Looking at maps of the Southwest as I often do, my eyes are always drawn to the wilds of southern Utah and the Arizona Strip. This area has fascinating geology, an incredibly low population density, few roads, fewer trails, and I have spent very little time exploring the region. Accessibility is a bit of a challenge, water sources are few and far between, and Mesozoic sandstone formations often result in vast expanses of the modern landscape being covered by sand. It's not the friendliest of places, but my mind has recently been fixated on potential routes through the region.
Over Thanksgiving, Caroline and I took advantage of our days off work and school to make a first pedal-powered foray into one remote corner of this area. After driving to Big Water, UT, we camped along an actual flowing creek just outside of town, picked up our free camping permit at the Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument visitors center the following morning, loaded bags on our bikes, and drifted out of town on a wave of eagerness.
The planned route followed dirt roads of unknown quality east on the benches above Lake Powell, then north through the Burning Hills on Croton Road, across Fiftymile Mountain via Left Hand Collet Canyon, and down to Hole-in-the-Rock Road. From there, we had the option of heading as far south toward the Colorado River as we wanted before turning around and riding north to Escalante, following the Straight Cliffs the entire way. After picking up some rations in town, we planned to return to Big Water on Smoky Mountain Road. Five days, ~260 miles, incredible countryside, and knobby tires. What could be better?
The first couple days rewarded us with views of long cliff lines capped by rounded red hills towering above grey and yellow badlands. In areas, coal seams burned underground, sending wisps of sulfur-rich smoke into the sky. To the north, ironically, the Navajo Generating Station, a coal-fired powerplant in Page, sent a continuous stream of yellow haze off to the northeast, obscuring our view of the imposing ediface of the Navajo Mountain laccolith. We pedaled all day, stopping frequently to take in the views, explore geological and historial curiosities, and relax in the warm November sun. We had nowhere to be and several days to get there, so we took advantage of the situation.
Evenings came early each day, with the sun setting by 5:30 pm. There was no shortage of ideal camp spots, so we'd choose the best one, scrounge around for wood to burn, and enjoy the clear night skies with a small crackling fire at our toes before crawling in to our cozy sleeping bags.
One challenge for me, after so many bikepacking races in the past few years, was figuring out how to carry sufficient food and water for three days in territory with no resupply options and virtually no reliable water sources. Food for many days is not a problem, but doubling or tripling our normal water capacity was more of an issue. My solution was a typical bikepacking bag setup with the addition of a rack and panniers. I used an Old Man Mountain Pioneer rack, the strongest option out there (I have had problems with breaking racks in the past...). The panniers were a pair of shiny new 20 L bags. We left Bigwater carrying 4+ gallons of water, excessively warm sleeping bags, and a few other creature comforts. This was far from the ultralight means of travel to which I've become accustomed.
By twenty miles in, one of the panniers had sailed off my rack and gone tumbling down a hill. Later one of the mounting brackets snapped. Then another plastic piece snapped. Luckily, I had packed a couple webbing straps because I was skeptical of the plastic parts, and the straps subsequently held the bags in place fairly well. Clearly these bags weren't designed for rough dirt roads, which was a rather disappointing.
Croton Road was beautiful and rugged, seemingly stealing from us 75% of any elevation gain we accomplished in the form of one steep, short descent after another. We climbed higher and higher as I stared out over the Burning Hills to the west, Fiftymile Mountain to the east, and Glen Canyon back to the south. The "road" down Left Hand Collet Canyon had recently been graded and was in fantastic shape, save a few sand pits and ice rinks. Hole-in-the-Rock Road provided ample sand and washboards, rattling Caroline and I around for hours on end. After nearly two days of riding and seeing two vehicles (the driver of one promptly stopped and held two cans of beer out the open window and wished us a great ride), cars were strangely common, carrying tourists to the popular slot canyon hikes in the area.
One car stopped ahead of us and waved us down. The driver leaned out the window, looking a bit frazzled.
"Can you tell us which way to the slot canyons?" he asked. An annoyed-looking woman sat in the passenger seat, and a small girl stared out one of the back windows.
"Which one are you looking for?" I inquired.
"Any of them!"
I was a bit concerned by the response. He apparently had no map, no idea exactly where he was going, and with only a couple hours of daylight remaining, and was looking to do a hike in one of the more unforgiving places in the Southwest. After describing how to get to a couple of the more accessible canyons, he thanked us and turned the little red car around and rattled back north.
We camped under another beautiful night sky, the nearly-full moon blazing overhead. Morning delivered a glowing pink sunrise over the sculpted Navajo Sandstone domes to the east and the impenetrable wall of the Straight Cliffs just to our west. We stashed our bags among the sage for the day and headed south toward Hole-in-the-Rock to do some sightseeing. Sooner Rocks provided some unique rock formations amongst which we scrambled, and then we followed switchbacks several thousand feet up a relatively recent landslide to Fiftymile Bench. The sandy scrublands below extended off to the Escalante Canyon, and the Henry Mountains and Bear's Ears punctuated the horizon. The views were splendid, the air comfortably cool, and we moseyed along the 2-track. We could see a few tiny specs pass along Hole-in-the-Rock Road far below us, but we shared the bench only with a few scrub jays and hawks.
The following morning, we coasted into Escalante. Our food supply was completely extinguished, save a small bag of pretzels, and our water was nearly out, so refilled our bags and ate some calzones for brunch. Half the shops on main street were empty, several of the motels out of business, and the place had the feel of so many other small towns in the region, standing on the precipice of a very uncertain future.
The final 80 miles of our route followed Smoky Mountain Road up onto the Kaiparowits Plateau, along the base of several impressive cliff lines, and then down the remarkable switchbacks of Kelly Grade. We continually remarked to one another about all the remarkable vistas. The narrow road often tilted upward before topping out at a saddle, revealing an entirely new view to us. Our last night was spent camping on a small sandy knob with a deep canyon on one side and an impressive mountain to the other, with views all the way south well into Arizona. It rivaled most other places I've camped in recent years, and the big moon casting a cool glow across the entire landscape was mere icing on the cake.
I've never had any urge to do any road touring. But dirt road touring is an entirely different beast, and in areas where singletrack is sparse or non-existent, what better way is there to explore? This trip really only served as a stepping stone for some more ambitious trips that are floating around in my mind. I can't wait for a bigger block of time to get back for more . . .