Despite battling through heavy snow and freezing temperatures, Bryn Davies arrives in Utah with the feeling that something good is going to happen…
“How are you enjoying the snow today, sir?” asked the enthusiastic server at a coffee shop in Silverthorne as he gestured toward the window. Outside there was a blizzard raging, temperatures had dropped to -2C and there wasn’t a hint of irony in his voice. “Loving it,” I replied, with an extra shot of British sarcasm in mine.
I was riding from Denver to Moab along Interstate 70, and the moment I left the small town of Golden, which is the base of motorcycle tour company 106 West Adventures (who I was to be travelling with), the snow had started falling.
The chap handed me my coffee, I ripped open two sweeteners, poured them in and stirred away. As the feeling started returning to my fingers I thought about the events of the past few days, and how I came to be riding alone while the other nine guests on the tour were making their way over off-road mountain passes to Utah.
As Sod’s law would have it, upon landing in Denver I was informed that my luggage had been left in Gatwick, and a few short hours after arriving in my hotel in Golden I was hit with a sickness bug and all-but bedridden for two days.
After waving the rest of the group off, I endured a few more cockups from Norwegian Airlines before I was finally reunited with my kit and could be on my way. I’d been keeping in touch with John Hax, the owner and lead guide at 106 West Adventures, from the warmth of my hotel room, and discovered that the group had had a rocky start.
A cold front had pushed in on the day that they left, and many of the mountain passes that they intended to ride had been snowed off.
Moab promised better, more agreeable weather, so it was decided that I would blast across the 350 miles to rejoin the guys there. Our group consisted of two Americans (John and our tail guide, Ben), five Brits, two Germans, and one Thai.
Though after one night in Moab the British contingent was two guys down. Unfortunately, an off on a snowy mountain track on the way over from Salida had led to an injured shoulder, and they were unable to join us for the rest of the tour.
That left six of us, aside from John and Ben: Tim, Lek, John (who became known as Big John, so as not to confuse him with our guide, Chief John), Hans-Georg (or, as he is known to friends, George), Margita, and myself.
We spent a few days exploring the area around Moab, visiting Arches National Park and Canyonlands Nation Park (where we caught a brief glimpse of the spectacular view from Grand View Point) before riding south through Monticello and eventually back into Colorado to Mancos.
It took a while for the tour to get into its swing, and with the weather hampering most of our plans for the first few days, we were in desperate need of some good fortune and even better riding. Fortunately, over the next seven days we found that, and then some.
Mesa Verde and the Valley of the gods
The morning after a night out in Mancos, which consisted of drinking at the local, and very good, cidery before moving to the town’s dive bar to play pool, saw us heading west, back towards Utah. Before we crossed the state line though, John had a surprise in store for us.
We were to visit Mesa Verde National Park, a scenic park that’s home to nearly 5,000 known archaeological sites, including an astounding 600 cliff dwellings which were inhabited by the Ancestral Puebloans hundreds of years ago.
Even for the least cultured rider, you can’t fail to be impressed by the fascinating history of the area, especially the exceptionally well preserved ‘Cliff Palace’, which is thought to be the largest cliff dwelling in North America.
The condition that these stone structures are in is incredible, and it smashed any preconceived ideas I had of what Native American life was like. In school, I was taught about the tribes living in tipis and hunting buffalo, but these structures told me something else.
To me, Mesa Verde is a special place for motorcyclists. It has the often sought, but rarely experienced trifactor of requirements for a world-class ride.
That is, the road up and through the mountains is an absolute joy to ride, with big sweepers throwing you and your bike left and right, there’s fascinating history to be discovered just off the tarmac, and the views that are afforded from the road are simply spectacular.
We spent half of the day discovering the delights of Mesa Verde before we rode on to Bluff, where we would be staying the night. With a few hours of daylight left, John suggested we ditch our luggage and go and ride the dirt road around the Valley of the Gods, some 20 miles away.
Eager to get off-road, the group ditched the panniers and was ready to go. “After you’ve ridden this tour, you’ll wonder what all the fuss is about with Monument Valley,” John had told me over a beer. I had looked at him with a smugness that said ‘yeah right’ as Monument Valley was, to me, one of the best sights I’d seen (I rode through it last year).
As we rolled off the 163 onto a dirt track, following signs for the brilliantly named Valley of the Gods, I was about to discover that John was most certainly right. The Valley of the Gods road is easy to miss.
It’s accessed by a fairly non-descript turning off highway 163, and although it’s signposted, when you’re on the road to Monument Valley, there’s only one place you’ve got plugged into your SatNav. Ignore this turning at your own expense though.
For 16-and-a-half miles, the Valley of the Gods road (which is a dirt track) winds its way through a most incredible sandstone valley. The rock formations here are as impressive, if not more so, than those found a few miles down the road, and the best part about it is that there are very few people that travel through it.
We pulled over at the start of the ride and John told everyone that they could do their own thing, ride at their own pace, and enjoy the sights however they wanted.
There’s only one road here, and you’re not going to get lost. Travelling in the shadows of these humungous and often mind-blowing rock formations makes for a very special ride, and by the time we returned to our hotel room, we were all excited for lay ahead.
The Moki Dugway and Mulley Point
After the delights of the previous day, we returned to the lonely road at the end of the Valley of the Gods. John assured us that a route of epic proportions, the Moki Dugway, lay ahead. Perplexed, I scanned the sheer cliff face that stood before us, but I couldn’t make out a road or even any telltale signs of a passable thoroughfare. The group gazed on, a mixture of excitement and trepidation in the air.
If this three-mile section of gravel was as good as John reckoned it was, then it could well be one of the most remarkable roads I’ve ridden.
Constructed in the 1950s, the Moki Dugway was originally used to transport ore from the Happy Jack Mine on Cedar Mesa (a plateau sitting at the top of the huge cliffs in front of me), to a mill in Halchita, near Mexican Hat (a few miles to the south).
While it’s not a technically difficult ride (the gravel road is well-graded and maintained), the steep gradients and wide-open exposure will most certainly get the heart racing.
These days, the crazy switchbacks are part of the 34-mile long State Route 261 which, if you were to follow it for its length, would take you to Natural Bridges National Monument, which is worth a visit in its own right.
Upon reaching the base of the cliff, the way of the road became apparent. In a series of sharp, steep switchbacks, the Moki Dugway climbs abruptly up the side of the rockface, each turn revealing a more impressive view of the sprawling Utah landscape below.
Up and up I climbed, the gravel road causing no issues for the Tiger I was riding and its TKC70 tyres, until I finally reached John who was waiting for me by a turn off. “This is incredible!” I shouted as I rolled to a stop beside him, a big grin on my face easily visible underneath my helmet.
He laughed and told me to take the turning on the left, rather than continuing on to Natural Bridges National Monument, we were going somewhere special – Muley Point.
It was hard not to pin the throttle back over the next five miles, such was the tempting nature of the wide, well-graded piste, and when I rocked up at the end of the route I wasn’t prepared for what I was met with.
There are places on this planet of ours that just stop you in your tracks and make you involuntarily whisper swear words to yourself, such is their impressiveness and overpowering natural beauty. Glen Coe is one such place for me, Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky, which we briefly visited a few days earlier, another, and Muley Point is close to the cream of the crop.
From this lofty vantage point you can see the goosenecks of the San Juan river below you, and in the distance, sitting proudly, was Monument Valley. The year before, I had spent a few days riding from Denver to LA, and Monument Valley was on my list of places to see.
The iconic shot of US Route 163 is a view that almost everyone will be familiar with. It’s the one where the tarmac stretches into the distance and the sandstone buttes of Monument Valley rise like alien monoliths at the end of it.
Muley Point: Views don’t come much better than this
We’d be riding down that road later in the day, but if there’s one view of the famous Navajo landmark that you should experience, it’s found at Muley Point. I think the most spoken word for the next hour or so, was simply ‘wow’, and I formed a quick, mental plan to one day return to the spot with nothing but my bike, a tent, and a few beers, for I reckon this would be one of the most enriching places you could ever find yourself camping in.
Over the next couple of days, we rode south into Arizona and then back into Utah, spending the night on the shores of the almost-dry Lake Powell, before visiting the crazily beautiful Antelope Canyon and riding a dirt road through Johnson Canyon to Tropic.
As we were approaching Tropic, a small town near Bryce Canyon, John revealed that there was rain and possibly snow forecast for the next day, so we would be having an impromptu rest day there.
John’s predictions came true. We awoke the following morning in Tropic to a thick, grey sky and snow falling once again. Despite being in the USA to ride, the rest day was welcomed by all and it gave us all a chance to wind down and relax.
For George, Ben and myself, winding down came in the form of beer and cards. Well, what else are you supposed to do when it’s cold outside? That night we went to bed with promises of clearer skies and good riding conditions the following day.
Bryce Canyon and the Burr Trail
They say you should never meet your heroes, and if national parks could be held in the same regard, I would have been warned to stay well away from Bryce Canyon. I had studied many photos of the place, which sits in southwestern Utah, and it had made its way firmly into my mental bucket list, along with Yosemite and Death Valley (which I rode through last year).
Despite its name, there’s no canyon here, rather a collection of natural amphitheatres that sit on the edge of a plateau and are distinctive due to their mind-boggling collection of geological formations called hoodoos.
Hoodoos are described as tall, thin rock spires with totem pole-shaped bodies, and when you see them they seemingly defy the laws of physics. Bryce Canyon is full of ‘em, and the views afforded from the lookout points dotted all around the national park are said to be some of the best on earth.
Fortunately for us, our plan for the day was to boogie on up to Bryce from our cabin in Tropic, spend some time admiring the scenic beauty, and then double back on ourselves before riding what John described as, ‘one of the best motorcycling roads in the world’ on Utah State Route 12, eventually reaching Boulder.
From here we’d hit the dirt and tackle the historic Burr Trail, eventually finding our evening’s lodging in Bullfrog on the shores of Lake Powell. It was a 20-minute blast up to the national park gates and, despite it being one of the most popular in Utah, we were in luck, there was no traffic.
We flashed our national park passes and continued on through, heading for ‘Sunset Point’, the third-closest lookout point in a series of more than seven along the in-and-out road. As we rolled into the carpark, I discovered that the phrase about meeting heroes isn’t always true.
I dismounted the Tiger and made my way over to the viewing area. While we sat through a day of rain yesterday, Bryce Canyon was being dumped on, and before me, stretching out into the distance, was a spectacular canvas of cliffs and hoodoos, all different shades of orange in the sun, accented by a covering of white snow.
If my mouth could open wide enough, I’d have been picking my jaw off the floor. It’s views like this that make any trip worth doing, and despite the fact that we’d been spoilt for the last nine days with epic vistas and remarkable landscapes, all eight of us were happy to spend at least an hour simply just being there.
Sunset Point quenched our collective thirst for awe-inspiring views like a cold beer on a warm day, and everyone was smiling from ear to ear despite the freezing temperatures. George, as he often did when we stopped at these types of places, had disappeared off down a trail to complete a hike through the imposing rock formations, and when he returned he was a very happy man.
The show had to continue though, and we couldn’t stay here much longer if we wanted to make it to Bullfrog before sundown, so we threw our legs over our fleet of BMWs and Triumphs and roared out of the national park, back the way we came. John wasn’t lying when he said that Utah State Route 12 was an incredible road.
The riding was sublime, and the views through Grand Staircase Escalante, one of the most remote areas in the US, just added to the feeling that you were doing something worthwhile with your time.
We stopped for a quick bite to eat in one of the most scenic coffee shops I’ve seen, the Kiva Koffeehouse (where the WiFi password was simply ‘lookoutside’) before reaching Boulder and turning onto the Burr Trail.
I was still enthused by the fun we’d had on the dirt trail through Johnson Canyon two days earlier, and as we passed a sign informing us that Bullfrog was 60 miles away, I knew we were in for a treat. The Burr Trail is an old cattle route that was blazed by a chap called John Atlantic Burr in the 1800s, and boy, did he have an eye for a route.
A further sign warning of extreme grades and sharp curves built the anticipation even more, and before long we were deep in the heart of the middle of nowhere, riding through a deep, steep-sided canyon. For the next 50-odd miles, the riding was top-drawer, a real adventure motorcycling treat, and I found myself cursing that we have nothing comparable anywhere in the UK.
The Burr Switchbacks, a series of five hairpin bends that drop off the edge of a cliff face provided an adrenaline-filled mile or so, and while the gravel under tyre was in good shape and easy to ride, it was hard not to look at the drop and wonder ‘what if I get it wrong?’. Fortunately, we all got it right.
Shortly after the fun of the switchbacks, evidence of the recent bad weather showed itself in the form of sloppy, clay-like mud covering the track for a few miles. We had no choice but to paddle, and sometimes wrestle, our way towards Bullfrog. The only other option was to double back on ourselves, leaving us with a close to 100-mile ride to Bullfrog.
That wasn’t going to happen, so the team rallied together, and we helped each other through the mess. I must admit, although I was slipping and sliding all over the place, I was having a great time.
The added difficulty of navigating through such unsure ground added to the sense of adventure. We made it through the mud with no real incidents to speak of, and after riding on a lonely dirt road through a wonderful mountain wilderness, we were on the home straight to Bullfrog and a well-earned rest.
There was one last obstacle in our way though. The recent rains meant that what was usually a timid stream crossing was now a traverse of almost epic proportions through a knee-deep torrent that had the power to knock you off your feet if you weren’t sure-footed. Again, the team took the challenge head-on, whipped into shape by John who organized us into a river-crossing squadron.
Bike by bike, we forded the river, not one of us moaning and everyone chipping in to help in whatever way they could. It’s moments like this that really bring a riding group together, and my heart warmed at the fact that eight people, who until 10 days ago were complete strangers, had formed such a strong bond.
That alone is one of the best reasons to join a guided tour with a group you’ve never ridden with before. The river crossed, we rolled into Bullfrog, dripping wet but laughing and joking about the incredible day we’d all just had.
The following morning, we began the long slog back to Golden, though John managed to keep the return journey interesting, showing us places that we’d skirted past over the last week. As I’d booked my return flight a day earlier than I was supposed to, I left the group at 5 am in Montrose so that I could make it back to Denver for my flight home.
Not even a speeding ticket from a Colorado State Patrol office or -8C temperatures in Gunnison could wipe the smile off my face. I was enthused, I’d never felt so in love with riding before, and it was all down to the wonderful sights and roads of Utah, and the group of people who I had spent the last 12 days with.
Don’t miss: Antelope Canyon
If you didn’t know what you were looking for, it’d be easy to miss Antelope Canyon. This amazing slot canyon can be found just off of highway 98 in Arizona, and I’m willing to bet that you’ve unknowingly seen pictures of it before.
The canyon is on land owned by the Navajo Nation, and to access it you have to pay a tour company to be part of a guided tour. It cost us $50 each, and while I was initially sceptical to pay such a fee to join the throngs of tourists who had been bussed in, I don’t regret spending a single cent of it.
Formed by flash flooding, the canyon is an otherworldly sight, where rocks of impossible reds and oranges flow like water around you. It really must be seen.
Want to discover Utah’s canyon country? Here’s how you can…
Getting from the UK to Colorado has been made affordable and easy thanks to direct, low-cost flights with Norwegian Airlines from London Gatwick to Denver. A quick check on the Norwegian site shows that you can get there and back on the dates of 2019’s tour for around £550.
From my experience, it’s worth being aware of the limits of travelling with a budget airline such as Norwegian though, as when my luggage with all of my riding gear was left in London, the customer service and support I was given was nothing short of atrocious.
Ride this route
I was in Utah with 106 West Adventures, riding the company’s ‘Exploring Canyon Country’ tour. John Hax is the owner and lead guide, and his knowledge of any area that you ride through is astounding – I don’t think there’s a trail in Colorado or Utah that he doesn’t know like the back of his hand.
As I type this, dates for 2019’s calendar have just been released with the 13-day/14-night Exploring Canyon Country tour kicking off on 18 August. It will cost you $4,295 if you’re happy to share accommodation, or $5,495 if you’d rather your own room., and for this cost you get all of your accommodation included, bike hire, fuel and a meal on the first night.
For the most part, there’s very little about this ride that I’d class as challenging. All of the dirt roads we travelled along were very well graded and maintained with very little technical riding needed. This can, however, change with the weather.
Certain sections of the Burr Trail proved quite tricky due to mud, and the guys experienced some difficulty on the trails on the second day due to snow. With this in mind, and to ensure you can focus on enjoying your time in one of the most beautiful places on earth, I’d recommend you have a basic understanding of riding off-road before you depart.
What gear to take
We were riding during the first two weeks of October. The weather in Utah at this time of year is supposed to be glorious, with a not too hot but not too cold arrangement going on. We were rather unfortunate though, and it was cold for long portions of the ride, not to mention the first few days of snow in Colorado.
To ensure you’re prepared for every eventuality, you’ll want to make sure you pack thermal trousers and a thermal shirt, a good mid-layer (an insulated jacket was ideal), a pair of winter gloves, and some thick winter socks. Make sure your riding gear is waterproof as when it rains it pours, and a neck tube is ideal to keep both the cold and the dirt at bay.
A good textile riding suit, with adequate ventilation to help keep you cool on the off-road sections, is a must, as are supportive adventure boots.