Wednesday, October 26, 2016

A bike tour of the Grand Staircase; we give it another go.


Last year Ash and I decided to do a tour of the Grand Staircase of the Escalante, which I documented here and then followed up with an article in the Utah Adventure Journal (talking about the economics of the area).  It was a great trip, but due to a bit of rain  -that makes some of the roads in those parts turn into untravelable goo, we went to plan b and ultimately plan c, with Plan A essentially undone.  This year we were looking at Fall bike tour options and figured that we'd give Plan A another try and in the meantime try to do it even better.  So off to Boulder, UT we went, as one of the primary jumpoff spots for adventures in the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.

The trip got off to a bit of a rocky start, unfortunately.  We coasted down to cross Boulder Creek and pedaled up the other side to where it flattened out, and as I shifted back up out of the climbing gears on my bike I realized....that it wasn't actually shifting.  Weird.  I thought that perhaps the cable had gotten pinched, but after jumping off the bike and taking a good hard look I realized that the spring inside the rear derailleur had come out
there's supposed to be a spring in there
which meant that it wouldn't pull back down to hit the smaller cogs/bigger gears.  I fiddled with it for a while; just long enough to realize that I couldn't do anything about it, and we decided the best option was to roll back the coupla miles to Boulder and deal there.  Needless to say, the irony of possibly prematurely aborting/delaying a bike tour due to an inability to shift for a guy who professes to prefer single speeds was not lost!

I had seen a couple of bikes outside a gear store in Torrey -35 miles up and over Boulder Mountain - and figured that would be a good start to solving my problem.  So I threw the bike back on the car rack and blasted back to Torrey.

Once there I realized that the bikes I saw were at gear stores that had a couple of rental bikes.  Not surprisingly, they didn't have any 7-speed SRAM derailleurs in stock, nor were they interested in pulling the derailleurs off the bikes that were there (and in fact, because SRAM is a different system than Shimano, they would have only worked marginally well anyway).   I asked how much it was to rent the bike that was there and it was $40/day, which sounded a bit crushing, but then she said "we'd like to get rid of it for the season anyway, so we'll sell it to you for $300."  I thought about it: spring to fit inside derailleur:  $1.75.  Beat up demo bike that was very much spared every expense in the first place that I've never ridden before that might work:  $300.  The ability to go on a long-planned bike tour late starting late Saturday afternoon at least 100 miles from a bike shop:  absolutely priceless.  So I bought it.

And raced back to Boulder, where by now Ash had gone for a nice ride and we were able to find the last (and phattest, and most-expensive) room at the Boulder Mountain Lodge to spend the night.  I did a bit of evening bike rigging, and by morning we were ready to roll!

Our trip in the desert started with a good climb into the mountains; the Hell's Backbone road is a well-known gravel alternative to the famous highway 12, and involved a few thousand feet of climbing to and above a bridge that was built to span a precipitous pass between two slickrock canyons:
I couldn't figure out why I was hurting so badly on the climbs, when Ash pointed out that the flat tire on the Bob may have something to do with that. 
then down along the Box Canyon/Death Hollow Wilderness, which is a great through hike.  We did a bit of exploring on the bottom end.

Our next objective was to do the Smoky Mountain Road that goes between Escalante and Big Water across the "Rugged Kaiparowits Plateau"
that we had wanted to do last year but were thwarted by the rain.  The road was built for cattle ranchers in the 60's (by the feds; you're welcome, ungrateful ranchers who not only get roads built for them but only pay something like $2.74/head/year to graze on public lands and then bitch about it and refuse to pay it!) and is 78 miles end to end, with no real "features" or highlights beyond rugged high desert, so it gets almost no use.  The surface is pretty rough  -ala the White Rim  -and about halfway across this section (very shortly after Ash said "it'd be a bummer to have a major mechanical out here!") her under-gunned bike (with 43c cyclocross tires in lieu of real mtb tires) flatted.  I had put Stan's tubeless goo inside the tube as a self-sealing system at the recommendation of a shop guy, but not only did it not work the goo got all over the tube and kept blowing off the patch.  We tried a spare but I broke off the inside of the stem, and the other spare was the wrong size.  Bad deal.  But then the first rig we saw all day came by:
And the lovely Rick from San Diego was kind enough to stuff us and our bikes into/onto his rig and drove us the couple of rough bumpy hours back to Escalante.
Our angel!
The good folks at Escalante Outfitters hooked us up with great food, lodging, and yes - a new tube, this one filled with Slime; it's all they had in the size - and the next day we took off again, determined to make it across the Kaiparowits.
Clif bar....pshaw!  Powering up with Escalante Outfitters leftover pizza!
All went well until....a mile past where the flat had happened the day prior Ash flatted again.  Amazingly, the only car we saw again all day came along, and it turned out to be the famous John Florence of local SLC radio station KRCL.
This time we were able to patch the tire - and pumped it up higher, for a rougher, but "smoother" ride - and carried on along the Smoky Mt Road.

We later saw ATV-er Jesse who gave us some water:
Which was great; in any other circumstance we both probably would have not found any common ground, but desert adventurers get along just fine.

The Smoky Mountain Road ends with a precipitous drop a couple thousand feet off the mesa to the valley floor:
With great views

and some nice rolling terrain towards the Lake Powell moorage "town" of Big Water

this is not quite fair; it was a bit bigger than this, but not much....
We spun west for 10 miles on the busy highway 89 then turned onto Cottonwood Wash road, which we had gone down last year.  Cottonwood Wash road is a bike touring gem of the area, with great views, great road, and lots of hikes.  Last year we took 3 days to noodle down it; this year we did it in an afternoon to go on to new things. But the riding was challenging, as well as beautiful:
and we ended up at Kodachrome Basin, the best state park I know of, complete with hot showers!

The other road we tried to do last year but got denied on was Skutumpah:
It's apparently pronounced SCOOTumpah,
I think this is a native word for sandy:
Washboardy:
and steep!

But it led us to three awesome short slot canyons: the first was Willis Creek:

The second - and best - is Bull Run Gorge:

that's a car that fell in, killing 3 guys in the 50's. 
and Lick Wash
After a chilly night in the mid-20's, we rolled out of camp into the sun, and came upon the spot where we had literally gotten bogged down a year ago
nice and hard this time
And then found this road:
that would take us up to the west of Bryce Canyon national park.  

as always, we had to share it with cows:

most of the time the only water we would see would be these super skanky water tanks alongside the road; again, you're welcome ranchers!
This road got a bit steep heading up to a pass:
But soon enough we found ourselves in civilization.  
If you've ever wondered where Podunk really is; we been there.  It feels like East Podunk.  
Since it's near Bryce, there are some Brycelike features in the area:

And after spending a night in the mid-20's a motel at the Bryce Entrance was hard to resist:
Moving along we headed up onto the Aquarius Plateau north of Bryce, again endeavoring to stay on great gravel roads with no traffic
and big views

We saw further evidence of locals taking great care of their natural resources:
note that this would have copious rabbit brush and sage....if the cows "using the natural resources wisely" hadn't chewed it to a nub. 

musta been a helluva party.
Riding on the gravel roads of southern Utah we realized that there were some zones that were pretty Bud Light oriented:
and others that were Coors Light specific:
maybe the Fed can sell the naming rights of the roads?  Like "Bud Light Parkway" or somesuch? 
and "sharing the road" doesn't have the same meaning in the dez as it does in urban areas with lots of cyclists:
This amazing network of roads led us back to the Hell's Backbone road, where we again crossed the eponymous bridge:

and rattled back into Boulder.  

Southern Utah has a million lifetimes' worth of adventuring in any one of a lot of different disciplines, and the ability to see a good chunk of it via the (government-built for private use!) gravel roads offers up plenty of access and adventure.  Just bring a coupla extra good tubes!
 and if you are looking for a cheap - in many ways - well-used mountain bike, I got one for sale!

Thanks again to Ash for of course being ze best buddy and trip/map planner around and for taking the time for another awesome adventure.

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