Monday, May 21, 2007

Heading North from Arizona Through Utah

Is US 89 some deep, dark secret or something, because I never hear anyone talk about this road in the same sentence with "scenic routes." This road was gorgeous! Every few miles the vistas would change, and if there was a stretch that might be a little ho-hum, it wouldn't last long. Just when I'd think the scenery had run out, a major change-up would come along and I'd be overwhelmed all over again.

It starts high up in Ponderosa forest near Flagstaff, where just a few miles north I exited to go to Sunset Crater National Monument. The ranger warned me that just beyond the visitor center the road turns to gravel all the way to Wupatki, and he didn't recommend riding it. That changed my plans a little. I stopped at the Sunset Crater visitor center, got my park stamp and on the way out, pulled over for a lovely photo op.

Continuing north on 89, the road loses some altitude as it drops down into desert. Soon enough, I began to see giant gashes in the desert floor, which revealed strange yet colorful sediment layers. As the road dropped deeper into the desert, I could see cliffs off to my right. These loomed taller, and at their feet were rounded mounds of erosion sediment, worn smooth by thousands of years of wind.

As I neared Page, AZ, the road began to climb steeply, winding around the red dark red cliffs until it popped out at the top of the mesa. As it neared the top, a vista opened up to the west that took my breath away. I could see for miles across a deep, wide canyon colored every shade of red ranging from pale beige through orange, light pink through deep burgundy.

I stopped in Page for gas and had lunch before continuing across Glen Canyon on my way to Zion National Park. I could see Lake Powell ahead, and soon enough, the road took me over a bridge which spanned the chasm just south of the large dam. On the other side of the bridge, I pulled in to the Carl Hayden Visitor Center to get my national park stamp. There was one other motorcycle in the parking lot and its owner was walking out just as I turned from my bike to head inside. He asked me, "Are you riding that by yourself? Are you riding by yourself? You are one brazen woman!" My answer, "Why not?"

The security is very tight at the entrance: no bags or even purses are allowed, and each visitor center must walk through a metal detector. But once inside, a wall of windows gives an excellent view out over the bridge, the dam, and the lake. Mission accomplished here, and I geared up and got back on the bike to continue north on 89 toward Kanab.

The views took a radical turn beyond this point, as I entered the Staircase-Escalante area. Giant formations, like pie wedges, jutted out into the flat desert floor on the northern side, as the road headed westerly through this area. Numerous road signs warned of deer migration areas. The vegetation through here consisted of sage and cedar, but not much else. This view remained unchanged for many miles, all the way to Kanab.

I took a break in Kanab to get gas, get a drink, before heading the last little stretch up 89 to 9 and into Zion National Park. From here, the terrain became more rugged, and the rock formations began to close in tightly along either side of the road as I headed toward Zion. Wind and weather have etched strange patterns into the limestone, almost as if they were carved by man, not by Mother Nature.

After turning onto 9 to head toward the park entrance, it was hard to imagine what was ahead, waiting for my .discovery. Soon enough I was approaching the park sign, where I pulled over to take a photo. A little ways ahead was the entrance station and beyond that, well....nearly indescribable!

The roadway began with gentle curves winding around the massive limestone formations. Each change in direction brought a new perspective and a different view of the canyon walls. There were many wildflowers and cacti in bloom, and on one 90-degree curve, I spied three longhorn sheep just to my right in a little alcove of the canyon wall.

The narrow road became progressively steeper, the downhill curves becoming tighter as it continued west through the park. It traveled through one short tunnel and soon after, I saw a sign for the next tunnel. It warned that there would be a delay, and that it was a dark tunnel, so remove sunglasses. This is not easy to do on a motorcycle while under way, so I pulled over at a turnout to do this. Just ahead, however, I could see the tunnel entrance and a ranger in the road. As I pulled up to a stop, she said it would be a 5 to 10 minute wait. I was first in line, so I stopped the engine, took off my helmet, loosened my jacket, and sat back to enjoy the view while waiting.

The tight intimacy of this roadway is in sharp contrast to the only other mountainous national park I've ever ridden through: Rocky Mountain National Park. In Zion, the road is old and very narrow. In many places the surface is beat up by weather and cars, and there is no shoulder and very few pull-out areas. The park literature says that the tunnel was cut through the mountain in the early 1900's, and was considered a remarkable feat at that time.

When it was our turn to pass through the tunnel, I was in the lead, so I was in charge! Good! I could set the pace, and chose to go slower than the 25 mph posted speed limit, so that I could catch glimpses of the view through the numerous "windows" cut into the tunnel wall to our right. A little more than midway through the tunnel, one window is very large - floor to ceiling - giving a spectacular framed view of the "east temple."

After exiting the tunnel, the road immediately becomes a series of steep switchbacks, dropping us rapidly along the wall of the "east temple" and giving us up-close views of the canyon walls as we zig-zagged down its face. Near the bottom, I found a pull-out area and stopped to take photos which, of course, cannot do it justice!

The visitor center is just before the western exit to the park, and I pulled in and cruised the very crowded parking lot, looking for a spot. At the western end of Zion, park tour buses take visitors along a scenic route not open to cars. I considered doing this, but the crowds were a deterrent, and so opted not to wait.

Passport stamped, I headed out, with St. George my destination for the night. Along the way, in a town named Hurricane, I saw a DQ sign, so pulled in. A cold drink and ice cream were just what I needed. the temps had gone from pleasant to hot and I was ready for a break. An older gentleman chatted with me about motorcycles. BMW is his favorite marque, and although he no longer rides two wheels, he does do 4-wheeling in the area. He told me the names of some of the peaks that were visible from the parking lot, and talked a bit about the changes that have come to the area.

Just a few short miles down I-15 to St. George.

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