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Questing The Grand Canyon

Rider Magazine
July 18, 2006
Filed under Favorite Rides: Motorcycle Rides from Rider Readers

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Certainly one worth the pilgrimage is a place so vast and breathless it extends beyond any sense of human scope. If we ever wondered why we ride, arriving at the Grand Canyon offers an epiphany. It is a defining moment that distinguishes the risk and ruggedness of our lifestyle.

I think you have to pity the poor citizen who has never known the heightened senses, the three-dimensional total immersion into our environment that motorcyclists experience. Seeing the canyon from the flat glass panes of a car belittles the view—you may as well buy a postcard. And for some, a picture offers the only comprehensible perspective of such an otherworldy sight.

Of course, the fun of arriving anywhere has a lot to do with the ride there. I climbed aboard Triumph’s mammoth 140-cubic-inch missile, the Rocket III, ready for my ascent to Flagstaff, AZ, and beyond. The grand scale of the Rocket III seemed size-appropriate for the destination.

I began from Cruising Rider’s experimental lab base in the whimsical New Age town of Sedona, AZ (human population, 10,651; alien inhabitant count classified), one late October morning. Once a sacred land for native Americans for hundreds of years, the spellbinding area now draws millions of tourists and other odd beings to its spiritual vortices and towering dawn-tinted rocks.

I rolled off the red dirt parking lot at 9:20 a.m. It was 56 degrees; weather good, traffic fair. Turning north onto Route 89A, I rode quickly by the clusters of energy crystal and tarot card boutiques and various shops selling Navajo and Hopi jewelry, T-shirts and assorted “touristabilia.” Shortly after the city limits, it’s difficult not to attempt to swivel your neck to unnatural angles, trying to absorb one impressive sight after another of Oak Creek Canyon. The scenery is astonishing for the next 28 miles.

Leaving behind the erosion-sculpted petrified reefs, I rode north. The narrow road quickly turns wooded and curvy with views of the clear creek appearing on one flank then another as the road twisted and turned. I was taking the mountain backroad toward Flagstaff, opting to avoid the only alternative, Interstate 17. The locals refer to this simply as the “switchbacks,” since the road climbs 3,000 feet in elevation, zigzagging from Sedona’s 4,300 feet to Flagstaff’s 7,300.

The Triumph handled this with surprisingaplomb, considering its more than 8-foot length, 66.7-inch wheelbase, 704-lb. dry weight and manly 240 rear tire. While the Rocket’s appearance falls into the love-it or hate-it class, its balance and agility is undeniable. Well-engineered steering geometry and a low center of gravity make the bike easy to ride within the cruiser paradigm, even at parking lot speeds or negotiating hairpin turns. I can’t recall the last time I straddled a cruiser and was able to look down and see much of the front fender. This revealed its mild 32-degree rake, although the profile of the bike doesn’t look smushed together like you might see on some non-cruisers.

The route straddles Oak Creek, passing Slide Rock State Park, a popular swimming spot noted for its smooth, waterslidelike flat red rocks; West Fork, one of the most beautiful hiking trails on this or any other planet; and still more spots to shop, if you’re so inclined. There are many points along the way to pull over and hike in and around the canyon to better enjoy the wonderful scenery, or take a short walk down to the creek to refresh yourself in its cool waters.

The road also takes you from a rolling red desert landscape to the green Ponderosa Pine country of Arizona’s ski center. A dramatic change in temperature accompanies the shift in scenery. It was early in the day when I arrived in Flagstaff, or just “Flag” if you’ve lived here for a while. I gassed up and noticed the Fahrenheit had hit about 63 at about 11 a.m. Fresh, but not bad.

Flagstaff, population around 60,000, lies at the southern foot of Humphreys Peak, which at 12,643 feet is the highest point in the state. In many ways, it seems Flag is the epicenter for a variety of stunning geologic and prehistoric attractions. The Sinagua Indian ruins at Walnut Canyon are 11 miles away; Wupatki National Monument is 14 miles further up the road; volcanic Sunset Crater, which last erupted less than a thousand years ago, a mere wink in geologic time, is about 15 miles from downtown, and Meteor Crater, 45 miles east, is likely the world’s most well-preserved remains of an extraterrestrial landing.

The main arteries through town, Milton and Sante Fe (old Route 66) too often trumpet fast-food chains and motels, blaring for tourist attention. Flagstaff does have a cool downtown area, a kind of Greenwich Village West, featuring urban cafés, funky shops and college bars. The University of Northern Arizona and its 16,000 students give Flagstaff that energetic college town feel, with the area getting a little funkier for a few blocks south of the Amtrak railroad tracks.

Yet, despite its commercialization, a 10-minute ride from route 66 can put you on a dirt road right in the middle of the pines with no real sense that there’s a town within a 100 miles. It’s this sort of contrast that has lured many people to re-settle there.

Winter and fall can blow cruelly at the unwary traveler in these parts, especially if large, vulnerable bits of you are left exposed but for some mere leather and cloth. It was 80 more miles to the Grand Canyon. Since I didn’t want to become the state’s next petrified attraction it was time to chase some daylight.

TURNING NORTHWEST onto Route 180, I continued to climb in elevation. The snow-blanketed pine forest looked real pretty, but for a guy on two wheels, the sense of beauty quickly gave way to a feeling of foreboding. As I passed 10,418- foot Kendrick Peak I began to feel a numbing chill. Time to pull over for a cup of hot coffee.

The nameless trading post was the only stop for 50 miles. No gas, but the coffee was a quarter (plus 50 cents to use the bathroom). The owner said it had recently snowed there, leaving 6-foot drifts. Luckily, it was still early enough in the season to turn to melt within a couple of days. It gave me great comfort to think that it wouldn’t take them long to find me once the thaw set in.

Pushing on, I noticed the trees were getting shorter. I was leaving the tall pines behind, elevation was dropping and it felt a little warmer. Route 180 finally makes a right turn at Valle and points directly at the big canyon, now only about 30 more miles north. The town has a couple of gas stations, a diner, couple of trading posts and interestingly enough, Bedrock City, presumably where Fred Flintstone got his start. Time to fight off that hypothermia with a little warm grub. I wandered through the green cardboard cave doors, passed the dusty western wear and trinket section and into Fred’s Kitchen. It’s a couple of minutes past noon. I ordered a Wilma Omelet.

“No eggs,” said the counter lady. “I was really looking forward to some, ma’am.” “Past 12, can’t serve breakfast past 12. Want some Barney Burgers?” she quipped. Well, you mean you just can’t turn around and throw a couple of eggs on the grill and just pretend they’re Barney Burgers? This is a pretend kind of place, isn’t it?”

“Against the rules, no eggs, want the burgers?”

I crossed the street to the diner. The no-egg rule was in effect there, too—some kind of town ordinance, I guess. I ate a chicken sandwich, 1white toast, no fries.

I was fueled up and happy to get back on the Triumph and make a run to the Big Empty. After about 10 miles I entered the Kaibab National Forest and 15 clicks further, passed through Tusayan, the last town before entering Grand Canyon National Park. Airplane and helicopter tours leave from the area, which also offers camping, lodging, gas and food, even eggs. An IMAX movie theater tops the evening entertainment.

Entering on the south side of the canyon, admission costs $12 per bike as of May 1, although the receipt will provide entry for seven days. At least two full days is needed to see the canyon just from scooting around its various viewpoints, which are connected by some 30 miles of road, much less riding a mule, or hiking or flying into its great abyss. The Hermits Rest Route is closed to private vehicles April through December. Shuttle buses access those viewing points, which skirt the park’s western edge. Flowing east, Desert View Drive is open yearround to private vehicles.

Although there is lodging inside the park, I’d recommend staying in Tusayan. It’s generally cheaper, offers a few more choices to eat and drink and usually has more room availability, although it’s always smarter to book ahead. The first overlook I came to was Mather Point. As I approached, I wondered what it must have
been like to discover this, to suddenly find it without knowing it ever existed, without seeing a thousand pictures of it. Then this boundless, almost abstract chasm, 10 miles wide, 277 miles long and a mile deep quietly appears and no matter what you’ve heard or seen, the sight still makes your jaw hit the dirt. If you’re from a big city like New York, for example, where there never seems to be enough space for anything, it’s staggering to realize that two Long Islands could fit inside it placed end to end.

You know then that you have to see this place from every conceivable angle to gain any sensible grasp of its reality. You’ll want to spend a few minutes at some overlooks; hours at others. Whatever your preference, the park is an ideal place to putt from point to point.

There are about a dozen or so overlooks, with short hiking trails spreading out from many of them. There are few guard rails, so falling off the edge is a distinct possibility if you get stupid, which apparently a few sightseers do every year.

Although its appeal is overwhelming, legislation moved slowly to protect the Grand Canyon. Benjamin Harrison introduced a bill into Congress in 1882 to create the national park, but local opposition, general public ignorance of the canyon and the fact that it would be another 30 years before Arizona gained statehood and therefore representation in Congress, hindered the process

Through the repeated efforts of Harrison and people like naturalist John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, the area finally became a national park in 1919, a halfcentury after it was first explored by John Wesley Powell, a one-armed Civil War veteran.

Of course, the canyon was visited by other than Americans over its 6-million-year history. While a young King Tut couldn’t imagine what a stir his desiccated flesh would someday make, Desert Culture tribes were living inside the canyon’s walls. When Europe was in the throes of the plague-riddled Dark Ages, Pueblo Indians were living a mostly happy agrarian life within this seemingly endless crevasse, created by continent-forming forces pushing up as the Colorado River cut down with an assist from the occasional earthquake.

In 1540, Coronado reached the canyon led by Hopi Indians, but soon left thinking it offered little value. And sadly, it seems the first mechanized vehicle to reach the canyon wasn’t a Harley or Henderson or Honda or even an Indian, it was the Toledo Eight Horse horseless carriage. It banged and chuffed its way to the South Rim in 1902. No one seems to know when the first motorcycle made the trip.

Today, the canyon receives some 5 million visitors a year, 40% of whom, Coronado would probably be pleased to know, are not originally from the United States. Such great numbers warrant some advice: If possible, avoid the park during the summer and on holiday weekends. Of course, if you’re on a bike, don’t wait too long in the year.

Summer temperatures at the South Rim’s nearly 7,000-foot elevation usually reach highs in the 80s, dropping much cooler at night, from low teens to high 20s. Spring and fall can be very unpredictable, a park officer warned me. Although daytime temperatures generally range between 40 and 60 degrees in the shoulder seasons, he said, be prepared for sudden and sometimes extreme changes in weather. Snow is possible, as are icy winds and roads, in late fall or early spring. Forget the winter.

The South Rim is open all year and receives 90% of the park’s visitors; the North Rim, at 8,200 feet, closes after mid-October due to inclement conditions. The South Rim gets very busy during peak season. The North Rim is much less accessible and contains few accommodations, but some people like it that way. Further development of the far side of the canyon has met with stiff opposition, the feeling that one commercialized half is enough.

Fortunately, it was late enough in the season to send most tourists to warmer attractions. I was able to scoot along virtually unimpeded by traffic. The only time I felt crowded was when I was beset by a large group of Japanese tourists who seemed extremely excited by my arrival at Maricopa Point. Cameras furiously clicked and flashed as they suddenly swarmed around the bike in an amazing display of international friendship. They moved, smiling all the while, in a balletlike blur of purpose and organization, capturing images, I suppose, of something they considered eminently American even if I was on a British bike.

Heading toward the park’s eastern exit, I took a break for a late lunch at the Desert View, which offers an alluring panorama of the Painted Desert to the east. This last stop in the park contains shops, a watchtower, picnic areas and a cafeteria. It was about 4 p.m. and the temperature had fallen to about 53 degrees. Noticing I was on a bike, one of the cafeteria workers issued me a calamitous warning, handed me a teeny tiny bible and blessed my journey. This was quite discomforting.

Exiting the park, Desert View Drive turns into Route 64. The views of the Painted Desert, with its unearthly hues of orange and red color the jagged, eroded landscape of the Little Colorado River Gorge. A full-blooded moon rose to greet me as I rode east into the heart of the Navajo Nation. The area seems surreal. On a much smaller scale than the Grand Canyon, it’s easier to gain a greater sense of contact with the surroundings. Your imagination can wander through the prehistoric formations, and forget that time existed here at all.

But as the Rocket III missiled down 64, I became painfully aware of the time. About 35 miles after leaving the park, 64 spills out to Route 89 near Cameron. The town is basically a hotel, restaurant and trading post, which has reasonable deals on authentic Navajo jewelry.

After gassing up and digging a ski mask and glove liners out of the Triumph’s ample saddlebags, I turned south on 89 to Flagstaff. Just ride toward the equator, I thought, and it’s got to warm up. It was 6 p.m. and night was falling fast. Elevation would hit 8,300 feet before I was done. It was already starting to feel dangerously cold. Flag was 64 miles away, all uphill.

By the time I got to town it was 20 degrees and I was praying oncevolcanic Sunset Crater would wake up and cover me in some nice, warm lava. I stopped to top off the Rocket’s 6.6-gallon tank. With gas mileage around 35 mpg, the bike has good range but the low-fuel warning light would switch on prematurely. A Triumph spokesman later said it was a bad sensor and not to worry. Distracting, though. They sent another unit that needs to be installed by a dealer.

I emptied whatever else I carried in the bags onto my back, but my hands were so stiff I could barely zip my jacket. I fell into some kind of zenlike, vision quest daze, smiling and muttering something about howcold was good and would lead me to enlightenment.

It must have been all those frozen brain cells that told me to take the mountain switchbacks back to Sedona. The bitter night air was pungent with the smoke of mesquite and piñon burning in toasty fireplaces. The road was pitch black and the towering pines above made it all feel like I was spinning through a perpetual tunnel. Finally a stoplight up ahead signaled the merciful end

By the way, note that Arizona stays on Mountain Standard Time year round. For more information regarding the Grand Canyon and its activities and road and weather conditions, call the National Park Service at 928-638-7888; visit www.nps.gov/grca

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