Canadian Cycling Magazine
Red Rock and High Altitude in Utah
On roads of Utah, you can have the pros beat, if you time things right
On roads of the western state, you can have the pros beat, if you time things right
The sun was setting between the craggy outcrops as my three riding companions and I took turns testing each other on the smooth rolling tarmac of eastern Utah. The desert landscape with the seemingly suspended rock of Arches National Park near Moab was finally cooling off after hours of August heat. Our only regret was that we didn’t have more time to explore the nooks and crannies of the park. During high season, Arches Scenic Drive takes thousands of tourists to the geological formations that make this park such a popular attraction. The colour of the rock was accentuated by the colours of the setting sun.
Two days later, my group and I were in Park City for the Ultimate Challenge, in which hundreds of cyclists took to the route of the queen stage of the Tour of Utah with a little head start on the pros. The alpine terrain of Park City’s Wasatch Mountains was quite different from the landscape down in Moab. Our pre-ultimate Challenge ride featured 157-km with the climbs of Guardsman Pass and Little Cottonwood Canyon, 10 km with grades of eight to 12 per cent that finished at the Snowbird ski resort. At Snowbird, I found a cold stream to rinse off in. I knew this was mountain lion territory since my visit to the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City a few days earlier. I half expected to see a large cat in the dense forest as I rinsed the sweat off my tired body. I also held out the hope of discovering some dinosaur bones, another local speciality. Following my nature bath, I got back to the Stage 5 finish line to see a charging Sepp Kuss come in for the win.
Utah is full of incredible geographic marvels. My most memorable rides in Utah took full advantage of the state’s natural diversity. On a trip through this state, you can ride through arid deserts, up mountains,
along rugged rock formations and through pine forests. Utah is reliably dry, receiving very little precipitation throughout the year, but is quite cold in winter because of the elevation. Spring and autumn are the best times to visit for road riding outside of midsummer peak of tourism. Our trip began and concluded in Salt Lake City, which I would have loved to have spent a week just riding out of. Five big canyons lie to the east of the city that lead you up into the mountains and away from the most densely populated part of the state. In winter, this is powder country, but as with Europe, where there are great ski hills, there are great roads to ride. The city has an active scene of microbreweries and hip eateries, such as Squatters Pub. It also has a lot of lodging options less than 20 minutes from the airport and a
“Moab, known as a mountain biking mecca, provides easy access to incredible roads that run through Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.”
15-minute ride to the mountains. Our first ride was up Emigration Canyon aboard road race bikes from Hangar 15, a Salt Lake City shop, which were part of the outfit’s rental fleet. The road rose 400 m along 12 km gently, opening up at the top to a lovely view of the mountains toward Park City.
Our journey through the state then took us south where five national parks are the main tourist attractions. This sparsely populated region transports you back in time. Panguitch, a town 400 km south of Salt Lake City, with its false-front architecture, evokes the feeling you are in the Wild West. The road out of town to the southwest rises to Panguitch Lake in Dixie National Forest. Here we followed a lovely stream with bluffs, low greenery and big views from the quiet State Route 143.
Early the next morning, we hopped into the car for a short drive before starting a point-to-point ride from Escalante to Boulder on one of Utah’s most stunning roads. Scenic Byway 12 runs roughly 200 km from Bryce over Boulder Mountain and down
into Torrey. It passes through Bryce Canyon National Park, Grand StaircaseEscalante National Monument, Dixie National Forest and ends right near the entrance to Capitol Reef National Park. The start is about a three and a half hour drive south of Salt Lake City. The biggest challenge on the road is Boulder Mountain, a 23.5-km ascent that averages four per cent and peaks at just below 3,000 m above sea level. The Tour of Utah tackled the climb in 2016. I would have loved to have spent two days riding the entire Scenic Byway 12, but I did enjoy the section we covered.
We started our ride early, so even in August, it was crisp at 2,000 m above sea level. At the Head of the Rocks Overlook, we stopped for 15 minutes to admire the view and take photos. We then found a coffee shop overlooking a red rock canyon midway through our 46-km ride. There is no shortage of rock formations to admire in this part of Utah. Shortly after, we climbed onto a ridge where the landscape opened up.
A lovely change in pace was our hike to Cassidy Arch in Capitol Reef named after the bank and train robber Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch gang who would flee into the canyons to escape the law after a big score. At every stop in Utah, I suggest having your hiking boots on hand. As lovely as the riding is, you’ll want to venture into these parks on foot after your rides to explore the nooks and crannies of the state. Two days later, we did a slightly longer hike up Grandstaff Canyon, where a Canadian trapper nicknamed Frenchie worked with William Grandstaff in a cattle operation just outside of Moab.
Moab, known as a mountain biking mecca, provides easy access to incredible roads that run through Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. The pavement is smooth along the scenic roads that run out of the town toward each cardinal point.
The cycling portion of our trip ended fittingly with the Ultimate Challenge in Park City. Just 45 minutes from the Salt Lake City airport, the roads offer an easy escape to some of the best climbing you’ll find in North America. There’s a reason Peter Sagan bought a house here.