Motorcycle Touring - South West

Canyon Carving, Utah-Style

There's red dust embedded in the lugs of my boots. The wind blasts coming out of the canyons are fierce and cool. Half an inch of bug carcasses caked onto its windshield, the Road King hums contentedly over a red clay roadway.

I'm on an annual pilgrimage to one of my favorite roads-Utah's Highway 12, through the southwestern part of the state. Trying to visually digest the surreal rockscapes of the Colorado Plateau looming around every corner is difficult enough without a family of carpenter bees blocking my view in the plexi, but after all these years, the thrill of this ride still ain't gone.

If you've spent any time in the Southwest, you know how distracting the bizarrely sculpted terrain can be. No matter how many times I ride it, Route 12 always manages to feel like a sweet rediscovery that consistently makes it to the top of my Kick-Ass Roads list.

For a real combo platter of epic roads, though, I like to backtrack a few miles west and include Route 9 through Zion National Park too. That makes for a 200-mile, mind-boggling mix of merciless twisties and lonely straights, all served amid an otherworldly backdrop. There's nothing like rolling between towering sandstone chimneys to humble you into stunned silence.

The town of Springdale, outside Zion's west entrance, is my preferred jumping-off point. It's just a three-hour ride northeast of Sin City, which is why I arrange to pick up a bike from EagleRider's bustling Las Vegas branch for my sprint up to the red rocks this time. I'm served up a late-model Harley Road King, professional service and a list of destination tips from the crew. Lickety split and I'm on the I-15 North.

Once in Springdale, I hunker down for a primo fajita dinner on the patio at the Bit and Spur Grill, based on a hot tip from a longtime Cruiser reader. (Thanks, Stan.) The waitresses crack wise, and the tortilla chips crunch sublimely. Springdale may be a tourist town, but it's stocked with all the right supplies.

Route 9 east into lower Zion Canyon eventually shovels me up a switchbacked climb between massive sandstone cliffs-I've done it before, but it feels like a revelation watching the early-morning sun creep across the Great Arch rock formation this time around. It's easy to see why this canyon has awed everyone from the Mormon settlers who named it to the 2.5 million folks who flock here every year. The road straightens out through mile-long Zion-Mt. Carmel (elevation 5700 feet) and ends at the Mt. Carmel junction with Highway 89. Sprinting north on 89 through ranch country is a dicey proposition, though; each of the small towns I pass has a sheriff's cruiser lurking just outside the town limit, where the speed limit plummets from 65 to 35 mph. I tiptoe through Orderville in first gear.

Thirty-five miles later it's the turnoff for Highway 12, and traffic has thinned considerably. But don't be fooled; the fun's just beginning. Some roads can instill a true spiritual rush in riders-the Pacific Coast Highway, Route 66, the Kancamagus Highway-we all have our faves. For me, it's Highway 12, stretching 125 miles across one of the most rugged, lonely bits of the Colorado Plateau.

The two-laner crawls through dramatic terrain, ranging from 4000 to 11,000 feet in elevation. There's a reason Highway 12 has been tagged a National Scenic Byway and All-American Road by the wonks at the Federal Highway Administration. (All-American Roads are said to be "destinations unto themselves.") Even better, its entire length has been paved only since 1985, so that Wild West vibe remains pretty much intact.

The higher elevations of the Paunsaugunt Plateau are home to the red rocks of tiny Bryce Canyon, only 56 square miles in size. My first taste of the psychedelic scenery comes at Red Canyon, where it's said bad boy Butch Cassidy spent some time on the lam. But muscling a Big Twin down the road between wildly twisted hoodoos-those tall kebab-like rock spires-is what really rates a 9 on the Dr. Seuss Scale of Surreality.

By the time I hit the famous Ruby's Inn on Highway 63 a few minutes later, I'm wondering how Butch ever made it without an insulated liner. The 7800-foot elevation is prime for the Ponderosa pine surrounding me, but my fingers are feeling the cold. Ruby's provides me with a cuppa hot java, though I'm not inclined to linger; the place is tour-bus heaven-a mass of gas stations, hotels and restaurants situated just before the main entrance to Bryce. I duck onto the spur road to Fairyland Canyon between Ruby's and the main entrance to sidestep crowds and avoid admission fees; here, the hoodoo-filled view is still enough to squeeze a gasp out of even the most hardened Hell's Angel.

I'm happy to remember the road ducks down 1000 feet into the town of Tropic as I head east and things warm up a bit. At this point, I'm in the midst of some insanely impressive scenery-the stretch between here and Boulder is laced with slot canyons and views of fantastic oceans of sandstone. But I need to refuel, and the small town of Escalante makes for a perfect stop midway through the byway. Over burgers and Cokes at the Golden Loop diner on Main Street, I trade notes with Randy, a fellow adventurer from Seattle who was exploring his way across the Southwest. He advises me to pull out the electric vest, as the road only gets higher and colder from here.

Route 12 begins its wind through vast expanses of slickrock just outside Escalante, and I survey the scene at Boynton Overlook to get an idea of the area's remoteness. This region was one of the last in the United States to be mapped, and it's understandable why once I hit the Hogsback, a ridgeline with steep 2000-foot dropoffs on either side. It's a huge rush to peer down into the Escalante Canyons on one side and endless sand washes on the other. By the time I pass Boulder, I'm feeling the chill through my vest (as Randy had warned). The road crosses the eastern flank of Boulder Mountain at 9000 feet, and while that makes for awesome views of Capitol Reef National Park and the Henry Mountains, it also means it's 20 degrees cooler than Escalante.

The byway ends at the junction of Highways 12 and 24, near the town of Torrey, and that's where I call it a day. The sun hasn't set yet, but I can't wait for tomorrow. I happen to know that backtracking this route is just as fun.

This makes for a 200-mile, mind-boggling mix of merciless twisties and lonely straights, all served amid an otherworldly backdrop.
My first taste of the psychedelic scenery comes at Red Canyon, where it's said bad boy Butch Cassidy spent some time on the lam.