Monday, May 10, 2010

Zion, Bryce and all that Utah jazz

My good luck with the weather was holding on Friday morning, but it was a cold sunshine. "With its elevation at 6,439 Ely has a clean thin air typical of the Great Basin," says a web site promoting its hotels. Clean and cold.

I stopped for a McMuffin on my way out of town. A woman from Vermont stopped by the table to ask if I'd actually ridden the bike from Maine. Now that I was out of California -- land of the unimpressible -- I was getting more of these questions. I told her, yes, I was on a big trip and that last summer I'd crossed her state, stopping at the Shelburne Museum and taking the ferry across Lake Champlain.

The little specks on the range outside Ely are grazing cattle.

The wide, flat valleys and lack of trees meant incredibly huge vistas with a horizon ringed by snow-capped mountains. High desert pastures aren't lush and it takes a lot of land to support a herd of cows.

This outfit near Majors Place in eastern Nevada sells lamps made of elk antlers.

The pattern held: long, straight roads across the valleys connecting gaps in the mountain ridges where the highway zig-zagged up and over the ridge to the next flat expanse. From Fallon to Ely, I crossed the Clan Alpines, Desatoyas, Shoshones, Toyabes, Toquimas, Monitors, Pancakes and White Pines. Between Ely and Cedar City, Utah came the Shell Creek, Snake, Mountain Home, Wah Wah and San Francisco ranges.

Between Ely and Great Basin National Park I topped the Connors Pass at 7,722 feet. The KLR has an old-fashioned carburetor rather than modern fuel injection that handles the thin mountain air better, but the bike purred along without a problem as we covered 65 to 70 miles each hour.

The Great Basin is an expanse of Nevada, Utah and portions of neighboring states where rivers and streams flow to neither the Atlantic nor the Pacific. According to the National Park near Baker, Nevada, where I stopped at the visitor center, it is "a 200,000 square mile area that drains internally. All precipitation in the region evaporates, sinks underground or flows into lakes (mostly saline)." These include the Great Salt Lake, Pyramid Lake and the Humboldt Sink.

There's not a lot of precipitation in the region, which is arid and empty, but beautiful.

There was nothing moving in this valley but the KLR and dust devils.

The long and non-winding road into Utah.

At Milford, Utah, I stopped. The KLR needed gasoline and I needed an energy drink to stay alert. Two other motorcycles were fueling up at the station, one with "ape hanger" handle bars. "Don't those bars wear you out?" I asked the young guy who was waiting for his friend inside paying. The hand grips were at least two feet above the tank, which meant the rider's hands were above his head and his wind resistance maximized.

"Nah," he said. "They're really comfortable."

His buddy's bike was a stripped-down Harley -- what they call a "rat bike." The seat, covered with worn-out cracked leather, was only 18 inches off the ground. No mufflers on tail pipes wrapped with heat-resistant tape, and no rear suspension, which meant the rider feels every bump. At least the handlebars were low and tucked in. Pick your poison, I thought.

Kolob Canyon is a northern annex to Zion National Park offering amazing canyon views and an overlook above the main park.

Zion National Park is split into two parts, Kolob Canyon, which is a scenic drive about 22 miles south of Cedar City, and the main park, another 35 miles away near Rockville and Springdale, two surprisingly prosperous-looking towns that featured many bustling motels, stores, RV parks and restaurants catering to the stream of park visitors.

At the Kolob Canyon visitor center a mixed group of motorcycles -- cruisers, sportbikes and a vintage Z-1000 with a Vetter Windjammer fairing -- pulled in with young couples on board. One girl asked me, "Did you ride that bike all the way from Maine?"

"No," I said. "Mostly, I walked and carried it." Got a good laugh.

Zion's features are huge -- note the tiny road in the lower right.

I drove through Zion's enormous canyon, thinking I might camp overnight. The park campground was full, however. So, I took a few pictures and kept moving toward Duck Creek Campground, about 50 miles northeast toward Bryce Canyon. It was about 6:30 when I spotted a private campground in Glendale, a tiny town on US 89. The sign said "Free Wi-Fi." Since there was no cell phone service and I wanted to let Mary and others know I was safe and sound, I pulled in and pitched my tent next to an old Conestoga wagon while two llamas watched from their pasture next door.

Before turning in for the night, I had a chicken fried steak dinner at a diner in Orderville, the next town. Smothered in cream gravy, it proved to be hard to digest and I was up a couple of times during the night dealing with it. I will not add chicken fried steak to my list of regional favorites, but by morning had recovered enough to stop for a big breakfast at the Galaxy Diner in Hatch.

While I was eating, three guys on Harleys rode in and parked next to the KLR. They each wore the entire regalia: tiny black half-helmets, black "leather" chaps, bandannas printed with skull designs, etc. Their bikes were polished, immaculate and almost identical. In fact, the only difference I saw was one had a gold "Harley Davidson" decal on the fuel tank, while the other two had silver decals. So much for individualism.

Harley guys can be such rugged individualists.

I arrived in Bryce Canyon before noon on Mothers Day, found a campsite, registered and called Mom, who said she was having a great day and that the flowers Mary sent for me were gorgeous.

There were still patches of snow in the campground, which was largely empty when I arrived, except for a number of big RVs. I wasn't used to making camp this early in the day, but I thought I'd want to see the canyon at sunset and again at sunrise.

After pitching my tent and calling Mom to wish her happy Mothers Day, I headed for Rainbow Point and my first glimpse of Bryce Canyon.

The canyon's cliffs are bedecked by rank after rank of "hoodoos."

Bryce Canyon stands out from the rest of scenic southeastern Utah's Canyonland in the colors and amazing quantity of "hoodoos," the towers of rock that have been formed through erosion along the uplifted canyon edges. At Bryce, these are mostly limestone layers that originally formed at the bottom of a vast sea and later were lifted thousands of feet above sea level. The limestone, naturally white, has iron and other mineral deposits that give it red and pink hues that are particularly dramatic at sunrise and sunset.

Saving the best for last, I rode out to the end of the park road to Rainbow Canyon, the highest overlook at more than 9,000 feet. As I was leaving to work my way back to the campground, stopping at overlooks along the way, I spotted a Harley with Maine plates and pulled up next to it to talk to the riders, the Blockes, a couple from Kennebunkport.

Their trip had taken them down the East Coast to Key West, then across to Houston before heading up into Utah. While in Texas, they'd run into some of the heavy wind I'd encountered at Carlsbad and, like me, spent a day waiting it out.

Mr. Blocke said they've taken a number of motorcycle trips but this was the first on their own bike. "We used to rent bikes," he said. "Then, the last trip, we rented this Ultra Glide and when we went to turn it in my wife said, 'Maybe we should go inside and see if they have one of these for sale.' What could I do?" he said with a smile.

"You know what the best feature of this bike is?" he asked. "The cruise control. It works just like on a car."

As I was leaving Rainbow Point, I spotted a Harley with Maine plates.

At another overlook, a local critter was trying to upstage the fabulous view. A large, fearless raven was working the parking area looking for handouts and posing for pictures.

This raven upstaged the glories of Bryce Canyon with his overlook antics.

Having been well-schooled by National Park posters and rangers not to feed the local wildlife, the tourists weren't giving the big bird satisfaction in the way of snacks, but he seemed content to check out the front of each new visitor's car and pick off any fresh bugs he could find. Then, he was back up on a fence post getting his picture taken with visitors who could get as close as a yard before he'd flutter to the next post.

Bryce Canyon begs to be photographed. Click any of the images in this blog to see larger versions.

A Bryce Canyon spire towers above the bristle cone pines of the valley.

Iron mixed with the limestone gives some strata red hues.

Fellow tourists (upper left) look down into the "amphitheater" at Bryce Point.

The spectacle at Bryce Point is perhaps the most impressive.

After collecting the images above, I left the park to fuel up with a pizza for a night in a cold tent. As the sun went down, I had a Skype video conversation with Mary back in Honolulu and she caught this image of me bundled up with the Balaclava helmet I bought in Maine back in November for cold-weather motorcycling. Besides the helmet, I wore jeans, a fleece top, socks and the thermal liners for my armored riding jacket and pants inside my sleeping bag.

Flanman, caught on Skype by Mary, his spouse, had to bundle up for a night in a tent at 8,000 feet.

During the night, a number of squalls blew over and I could hear what I thought was rain on the tent. In the morning, I discovered it was probably sleet, not rain. The tent was covered with ice.

I left the tent to thaw and headed out to Sunrise Point to catch the morning light on the canyon.

In the morning at Sunrise Point, the canyon showed its stuff.

A battalion of hoodoos greet the morning sun.

Deer were abundant at dusk and dawn, especially around the roads.

The crowd at Bryce Point at dawn's early light.

Hoodoos line up like chessmen, 400-foot-tall chessmen.

Bristle cone pines thrive in places no other trees would survive.

When I got back to camp, the ice had melted and the rain fly was soaked. I draped it over a picnic table in the sun and, given the low desert humidity, it was dry in 20 minutes -- about the time it took to pack up the rest of my gear.

Leaving Bryce Canyon, I soon discovered more spectacular sights. Just two miles down the road, for example, was this scene where a snow-melt-fed creek was busy flushing silt downstream and continuing the erosion process that created the canyons.

The road out of Bryce Canyon.

Where to next? "Kodachrome Basin State Park" was an intriguing label on the map. When I got to the turnoff to that park a sign pointed down a dirt road to the Grosvenor Arch. I'd read a little about the arch and the road didn't look any more difficult than the road to the lake cottage back in Maine -- so I decided to ride 14 miles into the desert on a rutted, sand-washed gravel road. This was supposed to be an adventure, right?

About ten miles down a dirt road toward the Grosvenor Arch, I stopped to take a break and a photo.

The scenery was spectacular, although I was only getting glimpses since the road had my thorough attention. After the first half mile, it became more challenging. The flat sections, weren't bad -- just choose a rut and stay in it -- but the hilly parts were steep, winding washboards. I kept thinking of my nephew Joey's advice: "Don't touch the front brake!"

Arriving at the Grosvenor Arch.

After 14 miles of rough, unimproved dirt road, the Grosvenor Arch site was surprisingly civilized, with clean restrooms and paved pathways to preserve the desert biosphere. The arch itself was gorgeous, even in the harsh noon sunlight.

The double arch was formed by wind and water erosion at a point where 165-million-year-old stone meets stone that is only 95 million years old.

The formation was formerly known as the Butler Arch, but was renamed in 1947 for Gilbert Grosvenor, National Geographic founder, by an expedition from the magazine.

Walking behind the arch, I found a third opening, observing me like a great stone eye.

After I rode the 14 miles back to the Kodachrome Basin, I discovered there was a fee to enter the park. I'd seen Bryce Canyon and the Grosvenor Arch for free (thanks to my National Parks senior pass). Why should I pay to see something that's unlikely to be as good?

Besides, I'd been humming Simon and Garfunkle's tune "Kodachrome" all the way out to Grosvenor Arch and back:

I've got a Nikon camera;
I like to take photographs.
Momma don't take my Kodachrome away.

At that point, I needed a new set of AA batteries, not more pretty canyons.

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