I’d ridden over 400 miles the day before, starting in Caineville, Utah and visiting Bryce Canyon National Park before working my way back to Capitol Reef. I chose dirt roads and scenic byways over fast and smooth highways because I ride a dual-sport bike with knobby tires, and I didn’t buy it to cruise the interstate. I was exhausted from the all day effort and I knew today’s ride back to Moab would be in the heat of the day. Such is the life of an adventure motorcyclist and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
The trip began two days earlier at my home in Moab. I left town on my Triumph Tiger 800 XC, headed south on Highway 191 for Monticello. There I wound through town on empty streets to the unpaved Abajo Loop Road that would deliver me into the aspens, pines and much cooler temperatures. The Loop Road provides a slow and scenic way to travel from Monticello to Blanding. I rode only the northern half, to another dirt road called The Causeway, and then on to Elk Ridge Road. Deer darted from the trees to cross the road in front of me time and time again. It was hunting season and not surprisingly, they seemed a little more skittish than usual. I rode past small creeks, meadows filled with wildflowers, old mining ruins and hundred mile views down into the desert.
Elk Ridge Road ends only a couple miles from the entrance to Natural Bridges National Monument. A self-confessed
national park junkie, I couldn’t come this close without riding the twisty scenic loop that passes overlooks of three natural bridges situated within one stunningly beautiful canyon. This is part of Cedar Mesa, a gorgeous high-desert landscape cut with dramatic canyons and littered with Native American rock art and ruins.
I headed north Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, known primarily for Lake Powell, and took a detour to what used to be Hite Marina. Now, it’s just Hite. In 2004 Hite was a ghost town. The southwest was in the midst of a years-long drought and the boat ramp descended into cracked mud baked rock hard by a blazing desert sun. Hite has re-opened and the water has returned but the marina is gone, the variable water levels unable to support a full-fledged operation. There is, however, a gas station. Most importantly, the small convenience store is air-conditioned and the owners are merciful enough to have installed a large picnic table inside. Presumably, I’m not the first weary rider to discover this little miracle. I sat inside and ate lunch, drank a cold drink and then proceeded north on Hwy. 95 under bruised skies.
My original plan was to ride the Burr Trail north out of Bullfrog to the Notom Road in Capitol Reef. As I rode toward
gathering storm clouds I decided to stick to pavement, knowing that riding through aptly named Clay Canyon on the original route would be impossible in the rain. I enjoy a good adventure, but not the stuck-in-axle-deep-clay-in-a-thunderstorm kind. I continued north to the intersection town of Hanksville, then pointed my Tiger west on Hwy. 24 and a waiting bed at the Caineville Rodeway Inn.
The rain never made it beyond Bullfrog. I needed to ride some dirt as the hooligan in me wanted to send up a few rooster tails accelerating around curves on a sandy road. I left Caineville headed west for a short stretch of pavement before arriving at the turn for the Notom-Bullfrog Road. I was surprised to find the first few miles paved as I’d driven it years earlier and didn’t remember any blacktop on the entire route. Tarmac soon gave way to powdery dirt and spectacular views of the white, pink, orange and red sandstone that comprises the Waterpocket Fold, a wrinkle in the earth’s crust running north to south through Capitol Reef for over 100 miles. The views made it difficult to keep eyes on the road ahead. Only the thought of picking up a fully loaded 500 pound adventure bike kept my eyes mostly where they belonged – straight ahead.
The Burr Trail runs from the Notom Road to the quaint town of Boulder, Utah. A delicious BLT and uber-friendly service at the Boulder Mesa Restaurant made for a nice break before refueling and riding through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument on Hwy. 12. I’m relatively sure that whoever designed this road was a motorcyclist. Hwy. 12 passes through one cute small town after another and even more 360 degree views of beautiful landscapes, all the while twisting and turning through fantastic sweepers.
July and August are monsoon season in the desert. Days are characterized by crystal blue skies in the morning that give way to black and purple storm clouds in the afternoon. Brief but intense thunderstorms drop enough precipitation to cause flash floods that tear through the desert, leaving slot canyons and destruction in their wake. This was August. And I was riding right into a monsoonal storm inconveniently hovering over my next destination: Bryce Canyon National Park.
Light rain began to fall as I parked in front of the visitor center. I strolled inside and during the few minutes I was there the rain graduated to a torrential downpour. Decision time: I could wait it out in the visitor center, get soaked and see the park, or get soaked and turn around. I hadn’t ridden all this way to let a little rain change my plans so I swung a leg over the saddle and headed into the storm. This must have been entertaining to all the tourists in cars and on buses because they stared, pointed and snapped photos as if a Yeti had just ridden by on a unicycle.
It rained only long enough to soak my riding suit and cotton t-shirt underneath. The road through the park is a motorcyclist’s dream, aside from the pesky speed limit and slow moving tourist vehicles that often stop in the middle of the lane so the occupants can photograph a roadside deer. I found a few empty stretches that allowed me to stretch the Tiger’s legs. Even on wet pavement the TKC 80’s gripped well, never providing the kind of split second excitement that comes when a back tire slides when you wish it wouldn’t. The views of spooky hoodoos, arches and distant plateaus are spectacular. At Bryce Canyon you’re on a high elevation rim populated with tall evergreens and elegant aspens. It is a marvelous place for photography and I wish I’d had more time to enjoy the scenery but time was short and I still had over 100 miles to ride back to camp, many of which were on a dirt road crossing the Aquarius Plateau.
I head north, stopping to fill the tank with expensive fuel in Bryce City. State Route 22 travels between Highway 12 to
the south and SR 62 to the north. I turn east down a dirt road at unsigned Widtsoe Junction, which is nothing more than an unremarkable spot where Main Canyon Road drops off of the Aquarius Plateau to meet SR 22. I wasn’t certain I was on the right road until encountering a couple cowboys having a chat on the side of the road. I show them my map and ask if I’m heading in the right direction. They kindly inform me that I am and warn that I “better get a hustle on it or I’ll freeze to death up there in the dark”. Their good ol’ boy warning and the ominous clouds ahead are all I need to pick up the pace.
At a 5 way intersection I vaguely remember the cowboys telling me to stay on Main Canyon Road. To the left is the Griffin Top Road, which appears to dead end in the trees after a hill climb. Looking at the map doesn’t help. I’m reasonably sure I’m supposed to take the Griffin Top Road but I’m tired, hungry and not making good decisions. I take the cowboy’s advice and head down on Main Canyon Road.
The Main Canyon Road (also called Escalante Canyon on some maps) is a good, graded dirt or gravel road – until it gets wet. An earlier thunderstorm had turned sections of the road into muddy, slippery, off-camber messes. Most weren’t too difficult to navigate but one section of clay nearly caused me to slide into a ditch that would have been unrecoverable without help. Luckily, the rear tire caught traction at the last second and the Tiger lurched forward to safety.
To the west, Main Canyon Road joins Highway 12 just east of Escalante. And that is where I find myself, when I should have been half way across the Aquarius Plateau. Another look at the map confirms that I did indeed miss my turn at the five way junction. Decision time: ride safe pavement on Highway 12 around to Torrey or suck it up and ride dirt all the way across the Plateau. I’ve wanted to see the Aquarius Plateau for a couple of years. I’d heard about dozens of alpine lakes, solitude and gorgeous alpine meadows, all of which sounded pretty appetizing. I opted for the adventurous route and picked up Posy Lake Road, riding north across the Plateau and into dark clouds.
Posy Lake Road starts out paved, passing ranches and small homes as it makes a slow ascent from the desert. The day’s rain had swollen creeks, one of which was flooding across the road in a muddy mess. I’d come too far to turn around and it wasn’t a wide crossing so I gave the Tiger a little throttle and crossed without incident. I climbed up into the trees and cooler temperatures, my jacket finally dry after the drenching in Bryce. I would pass only three vehicles in the entire 40 miles up here on this lonely stretch of dirt road. The scenery was even better than I’d imagined. Lush green meadows lined with evergreens and still sporting wildflowers late into the summer were dotted with small, shallow lakes reflecting the stormy sky. The road surface alternated between hard pack and gravel, all of which was fun to ride at high speed. I was in such a hurry to beat thunderstorms and darkness that I barely stopped to enjoy the views, much less photograph them.
I reached a Y in the road where going left would deliver me to the small town of Loa or right to just west of Torrey. I’d escaped the rain thus far but dark clouds to the north were clearly dropping precipitation along with a healthy dose of lightning. It was time to get my hustle on as I still needed to set up camp in Capitol Reef and fire up the JetBoil for a reconstituted spaghetti dinner. I went right, connected with Highway 24 and made it to the campground right at nightfall. The gentle pitter patter of light rain on the tent fly quickly lulled me to sleep.
After awakening to sounds of the aforementioned unfortunate rabbit and thunderclaps, I laid in my tent processing photos on my iPad until the rain stopped at around 8:00. I emerged from my tent to find the sky beginning to clear of storm clouds. I hastily made breakfast and packed up camp before riding the Scenic Drive to Grand Wash. I was surprised to discover that it hadn’t flooded despite the heavy rain.
Though Grand Wash was safe, several other washes in the area were flooding and they all emptied into the Fremont River turning a normally tranquil flow into an angry, churning torrent of water colored as brown as chocolate milk. Two dirt roads access Capitol Reef’s Cathedral Valley: the Hartnet Road and Cathedral Road. Both traverse large sections of clay at the Caineville Badlands that are impassable when wet. Accessing the Hartnet Road required a ford of the Fremont River almost immediately after leaving the pavement. My plan to ride to I-70 via dirt roads past Temples of the Sun and Moon required some alterations.
Dejected, I rode asphalt to Hanksville where a delicious jalapeno burger at Stan’s Burger
Shack brought the smile back to my face. I turned the handlebars north on Highway 24 to I-70 and then east to Green River. I don’t like riding on the interstate so I exit at Green River and follow the old highway, now a frontage road with potholes the size of bomb craters and weeds growing from cracks in the faded asphalt. Majestic pronghorn run alongside me on both sides of the road. To my left lie the Book Cliffs, filled with old mines, ghost towns and Native American ruins. To my right, open desert and the distant La Sal Mountains. I cross under I-70 and continue south to the intersection with Blue Hills Road, happy to see a cloud of dust trailing behind as I tear down the final stretch of dirt road on my tour of southern Utah.
Here’s a 5 minute video I compiled from various sections of the ride showing some of the amazing scenery and some helmet cam footage: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RifqhKCznk8