Trips & Tales

Go West, Young Man

by Rich Marin • July 1, 2002

Dear Dave,

May is the perfect month to throw a leg over and tour the lower left hand side of the USA. The Winnebago’s haven’t yet come out of hibernation. The days can get toasty enough to peel off a layer but they’re nothing like as hot as they’ll be in July.

For the past 7 years our gang of American Flyers has taken 5 days in mid-May to explore the south side of Utah, with occasional forays into Colorado, northern New Mexico and Arizona. You won’t find more variety and better riding anywhere in the country.

The roads are well paved, clearly marked, and while there’s always big city traffic around Salt Lake City, elsewhere traffic’s light. Utah is America’s 11th largest state in area, but only 34th in population. More than half of the people live in and around Salt Lake City. The rest live in small towns and there’s plenty of riding space between gas stops. You can ride twisties, sweepers, and high desert straightaways, all before lunch. As for scenic wonders, Utah has 5 national parks, 6 national forests, and 7 national monuments that absolutely take your breath away. There’s a spectacular vista around every corner. 

Salt Lake City is the best point of departure. Most dealers there will accept your bike if you want to ship it in and there are several places that rent BMWs, Harley’s, and Hondas.

On a Wednesday morning 3 of our group picked up Goldwings from Cruise America and headed south from Salt Lake City on I-15 to Spanish Fork. There they headed southeast on Rte. 6. The rest of us started from Park City and took Rte. 40, through Heber City, to Duchesne and went south to Rte. 6 on spectacular high desert road. The two groups rendezvoused in Price for lunch and fuel.   

The farmland south of Price soon turns to high desert and the curvaceous two-lane becomes straight as a plumb line. If the wind kicks up in this section the ride can become intensely interesting.

At Green River we went east on I-70, and then south on 191 heading for Moab, our first night’s stopover. Just north of Moab, route 313 offers a 20-mile side trip to Dead Horse Point, a major ‘photo-op’ overlooking Canyonlands National Park. Arches National Park is just to the east and equally spectacular. Even the pictures you bring back can’t convey the grandeur of the landscape. As they say in the classifieds, it ‘must see to appreciate’.     

An alternative route to Moab lies two more exits to the east off I-70. There, Rte.128, a two-laner twists south through red rock canyons carved by the Colorado River. The last 20 miles into Moab with cliffs on your left and river on your right are absolutely world class. 

The Archway Inn, on the northern outskirts of town, has good rooms, a pool, and a decent respect for bikers. Buck’s Steakhouse is within walking distance. On this trip, however, the internet steered us to Desert Bistro in the center of town. Fancier grub. Prices to match.

Moab (pop.8,800) is a metropolis by Utah standards and seems populated entirely by twenty-something’s who’d like nothing more than to take you on a jeep tour of the parks, serve as your hiking guide, or raft you down the Colorado and then at the end of the day have a beer with you at one of the many spots dedicated to the thirsty traveler. There are more tourists than beds in Moab, and reserving ahead of time is a good idea, especially if you’re traveling with 16 as we were.

The next day our destination was Durango CO. Heading south on Rte.19 we turned left at Monticello onto 666, a ribbon of high desert asphalt that soon cuts through irrigated farmland. You’d swear you were riding through Iowa if it weren’t for the Chamisa bushes lining the roadside, a reminder that you’re more than 5500 feet above sea level.

Just outside Cortez CO lies another wonder of the west, Mesa Verde National Park.  24 miles from the entrance you discover 1000 year-old cliff dwellings carved high in the side of the Canyon’s walls. The sight leaves you wondering how they managed to build these dwellings and how they kept the kids from falling into the canyon hundreds of feet below. The ride in climbs a series of mountainside esses that wind up through pinon forest and are worth the price of admission in their own right.

One touring strategy we’ve adopted over the years is spending 2 nights in a town. It’s less stressful than pressing on regardless, and allows time to let your socks dry, if washing socks is your thing. In Durango we picked The Strater Hotel for our sleepover. It’s a comfortable Victorian relic, pricey, but right in the center of town with a bar the locals patronize with gusto.

We’d come specifically to ride the Alpine loop which swings north to Telluride, an old mining town and one of America’s top ski resorts, and back to town via Dolores. Durango, at 6500 feet above sea level, leaves this flat-lander gasping for breath. But Rte. 550, the first leg of the loop, just keeps on going up as it wriggles north through the mountains. By the time you reach Silverton, at the far end of the historic Durango Silverton steam railway you’ve passed through 10,000 feet. 

Silverton is the place to stop for coffee and breather, because the next stretch of road which is chiseled out of the mountainside takes you over 11,000 ft. at Red Mountain pass before it descends to Ouray. A left on Rte. 62 and another at Rte. 145 puts you in Telluride in time for lunch. The town closes up a bit after ski season but we found an excellent Italian lunch at Rustico, on the main street. We then headed south to begin closing the loop we’d started after breakfast.

Route 145, between Telluride and Dolores, is a symphony of sweepers. It’s a smooth, untravelled two-lane that winds through an alpine mountain valley created by the Dolores River. It is, quite simply, one of the most beautiful motorcycling roads in America. 

But the next day’s route isn’t shabby either. After back-tracking up 666 to Monticello and going south on 191, the ride heads east on Rte. 95. One of the beauties of these 5 days is the tremendous variety of terrain. The look of the land on 95 is totally different from the day before. It’s so open, with so much sky, your jaw would drop if it wasn’t cooped up in a full face helmet.

We’d packed sandwiches and after crossing the bridge at Lake Powell stopped at Hog Springs, a couple of picnic tables and an outhouse that for reasons known only to Rand McNally are marked on most road maps. Heading west on 95 the road signs announce that you’re in “Open Range”. This means unfenced cattle are wandering about. Heed these warnings! Seeing a cow crossing the road ahead while you’re exploring your bike’s performance envelope is unnerving and life threatening.

By Saturday night we’re in Torrey UT (pop. 171), a flyspeck on the map, with at least 10 motels, and enough good restaurants to feed all of Beverly Hills, not to mention the tourist crowd that comes to hike Capitol Reefs National Park and Escalante 40 miles south. The Best Western on the outskirts of town has a heated pool, and mountain backdrop. Dinner at Café Diablo is a gourmet’s delight, with wine list to match.

Suddenly we’re about to split for home and everyone’s hugging one another. Part of the group will leave about 5AM to make early planes from Salt Lake City. Bill and Nick, a father and son team from Richmond VA will begin their 2400 mile trek back home. “Seattle Bob” has promised his fiance he’ll be home (in Seattle) by Tuesday..

At 8 AM a few stragglers head north on 24 and pick up 89 at Sigurd for an early morning ride through the broad central valley of Utah, only a stone’s throw from the town of Levan (navel spelled backward) the geographic center of the state.

Would we rather have 2 weeks to do this route? Sure. But the variety of terrain in this part of the country makes you feel you’ve had more than a 5 day trip.

Travel tips

When in doubt fill ‘er up. It can be a long time between gas stops in Utah and throughout the Southwest.

Dress for altitude. Forget about north and south. Salt Lake City at 4300 ft. will be warmer than Park City, 7000 ft, 25 miles away. Take layers so you can peel or add as you ride.

Bring your cell phone. It works surprisingly well nearly everywhere out here..

They say clothes make the man. They also make the restaurant. Hats and t-shirts are bought by happy diners. If a restaurant has its own clothing it usually means the food’s good.

Use the internet to plan ahead. Nearly everyplace, including Torrey, pop. 171, has a helpful website.

When in doubt go Mex. I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s had a bad enchilada in the great west.

Don’t rush. You’re riding through country the entire world comes to visit. Stop. Look. Smell the roses.

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