A not so smart shortcut along the Comb Wash road in Southern Utah
“SHORTCUTS make long delays” – JRR Tolkien.
It turns out we’d forgotten this little pearl of wisdom while route planning the road south to Monument Valley. In fact, while packing up to farewell Moab and ride steadily uphill on Highway 191 we forgot more than just the sage advice of Frodo Baggins, but apparently any advice we’d heard at all since cycling into Utah’s hot and unforgiving south.
In short we had decided to take a short cut in the desert on a little used road with no water, virtually no traffic and scarcely any information other than the promising looking elevation profile Google Maps offered. What could go wrong? A lot, apparently.
But let me backtrack.
We’d decided to pedal south to the Arizona border in order to see the famed valley where Forest Gump stopped his epic three year run with a simple “I’m pretty tired. I think I’ll go home now” – before backtracking north again to the Natural Bridges National Monument and turning west for the first time since British Colombia, Canada.
Magical Monument Valley
We’d agonised over the detour (the desert was hot, Utah was hard and we really just wanted to get the hell out of dodge) but we’d ultimately decided we couldn’t get within striking distance of Monument Valley without making the two or more day detour to see it. Besides, it would give us a chance to see the Navajo Nation and dip a toe into Arizona before working our way west and then south to Mexico.
The road from Moab snaked uphill for almost 90km to reach a peak of just over 7000 feet at Monticello before roller coasting back down to the desert and over the next three days we suffered into a constant hot headwind. Just one thing kept us going and that was the stunning wild camp sites Utah’s swathe of BLM land plated up each night.
A stunning wild camp on BLM in between Moab and Monticello
Outside the tiny town of Blanding the wind picked up the temperature soared and Scott threw a tantrum that would have made my 18 month year old niece proud. I could scarcely blame him. For all its beauty Utah was proving to be one of the toughest rides of our tour and not just because it was hilly, not just because it was hot and not just because it was a desolate, waterless desert – but because it was all of those at once.
A friendly old bloke at the Blanding Visitors Centre managed to cheer us up and we discovered the San Juan region was rich in Native American culture and history that spanned the ancient Anasazi race through to Ute and Navajo tribes. It also boasted a horde of gorgeous canyons, buttes, mesas and off road routes.
I revealed my crafty shortcut plan to cycle the tiny Comb Wash between highways 95 and 161 and while our new friend looked a little concerned he mentioned the road should be ok.
So with the tick of approval from a wizened octogenarian we loaded up enough food to survive the apocalypse, filled our two four litre water bladders and pedalled south and then west onto Highway 95. From here on in water would not only be sporadic but sometimes two or more days cycle apart and so we’d planned to cook virtually dry meals and use every drop of precious water to drink.
The stunning road down to Comb Wash along Highway 95
The road bucked and dipped for 30km and by early evening we’d reached the bottom of a red and brown canyon that marked the turn off to Comb Wash road and a free little BLM campsite perched at the start of it.
As we pulled onto the sandy, gravel road a middle aged man camped in a nearby RV called out to us before cycling over on a rusty bike.
“I know the perfect pull in for you to camp at,” he drawled.
“It’s got some shade and everything – you’ll love it,” he exclaimed.
He insisted on showing us the way and we trundled off behind him along a washboard track past picture-perfect flat camp sites complete with picnic tables and drop toilets.
“Umm,” I ventured.
“Does this site you’re taking us to have tables and a toilet as well?”
“Oh yeah,” he insisted without really listening.
Ten minutes later we pulled up next to a tiny pull in surrounded by spiky shrubs and glass. There was no picnic table and no toilet but instead we were treated to a large red ant nest sitting smack bang in the middle of the clearing.
“What a bloody idiot,” I muttered angrily as the unhelpful yokel pedalled off into the sunset.
We immediately turned around and cycled back to the pristine site with its table, toilet and uninhibited view of the cliffs doused in early evening light.
What a view! The Comb Wash free BLM camp plates up scenic perfection
As the sun dipped down over the horizon and the day’s heat gave way to a refreshing chill we pondered the day ahead, imagining peaceful dirt roads, gorgeous vistas and definitely no unhelpful idiots.
How wrong we were.
Just after sunrise the next morning we hauled our bikes back onto the gravel track for what promised to be a fairly easy 30km dirt detour before joining up with Highway 163.
According to the friendly old bloke at the Visitors Centre, Comb Wash was literally awash in ancient ruins of the Anasazi – an ancestral Puebloan race that occupied the Four Corners region of the States from roughly 500 to 1300 CE. And so just two kilometres down the sandy road we veered off in search of cliffside pueblos.
One hot and sandy half hour trek later we emerged into an open valley shadowed by great stone walls dotted with a handful of mud brick ruins built precariously into the rock.
Scott poses next to ancient Anasazi pueblos built into a cliff face
Petroglyphs carved into the rock wall
We hunted out a winding switchback track that lead right to the ruin ledge and spent an hour exploring the tiny little huts that had stood a considerable test of time. Nearby petroglyphs were carved into the rock wall depicting concentric circles, alien looking humanoid figures and winding rivers.
It was almost 11am before we pried ourselves away and jumped back on the gravel road under a scorching sun.
In a matter of minutes the gravel gave way to hot, dense sand and after wobbling to a stop we were forced to get off and push. It was hot, hard and back breaking work that was about as easy as pushing a loaded wheelbarrow through concrete and after 40 minutes we’d made it just one kilometre.
No one had mentioned anything about sand but another hour and a soul destroying two kilometres later we were still pushing.
Comb Wash road
The heat was almost blinding and our water levels dropped drastically as the hot wind sapped the moisture from our mouths.
Between the two of us we had about 5 litres of water left which was plenty for an easy 30km gravel ride (we could fill up at Mexican Hat) but nowhere near enough for a 10 hour desert push.
It was just 4km from the camp site that we stopped in frustration and decided to turn back. The road was hot, dangerous and absolutely not bike-able and little as we liked to do it, the only smart option was to turn back and cut our losses.
Just 500 metres later, back in the direction of the camp ground, a large dune buggy roared up behind us and an older couple stopped for a chat.
“We saw you turned around just back there,” the chunky man boomed out to us.
“If you’d just kept going you would have reached the end of the sand soon after,” he claimed.
“Do you mean it’s bike-able after that until the asphalt?” I asked.
“Yep! We were flying along there – it’s a hard surface and you two would be fine, I promise you. I wouldn’t steer you wrong,” he insisted.
Before speeding off the couple gave us a couple of extra cold litres of water and we gratefully guzzled them down before having a quick and sandy conference. If the bloke was right it would mean we’d easily make it out of the Comb Wash in a couple of hours and be in Mexican Hat by mid to late afternoon. If he was wrong, we’d be screwed.
But the man had sounded so confident… surely he wouldn’t recommend a bad road to us in these brutal desert conditions…
And so we turned back around and pushed on.
By 3.30pm we’d made it just 13km having managed to only cycle a pitiful 5km of “hard surface” before impossibly soft sand had us off and pushing.
We’d soldiered on in the hopes the road would get better but while it had plated up just enough to stop us turning back we were getting dangerously hot and our water levels were again dangerously low. I was almost delirious with heat and exhaustion and had just finished spewing out a loud and angry monologue about all the ways I’d like to “beat that old asshole into a pulp” when the unmistakable sound of a dune buggy roared up behind us again.
It was the couple who’d given us a bum steer but this time they’d come to rescue us.
After driving back to the camp ground they’d realised the sand was far worse than their pimped out buggy had lead them to believe and after stewing on it for three hours they’d decided to come back and see if we were still alive.
I was too grateful to be angry and in a Tetras game of the ages we managed to load up our bikes, panniers and selves into the buggy to be ferried back to Highway 95.
The whole way back the old bloke chastised us for not bringing enough water and ranted about having to “save our dumb asses” without seeming to remember his confidence in recommending the bloody road in the first place.
Ruins such as this Anasazi kiva dot Highway 95
The next day I woke up feeling dehydrated, sluggish and bone weary and for the next 10km we climbed slowly uphill to the top of a plateau before turning left onto the 261 for a rollercoaster of a ride to Mexican Hat.
Each mile felt like a triumph and by time we reached the top of the epic Moki Dugway with its three miles of gravel switch backs it was mid-afternoon and the sun was beating down.
The one horse town of Mexican Hat slunk into view at 4pm and Scott all but sprinted inside the air-conditioned pit stop, emerging 15 minutes later with arms full of Powerades, burritos, Pringles and a fruit cup.
Looking out over the Moki Dugway to the Valley of the Gods
Monument Valley still sat 35 uphill kilometres away and with our wild camping options now limited (you can’t camp outside of official grounds on Navajo Nation land) we weighed up our three options: backtracking towards the Moki Dugway for a BLM camp, forking out $140 USD for a nearby motel room, or pedalling uphill for possibly three or more hours to the Arizona border.
Talk about being sandwiched between a turd toastie and a shit sub. We’d just begun gearing ourselves up for a turd roll feast when a portly Navajo man walked out of the gas station and asked us where we were headed before offering us a ride to Monument Valley.
Delighted at our luck we threw our bikes in the back of his old pick up truck before throwing ourselves in the back with them.
Our new friend Ron clearly wasn’t bothered about law enforcement and so we hurtled off down the highway perched in the back tray as the sun set on some of the world’d most famous monuments.
Ron had a rustic campsite just out of the village and so invited us to pitch our tent in his dunes for the night.
Scott poses in front of the famed Mitten Buttes
Stunnig Monument Valley
The view from Ron’s camp
The next morning we trekked to a view of the nearby West and East Mitten Buttes before packing up and cycling into town for our first shower in four days at the Gouldings Campground. Utah’s brutal deserts had nearly undone us but while we lapped up a much needed rest we knew some of the toughest rides still lay ahead.