Archway to sandy heaven – cycling southern Utah

Desert Solitude near the entrance of Arches National Park

Desert Solitude near the entrance of Arches National Park

AFTER almost two months of faffing about, eating bagels and being a world class slob in Salt Lake City I was a little worried I’d lost some biking fitness.

But just a few hours back into the saddle I discovered I’d been wrong.

I hadn’t lost a bit of biking fitness – oh no – I’d lost all of it.

Day one started in the foot hills of the Uintas Mountains just outside Park City where Kendra’s husband Erik had kindly offered to haul us, our bikes and all our kit to save us a soul-destroying 35km uphill slog on a heaving interstate.

Charming highway 40 just outside of Park City

Charming highway 40 just outside of Park City

As we wobbled south onto highway 40 my panniers bulged like proverbial love handles and my spandex cycling shorts strained against my gut. Had they always been this tight? Or had the excessive bagel consumption transformed me from a travelling cyclist to a travelling pastry peddler?

Probably.

In fact why the hell had we bought enough food for the apocalypse? We’d even stuffed an extra three bags of coffee beans in “because we won’t hit a big city for a while” but any caffeine advantage was being offset by the fact we collectively now weighed roughly the same as a young killer whale.

After 1.5 hours and about 30km the road turned inevitably up into the distant mountains and our sluggish pace slowed to a crawl. Trucks and cars zoomed past as the fiery sun beat down and by 2pm it felt as though my quads had been beaten with a baseball bat for several hours.

I was just beginning to feel the onset of heat stroke when dark grey clouds moved in to cover up the sun and the heavens opened to release a torrent of hard, heavy rain. Relief quickly turned to a case of the shivers and as I reached for my Goretex jacket I wondered if Utah’s climate was in a perpetual state of Menopause.

Probably.

Just two kilometres from the top we packed it in, veered off to the right and set up camp in a national forest park with undercover tables. We’d made it just 50km. There was little to do but pop a couple of ibuprofen, collapse into the tent and hope like hell that tomorrow was at least a bit easier, or at least a little less Menopausal.

Who needs a shower when you have mountain downpours!

Who needs a shower when you have mountain downpours!

Before leaving Salt Lake our plan had been to start cycling each day at about 6.30am in a bid to beat the heat and cover some serious miles before midday. At 9am on our second morning back in action we wobbled out of the campground feeling a bit sheepish and a bit shattered before ascending the final kilometres to the top of the pass and flying down the other side.

Another summit, another proud as punch pose!

Another summit, another proud as punch pose!

While enjoying a sweaty lunch at the barren Fruitland truck stop we looked at the map and noticed a side road that deviated from the 40 before joining up near the small town of Duchesne. It would cut out a big bloody climb that lay ahead and provide some quieter and potentially more scenic cycling on a secondary track (but you know, mostly the first one) and so we took it.

The secondary track turned out to be a well maintained dirt road that weaved through a stunning canyon dotted with the occasional ranch boasting angry redneck signs and impromptu trailer parks.

It never ceased to amaze me that on these quiet country roads (boasting two parts of f$ck all traffic) lived some of the country’s most paranoid and angry (read fearful) land owners sparking me to ponder what would happen if we dared to knock on their door in the event of an emergency.

Just another charming "f#@k off" sign to make you feel all warm and fuzzy.

Just another charming “f#@k off” sign to make you feel all warm and fuzzy.

Ah well, best not to find out… after all, our little can of bear spray was no match for a sun burned yokel with a semi.

It was shortly after Scott had stopped to take a pic of a particularly aggressive no trespassing sign that a gummy farmer in a pick up pulled over for a chat.

“Dat road ahead is in real bad shape,” he warned.

“We’ve had landslides and fires here and you won’t get through,” he insisted.

“What, even on a bicycle?” I asked.

“Yep!” He said.

The farmer then drove off in the exact direction he’d warned us not to cycle and we looked at each in bafflement. If the road was that bad, Scott reasoned, surely it would have been closed. 

And so we pedalled on.

After a few kilometres the only thing that changed was the scenery: It got even more beautiful. Striking rock monuments rose out from the valley while the gravel road remained so smooth we were able to fly along at about 18km per hour.

Definitely passable and definitely beautiful!

Definitely passable and definitely beautiful!

Another 15km of pristine gravel later the road switched back to asphalt. What the bloody hell had that old bastard been raving on about!?

By late afternoon we’d begun the slow climb out of the canyon when we spied a flat slice of desert that just begged to be camped on and so we pulled off, dodged some red ant nests, and pitched the tent next to a juniper tree.

The sky was so blue and the scenery so magical that we decided to ditch the tent’s rain fly and enjoy a breeze and a view of the stars. I mean, it didn’t rain in the desert anyway right?

Our quiet desert camp next to a juniper tree.

Our quiet desert camp next to a juniper tree.

At around 10pm, mere moments from sleep, a vehicle pulled into our wild camp spot and a lone guy got out and proceeded to shine his torch around. He was probably just there to suck down a joint and soak up the serenity but in our heads he was an escaped convict hell bent on killing two Aussies and burying their remains under a juniper tree. For two hours we waited with bated breath for the “serial killer” to bugger off and when he finally did (around midnight) we struggled to fall asleep. In the early hours of the morning my body finally relaxed and I fell into a deep slumber only to wake up suddenly at 4am. Is Scott spraying water on my head? No – it’s bloody raining!

Duchesne turned out to be a small town with a lot of gas stations, a few racist billboards and a library that boasted a lot of Mormon literature. On the way in we met a solo French cyclist and after a quick chat we agreed to share a tent site with her at Starvation State Park about 7km out of town. It seemed wrong to pay for camping in a state that boasted high quantities of stunning Bureau of Land Management (BLM) terrain (which can be camped on for free for up to 14 days) but we were caked in dirt and desperate for a shower.

The next day we waddled out of town at about 9am (so much for an early start) and soon after we were knee deep into a 40km long climb up the 191 highway.

Hot, barren and busy route 191.

Hot, barren and busy route 191.

It was hot – bloody hot – and by 1pm we’d drunk more than half of our water  – which included an extra four litres each strapped to the back of our bikes.

By 5pm the gentle climb had turned into a steep slog sparking my hangries to turn into an explosive rant and so Scott calmly suggested we camp just off the road next to a dry river bed. Later that night, as we lay in the tent, the heavens again opened and Scott sleepily mentioned that it looked as though the river we were camped mere metres from was prone to flash floods. He then rolled over and fell asleep. When I finally managed to doze off I dreamed of being swept away tents, bike and all.

The next morning we descended into the kind of desert that doesn’t make the brochures and into the kinds of towns that don’t help the rural stereotypes. First up was Helper, a village that was tumbleweed rich, but charm poor and second up was the town of Price which was a little more interesting on account of the fact that it had a Walmart and a park. Both looked like the kinds of places where hopes and dreams come to die.

The temperature was reaching roughly the same level as the sun’s surface and so we hid out in the town park until 5pm before loading up on 14 litres of water and cycling out into the desert. After 90km we followed a dirt track into the dunes and pitched the tent next to a batch of tiny cactus plants.

Our desert camp!

Our desert camp!

We were back on the deadly and traffic filled Highway 6 which ran virtually all the way to Moab and the next morning we slogged out some hard won, windy miles before admitting defeat in Green River. It was now Scott’s turn to throw a tantrum (on account of some painful saddle rash) and so rather than head back into the desert to wild camp we paid for a shower, some shade and a patch of grass.

In hindsight we could have just forked out for a shower and then disappeared down one of the many BLM roads that snake off the highway but we were tired and craving shade.

The next morning we were treated to a wild rant from the campsite owner about those damn Californians and those damn Democrats before pedalling out onto the secondary highway that runs parallel to the interstate for a good 30km or so. The landscape seemed to switch between beautiful, barren, grim and just plain desolate and by midday the sun had again forced us off the road and this time into the only shade we could find – a ditch just off Crescent Junction.

It was hard to believe we were merely a stone’s throw from the world famous Arches National Park and when the sun’s burn finally softened we jumped back on the bike to pedal another 7km before taking a left hand turn onto the little used Salt Valley gravel road that was the unofficial back door to the park.

Four kilometres later we pulled on the brakes and slowed to a stop with bulging eyes and open mouths.

Stretching out before us lay giant rock walls splashed in a kaleidoscope of colours while towering red rock monuments sat like carved out chess pieces.

The back entrance into Arches National Park

The back entrance into Arches National Park

Incredibly, formidable winds coupled with the slow passage of time had turned the landscape into a work of art and as we pedalled along the rough and sandy road it felt as though we were en route to Oz.

We cycled until 8pm and camped just shy of the park’s border in the shadow of intricately carved cliffs.

The price for stunning views? Sand and washboard!

The price for stunning views? Sand and washboard!

Arches National Park was just like Yellowstone in the sense that it was big and full of more wonders than the average traveller had time to see. With that in mind we’d picked a few of the more famous “arches” to check out and in uncharacteristic discipline we were out of bed before 6am to see them. In the pre-sunrise gloom we packed up the tent and as the golden raws of dawn hit the red cliffs we were pushing through calf-deep sand and bone-breaking washboard. It took two hours to tackle the 16km to Devils Campground and in that time we were transformed to another planet.

Postcard perfect Arches National Park

Postcard perfect Arches National Park

Impossible arches spanned craggy canyons while phallic-looking red rock jutted out between them. By midday we’d scarcely reached the trailhead to Delicate Arch (arguably the most famed of the arches) when huge grey clouds massed overhead and the first fat drops splattered down on the red sand. Hiking slippery rock uphill would have been tough at the best of times but in a thunderstorm it seemed downright dangerous so instead of making the trek we jumped back in the saddle for a long slow uphill slog out of the canyon.

Storm clouds brew on Arches Scenic Drive

Storm clouds brew on Arches Scenic Drive

A few minutes after we’d reached the main entrance visitors centre the heavens didn’t just open, they split at the seams.

Gale force winds of up to 50 miles per hour ripped across the landscape while biting rain and hail beat down in a fury. Alarmed tourists sprinted into doors, walls and each other while half our kit was blown across the centre entrance before we were able to gather it up and dive inside. It was so violent I expected the aftermath to feature lollipops and Oompaloompas but instead there was flash flooding, impromptu waterfalls and and a tonne of mud.

We waited out the worst of the storm before throwing on our Goretex jackets and cycling the remaining 10km into Moab as heavy rain beat down.

Three hours later we were snuggled into a slightly mouldy dorm bed at the cheap as chips Lazy Lizard Hostel and as the rain continued to batter down we fell into the kind of deep sleep that comes from true exhaustion.

And with the rest of big, bold, beautiful and brutal southern Utah awaiting, rest was what we needed most.

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