Day 20: Torrey, UT – Ferron, UT

The blue skies and fluffy clouds of yesterday had been replaced with strong winds, frigid temperatures, grey skies, and pockets of snow and rain here and there. A great day to tackle a 9,000 foot mountain pass.

Our short-term destination right now is Park City, Utah and we’ve chosen highways 72 and 10 to take us north into Central Utah. After finding our turn, the road started winding up a valley into the mountains and the rain began. Higher still, the rain turned to a light snow that increased in intensity and began piling up on our jackets. The visibility dropped and passing cars became rarer and rarer – this section was very reminiscent of the rainy and snowy days in the Canadian mountains six years ago.

After a couple hours of climbing we reached the pass at 8,975 feet. Unlike yesterday, reaching the pass was not a relaxing affair – given the weather we didn’t want to stick around too long. We quickly added layers and got to the descending, squinting to try and see the road through the heavy wind and snow. Just like two days ago, frozen hands quickly became the limiting factor as we took frequent breaks at the numerous scenic overlooks to warm our hands. The quality of these viewpoints I cannot comment on as we had maybe 200 feet of visibility. I fashioned a wind and snow shield for my hands out of a stuff sack and we proceeded downwards.

The snow turned to rain and after a long while finally began lightening up. It was now after 3 in the afternoon and we hadn’t eaten so we stopped for a quick snack break. Just like in Arizona, we have a knack for picking routes that don’t see towns very often – the route today went 70 miles between any sort of cafe, store, or gas station – we had nowhere to take refuge from the weather.

Eventually the road went under I-70 and headed out of the mountains into rural land. Coal mining seems to be the dominant industry here as evidenced by the large quantity of spilled coal on the highway shoulder. Our tailwind from the morning had left us before the mountain pass and never returned and we pushed onwards in search of a place to stay for the night.

I got a flat tire and replaced the tube just in time for the rain to start up again, this time turning to hail as we approached the town of Ferron. There’s a single motel/food option in town that closes at 7 and we are lucky to have arrived before they closed lest we’d need to push on to the next town. The dinner options consist of fried chicken tenders, fried mozzarella sticks, fried jalapeno poppers, and a hot pocket. We buy every last item available and take them back to our room to enjoy our healthy dinner.

Notes from Donald: “We encountered most forms of precipitation today – snow, rain, hail, and probably some sleet. The snow climbing to the 9,000 foot pass was beautiful but made for a very frigid downhill.”

Today’s mileage: 80 miles

Total: 1047 miles

 

Day 19: Escalante, UT – Torrey, UT

Pinned up on the wall of our motel’s lobby was a printout of the top ten best roads in the world. Highway 12 in Utah was listed as number 2 on the list, as enthusiastic highlighting made sure we knew. We had been on highway 12 for the last 60 miles and it certainly was a nice road but I wasn’t sure why it was given such high accolades.

The road out of Escalante took us through rolling desert hills with cliffs lining the view to the south. Every few miles a pullout with an interpretive sign would talk about the history or geology of the region, pointing out ancient granaries of the Native Americans, or recalling tales of early Western settlers. After a long climb the road turned and revealed a dramatically different view – below us lay a landscape dominated by smooth bare rock surfaces while twisting cliffs and canyons holding the Escalante River and its tributaries carved through the scene.

Not to be satisfied with just looking at the view from above, the road dove down into the midst of it. First, along the smooth rock hills and then down and down to the canyon floor. Down here the scene was completely different – the tall red walls towered above and vibrant trees lined the insides of the canyon along Calf Creek. The sterile silence of the landscape above was replaced with a vibrant chorus of birds inhabiting this small, lush world.

The obvious limitation of building a road through such a canyon is that it’s nearly impossible to grade it well. Flat sections were punctuated by extremely steep hills as we crawled up the canyon walls and I was once again reduced to my lowest gear. Eventually the road ascended above the canyon and onto a ridgeline heading towards the town of Boulder, UT. There was a pullout where motorists could get a photo of the canyon, but a small stretch of gravel accessible only to bicycles had a much nicer view and I fiddled here with getting my bike to stand upright against a small rock for a photo.

It was past lunchtime and the road finished its tour through the rocky wonderland and opened up into a green valley and the town of Boulder. We had covered a little under 30 miles and a little under 3000 feet of elevation gain but the day was just getting started. Between us and our destination for the evening lay a massive mountain pass at 9600 feet, with 4000 feet of elevation gain remaining to cover in the afternoon. We had our work cut out for us.

We stopped for a surprisingly good meal at the Burr Trail Grill and got back to climbing. The ascent starts right out of town as the road heads straight north into Dixie National Forest. Before long we ran into a pair of touring cyclists that we had talked to briefly in Bryce a couple days ago. They’re Polish and had started in Denver a month ago, meandered around the west visiting parks, and were on their way to Salt Lake City to finish their tour and move on to the next stage of their trip. They were very heavily loaded – making our panniers look tiny in comparison – but were in good spirits. We bid them farewell and headed upwards.

Once again the scenery changed as dense pine forests enveloped the road, only to be replaced with large swaths of aspen, just beginning to show the slightest of green, a sign of the approaching summer. The road wound higher and higher and we finally reached the unnamed pass at 9600 feet and stopped for photos. Depending on which route we chose from now on, this might be the highest elevation we reach on this tour.

The road on the north side of the pass is not graded very smoothly and steep descents of up to 10% grade are interrupted by equally steep but brief ascents. On my tour 9 years ago I was only able to go faster than forty miles per hour once – on an otherwise unremarkable hill in Ohio. Thanks to headwinds, not even on the multitude of 9,000, 10,000, or 11,000 foot passes was I able to achieve forty miles per hour. But on this descent today I got above forty miles per hour at least half a dozen distinct times, topping out at 44.7.

The scenery to the north of the pass was equally impressive as that to the south, with red cliffs and mountains as far as the eye can see. After a long descent we arrived at the town of Torrey, – at the edge of Capitol Reef National Park – and found a place to stay.

Notes from Donald: “I’m tired of climbing. But the Calf Creek Canyon was really cool to pass through. I’m glad it didn’t snow today.”

Today’s mileage: 70 miles, 6872 feet of elevation gain

Total: 967 miles

Day 18: Bryce Canyon National Park, UT – Escalante, UT

It was very cold over night, first with rain, then with temperatures dipping below freezing. We awoke in the morning to wet tents and ice on our bikes and gear, but at least the rain had stopped. We suited up in our warm clothes and waited for our gear to dry and for the temperatures to rise before hitting the road.

On our way out of the park it began snowing – a mix of snow and hail called graupel that we also encountered a few times in Canada six years ago. The precipitation came and went and we were satisfied to have seen snowfall this trip.

The road heading west out of Bryce starts with a steep descent to the town of Tropic and goes through two more small towns before entering Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument where the distance between towns increases. We watched storms roll by all around us as the road twisted and turned and left us uncertain if we were going to get hit by rain or not.

A long climb soon began and the snow returned, this time in the form of flakes instead of soft hail. As we wound our way up the steep road, a false summit gave us hope that our descent had arrived only for more uphill to come into view.

The snow increased in intensity and the speed limit dropped from 60 to 50, 40, 30, then finally 25 as the road steepened and steepened, winding its way towards a mountain pass. I was now in my lowest gear, inching up the steep slope at under 5 mph as huge flakes of snow billowed all around. When the road would cut through a hillside the currents of wind would cause cyclones of snowflakes and when the road ascended along a ridgeline with drops on either side, the snow would sweep across the road leaving my face stinging.

Snow piled up on my jacket as I reached the pass at 7600 feet. Donald was only 30 seconds ahead of me but I couldn’t see him at all. I bellowed at him and he was pulled over a mere couple hundred feet up the road – he had missed the scenic turnout on the left because of poor visibility.

We took shelter from the storm in a forest service bathroom at the pass, opening up the door occasionally only to have gusts of wind blow snow into the room. After waiting 15 minutes and not seeing any improvement we donned more clothing and headed into the storm and down from the pass. For the first few minutes I could barely see ahead as snow pelted my squinting eyes but eventually we got lower and the intensity of snowfall began to weaken.

Soaked from melting snow, our gloves were no longer effective at keeping our hands warm and with the wind from descending at 25 mph our hands soon began to freeze. I kept my hands behind my handlebar bag to shield them from the wind while Donald alternated keeping one hand in the pockets of his rain jacket while controlling the bike with the other.

We stopped a couple times to warm our frozen digits and eventually the storm subsided and the sun came out. Another hour of downhill landed us in the town of Escalante where we found lodging for the night.

Notes from Donald: “When I got up this morning I was not expecting that we were going to bike through a blizzard.”

Today’s mileage: 51 miles

Total: 897 miles

Day 17: Hatch, UT – Bryce Canyon National Park, UT

Leaving Hatch, our tailwind from yesterday was still in full force and we coasted north 10 miles to the junction with highway 12. These morning miles and yesterday’s afternoon miles might have been the easiest I’ve ever had on any tour. The prevailing winds have historically never been on my side and to have a 20 mph tailwind is pure luxury.

Before long we had to say goodbye to our tailwind as we turned west towards Bryce Canyon and other National Parks and Forests. Highway 12 has a bike path paralleling it for most of the way to Bryce Canyon as we climbed up to 8000 ft. Soon we arrived in the park and found a single empty campsite among the hundred in the park – apparently 2 pm is “late” for getting a campsite!

After setting up camp we hiked the “Fairyland trail” that dips down into the canyon and winds through the hoodoos for which the park is famous. It truly is a different kind of scenery and I’m glad we were able to stop by the park! However, after a few miles on the trail, we’d find ourselves rounding another bend in the trail to be greeted by another astounding view of hoodoos – telling all of the amazing views apart soon became difficult. The wind picked up and threatened us with rain but we only got hit by a few drops.

Our loop hike finished right behind our campsite and we cooked dinner just in time for the rain to come on in full force and we took shelter in our tents and called it an early night.

Notes from Donald: “I like hoodoos.”

Today’s mileage: 30 miles

Total: 846 miles

Day 16: Springdale, UT – Hatch, UT

This morning we had to tackle the biggest challenge of the trip yet – a tunnel.

The road heading west out of Zion National Park goes through a mile-long unlit tunnel and bikes aren’t allowed in it. So we set off to the park road to try and hitchhike with two fully loaded bicycles.

After about 45 minutes of trying a pickup truck pulled over that was willing to throw our bikes in the back and take us through the tunnel. John and Melissa from Florida were on a road trip around America in their RV and were taking the day to explore the area in their truck. We stopped at a number of pullouts for photos on the way out of the park and we bid eachother farewell at the junction with highway 89.

It was already lunchtime so we stopped for a quick lunch in the town of Orderville at a German bakery/beer garden. It was to be a hilly day as we climbed up towards Bryce Canyon which lies at 8000ft. There was a strong wind from the south though and as we made our way north into the mountains we were grateful to not be facing a heavy headwind for a change.

Before long, Donald got a flat tire. He has a tubeless tire setup which neither of us is too familiar with, and this same spot had gotten punctured and leaked air twice two days ago. This time we decided to plug the tire with a bizarre poking device – fingers crossed that it will hold.

We reached a pass at 7500ft and had 12 miles of incredibly fast downhill into the town of Hatch. By this time it was already getting late in the day so we decided to call it short and stop for the night. Tomorrow we head towards Bryce Canyon and hope that the forecasted rain doesn’t materialize.

Notes from Donald: “We hitchhiked today! That was interesting and went better than expected.”

Today’s mileage: 40 miles
Total: 816 miles