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Discussion in 'Ride Reports - Epic Rides' started by ScottFree, Jul 4, 2021.
Great report. Loving the pictures and narration. Thanks for sharing.
Monday (Part 2): This Is Why They Have Plank Rides
Let’s see, we had just left the construction zone on CO 141, where they seemed to be painting the pavement black again…
141 is a great scenic highway, with some nice easy curves and lots to look at. I’ve ridden it twice before, both times south to north. This time I rode north to south as far as Gateway. It is different, and perhaps prettier.
The plaques explain both the geology and the history of that house in the background. The guy who built the house but lived in it only briefly was a lawyer, rancher, aviation expert and author. Seems like a lot of careers for one guy.
A mountain with a hole in it! Two days in a row!
I stopped for lunch in Gateway, and this is where Ma Nature turned up the thermostat, close to 100 degrees. Ran into a few guys riding 141 on their street bikes. I got some local advice from the proprietor of the convenience store (the food truck/diner, alas, did not open this year), who assured me it would be no problem to go to Moab via the John Brown Canyon road. There was no rain in the forecast (the road becomes impassable when wet), and the two turns are signed. With this reassurance, and a map whose road names did not agree with either Google or OSM (not an unusual occurrence), I set off.
Lesson One: be careful pulling off the road—the sand is soft and deep in places.
The first several miles, where the road climbed up onto the plateau, were pretty scenic. And, as promised there were signs at the important turns.
There were exactly two such signs, with was just enough. There were also hundreds of signs reminding me that the land on both sides of the road was privately owned. Many were just orange squares with the word “NO” in big letters.
Then came several miles of dirt—or more precisely, hardened mud—that reminded me of the plank ride at a field meet.
When it rains, this stuff apparently turns into a sea of mud. People leave ruts, which then bake into something about the consistency of concrete. In this spot, the ruts were fairly far apart and not too deep. There were other places where the ruts were deeper, there were more of them, and I was at times riding on about a six-inch-wide “plank.”
It was perhaps a good thing that there wasn’t much to look at along the road, as the only thing I could really focus on was the space between the ruts. But, when the ruts ended, there still wasn’t much scenery. Something worth looking at didn’t appear until we were in the La Sal mountains near the west end of the road.
There is a long drop just the other side of that motorcycle.
For those unfamiliar with the Himalayan, it has a rather long kickstand and a kickstand interlock switch. I have gotten in the habit of shutting it off by putting the stand down when I come to a stop in places like this. Keeps the bike from rolling off the kickstand while I’m taking a photo.
Fun fact: the Himalayan’s neutral light and gear position indicator are controlled by a computer in the dash pod. When you turn the key on, you get a neutral light regardless of what gear the bike is in, until the computer has finished its 3-4 second startup. Luckily, the starting interlocks (neutral and clutch) are both old-school hard-wire in the starter circuit.
Pavement resumes just in time to stand on a cliff and look at the footprints of dinosaurs. Who, I assume, are extinct because they kept walking off cliffs…
The paved road is Castle Valley Road, which runs down into the Colorado River canyon upstream of Moab. It was a nice road with good curves, smooth pavement and lots of scenery,
“Priest and Three Nuns,” this is called. The nuns are hiding behind the priest in this picture.
but… as the speed limit went down, the temperature went up. Way up. My thermometer was showing 110 when I rolled into the parking lot at the motel… which, as I said yesterday, was CLOSED FOR RENOVATION. I found a replacement a few blocks down the street, checked in, and then went into town to do laundry (I had picked the one motel in town without a guest laundry). Back to the hotel for a dip in the pool, then down to the brewery for dinner. All in all, a good day. 230 miles in all, of which about 22 were pavement-free.
Finish night with a good snooze, get up early (before it gets too hot) and hit Shafer… and see how a dog feels when he finally catches the car he’s been chasing for the last eight years…
no but i did look
then i left mine in a bar in moab
actually if your rr is close to real time i was a bout a month ahead of ya
thx for sharing, bringing back good memories
I’m trying to keep this RR as close as I can to 100% in real time. It gives me something to do in the evening instead of watching TV or going down to the bar…
Strike that last one, I just got back from the bar. The lady behind the bar has a KLR650, KTM 250 something, and is interested in the Himalayan. Or faking interest in the hopes of selling me another beer (which might have worked, though I was planning to have it anyway ) or getting a bigger tip (no dice there, but I tip pretty generously on trips anyway).
great stuff. awesome writing style.
love the dovetailing with your previous adventures.
What Does The Dog Do When He Finally Catches The Car He’s Been Chasing?
9:35 MDT this morning,
I DID IT!
Holy crap I did it!!
Left the hotel just after 7 am, had cool and comfortable weather (by the standards of Moab, anyway) for the ride up Shafer Trail. Got to the top at 9:45.
Forty years later, after three bikes, two orthopedic surgeries, seven years of obsessing, lost credit card and closed hotel, I finally got up that damn road. And everything was easy except the actual riding. Potash Road/Shafer Trail (I don’t know where one ends and the other begins) may be an easy-to-moderate ride for you younger guys, but for me it was a lot of work. There were times when I felt—no, knew—I was in over my head. There were times that the only reason I kept going forward is that there was no way in hell I was going to turn around and try to go back down that hill I just came up (only to find a worse downhill a mile later). But, in the end, I made it. Didn’t fall down, didn’t hurt myself, and the GoPro even worked so I have a ton of footage.
Got back to the hotel just as it was getting hot (thermometer just hit 100º when I was pulling into Moab). Spent a couple hours looking at the GoPro video and trying to convince myself I actually did that ride. Because there is no way in hell, at my age, with pretty much zero serious off-roading in the last 40 years, that I should have been able to do this.
And now… I feel like the dog who’s been chasing the same car for years, and finally caught it. Now what?
It’s weird. There’s a voice in my head saying, “Mission accomplished, when do we start for home?” I think this is because my original plans had built like a grand opera, starting with Gold Camp, doing a big loop around Utah (Moki Dugway, Burr Trail, Hell’s Backbone, Skyline Drive…) before reaching the crescendo at Shafer. Instead, I did the Colorado roads and then came straight into Moab. There’s a certain feeling of “it’s done”; then I realize I’m only on day 7 of a 16-day trip. It’s like I’m starting a whole new trip tomorrow, when I head down to Mexican Hat.
And, I realize I’ve been so determined to make this trip, for so long, that I can’t even answer the question “did I enjoy it?”
But all that processing is for another day. Tonight, pull a tab, pop a cork, lift a glass; I’m in a mood to celebrate!
Edit 7/22: now with more 1981 pictures!
It’s six in the morning in Moab, and it’s raining outside the hotel window. Not much of a rain, this being Moab, but maybe it will wash some of yesterday’s dust off. This is a good day for rain, as the plan (riding down to Mexican Hat) is mostly pavement anyway. Something like a 60% chance of rain between here and Monticello (all of 0.03” of the stuff); south of there it dries out, so I should have no problems with Valley of the Gods, in Bears Ears National Monument.
This Story is Brought to You by the Catchup Advisory Board
Before getting into the pictures and video from yesterday’s assault on Shafer Trail (yes, even the Cursed GoPro worked perfectly, and I have a ton of video to help convince myself I actually made this ride), I wanted to catch up on the 1981 trip, how I got from a mudhole in Colorado to the Shafer Trail. It was a long and eventful day… with surprisingly few pictures.
That’s the way it went before the advent of wearable “action video cameras” and full-function automatic phone cameras that fit in a pocket. In ‘81, my tool of choice was a K1000 SLR—not an early “flying brick” BMW, but a fully-manual Pentax film camera. It was pretty rugged for a big assembly of mechanical parts, but it had to travel in a cushioned place (a saddlebag), and taking a picture was a bit of an operation: stop, decide whether to shut off the engine or let it idle (remember, kickstarter and fussy EPA carburetor), get the camera out of its padded case in the saddlebag, take up any slack in the film feed (it tended to vibrate loose on rough riding, so I always turned the film-rewind knob till there was no slack), cock the mechanism, frame up the shot, adjust aperture and exposure, focus, and finally push the button. And hope, since you didn’t see the results till you got back and had the film developed and printed (nothing sucked like paying for a bunch of black, out-of-focus, over/under-exposed prints). So… not too many pictures. But some.
I got back on the pavement at Naturita, crossed the state line, rode pavement as far as US 191, and turned onto the dirt roads. I’m not exactly sure where—the trail map I used back then is long gone, and the notes in my photo album don’t entirely align with what the internet and my Benchmark Maps atlas show as the current 4WD roads. But… it was somewhere in the whole complex of Pritchett Canyon, Behind-the-Rocks, and Kane Creek. I vaguely recall the guide book talking about a not-entirely-official trail that went over a hill to connect two of these trails that weren’t officially linked… though the main thing I remember about that connector trail is pain. But not yet…
I believe this formation was called “Prostitute Butte” in 1981:
According to the internet, this formation got its name because the native people called it the “Mother Rock” and used it for religious ceremonies that offended the settlers (no surprise there), who gave it a deliberately insulting name. Note that I found no reports that the religious ceremonies were of a sexual nature; I suspect the settlers were just offended by the existence of people with other religions. Or maybe just the existence of people in the land they believed had been created especially for them to settle.
The internet also says Prostitute Butte is on the Behind-the-Rocks trail. That sounds right.
I think I read somewhere that the formation’s been renamed, but if I chase down every one of these reports I’ll never get to the next picture, which is simply captioned...
"Find the Road." Trust me, it's there somewhere.
The road took me to several arches...
In my photo album, this is labeled “Pritchett Arch,” but online photos of that arch look nothing like this. It looks, instead, like “Window Arch,” which is also in Pritchett Canyon. I probably just got the names mixed up.
Here's another arch that (according to the internet) is not Pritchett Arch. So far I haven't been able to identify what it is called.
The road took me to several arches, including this real nice pothole arch, with a rather lush green canyon below it, fed by the seeps and springs that are all over this country.
For those who don’t know about these things, a “pothole arch” is a hole in a horizontal layer of rock. One of the more famous ones is called “Paul Bunyan’s Potty,” in the Needles section of Canyonlands. We visited it in the rented "Jeep" in 1980, and I had visions of re-visiting it in '81.
Paul needs a big potty.
Then came the Hill of Doom:
If you look very, very carefully, you can just make out the bike at the top of the hill.
It took me three tries to get up this thing. The first two ended with a spill, picking myself up, standing the bike back up, kicking it several times to un-flood the carb, finally getting it started and trying again. At that point I resolved that I was not going to turn back, no matter what came next, as I was not going to attempt to go back down that hill.
The other side turned out to be… almost as tough.
Yes, there is a "road" there. I don't know how I got down it, but I suppose gravity played a role.
And, remember how I didn’t stop at the coin-op car wash in Naturita? This was where I found that mud from Colorado had hardened into concrete on my rear brake linkage, and I had no rear brake. Oops. Face, meet dirt. Again.
I made a stop, got out the tool kit, and tried to get the mud off the brake linkage. It wasn’t easy, the stuff really was like concrete. I was not about to use my precious drinking water to try and soften it up, so I took the screwdriver and a convenient rock, and pounded till I had chiseled most of the stuff off. One nice thing about Utah, when you need an improvised hammer, there’s always a wide choice of rocks to choose from. Coming from Illinois, where naturally-occurring rocks are rare items (they like to hide on the bottom of the river, so I can find them with my boat’s propeller), I still marvel at this.
Since I was stopped, I got the camera out, took a nice picture of the hill… and it’s not on the iPad. Crap. I know I scanned it… One more placeholder for when I get home…
At the bottom of the hill, the trail… just disappeared. It went onto a long stretch of rock. No markers, no cairns to tell me where to go. I got a bit concerned. Went back and forth a few times, found nothing. Did not want to go back over that hill.
Finally, I found a little dead-end track that went to the top of a nearby cliff. From there I could look down and see where the trail went:
X-acto knife and rubber cement, baby—that’s how we did photo montages in the analog days.
Enter from the right, exit to the left. Got it.
From here the trail descended into a stream bed, which might have been Pritchett Canyon, or maybe Kane Creek Canyon. Lots of baby heads, occasional splashes of water, no place I trusted the landscape to let me park the bike and get out the camera. Damn.
In my attempts to figure out exactly where I went, I came across a page describing a bicycle trail that runs past these sites. It is unclear if this trail is shared with motorized vehicles these days (in 1981, of course, pretty much everything was open to motorized vehicles), but it looks like a decent approximation of what I rode. If so, it’s about 22 miles. Sounds about right. And I remember putting a dollar in the box to cross the last half-mile of private property between the public lands and the road to Moab, which the bicycle page mentions. I’m amazed: apparently the guy hasn’t raised his prices in 40 years.
And with that, I rolled into Moab and found a cheap motel (yes, there were cheap motels in Moab in ‘81–another thing that’s changed since then). Dropped my gear and headed up to Arches, for the obligatory picture of Delicate Arch:
I have been to Delicate Arch four or five times, always to the “overlook” that’s almost a mile away from it. I still want to take the other (3-mile round trip) hike to the base of the arch itself. Which means I’ve got to come back to Moab at least one more time.
And then, a quick right out of Arches, up to Canyonlands, and down Shafer Trail. But that’s the next post.
Probably As Much Work As Climbing 105 Flights Of Stairs…
When I got back from Shafer Trail yesterday, I happened to look at my Apple Health app. It said I had climbed 105 flights of stairs. That works out to maybe a quarter mile of vertical distance. Of course, nearly all of it was the bike going up the switchbacks, but I think I may have worked about as hard as I would have climbing that many flights of stairs…
Things started out easily enough: I left Moab, ran up Potash Road, which is apparently the paved part of the journey. It was pretty…
There was a handle on the cliff face, so you can easily pick it up when dusting the landscape. Or something.
It was also there in 1991, but looked different from the opposite direction.
And there were some petroglyphs. I wonder if, several hundred year ago, Anasazi adults rolled their eyes and complained about how their teenagers vandalized the natural cliff face with their new-fangled “art.”
I noticed how the stretch of BLM land along Potash Road along the river is a lot more developed than it was forty years ago. There are several campgrounds, a number of trailheads, pit toilets, and parking lots that I don’t remember seeing way back when.
And then, Potash Road gives way to Shafer Trail, and the pavement ends.
The first mile is deceptively easy.
Gravel, graded dirt, occasional bumps, and lots of scenery. Then it starts to get… interesting.
This was the first real “what did I get myself into” moment. There would be more, and the question would be asked with increasing vigor and additional expletives as the journey progressed.
Luckily, the Himalayan had a knack for going up this stuff. I just had to leave it in first gear, point it where I wanted to go, and hang on. I really don’t know whether I was summoning up forty-year-old muscle memories that my brain had long forgotten, or the Himalayan is really that incredibly competent. Slow and steady, try to find a line through this, let the single just thump its way up the hill.
Lest you fear I am going to throw a pile of GoPro snaps at you, rest assured I am not. At some point I want to edit my GoPro footage together (along with still photos) into a movie that I’ll drop on YouTube, but not tonight. Taking screen snaps and getting them into the correct format turns out to be a PITA on an iPad, which wants to keep them in the incredibly storage-hogging PNG format. To get the ones I just included, I had to transfer the screen snaps to my phone and then transfer them back to the iPad. Go figure.
Anyway, after some pain and suffering and a lot of “WTF am I doing here,” I got to the reason I was riding this “road”—the scenery.
Which was damn pretty.
Shafer Trail Part Two: You Meet The Nicest People…
…on a Himalayan, and a KLR650. I was puttering, slowly, across what seemed like a coral reef (no big bumps, just continuous kidney-pounding small ones), when I saw a headlight behind me. Great, I thought, I’m gonna get roosted by some guy on a GS who didn’t even slow down for those hard parts. Not quite. I did get passed, rather briskly, but not by one of those ADV people who does everything more beautifully than I do.
Holy crap, is that an Illinois license plate?
Shortly after he passed me, this guy stopped at the “Thelma & Louise” overlook, and we had a little time to chat and compare bikes.
He hails from Centralia, IL, is riding the TAT, and thought a quick loop around the White Rim would be a fine day trip. Uh-huh, says the guy who’s taking forever just to get up the relatively “easy” Shafer Road. But I guess that’s the fun part of this ADV thing—there’s people who ride around the world on street bikes, there’s people who ride something more like (un) observed trials with a load of camping gear on the back, there’s everyone in between, and there’s me.
I would learn the next morning, while chatting with another group that’s riding the TAT and has bumped into this guy a few times, that his name is probably Mark. Funny how we didn’t exchange names, or even business cards. Maybe when you’re out in a place like this and there’s only one other human being around, names don’t particularly matter.
Mark took off, at a brisk, “I know what I’m doing” pace, and I puttered along more slowly. Turns out there are two places where you stop your motorcycle on the top of a cliff above the river.
It’s called the Goosenecks, for the rather obvious reason.
The river makes a full U-turn here. Geology lesson: this is what’s called an “entrenched meander.” Millions of years ago, this river flowed across a fairly flat plain. There it did what slow-moving rivers do, meandered into a series of curves (fun fact: river meanders are best approximated by what’s called a “sine-generated curve”; so is the shape of a train loaded with flatcars carrying long steel pipes after it derails, or so said Scientific American when I was in high school). As the land was lifted, the river started flowing faster, cut deeper, and soon was trapped in the meandering channel.
There is a much more spectacular set of “entrenched meanders” on the San Juan River near Mexican Hat. But to see them, you must be patient, weed hopper. All in its own good time.
When going through the photos from 1981, I was surprised to find there were none of the Colorado River from either of these viewpoints. Nor does the trip book mention being able to see the river from the Shafer Trail. If anything, it says the opposite: the caption on this photo
says something about being only halfway down to the river. Go figure. Did I really not see it? Was I so focused on the road that I didn’t notice a little thing like the Colorado River? It’s a mystery.
I continued on, after a while running down a stretch of road right at the base of the cliff. I remember watching a YouTube video of this section, and it looked like the cliff was overhanging and there was a big drop on the left side. Neither was entirely true in person. There was a bit of a drop, but the cliff was pretty much vertical. I assume the GoPro distorted to make things look tighter. Funny how that never happens to me; my GoPro videos always look like the roads are flat and straight…
Anyway, at the end of that run, which had a few interesting sections (particularly a downhill with sharp turns and a lot of loose stuff that looked like highway department gravel), I arrived at a milestone:
When I first posted this picture, I thought maybe the park boundary had moved because things didn't look quite the same. As it turned out, it's the same place, I think:
Just no cattle guard in 1981, and "Canyon Lands" was two words back then. Now it's one.
Into the park! Almost immediately the trail improved, to something approximating a road. It even had a speed limit (15mph), which I was actually able to exceed!
The view ahead in 2021
matches the view over my shoulder in 1981
Well, almost. I think I was just around the next curve in ‘81. Close enough for adventure riding!
All that remains is the switchbacks themselves, and their terrifying edges…
Shafer Trail Part Three (and beyond): I Think I Ran Out Of Stress Hormones
I am not terribly afraid of heights or edges, though sometimes I can get a bit queasy. Sunday, on Skyline Drive in Cañon City, was one of those times. I kept wanting to look at the view, but my rider training kept reminding me that the bike goes where you look, and I did not want to ride off that ten-foot-wide road and over a drop of a few hundred feet. Edges like those on Phantom Canyon or Shelf Road don’t bother me as much. Nor did the sharp edges on the Shafer Switchbacks. Maybe it’s because I was too focused on keeping the bike on the road. Or maybe it’s just that getting to the base of the switchbacks had used up all my stress hormones! In any case, the ride up the switchbacks was probably the easiest part of the day (well, except for the paved parts). It certainly didn’t hurt that the road was actually worthy of the name “road” (vs “trail”). There were still some pieces of rock sticking up, some erosion gullies, and loose stuff in the hairpins themselves, but compared to the rock steps and bomb craters on the part of the road outside the park, this was a superhighway.
In 2018, when I stood at the top of the switchbacks and contemplated throwing my Road King down the trail, I noticed a lot of white 15-passenger vans (the kind churches use) slowly going up and down. I think they were turning around at the bottom of the switchbacks. There’s a small campground (just big enough for a vehicle to make a U-turn) down there, and a bit above it there’s a little pull-in/back-out turnaround that I think marks the official end of the Shafer Switchbacks. Could I have ridden the Harley down that far, turned it around and gone back up? Probably, as I had ridden the very similar Fall River Road switchbacks in Rocky Mountain National Park two days earlier.
At least I’d like to think that. I have no intention of finding out.
I started up the switchbacks, had the GoPro running, stopped periodically for conventional photos. The road didn’t change much: steep, some bumps and ruts, loose stuff in the U-turns. What changed is the scenery—or, more precisely, the perspective on the scenery. You start out at the bottom, looking up:
Work your way up to be at its level…
And eventually find yourself looking down on the endless maze of the canyons.
And there’s the road you came in on…
The road claws its way almost to the top, then seems to hesitate and runs for a while just a bit below the last climb, looking for that gap in the rock.
Here's what it looked like in 1981:
I think this is taken (by the GoPro) from about the same place, but I'd need to count the streaks on the rock to be sure.
On this stretch, it’s easy to park and go have a gander over the big drop. As these people did in 1980.
I took this from the overlook, when the girlfriend wouldn’t consent to driving down. Look inside the box…
You can just make out two bikes—I remember thinking one of them was a Luftmeister’d-out BMW—and one guy peering over the edge.
It’s one of those things you have to do, so I pulled over and did it.
And, coming around the corner, I saw a familiar face:
Mark from Illinois, on his way back down from the visitor center, after filling out the necessary paperwork to ride the White Rim. A nice day trip. He congratulated me on making it up, I wished him well on the remainder of the TAT.
And then, there I was, top of the mountain. I never seriously considered riding back down. I had ridden down in 1981, up in 2021, it seemed a good set of bookends. And it was warming up. So I started back to Moab on the paved road, only to be distracted by a sign directing me to the Gemini Bridges. I had been seriously neglecting the arches and bridges of the Moab area, so I figured a few more miles of dirt couldn’t hurt.
Compared to the Shafer Trail, the section of Gemini Bridges Road that I took was pretty simple. Spent most of my time in second gear, sometimes up to third. Some washboard, some bare rock… and, near the bridges themselves, a lot of sand. Not axle deep, but a few inches in places, enough to make the Himalayan slither around a bit. Pirelli MT60s are not particularly good sand tires.
The Bridges themselves were a little bit of a disappointment, because you hike maybe a half-mile all told in the heat, only to discover you can’t really see them:
There are two bridges here. One’s right behind the other, and it’s just about impossible to see them both from above. Of course, you could hike way down to the bottom of the canyon. Clearly, somebody did.
Gemini Bridges Road does go down the hill and intersects with US 191 not far from Potash Road. I thought about it briefly, looked at the increasing depth of sand in that direction, and said, “naah…” Figured I’d used my allotment of luck for today just getting up Shafer Trail without hurting myself. So, paved road down to the highway, highway back to Moab, and that was it for the day as far as riding went. I spent a couple hours looking at photos and GoPro videos, trying to convince myself I had actually done this. Walked downtown for lunch, had a beer or three, started thinking about where I was going next…
Grew up riding the mountains along the Wasatch front.
Spent college weekends exploring the Colorado Plateau.
Found my way to your writing while researching a trip from the front-range of Colorado back home.
Absolutely thrilled to see you riding/writing again. If you run into a snag, I'm a DM and a few hours away. Great ride.
Day Eight: Meet Me Under The Mexican Hat
Greetings from Mexican Hat, Utah! This is the final place where my 1981 and 2021 rides were in the same town. After that, ‘81 me heads south, returning home via New Mexico and Texas, while ‘21 me heads north and west to climb a few more switchbacks, before heading home via Colorado and Nebraska (or so goes the plan, but you know what Robert Burns said about plans).
I came to Mexican Hat by bigly different routes in 1981 and this trip. We’ll start with yesterday’s ride, because it’s simpler and I have a better chance of telling this part of the story before the restaurant opens for breakfast.
I woke up to find it raining.
Look closely and you’ll see a group loading up their bikes to continue on the TAT. One of them rather casually mentioned that his bike had broken down in someplace like Oklahoma, so he’d left it there and bought another to continue the journey.
It wasn’t raining heavily, but enough to wash some of the Shafer Trail dust off the bike. Forecast called for a pretty good chance of rain as far as around Monticello, then it would pretty much dry out. I figured my tentative plan to ride the “Valley of the Gods” road was still feasible.
US 191 south of Moab has a 65 mph speed limit and a lot of long upgrades. Fortunately for me and my 24.5 horsepower, it also has a lot of passing lanes, so I (mostly) avoided being a cholesterol blob clogging Utah’s arteries of transportation.
This is “Hole ‘N’ The Rock,” not to be confused with “Hole In The Rock,” which is a remote river crossing that was an important part of Utah’s settlement.
They really, really don’t want you to miss it.
This “Hole ‘N’ The Rock” is a house that somebody carved into a cave in the rock. I didn’t stop. Again.
It is something of an accomplishment to visit Moab and see a grand total of one natural arch (see the cliff with a handle on it along Potash Road, officially named “Jug Handle Arch”). So the state of Utah was kind enough to supply another one, right alongside US 191.
Wilson Arch does not look much like a volleyball.
While things seemed to be drying out where I was, in the mountains to the west the clouds were still walking.
The rain was pretty much over by the time I stopped for gas in Monticello, and when I pulled into the information center in Blanding, there were even some patches of blue sky. The guy at the info center tipped me off to Blanding’s own little Anasazi ruin, “Five Kivas Pueblo”:
And Blanding’s own pothole arch, “Nation’s Natural Bridge.”
Where is it? Look directly above the motorcycle seat, and you’ll see a hole in the rock. This is that “pothole” style arch I was talking about a couple days ago.
I was still waffling about whether to go to Hovenweep National Monument, so I didn’t buy a park sticker for the bike’s trunk. I did buy one for Canyonlands, but haven’t yet decided where to stick it. These decisions are not to be made in a rush.
Coming out of Bluff, I hit construction. Nothing bad, but the “pilot car” thing did clump traffic together, and I was in the middle of the clump. Passing the folks ahead of me (standard motorcycle riding procedure) was pretty much out of the question on the Himalayan, and there seemed to be this one guy behind me who wanted neither to pass nor follow at a reasonable distance. And that’s when I saw the sign saying Hovenweep National Monument was 28 miles down the side road. Didn’t even think, just made the turn and got out of that traffic.
The road to Hovenweep was paved but for a few hundred yards of unexplained gravel. Much of the pavement had a whoop-de-doo character to it. The land here seemed unsettled.
And the sign lied: it was actually an even 30 miles to the park entrance.
So what’s at Hovenweep? 700-year-old buildings. Unlike Mesa Verde (or Blanding’s little “Five Kivas”), which seem to be taking shelter underneath the cliff, Hovenweep’s residents built their structures proudly, on top of the cliffs, overlooking a small canyon.
The Hovenweep people built big and proud, with a distinctive style of towers.
And they built a lot. See how many buildings you can find in this picture:
I count at least five: four on the canyon rim, and one “art house” that’s built into a boulder a bit down the slope. In every neighborhood, there’s always one guy who’s gotta be a little weird…
The Park Service admits they don’t know much about the Hovenweep people. It seems unlikely that these towers were defensive. There’s evidence (small dams to control the intermittent streams, etc.) that the people who lived here were pretty prosperous and comfortable. I like to think this was the equivalent of a modern upscale neighborhood, and that on a warm summer night people would sit on the roofs of their tower houses, look up at the starry sky, wave to their neighbors on the far side of the canyon, maybe sip a fermented beverage, and say something like, “ain’t life grand?”
The trail is a big loop, which means that on the way back you have to hike down into the canyon and back up. This does give a nice view of the towers, silhouetted against the sky.
I just walked a one-and-a-half-mile loop trail from the visitor center. The park is actually much bigger, with multiple sites scattered across twenty miles. The signs warn that most of the roads to the other sites in the park are minimally-improved dirt, require four-wheel drive, and are impassable when wet.
Which set something of a theme for the rest of the day… while these pictures were shot against a blue sky with puffy clouds, there were rain showers in the area. And one of them would mess with my plans. Stay tuned.
Day Eight Part Two: How Wet Is “Wet”?
I left Hovenweep (without a sticker for the trunk, as the visitor center is closed due to Covid, which is still something of an issue in Navajo country) and headed over to Bluff. Much of the ride was flat (by SE Utah standards), with the San Juan River sometimes in sight, sometimes just out of view. Then the road dropped into the town of Bluff:
The Road Not Taken, US 191 from Blanding. Looks pretty.
Bluff is a tiny town, sporting a trading post beneath the Twin Rocks
And a couple motels and RV parks, one or two bars, and a reconstructed fort with people wandering about in costume. I didn’t stay for a history lesson, but did stay long enough for an ice cream cone.
Then it was off toward Mexican Hat, on a beautiful sunny afternoon. In short order I was into the red-rock country again, and at the entrance to the Valley of the Gods Scenic Drive. And there was a problem…
It’s sunny now, but when I was in Bluff I could see a pretty good rainstorm to the northwest. And the paved road was wet, with standing water puddles. And there’s this ominous BLM sign…
So the question became, how wet is “wet”? Almost immediately, the road passes through a wash:
Hmm. Standing water and some muddy tracks. And the ground under the kickstand didn’t feel all that steady. I decided that having used up an entire trip’s worth of luck on Shafer Trail, I did not need to go push my luck further by assuming the rain hadn’t been enough to make the road impassably wet.
And so, my “off pavement adventure riding” for the day amounted to a bit of casual gravel, a few hundred yards down this road, and a few hundred more to reach the viewpoint for Mexican Hat Rock.
OK, it’s a rock. To me it looks more like a UFO coming in for a landing.
The town of Mexican Hat is a mile or so away. It’s a wide spot in the road, with a gas station, a couple motels, and a bridge over the San Juan River.
The motel is on the left. It overlooks the river, though you can’t actually see the water from your room—the canyon is too deep. But it is a kinda nice place.
My bike is dead center in the picture.
Restaurant, store, beer for sale. No pool, but you can walk down to the river. It’s a bit too shallow and fast moving to swim, but wading up to about knee depth was pretty refreshing. Sitting atop the cliff with a cold Moab Brewery IPA was more refreshing.
An oddity: there is a small cable-car thing running across the river from the motel parking lot.
The sign says it belongs to the US Geologic Survey, which has monitored the level, flow, and chemical composition of the river since something like 1914. Nothing about why there’s a cable car, though. Maybe it predates the bridge.
OK, it’s 7am. Breakfast calls, as does the road. Long-ish day today, as the ferry across the increasingly-misnamed “Lake” Powell is closed due to low water. Going up to Hite and then back down to catch Burr Trail into Boulder adds forty miles. More later…
Really enjoying this RR - the pace, the mix of pics and narrative and of course the contrast and compare to the '81 trip.
"Luckily, the Himalayan had a knack for going up this stuff." Nailed it right there, great little bike, well-mannered and seems to find a way when I let her. Whether aired-down Pirelli's or the new E-07's (sometimes air'd down), the rougher stuff is more doable as well.
Scott, I'm surprised you didn't take 95 out of Blanding to 261 then down to Mexican Hat. That stretch of 95 is one of the better pavement rides in Utah. But still, you'll get a good one on 95 after 261 when you go back north. Enjoying your ride and report. I've nearly lived in that area south of Moab on many, many extended trips, and it's one of my favorite areas in the nation.
I am thoroughly enjoying your RR. I have ridden quite a bit down by Moab through to Mexican Hat. I need to check out Hovenweep still, but I have been to the ruins up in Beef Basin that look similar, even found an arrowhead and some pottery shards out there. I was on a work trip to Russell Kansas in 2019 when I found and picked up my first adventure bike in Wichita (F800GS). I also picked up a 64' Aristcraft Funliner and got out onto Wilson Lake. The rock outcroppings in the area there are full of fossils. Your picture with the cut in the road in that area was most likely packed with fossils. I brought home a nice butterflied bivalve (clams) from a cut about a mile from Wilson Lake. We also toured the big cathedral church. I hope you went inside, it is beautiful! I wish I noticed this sooner so I could have told you to ride through Valley of the gods and up Moki Dugway on your way to Mexican Hat, it is an incredible bit of switchbacks and scenery and only a few miles off the highway. I cannot wait to take my R100GS down through the shafer trail, and White Rim Trail. Safe travels and thank you for sharing!
From his last entry, I think he will go up Moki Dugway when he heads north next. He was headed into VOG, but the threat of mud turned him away. VOG might or might not have been perfect with a little moisture. When that surface gets just enough moisture, it is perfect for packing the dirt/sand and keeping the dust down. When it's a little too much moisture it's a quagmire.