, the odd rock ‘houses’ at Cliff Dwellers, the Colorado River crossing and then the vertigo-inducing view at Horseshoe Bend.
From Page we doubled back towards Bryce Canyon, via Cottonwood Canyon Road. We knew we’d be gaining some elevation, but didn’t expect the ‘rip your legs off’ steepness of some of (mercifully short) ascents along this scenic dirt road.
Emerging just outside Kodachrome Basin, we figured we might as well investigate this State Park – known for stunning views of 67 sandstone ‘chimneys’ that inspired a 1948 National Geographic Society expedition to name the area after the film they used to document the beauty of these multicoloured rocks.
Climbing again, we reached Bryce National Park, named after Mormon pioneers Ebenezer and Mary Bryce, who built their cabin and grazed cattle among the rock formations within what is now the National Park. As we gazed out over the Bryce Canyon Amphitheatre with its intricate rows and stacks of bizarre rock ‘hoodoos’, we couldn’t help but agree with Ebenezer Bryce – this would definitely be a ‘hell of a place to lose a cow’.
Overnight temperatures were reaching new lows by this point and we were seriously pushing the limits of the mild autumn we’d been enjoying. The most appealing route towards Monument Valley was the Burr Trail, cutting through sandstone canyons to reach Lake Powell at Bullfrog Marina. The paving of this rough and rugged trail has been highly controversial, pitting environmentalists against county developers. Despite legal battles, appeals, intimidation and sabotage, the route has now largely been sealed, but at the time we rode through it was almost deserted. The huge cliffs of Long Canyon, the ‘chocolate layer cake’ rocks and the mindboggling Muley switchbacks were easily the equal of the heavily promoted Parks we’d seen previously, and the lack of traffic made it the perfect choice of route.
The huge Lake Powell seems jarring in such an arid landscape, and even weirder were the dozens of boats dry docked for the winter along the roadside. Lined up against a desert background these looked like modern arks waiting for the flood.
Gloomy weather brought a smattering of rain as we left our gravel pit bush camp just out of Bullfrog, but this quickly cleared to a beautiful evening at our considerably more attractive clifftop camp overlooking the Colorado River.
A couple of days riding brought us to Monument Valley, a place that has long been on our ‘list’. Tired and grumpy after a long day of climbing and headwinds, we crawled out to camp at the Valley. Pitching our tent in the sand dunes overlooking the huge rock mesas was an instant cure-all … the view was extraordinary. Featuring in over 100 movies, including numerous John Ford westerns, Forrest Gump, 2001 Space Odyssey, Back to the Future, Butch Cassidy, Transformers, and Easy Rider, the valley has been described as the definition of the American West for decades of moviegoers.
The last stop on our canyon loop was the south rim of the Grand Canyon. After a brief hike down into the canyon from the north rim we’d decided to descend to the river from the south side for an overnight hike. Amazingly there is lodge accommodation (sheets! pillows!) available inside the canyon and a quick phone call sorted out our dorm beds – meaning that we could walk with minimal gear and stay overnight.
We were lucky to see a pair of Californian condors as we descended on the South Kaibab Trail – the species was on the verge of extinction by the 1980s, due to shooting, egg collecting, power line collisions, habitat degradation, and lead poisoning (from ammunition in the carcasses they feed on). Captive breeding was commenced in 1983, with the last nine wild birds brought into captivity in 1987. Since then, numbers have increased to around 400 worldwide, with annual releases into the wild.
Aside from the natural wonders, Utah and Arizona have provided some of the more memorable roadside signage of the trip …
From the Grand Canyon, our priority was to lose some elevation so we could warm up. Heading west along Route 66 looked to be the fastest way downhill, except for the wind which kept trying to push us back east. There’s plenty of hype and souvenir shops along the ‘Mother Road’, but remnants of its1950s heyday are harder to find – some retro signs, old cars, and refurbished but largely original buildings are all that remains.
With only a week or so remaining in the USA our thoughts have now turned towards Mexico … it’s been a long time since we saw the coast and we’re looking forward to finding a Baja beach for our Christmas break …
Until next time,
Rubber side down
Ed & Gaye