Southwest Utah is stunning. Wonders of nature abound. Wind and water have worked together over millennia to carve a country of deep canyons, creeks and citadel-style rock formations that compel exploration.
But first you must cycle there. Scenic highway 12 from Torrey started with a cold snowy pass. Forest blanketed in white. Tips of grass peeking through, where the occasional sun had shone. Views of the Henrie mountains in the distant east. And then the Dixie Forest dwindled, and the snow melted and so came the canyons of the Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument, and sunshine.
Calf Creek Falls
First there was Calf Creek. With cliffs of yellow Navajo sandstone, reddened and blackened over time by oxidation of manganese and iron minerals. Smooth-sided rocks windblown and carved into intricate layers and alcoves. Dead trees standing alone, blackened and lifeless like headstones reaching for the sky. Upstream, clear water trickles through the narrow valley floor, fertile and filled with maple trees. As the valley narrows and the cliffs rise vertically, the path ends and the water falls from above, cascading down the shaded rock wall, glistening red and brown and green.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Then there’s Bryce Canyon. Unassuming until you first step to the escarpment edge and gaze down in wonder at the citadel of ‘hoodoos’ like an ancient hidden city. Pillars and spires of red rock built from the earth and sculpted by the forces of nature. Steep switchbacks trace down through narrow slots and a winding trail guides you through the city streets.
And Red Canyon. A cycle trail appears and disappears but lasts just long enough to wind through brilliant red rock formations. Not as jaw-dropping as Bryce. But you can cycle here. And it’s downhill (the way we went). Pleasantly enjoyable.
Zion National Park
Finally Zion National Park. Beauty abound, appreciated again from the bike saddle. Cliffs and towers, canyons and caves, verdant lowlands valleys with yellow leaves of the cottonwoods falling with the wind, cascades drip from high above and form pools reflecting the many autumn colours. And a hike up to Angels Landing for 360 degree views from vertigo-inducing heights.
Along the way are signs of past civilizations living among these surrounds. Fremont Indian old granary stores precariously perch on cliff faces. Just like in Mali’s Dogon country.
And then pioneer settlers arrived from the east. Mormons built small communities and farmed land. And today Zion, ‘the promised land’, is a National Park, full of tourists following well-trodden paths.
The Towns Between
There are few communities along highway 12. They are small. And survive mainly on the summer tourist influx. When we passed, all was quiet. Escalante was deserted on the Sunday we arrived. At least until church service was over and the occasional family stopped at the only place open in town. A gas station. Stopped to get petrol. And the kids, a boy in smart trousers and waistcoat suit with silver braces and cowboy heeled shoes, a girl in skirt and tights and baby pink top, eye up the candy eagerly. The men, in cowboy hat and once-weekly trimmed beards buy a coffee.
We sit and while away the hours until Monday. When the grocery store opens and we can resupply.
Henrieville has a recently painted post office and well-kept community church. Apparently Butch Cassidy was seen here, near his childhood home, after his supposed death in 1908 in Bolivia. I suppose we’ll never know. But it’s fun to speculate.
Las Vegas City Lights
After Zion, we headed fast for Las Vegas. Warmer climes beckoned. But forbidden cycling signs on the I-15 at St. George, slowed progress drastically. No fast freeway for us. Gravel roads and bumpy rides and hills abound instead. Across state land where men fired guns for fun and boys raced motors on dirt tracks. We avoided being hit by bullets or bikes and by sundown were alone in the wild.
We made it back to civilisation and the town of Mesquite, for a few hours in Arizona. And from there, it was one long day into Las Vegas.
Arriving from the north through the gritty rough urban streets, that ended in ‘The Strip’. Another wonder to behold. Not of nature. But entirely man-made. With it’s themed hotels and neon signs and streets crammed with tourists. Casinos and hotels and crass street performers. An adult Disneyland. Where the highs and lows come from roulette table wins and slot machine losses, not fast-riding rollercoasters. An ugly street in all it’s falsity. Built for gamblers but just like all the small towns of southwest Utah we passed through, survives mainly now on tourism.
To California and the Desert
A few days rest and we left Las Vegas. Direction south. Through California to Mexico.
But first, one last night of Nevada lights. This time at Primm, on the state border. We camped on the outskirts. Cracked desert floor under tent and glittering stars above. Outdone by the city-lights illuminated backdrop and endless drone from the steady stream of interstate traffic.
We were on the edge of two contrasting worlds. I liked the look of the one ahead… the desert. Real, untamed, wild and full of wonder…. a warmer southwest Utah?
Don’t forget Lars’ blog at lostcyclist.com!