WanderlustBy Sam Lepore

Subject: Wanderlust 2000.19 - Tropic, Utah
Date: Fri, 28 Apr 2000 19:45:50 -0700

    Oh, boy. Oh, boy! This is the most magnificent route through all of Utah. This is an incredible ride, and even though I just finished it I can't believe the things I've seen. I can't begin to do justice to describe the exquisite scenery. There are no words with enough emotion to reach the impressions left by these views, and I have really dug deep to try and find them.
    Many people wax eloquent about the vistas *in* the copious national parks in Utah. As lovely as they are, they are just snapshots compared to the unending open expanse of the ages and ages of weathering that has formed the land between the parks. I feel humbled by the magnitude of the images and imagery passing me today.

    The cool morning air was refreshing on the road to Hovenweep. (Despite what the AAA maps and the motel staff said, the road IS paved all the way.) The lovely little two lane county road follows a creek through increasingly arid land at the foot of Sleeping Ute Mountain. It is a jarring juxtaposition to have lush green alfalfa fields on one side and towering stratiated rock formations on the other. Some of those 'fallen rocks' are larger than a house, and they look like a child giant has left his building blocks strewn after playtime. An amusing aside: Utah is the 'land of the Ute', yet Ute Mountain and the Ute tribe are entirely within Colorado. Also, since Colorado is 'land of colors' and all the colors are in Utah, perhaps we should switch the two state names?
    The land at the Utah border is open range and sparsely populated. I came around a corner to cross a creek and found a herd of wild horses drinking from the creek. Before I could stop to watch them, they startle and gallop off disappearing into the trees, snorting and manes flying. They are precursors of the wild beauty to come.
    I've been to most of the national parks in the west, and I've seen much of the beauty of nature, but I was absolutely awed by the ride down the San Juan Plain from Bluff toward the Valley of the Gods. The buttes, the bluffs, the formations, the structures went on from horizon to horizon. It makes you a little sheepish when you think you've seen it all and all you keep saying over and over is Wow. Wow!
    Ten minutes on that road would have made the day worthwhile, but it was only the beginning.

    Since I was not sure whether there is any gas available in the 100 miles to the next town, a slight detour to Mexican Hat was in order. At last! A town with a clear reason for its name - one mile north of town is a natural rock formation that looks like a sombrero balanced over the head and shoulders of a man. It is Mexican Hat Rock.
    Then after gassing up, I headed north to find warning signs every mile: 10% grade and 5 mph switchbacks in x miles. UT261 approaches the Monument Valley Rim over the Valley of the Gods. I had to stop and look at the sheer cliff face which the map told me the road climbed. Impossible! Searching carefully, I could not see any slope or natural grade. The road seemed to just disappear at the base of the insurmountable rim. But I pressed on.
    The road becomes smooth surface gravel for the three miles it takes to climb the rim, and in some places it is no more than 10 feet wide. The switchbacks are wide enough for vehicles to pass, but this is a tight road! There are curves where you can look down and see 3 or 4 parallel segments of the road climbing below you. Above you it is still invisible. Incredible. At the top there is a pullout for breathtaking view of Monument Valley ... and a caution about straying near the edge: 1100 foot drop.
    Then as if nothing ever happened, the pavement resumes and you are cruising through pinion pine across a level plain. But not for long because the awesome climb just achieved becomes a swooping drop back into Cataract Canyon to cross the Colorado River at the head of Lake Powell. The sheer rock faces of Glen Canyon slough off enormous slabs that pile up at the base like spilled sugar cubes. Some of this 'debris' would dwarf what are called mountains in other states.

    In a never ending stream of attacking your ability of disbelief, the canyons get closer and closer to where there is hardly enough room for both the road and the stream, and you have to look *up* to see the sky. Climb out of the Henry Mountains and turn left at Hanksville ... only to begin following the Fremont River on its sinuous race though Capitol Reef National Park. The speed limit is as low as 30 mph in some places - and even a motorcycle can't go much faster. Then turn south again at Torrey and suddenly you are climbing through the sky. Motors labor noticeably to gain altitude in the thinning air. The aspen forests still sleep the sleep of winter at the summit: 9,200 feet, from where you can see to the end of the earth.
    Can it get better? Yes.
    The descent from the pass dances down the "Hogback" of the Grand Staircase National Monument. Like on Trail Ridge Road in Colorado, the mountain falls away sharply on either side of the road. But here, there are sheer drops merely inches from the edge, and the road is curvy. Very curvy. It is one of those where "if you want to stay on the road, keep your eyes on the road". Even so, there is a slight sense of vertigo from the lack of ground for a reference beyond the edge. Just absolutely wow.

    Ok, so if all this is not enough, pick a color, any color. At some time during the day you will see a cliff in several hues of that color. You name it, black, white, green, red, yellow, rose, tan, orange, blue, even purple. I saw more colors than I know the names of. If the rigors of the road were not enough, the sensory stimulation itself is tiring.
    If you EVER take a western vacation, take this route. There is no more stunning a combination of varied and changing panoramic beauty to be found in a single day anywhere in America, and that includes my experiences of riding from the Pacific Coast to the grandeur of Yosemite. This is a winner!

383 miles
Cortez US160 County-G (to Hovenweep, becomes Ismay Trading Post Road)
UT262 UT163 UT261 US95 UT24 UT12 Tropic
Sam Lepore, San Francisco

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