Scenic Utah Motorcycle Touring: Three backroad byways, One Harley
[This Scenic Utah Motorcycle Touring article was originally published in the April 2010 issue of American Rider]
I rather like Green River, a town in central Utah…for about 10 hours max. It is roughly 100 miles from anywhere else, and has became an extended rest stop for travelers on I-70. And for Harleys with five-gallon tanks. I’ve got a six-gallon tank, but I like to keep it filled. Green River is great if anyone needs gas, a meal, a bed—it’s there. Which it wasn’t 140 years ago. The Green River itself was a minor obstacle for anyone heading west back then, but it did have the advantage of guaranteed year-around water. In 1876 the U.S. government paid a fellow to set up a ferry business so the mail could get through, and a few years later the railroad came along, necessitating the building of a bridge. And now there are also two highway bridges, one for the Interstate, the other, much older, for the combined U.S. 6 and U.S. 50. South of town is the very pleasant Green River State Park, but I have no camping gear with me.
The old Route 6/50 leaves the Interstate and curves around for about four miles before rejoining the highway with a couple of dozen sleeperies and eateries, 10 or 12 gas stations and garages, and a few other stores. My 1950s-era motel doesn’t have in-room coffee, so after my morning shower I walk across the road for breakfast and a look at the day ahead. I’ve got an “official highway map” of Utah, which is quite a bit more informative than my trusty AAA map. I can roll along the Interstates to Las Vegas, or fiddle along the back roads, which will be far more entertaining. I’m in no rush.
While consuming sausage and eggs over easy, I look at the map and see that 10 miles west on I-70 I can take Utah 24 south and west to Torrey for 90 miles, then south and west on UT 12 for 120 miles, hook south onto US 89 for a dozen miles, then west on UT 14 for 40 miles. That will put me in Cedar City, as good a place as any to spend the night. That adds up to something over 270 miles—anything under 300 is an easy day.
I gassed up the Street Glide the evening before, and checked the oil. I crawl around on the asphalt to check the tire pressures—40 and 36. Good. I bungee my waterproof duffle to the luggage rack—I know that red bundle is aesthetically questionable, but it is useful. A turn of the key, a push of the button, and we’re away. Fifteen minutes later I’m off the Interstate and heading south on UT 24 through the San Rafael Desert. It is desolate, and the stats show that only about 300 vehicles a day use this stretch between the Interstate and the town of Hanksville. Off to the west is the San Rafael Reef, which in geologic terms means that one heckuva long time ago the ground was in motion and one section ended up lower than another, creating a wall—or reef.
I see a sign for Goblin Valley State Park. The road is paved to the park, and if one does not want to retrace the route, the brave, or foolish if rain is threatening, can continue on a dirt road through Muddy Creek back to UT 24. I was there years ago so I’ll give the park a miss; the Street Glide likes pavement.
Hanksville is a very small community just south of the bridge over the waterless Dirty Devil River—love those names. Straight ahead I can see the Henry Mountains, and the La Sal Mountains farther to the southeast. Near here is the Mars Desert Research Station, where astronauts come to see what life might be like on Mars. Scientists figure the local moonscape topography is very close to what will be found on the planet. We hang a left onto the Capitol Reef Scenic Byway, as the next 50 miles of UT 24 are called. This will lead us through the Capitol Reef National Park. When I see a sign pointing to an official scenic byway, I tend to turn in that direction; I have yet to find one not worthy of its “scenic” name.
Factory Butte is off to our left, along the dirt road to Goblin Valley; I’ll do that when I’m here with an XR1200—and a four-wheel-drive chase vehicle. We’re on the north side of the now-dry Fremont River, but from the sand piled up along the edge of the road it appears that it was in full flood during the rainy season. A big sign announces we are entering the national park, while off to the south the Notom Road disappears over a low hill. It goes down to the ferry that crosses Lake Powell, and while I know it is paved for a ways, there are about 25 miles of dirt to get to the Lake. Again, XR1200 time.
We’re entering a canyon of sorts, the FLHX’s stock exhaust burbling contentedly. This is where Mormons came through in the early 1880s looking for arable land. A red sandstone cabin is a park exhibit built by one Elijah Behunin to house his family of 10. Ten people? In that tiny cabin? Unfortunately Elijah was worried about their getting flooded out by the Fremont River so they stayed only a couple of years. The tiny fertile Fruita valley is just ahead, where the Mormons did have success.
Next is the entrance to the park proper, and the visitor center. This is all in the “waterpocket fold” caused by the earth’s surface buckling, creating something rather like a wrinkle on the face of the earth. According to the official park guide, this all happened about 65 million years ago, and probably took a rather long time. I shan’t worry about an earthquake.
A little bit later we come up to the Goosenecks Overlook, followed by a bit of undulation, and then drop down towards the town of Torrey. But first there is the intersection with UT 12—heck, I don’t need anything in Torrey so I’ll just turn onto 12.
Now I’m on the Journey Through Time Scenic Byway, and my first task is a long, graceful climb up and over Boulder Mountain, the road going up to 9,200 feet. This is all Dixie National Forest, with several campgrounds. Many years ago, when the road was still dirt, I camped near the top—and got downright cold. Despite the cold, the views east over Capitol Reef are absolutely stupendous, and to the west, less visible, is the Aquarius Plateau.
We descend into the little town of Boulder, settled in 1889 and still a small farming community, but now more taken with the tourist trade. The place did not get electricity until 1947, thanks to the Rural Electrification Act, and it was apparently the last town in the U.S. to have the mail delivered by mule. The small Anasazi Indian State Park is worthy of a visit. The Burr Trail Scenic Backway (“backway” is the notation that means some dirt is involved) goes east to join with that Notom Road I mentioned earlier.
Continuing on towards Escalante I go down into the green valley and then climb up to the Hogsback, the local name for this section of twisty UT 12 pavement that runs along a very narrow ridge. It is a two-lane road, with minimal, occasionally non-existent, pull-off space as the land slopes steeply away from the asphalt on both sides. This road requires a lot of attention from a rider.
A well-marked turn would take me to the Hells Backbone Road, which was the old road between Boulder and Escalante, which now goes through the Death Hollow Wilderness. Not nice names. It is all dirt, and while the 24 miles of pavement will take me the better part of an hour, Hells Backbone would take me three to four times that. More XR1200 work.
Now we have entered the Grand Staircase—Escalante National Monument, a huge place that borders two national parks, Capitol Reef to the east and Bryce Canyon to the west. A “monument,” I should note, gets less federal funding than a park, and is usually less developed—a good thing in my mind. There are a couple of dirt roads and a lot of hiking trails in the monument, but we are sticking to the pavement. The Hogsback is a great ride, done discreetly, and after the vertiginous twisties it drops down to Calf Creek and the Escalante River, before moving on to the town of Escalante.
Friendly town. I stop for gas, and next door is the Escalante Frosty Shop & Bakery, run by Margie and Bill Weppner. They own a bunch of motorcycles, and have mapped all the dual-purpose roads in the Dixie forest and the monument at the request of the Garfield County travel council. They also turn out a great burger on a homemade bun. The town is also home to The Desert Doctor, a motorcycle shop (435-826-4951) that specializes in Harleys; but the Doc can fix most anything on two wheels. This is where I will spend the night next time I’m through; today I push on.
If you like to see some very dead trees, Escalante is also home to the Petrified Forest State Park. I should add that if you thought that 65-million-year number I mentioned a bit ago was an indication of old, the geologist types figure that the Grand Staircase, which looks like a huge set of stairs when you’re up in the space station, was actually conceived a hundred million years before that.
Heading west on UT 12, the road rolls along past the Table Cliff Plateau and down into Cannonville, where a visitor center has lots to give out in the way of maps and information. Just south of there is Kodachrome Basin State Park, named for the Kodak color film that was recently taken off the market because everyone has gone digital—including me. UT 12 then climbs up to the Paunsaugunt Plateau and the entrance to Bryce Canyon National Park. Great place, but in June it is almost too popular, with cars backed up at the entrance. The price of wonderment. If you have the time, it is a very worthwhile 18-mile ride into the park and up to 9,000-foot Rainbow Point.
Now we’re headed down through Red Canyon, and the intersection with U.S. 89. We’re only on 89 for 15 minutes, and then we turn onto UT 14, the 40-mile Markagunt High Plateau Scenic Byway. This steep road runs from the valley of the Sevier River up to nearly 10,000 feet, and at the top you can go north on the plateau to Cedar Breaks National Monument, which is a little higher still. But time’s a-wasting and the sun is setting, so I pass. Though I do stop for a quick view of Zion National Park from the Zion Overlook. Then we drop precipitously down to Cedar City at 5,800 feet on the east edge of the Great Basin. This is home to lots of motels, and the Iron Mission State Park, which commemorates the Mormon iron works established here in 1851.
Today I have gone along three scenic byways, brushed past three national parks, two national monuments, and six state parks—I should have spent a week on this stretch, not a day.