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International USA southwest: my redrock odyssey

Discussion in 'Roads, Touring, Journeys, and Travel' started by titus, Oct 13, 2015.

  1. This is an account of my recent four day ride through the southwest US. The ride was part of a longer journey, with family, which included a lot of driving around in an RV, (We did the coast, Yosemite, Death Valley, Zion, Bryce and the Big Ditch) but I’ll leave that part in the background for this story.

    I’d spent of lot of time planning the details, doing the research and pre-booking as much as possible. I didn’t really have the time for spontaneity as I had an awful lot of things that I wanted to fit in to a fairly small window of opportunity.

    The bike was a Triumph Tiger 800 XR from Freedom Cycles in Las Vegas, and I have to say right away that I could not have been more satisfied with the choice and with the service from Sean and Freedom Cycles. Really good outfit and highly recommended. I’ll admit that I had been sorely tempted to try and get hold of something a little more dirt-capable but as things worked out I ended up with what I needed for the conditions as they turned out in the end.

    Bike came with a HJC helmet (fine) and the rest of my gear I hauled over there in my baggage. This consisted of: Fox Outrider textile jacket (sorta waterproof but not completely); RST waterproof gloves; cheap pair of summer gloves; Aldi Kevlar jeans with armor; a pair of John Bull (made in NZ) work/hiking boots; lightweight waterproof top and bottom; iPhone with maps etc and some bits and bobs. Also some thermal layers.
    Here's the bike:
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  2. Looking forward to this story.....
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  3. DAY 1

    The US southwest had been experiencing some unseasonably hot weather leading up the ride. 113degF – in Vegas, 120 in Death valley (I’ll use US measures here to add atmosphere).

    I decided that my optional route through northern Arizona was just too far in this kind of heat. Even the upland Utah route was going to be warm (or so I thought). Fortunately, on the day of departure it had dropped to a more manageable 90deg in Vegas. I picked up the bike and was on Interstate 15 (north) by midday. Las Vegas traffic is not easy to navigate and aggressive at any time, but even worse when stuck in a sweltering traffic jam, which turned out to be caused by a crashed Harley (being lifted onto tray truck, rider standing around looking grim and scratching his beard). Vegas is full of Harleys. I’m sweating it out in the sun by now, but eventually get clear of the city and more comfortable as the buckled rocky hills north of town start to slide by.

    The I-15 is no riders road, just a slab to get where you’re going, which in my case is into Utah and hopefully either Torrey or Hanksville, to put me within striking distance of the good stuff tomorrow. The freeway rolls out across southern Nevada with Charleston Peak and the Great Basin far off to the northwest, going from low desert to higher altitude but still very arid country.

    Nevada speed limit tends to sit around 75mph (although every road is different) and traffic tends to assume another 10 percent or so with no interest from law enforcement. Poking far above that will definitely get their attention though. The bike feels relaxed and comfortable at these speeds.

    Two hours later I clip a corner of Arizona going through the Virgin River canyon which cuts a spectacular slice through the stone mountains. Immediately the colour of the landscape changes from baked pastels to the brilliant red rock of southern Utah.
    Virgin River canyon:

    Todays ride is 325 – 375 miles so I need to keep moving. The tank gives me 200 miles to the first refuel at Cedar City. The heat is now giving way to cloud and it’s cooler with increased altitude. The landscape now is grassy high plains with mountains and increasing rain showers. Limit here is 80, and hitting around 90mph alongside truckers, but still no corners.

    "I think I'm at the wrong party..."
    Never seen a more nervous-looking cow.

    Finally I turn off the Interstate into UT-20 which leads off into the mid-size mountain ranges that run north-south through western Utah. This is actually a brilliant, winding road despite the ominous looking weather, but the rain holds off and the scenery starts to get much more interesting. The corners revive me until I hit UT-89 which is a long, straight two-lane blacktop through a succession of earnest little Mormon towns. The 89 is notorious for deer on the road and it’s getting late in the afternoon now. Nervously scanning the roadside and getting progressively colder now but I don’t want to stop.

    The chill beats me and I stop to add layers at Koosharem where the locals bid me have a nice day while I fumble with zips and press studs. By the time I’m out on the UT-24 I have to admit that Hanksville is beyond me today, and I’ll have to settle for Torrey tonight. That will have some consequences tomorrow but it can’t be helped. I do see a couple of deer staring at me from the roadside as I glide past in the gathering dusk.

    The Capitol Reef Inn at Torrey is warm and inviting, and the price is right. As it turns out the food (chilli pork chops) is very good and the wine list has a surprisingly international flavor so I go for an unknown Australian shiraz.

    Transport stage done. Not a lot of excitement but fairly satisfying.
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  4. DAY 2

    I need to make the most of every minute today so I’m waiting at the door when the diner opens for breakfast, and on the road before the sun peaks over the horizon. Clear skies mean I’m also dealing with sun glare as I make my way through the magnificent Capitol Reef National Park. Here the UT-24 redeems itself with a fine set of curves and corners through towering rock monuments. It’s a good start to the day.

    By 8.30 I’ve refueled at Hanksville but I’m already 15 minutes behind where I need to be. This will become an ongoing theme. Another 20 miles of scrubby desert and I find the dirt road leading off to my first objective – a little known curiosity of strange rock outcroppings called Little Egypt. But I’m barely off the sealed road when the front tyre starts to dig into sand, nearly throwing me off. A couple of these near misses and I make the call that it’s a bit beyond me and bike, and reluctantly I turn back to highway 24. At least this puts me back ahead of schedule.

    Another 15 minutes and I find my next stop – the Irish slot canyons. These are unmarked and known mainly to dedicated hikers rather than regular tourists.

    Gear off and I start the trek up Blarney Canyon along the sandy wash. It’s cool and shady in the shadow of the tall sandstone cliffs and cottonwoods but the sand-slogging soon raises a sweat. Eventually I come to a dead end where the narrowing walls of the gorge are choked with a recent rockfall. I’m not going to get past this without climbing equipment. Oh well. Next.
    Blarney Canyon trailhead:

    I backtrack and ride half a mile on to the next one – Leprechaun Canyon. Again, I nearly lose the bike in sand getting to the trailhead but I get away with it.

    It’s a slightly longer hike up here, including a foolish wrong turn that adds fifteen minutes but eventually I make it through to a startlingly beautiful section with gorgeously sculpted and coloured sandstone passageways leading into the surrounding mesa. It’s utterly still and quiet apart from echoes of my footsteps. Magical place. I stay for a good long while taking it in. By the time I trudge back down the wash I’m behind time again and getting a bit weary. 10 am and slightly late again.
    Leprechaun Canyon:

    The next stage is one of the best riding parts of the trip, entering into Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Highway 24 turns on a show of fantastic sweepers and bends through mind-blowing redrock scenery under a perfect blue sky. This part will live with me for a long time. Do it, if you get the chance.

    I stop to take pictures at Navaho Bridge, across the Colorado River, then hit the road again climbing east into the uplands.

    Here the rock is covered with pine and juniper and it gets a little cooler. But the sun shines. I don’t have time for a proper visit to Natural Bridges National Park but I’ve sussed out a viewpoint from the road that will give me a view of Kachina (natural) Bridge. It’s a bit harder to find that I thought but eventually I manage to glimpse of it. Not quite as close to the arch as I’d thought but it’s still worth the effort.

    By now I’ve lost more than half an hour. This means I’m going to have to make some choices. But I decide to give House On Fire a go. It’s an ancestral puebloan site close to the highway about 20 miles west of Blanding.

    I find the trailhead – it’s a shortcut scramble down a steep, overgrown embankment rather than the regular but much longer official trail. In fact there is no trail at all so it takes me 15 minutes to get down the unstable slope to the floor of the wash. At one point halfway I stumble upon a large, very recently excavated animal den in the hillside. Heart beats loud for a moment until I remember that carnivores are generally opportunist hibernators, not diggers. Whatever is down there is a fair size but it probably doesn’t want to eat me. It’s certainly nowhere near big enough for anything like a bear or puma.

    Pretty soon I find the House On Fire site . You’ll be able to work out the name from the pic, I think.
    House on Fire:
    It’s a lovely spot, and I am fortunate to share with a charming older couple, hikers, who are able to point out some hieroglyphs and other features. They also assure me that the den was probably that of a porcupine. They advise me to give it a wide berth on the way back but joke that I’m lucky that it wasn’t occupied by an irate skunk (!). Re-admittance to civilization is not allowed for at least a week after a skunk encounter.

    The climb back up the embankment reminds me that I am no longer a young man. By the top I am gasping for air, heart pounding, leg muscles throbbing and sweat is pouring off me. Still, this is at about 7,000 feet so maybe it’s just the altitude, right?

    Five miles on the road cuts across a truly monumental rift valley with tremendous views in every direction. Apparently this extraordinary feature doesn’t even warrant a name. Hitting the town of Blanding for fuel and a snack I have to accept that I’ve blown off way more than and hour now. It’s a hard choice, but I have to abandon plans to get to the Needles section of Canyonlands NP. I’m unhappy about this but it was always going to be a stretch.

    So the cruise north on UT-191 is dispatched without incident and through Moab to Arches National Park. I make another decision to devote the remainder of the day to Arches, which also has some hard consequences, but it was a good afternoon and certainly not wasted.

    For those unfamiliar, Arches is one of the gems in the crown of US national parks.

    Along with some 200+ natural rock arch formations (including the awesome Delicate and Landscape arches) there’s an astonishing collection of weird and wonderful geological features for geo-nuts like me to drool over. I watch the light fade over Devil’s Garden and the Fiery Furnace formations, then head for my cabin at the Riverside RV park. Dinner is at Dennys. Larelle the waitress is hilarious, the food acceptable. Moab is stuffed to the gills with tourists and a table anywhere is a bonus.
    More from Arches:

    Early night, although a thunderstorm wakes me during the night.

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  5. Wow..Awesome pics!

    Keep'em coming.
  6. image.
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  7. some amazing pics cant wait to hear the ending
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  8. Brilliant!!!!!
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  9. DAY 3

    I’m ready to go before dawn, in fact it’s pitch dark. It’s quite warm and still dry but the air is heavy with the smell of rain. A quick look at the radar confirms that there is plenty of precipitation on the way.

    Got to maximize the time, so I depart without eating and head straight up into the Island in the Sky section of Canyonlands NP. Drizzly rain begins, and the clouds are low. This is not what I was hoping for. Canyonlands was very high on my bucket list and the conditions are far from ideal for my one and only chance see it.

    I wait out a rain shower at the ranger station and the clouds part enough for me to get a good look at the scale of the place. It genuinely rivals the Grand Canyon in most dimensions. The mist and cloud does provide a unique perspective but I cannot but be disappointed not to see it in it’s full sunbathed glory. Green River Overlook is the best of it for me. Here, the canyons are simply huge and cannot be adequately described in words. I waste half an hour on a whim side trip to Upheaval Dome which turns out to be unviewable.
    Green River overlook:

    On the way back I take in Shafer Canyon overlook and take some pics of the truly terrifying Shafer Trail road. Those with fear of heights look away now:

    I had hoped to sneak in a descent of the Shafer trail but the rain has reduced the surface to slippery mud, and those 1,000 foot cliffs do not offer even the slimmest chance of survival in case of a mistake. Rangers advise against it. I accept defeat.

    Mesa Arch is a mecca for landscape photographers, particularly when dawns lights up the redrock. There is no visible dawn today but there is still a scrum of tripods jostling for best position. This is one of the very rare instances of rudeness I encountered in a month in the US, and attributable on this occasion to a group of Japanese tourists who are clearly annoyed by the conditions and shouting at everyone. The quiet Americans present are clearly appalled.

    The rain closes in. This really hurts because it means that it’s completely pointless turning off for Dead Horse Point. I should have found time to get there yesterday, dammit. I’ll never get another chance.

    I’m out of the park earlier than expected. This will prove to be a lifesaver by day’s end. Weather radar is downright frightening now. I sit at a nearby gas station and ponder. But there’s no choice. Getting back in time to return bike and make connections means I have to go. Now.

    My next stop was to be Bryce Canyon. Problem is that Bryce is at 9,000 feet and this weather will be very nasty up there. I’ve already seen Bryce in magnificent conditions a week before so I decide that if it’s too rough, I’ll divert to Panguitch or Cedar City.

    As soon as I hit the highway (UT-191 leading to I-70) the heavens open and within ten minutes the rain starts seeping past my waterproofing. Speeds remain a constant 80mph. Visibility is appalling. Crosswinds gust. An hour of hell later I can at least turn back onto the UT-24 which is free of traffic and I can choose my own speed. But the rain continues.

    Somewhere before Hanksville I pass a collection of weird, blood-red rock formations that I know to be part of Goblin Valley State Park. I had been really looking forward to Goblin Valley, but by now I am pretty wet and I know that stopping will have dire consequences. It’s brutal, but I have to just grit teeth and open the throttle.

    Streetview grab of Goblins (on a better day):

    I role into Hanksville around 1.30pm. A collection of adventure bikers are sheltering under the awning of a closed gas station, looking like miserable, wet dogs. We chat.

    It turns out that the forecast ‘scattered showers’ has developed into a full blown rain depression that is playing havoc further south. A Canadian guy on a KLR tells of riding through mud waterfalls down at Glen Canyon (where I was hiking yesterday). Someone else says Bryce is ok, but he’s on a barn-door BM and he’s not soaked through. We all wish each other luck and head in opposite directions.

    The rain stops for a while and I begin to dry out a little. The sun even comes out as I ride back through Capitol Reef. My spirits revive a little – perhaps the rest of the day will prove to be better?

    At Torrey, I need to make a decision. Another rider says Bryce is OK. Then a guy in a pickup says that the 89 to Panguitch is flooded and closed. Decision made. Bryce or bust.

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  10. DAY 3 continued.

    I spend 30 minutes futilely trying to dry out in a Subway outlet while eating a pizza. At this point it’s not too cold but the soaked clothing is making it hard to maintain body temperature.

    When it’s clear I’m not going to get any drier, I gear up and head straight out onto Highway 12 and up the hill. Let me say here that Utah Highway 12 is one of the world’s great roads. Just about the perfect combination of corners, surface and scenery for more than 100 miles. At first the rain clears, and this is a good thing. The highest point at Boulder Mountain is around 10,000 feet and rain/snow/ice here would have killed me.

    But this is a fabulous ride in any conditions, and by God does the Tiger prove it’s worth here. Unshakeable stability and seamless torque allow me to exploit the corners and we climb into some gorgeous fall colours (cottonwood and aspen). I forget the pain for a while.

    Through Boulder (UT) and now we enter Grand Staircase –Escalante NP. This place is simply awesome and needs to be seen. Even when the rain returns I am awestruck. A wild series of ridgetop bends called the Hog’s Back would have been great in anything other than a howling rain squall that had me hanging on to avoid the precipices on both side of the road. Through the showers I glimpse enormous canyons and eye-watering views all around. The Tiger just keeps on.

    Street views of Grand Staircase - Escalante as it should be seen (I wasn't able to take shots here):

    I’m really wet now, and really, really cold. At Escalante I ponder giving up. Probably should have tried to find a motel, but truthfully I’m beyond rational thought.

    One last stretch of 80 miles. Sounds easy doesn’t it? Fool.

    The road climbs. The cold intensifies. The rain eases to a drizzle but the harm is already done. At some point high in the range, the cloud magically parts and I’ve left the rain depression behind. But not the cold. A weak sun mocks me without pity or warmth. I curse it’s fickle soul, shouting and wriggling to keep myself active and not succumb to the cold.

    Even at this extreme, the wonders of the region continue to amaze. Rounding a bend reveals a stupendous chasm filled with chaotic natural earthworks beneath a huge mountain. Closer inspection reveals multicoloured strata as though the earth has been strip-mined on a galactic scale. Grand Staircase – Escalante. Do not miss it.

    Now I am well and truly in the early stages of hypothermia. Uncontrollable shaking, trouble concentrating. Can barely feel my hands and feet. I bounce around for some extra circulation to no effect.

    Through Henryville, Cannonvale, Tropic and now up the last hill to Bryce, shivering and chattering all the way.

    Like an idiot I had booked the cheapest accommodation which was an unheated cabin in the campground. No way, this will not do. I need to get warm – fast.

    I hit Ruby’s Inn and the Best Western but they have no rooms, Shit. I can barely even speak for chattering. I’m dripping on their carpet. They don’t care.

    My last chance is the Bryce Canyon Resort (motel) and thank the angels, (and the one at the desk) - yes, they’ll give me a heated double for $150. I may actually live through this…

    It takes me precious minutes to work out how to start the very simple heater, get the shower running and get out of sodden clothes. Bear Grills was right, wet clothing is worse than none. Most of the water has come up my sleeves. I'm a believer in gloves under sleeve but in this case they just wouldn't fit and the moisture has run down into the glove, then wicked all the way up my arms to my shoulders and chest. The RST gloves are very good but when they fill up from the open end there's nothing you can do and they don't dry easily. Boots and feet have amazingly remained dry.

    It takes me an hour to stop shaking but I am able to regain body temperature without medical assistance. I’ve been an idiot. But I have gotten away with it.

    Jimmy the waiter welcomes all guests at the restaurant when I feel up to heading over. He’s a gem. A genuine straight-off-the range-old school cowboy, a little out of place in customer service but all homespun charm. He entertains us with jokes and old trail songs while taking orders and serving.

    Food is very good (flatiron steak). So is the beer.

    Back in the room I put the heating on full to dry out my gear and hope for a better day tomorrow.

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  11. And all I did was ride down to Gembrook and Emerald for a sausage and coffee...


    Fantastic pics mate....Keep'em coming.
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  12. Great pics & account. Much envy (though sitting here on a warm spring morning mutes imagination a bit when it comes to the cold). Hope the gear dried out overnight.
  13. DAY 4

    Dawn is cloudless and cold (32degF). I have 250 miles to do by 1pm.

    Forecast heavy rain has not materialized, or at least moved somewhere else. Fingers crossed.

    All my gear is dry now except for the gloves. They are pretty waterproof but once they are wet inside the moisture is difficult to get out. I figure that I can survive a bit of frostbite if it comes to that, but just as a precaution I grab some plastic bags from the bin on the way out of the motel room.

    I eat quickly and head out to get another eyeful of Bryce Canyon. Goddammit, I nearly died to get here and Ima gonna see it. It’s just as pretty in the morning light.
    Bryce Canyon:
    Ugly rock formation gets in the way:

    20 miles down the road is smaller but redder Red Canyon, and it’s free.

    Now back onto the 89 and looking out for deer. I spot some the moment I turn west onto the UT-14. They take fright but they don’t jump. Thank you.

    UT-14 rises steeply past Duck Creek Village into mixed pine and golden/amber aspen forest and the road is lovely up to the Cedar Breaks turnoff. But it’s getting very cold again.

    My core is fine (I’m dry) but my fingers are stinging with cold and beginning to lose movement. I wrap the plastic bags around them, and miraculously this does the trick, with circulation returning.

    Near the top, the landscape takes on a pale grey/white tint. With a shock, I realize that it’s snow on the ground. The access road to Cedar Break (10,500 feet) is sprinkled with a light layer snow. I am leery of this but it’s only 3 miles and I make it. I’m guessing the window of opportunity for a motorcyclist seeing Cedar Breaks in snow is pretty narrow, but I did. Wonderful.

    Unfortunately… before I get good pics at the top, the cold has killed the batteries in both my cameras. No proof. Sue me.
    Best that I got:
    Cannot hang around long though. West of the summit, the road drops quickly below the snowline. There’s a fantastical viewpoint a few miles down and one of the cameras has revived. I cannot really describe this one, so you just go ahead and go there to look for yourself. I promise you will NOT regret it. But do it when the trees are turning for autumn. My soul was moved.

    The rest of the 14 is something beyond ordinary life. The road is mighty. It twists down though blue-green spruce and russet-gold aspen amid gigantic honey-coloured cliffs. The air is clear and still. Everything sings like pure crystal. It just gets better and better. And warmer.

    The Tiger sings too, in it’s raspy tenor. It grips and launches with confidence. Speed gets a little bit silly until eventually I realize with a shock that I’m doing nearly three times the speed limit inside Cedar City town limits.

    I have to stop a while and let the buzz subside.

    The euphoria carries me the final two and a half hours back into the low desert and Las Vegas, shedding layers on the way.

    Nevada as she mostly are:

    I’m babbling to Sean about the 14 when I hand over the bike. He’s slightly taken aback at the mileage reading but he takes it in good grace (unlimited mileage offer slightly abused, I know).

    Las Vegas envelops me in it’s clammy decadence but in my head I’m still somewhere out in the wild.

    It’s done. I missed such a lot, but I saw and did more than expected in other ways. Not a minute was wasted but even the best laid plans are apt to go awry. Sigh. All you can do is make the most of what is dished up. It's a magnificent place, the southwest. I know that I’ve had my share this time around but I’ll forever be hungry for more.

    (PS, I may have got some names wrong, for which I sincerely apologise)
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  14. Awesome place all over. Did you do the hike up to Delicate Arch?
  15. No, for a couple of reasons. I had worn myself out a bit earlier in the day. It would have taken at least an hour and a half to complete and I had yet to check in to my cabin before the office closed for the night. In the end I opted for Landscape Arch (instead) because it was a shorter hike, in an interesting area, and IMO the more remarkable of the two.
    If fate decrees, I'll go back one day and make sure.
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  16. Fantastic write up and pics, Fantastic Tour.
    I can only wish I can go see these places someday.
    Thank you for putting this up here.
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  17. What a trip! What a story! I'm so envious. This sounds amazing, except for the nearly-dying-from-hypothermia part
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  18. That which doesn't kill you, makes you... stoopid?
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  19. Mate you get Winner ratings for perseverance and actually surviving! Great pics and that whole thing takes me back a year ago when I was around the same area (not on a bike unfortunately, but a motorhome with family - not so good for enjoying the roads but no chance of hypothermia with grog, food and hot water all onboard)! Jeez will have to arrange to do this sometime, but with a more lenient schedule I think.
  20. I concur with you summation of the motorhome experience. We had a lot of fun with it, just of a different kind.
    My advice - pack 'em off home on the plane so you can take your time. They get a bit toe-y after 4 days sitting around the pool.
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