Riding the Red Rock Wonderlands of the Unearthly Southwest
I think there is something in our biking DNA, something that makes us wonder and wander and spirit us to adventure. We may be our nation’s last living symbol of American freedom, exploring the frontier and what the hell ever comes our way. Thankfully, there are still parts of this country that seem untouched by civilization, wild and ancient and otherworldly lands.
We are always looking for the next particular place to go, the next ride of a lifetime, something beyond imagining. About once in every 10,000 biker-hours of rambling, a destination appears, a confluence of bizarre rock formations, endless horizons brushed in every tone and tint of red and orange, and a naked landscape that holds the souls and bones of creatures lost in time.
When you ride the monuments and canyons of the Southwest, it feels like you’ve crossed over to another world. I know such places are not supposed to exist, but they do exist. The desert wonders draw you in, sinking mile after mile deeper into a land where little is what it seems.
It can be difficult to pack for a ride through some 300 million or so years of geologic time, or choose the right bike for the job. This is why baggers come in so handy; you can squeeze in cold, hot and wet weather gear and you’ll need all three.
It may seem inconceivable, but desert rain can turn biblical. Fierce monsoons (generally mid-July to mid-September) can turn dust-dry arroyos into raging rivers, rolling boulders and swallowing trees in just hours. Daytime temperatures can quickly plummet 40 to 60 or more degrees at night, too fast to adjust and turning you into a popsicle on wheels. The scorching daylight sun can roast you like a vampire on a spit.
The scorching daylight sun can roast you like a vampire on a spit.
A motorcycle with a range of at least 131 miles on a tank is paramount. This is because the longest stretch of gas-barren road I’ve ridden was in Utah from Hanksville, just outside Capitol Reef National Park, to Mexican Hat, 131 miles as my Victory Vampire flew. The Vampire was a lab experiment, an unholy production prototype chopper that never saw the light of day.
I rolled into this town on the San Juan River thirsty and thankful to find the fluid so essential to life in the badlands— gasoline. This reinforces part of an old biker creed, “get gas every chance you get.” If you don’t, you might find yourself squeezing the bleached bones of some poor roadkill in some heat-stroked attempt at wringing out some crude oil.
When crossing hundreds of miles of a burning desert that once lay at the bottom of the sea, things can appear through the wavy haze of heat—amazing, soul shaking things, great visions and small monsters that exist only to bite, sting, and drain the life from your body. Mirages will rise up in the horizon, appearing as real as the steel and iron huffing beneath you, then vanish in the next blink of a tired, dusty eye. This is the Great Basin of the ageless Southwest, where reality sometimes takes a holiday.
Infinite expanses of petrified sand and rusted rock, cacti, and eternal sky spread out before you, seducing the unwary traveler with the matchless excitement and wonder of an undiscovered frontier. Beware its sweet, deceitful kiss.
The high plains desert is as engaging and beautiful as it is cruel and deadly. It will beguile you, bend your mind with unearthly colors and contorted shapes of tortured stone. These are the remains of another world and eons of hidden time. They can betray reason and good sense. Anything can happen here, and it usually does.
The high plains desert is as engaging and beautiful as it is cruel and deadly.
This is haunting wasteland, a little-known territory that invokes the explorer in us all. I gathered an expeditionary team. This was an undiscovered world to my compatriots. We would glide across its dried seas on swift desert ships: the monster-motor Suzuki M109R, the smooth and cushy Yamaha Royal Star Venture, a sport-touring Honda ST1300, a couple of Harleys and my ride, the rabid Victory Vampire, land-worthy vessels all.
We rolled north out of the red rock wonderlands of Sedona, Arizona, up Oak Creek Canyon, one of the prettiest stretches of road in the country, then a jog east along Route 66 through Flagstaff, continuing north to the old trading post at Cameron.
This little village stands as the doorstep to the vast Navajo Nation, the largest Native American reservation in America. We stopped for some souvenirs and to sample the fry bread and mutton stew, a local favorite.
With our bellies full and our pockets lighter, we turned north on scenic Highway 89, craning our necks toward the Painted Desert on our right and the petrified red and white reefs to the left. A signpost up ahead signaled something strange: Dinosaur Tracks Next Right.
We detoured east on 160. Just a few miles before the busy Navajo town of Tuba City, the claw-prints of creatures who roamed what was a tropical shoreline tens of millions of years ago now lay exposed. Buried under tons of sand and silt long since turned to rock, erosion finally freed the tracks, which can be seen everywhere.
The Navajo Nation extends into the states of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, stark beauty. Neither brush nor tree stand in the way of the boundless view. There’s no better way to experience such a primeval place than aboard a bike.
Shapes seem to shift, rock formations appear then disappear, and creatures that should not exist dwell in the shadows.
As senses heighten and awareness climbs, it seems natural to feel connected to these surroundings in an almost spiritual way. Each corner and curve offers something before unseen, or even understood. If you ride long and far enough through this desert, shapes seem to shift, rock formations appear then disappear, and creatures that should not exist dwell in the shadows.
This is not impossible; some prehistoric sea and shore life that lived then, live now, but refitted for landlubber living, such as scorpions, which will probably live forever, and cacti that evolved from marine species.
Public treasures famous for a time-stilled vision of Earth’s past preside nearby: Bryce and Zion National Parks, and the Grand Staircase in Utah; Canyon De Chelly in Arizona, and Monument Valley, which crosses Arizona and Utah, among other grand parks and monuments. They possess an ethereal beauty, ancient dwellings, and offer a taste of modern Native American culture.
After a quick diversion to the Cretaceous Period, we returned to Arizona 89 and continued north past Lake Powell and the stunning Vermilion Cliffs on the way to Kanab, UT, which oddly enough, was once the road home to western movie stars of the 1940s and ’50s, and the nearby Best Friends Animal Society, a rolling acreage dedicated to rescuing unwanted cats, dogs, horses, and other domesticated creatures.
Continuing west and then north on 89, we turned west on Route 9 at Mount Carmel and into Zion National Park, which has been described as “sand castles crowning desert canyons.” Pay the $30 admission (good for one week) for motorcycles, and enter a land of massive red, pink, and white sandstone walls. Just 8,000 years ago, native peoples hunted mammoth, giant sloth, and camel across southern Utah until over-hunting and climate change wiped them from North America.
Ride amid the towering cliffs, get off the bike and hike a narrow canyon, or go splash about in the Virgin River (at press-time, a toxic cyanobacteria bloom was contaminating Zion’s waters). Back out Route 9, north on 89, and east on Route 12 and in little more than an hour ride, turn south onto Route 63 and into Bryce Canyon National Park ($30, one-week admission per bike). You will be awestruck by the park’s amazing hoodoos, soaring spires made from curiously eroded sandstone. According to native folklore, the stone pillars stand as the frozen spirits of their ancestors, still capable of casting spells. Wandering through Bryce’s eerie, wind-sculpted sandstone stirs the mind and fires the senses.
According to native folklore, the stone pillars stand as the frozen spirits of their ancestors, still capable of casting spells.
Bryce shifts some 2,000 feet in elevation, creating the three distinct climatic zones: spruce/fir forest, Ponderosa Pine forest, and Pinyon Pine/juniper forest. This has created a habitat hosting more than 100 species of birds, dozens of mammals, and more than a thousand plant species.
We departed the park back along Route 63, turned east on 12 and took aim at the 1.7-million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a vast and largely primitive area of alien landscapes.
The monument is a geologic sampler, with a broad variety of formations, features, and prehistoric sites. The Grand Staircase spans countless eons of time, an untamed territory of multicolored cliffs, plateaus, mesas, buttes, pinnacles and canyons. You can spend days or even weeks riding around the miles of interior roads, if you don’t mind motorcycling on dirt. The monument has little asphalt but inspiration can be seen right from Route 12, which generally forms the area’s western border.
Heading north on Route 12, turning east at Torrey onto Route 24, then south on 95 to 261 south, trying to get to the Utah outpost town of Mexican Hat, the ride is long, hot and dusty. Elevation changes by thousands of feet, freezing you on one side of the Grand Staircase, baking you on the other. But the ride is spectacular, even if last-chance gas, food, and water was well over a hundred miles back in Hanksville (not to be confused with Henrieville, some 150 clicks further in the rear view).
Turning south on 261 is the quickest way to Mexican Hat, but it’s also the most dangerous. Before descending into the Valley of the Gods, you must ride down 2.2 miles of steep gravel switchbacks. They’re one-way headed down, but that didn’t stop three kamikaze tandem truckers from flying up the escarpment the wrong way rather than take the long way around.
These switchbacks are not for beginners or crybabies. I had my heart in my throat the whole way down as the chopper slipped and slid through its loose hairpin turns and deep straightaways. We all made it down safely, albeit our nerves a bit worse for wear. I recommend staying on 95 east to Route 163 south to Bluff, then west to Mexican Hat.
These switchbacks are not for beginners or crybabies.
After the initial wave of relief after surviving the terrible switchbacks, thoughts returned to gasoline and a hot meal. I rolled into town running on fumes, gassed up, and surprised my posse by swinging around and heading back to nearby Goosenecks State Park. Up until now, this was a well-kept secret. Some five miles of rolling blacktop delivers you to an astonishing view of the San Juan River.
Just south of Mexican Hat on Route 163 is Monument Valley, one of motorcycling’s must-rides. Its 1,000-foot crimson buttes have stood sentinel over this land for countless millennia. Much of the Navajo Tribal Park can be seen from the road, but more of the landscape is hidden from view behind towering sheer cliffs (the Mitchell and Wetherill Mesas), east of the road on the Arizona side.
This is contained within the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park (admission, $10 per person). From the visitor center at Lookout Point there are excellent views of three of the valley’s most photographed peaks: East and West Mitten Buttes, and Merrick Butte. The park has only one hiking path, the 3.2 mile Wildcat Trail which starts just south of the visitor center and loops around West Mitten Butte. Jeep tours are available starting at about $65 per person, but do offer more than the dirt (sometimes deep sand) road will show casual visitors. The gravel, dirt and loose sand Valley Drive is 17 miles long of which 13 miles is a one-way loop. It can be done on a street bike, especially if you’ve had some dirt bike experience, but your passenger may hate you.
The full ride will take at least two hours. Best to attempt this, if you dare, in the early morning because there are fewer people and the light is better. None of my tough guys wanted to risk it, big sissies.
We rode south on Route 163, then east on 160, south on 191 after Tes Nezlah to Chinle and Canyon de Chelly. There is no admission fee and visitors are free to ride to its 11 overlooks dotted along the canyon’s South (37 miles roundtrip) and North (34 miles roundtrip) rims. Visitors can peer over sheer red rock walls that rise up to 1,000 feet, towering over the small streams, farms and cottonwood stands below. Looking carefully over the edge (there are few guardrails), you can see into some 280 million years of geologic time, and millennia into human history.
The 84,000-acre canyon was created by water cutting through sandstone while the Colorado Plateau was uplifted by plate tectonics, much like the Grand Canyon was formed but on a smaller scale. Add in an earthquake now and then and a couple of million years of wind erosion, and you have the stunning, unearthly rock formations and spires that punctuate the park and give rise to native folklore. Because Canyon de Chelly is smaller than its more popular geologic cousin, it somehow feels more real; while the Grand Canyon is so vast it’s hard to grasp and almost seems abstract.
Human habitation of Canyon de Chelly goes back 5,000 years, according to archeologists, well beyond the Anasazi pueblo occupation. They flourished in a near idyllic environment. The canyon walls offered protection from wind, weather and enemies, while a now-seasonal river ran through a fertile plain. Fish and game were bountiful, and supplemented by cultivated corn, beans and squash.
But none of this could protect them from the technology of a Spanish military force searching for treasure in 1805. They slaughtered 115 Navajos at what is now called Massacre Cave. Some 58 years later, famed frontiersman, Kit Carson, joined in the subjugation of the Navajo in 1863 as American settlements encroached on native lands.
There are few remains of the Anasazi, who vanished without a trace around 1300 A.D. after some 600 years of continuous habitation. Theories range from epidemics to extended drought to alien abduction, but there’s no definitive explanation and the disappearance of the Pueblo people remains a mystery.
We have seen some wondrous things on this road trip, things we didn’t think could be real, but most certainly are. Landscapes looking more like the surface of Mars radiate out in every direction. There are so many spectacular roads we couldn’t pick just one, so we rode in a general direction, meandering about, considering the mapped route simply a suggestion. At the end of each day, your body is beat, but your soul is a bit bigger.
J. Joshua Placa
(check local authorities for Covid updates and closures):
Arizona Office Of Tourism
Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon, UT
Canyon De Chelly National Monument
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Utah Office Of Tourism
Zion National Park