Finishing the Plateau Passage

The second half of the Plateau Passage:

Views, cold, hot, and a lot of dirt.

After some good coffee and, dare I say, the best piece of cherry pie I’ve ever had, I was on the road again. Climbing out of Boulder into the Dixie National Forest, the route followed a variety of grated roads, ATV trails, and 4×4 tracks up a few thousand feet onto the Aquarius Plateau. Soon I got lost after taking a wrong turn on the many intersecting dirt roads.  However, this lead me to the Hell’s Backbone Road which cut through “The Box”, a surreal formation of red and pink cliffs buried in an otherwise normal looking ponderosa forest–all of a sudden, I was in a different world.  

Once I could peel myself away from staring at the rocks, I found a little campground hidden in the woods. One of the colder nights of the trip was staved only by a small fire.

The Next morning was even colder and getting going took a while. Soon I was following the Great Western Trail under the rim of the Aquarius Plateau. It was one of those exhausting days of pushing my bike until sundown–when I looked at the mileage, I had only managed to make it 15 miles.  Hoping for better trails to come, I camped by a small lake and treated myself to another fire (warmth is nice but it always makes me wish I had something to cook over it like hot dogs or some s’mores).

Thankfully the trail turned to a well-graded road and I started covering miles quickly the next morning. Halfway through the day, I took a ‘mandatory’ side trip out to Powell Point. I was hesitant at first to be adding miles to the trip and cut off this excursion in order to make up for the time I’d lost the day before. However, I’m sure am glad I decided to bike the few miles out to the point. At 10,500 feet, Powell Point juts out southward toward the rest of Utah and provides a spectacular 270-degree view of the surrounding area. John Wesley Powell, who is regarded as the first white person to stand on the point, used the location to better get his bearings of the confusing surroundings when exploring the area in the 1800s.

The point is covered in granular sand created by the eroding white limestone that makes up the point and the area is vegetated only by a few weathered Bristlecone Pine Trees creating a barren yet beautiful area to admire the views. I made a cup of coffee, called mom (somehow I had service) and was then on my way down toward Tropic, Utah and the pink cliffs of Bryce Canyon.

After a quick refuel in Tropic, named for is uniquely mild weather, I linked up with the Grand View Trail which carves through the remote and relatively unvisited southern section of Bryce Canyon NP along the edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau, sometimes on top and sometimes just below the rim. Hoodoos and Pink Cliffs were everywhere along this demanding and technical route. Downed trees and lots of bike pushing were made up for by the sections of great flowy trail and spectacular views.

Pushing late into the afternoon, I covered most of the trail on the first day leaving the remaining sections for the morning light. Climbing to the top of the pink cliffs, the Grandview trail continued to provide, well, grand views (and insane winds). I spent the morning trying to take pictures that did justice to the beauty of the area and wishing I was one of the many eagles playing in the updrafts created by the sheer cliffs. In the afternoon, I bombed down from the plateau and after a quick resupply at a gas station, I was riding up into the ponderosas of the Dixie National Forest again.

A great day of single track riding along the Virgin River Rim trail brought me to just above Cedar City, and interesting place to say the least. The next morning, itching for a big warm meal, I was in town early. However, I had managed to get there on a Sunday which, if you know anything about southern Utah, is a no-business-all-church kind of day. This made it difficult to find a cafe where I could plug my stuff in, catch up with the world, and get ready for the next section.  After much indecision and riding around town, I caved and found a cheap hotel room to stay in for the night and had a proper night in of TV watching and eating pints of ice cream.

Climbing again the next day, I followed some high plateaus (having lunch at “Graham’s Memorial) which led toward Zion National Park. Being the edge of the Colorado Plateau, The formations of Zion do not disappoint. Cutting through the Northwestern part of the park, the route then diverted and climbed a parallel mesa providing a spectacular panoramic view of Zion’s geology.

The following few days were spent traversing the open and arid landscape of the Arizona Strip on the way to St. George Utah. This section was less spectacular and a good taste of the real desert riding to come. The days seem longer and more tiring even though the riding was more steady and less technical–podcasts and lots of water were necessary.

St. George is a strange confluence of people and social groups. Known for its growing retirement population, the city also hides a community of outdoors enthusiast and a cohort of college students attending Dixie State University. The city provided a great spot to rest up, replace my drivetrain with parts my dad sent to me, get a haircut, and generally just enjoy the town. A local couple was gracious enough to take me in for the night, offer a shower, and even invited me to a potluck they were hosting that night. It was great to socialize with some new friends and hear stories of life in St. George.

The rest of the way to Las Vegas would be a challenge of staying off major roads. Thus, the route took some discretion in connecting points on the map. That being said, there were still many unforeseen gems to be found.

First, it was up into the Virgin Mountains, the last big climb of the route. Hidden Joshua Tree forests and granite boulders made for some spectacular desert landscapes. On the other side of mountains lay Mesquite, known for its casinos and all-you-can-eat buffets. I was not adventurous enough to venture into one of the gambling/eating meccas but I did treat myself to a DQ Blizzard.

Following a number of telephone line service roads, I quickly found myself in the Valley of Fire State Park. This not-so-hidden gem of an area provided amazing sandstone formations. Quickly I was off the washboard 4×4 roads and onto the final section of pavement blasting toward Las Vegas.

This amazing section of two-lane pavement traces the northern shore of Lake Mead. A great tailwind pushed me along and I lost track of how far I had come. Realizing I was nearly to Las Vegas (and my host were not expecting me until the evening of the following day), I only had a few options to camp. In an effort to avoid the pay-to-camp options at one of the lake’s marinas, I decided to take a 4×4 ‘road’ down to the water to what I thought was going to a pleasant final evening on the beach of the lake.

However, the road was actually just a large wash and the nice lake-side beach I was imaging turned out to be a tamarisk-infested boggy edge of a pretty gross body of water. As it turns out, the lake level (like most of the man-made reservoirs in the SW) was very low leaving a pleasant ring of tires, trash, and mud along its shores. Fortunately, the marina I was initially trying to avoid was nearby so I bushwhacked my way through the tamarisk and over some small loose hills until I arrived scratched and frustrated at the maria. I stopped at the restaurant/bar to ask where the camping was and ended up getting a few drinks and dinner.

The next and final day of the route was more about navigating the craziness of metropolitan Las Vegas than anything else. I have some family friends in Henderson who very graciously agreed to take me in for a few days while I transitioned into full dessert mode and got ready to head out into the Mohave.

Overall the Plateau Passage was an incredible route, obviously put together with much research and care. Having now completed the route and overcome the challenges that it presented, I feel much more confident in my ability to plan my own routes and be a little more flexible with the direction and speed I take from here on out.

Currently, I’m somewhere in SE California, fording through the sandy washes and volcanic mountains of the Mojave National Preserve, Route 66, Joshua Tree NP, and The Anzo Borrego’\9 Desert. I’ll have some words and pictures from that section soon.

All I have to say is thank goodness for amazing geology, kind people, acceptable weather, a working bike, and happy body.


2 thoughts on “Finishing the Plateau Passage

  1. Wow Graham, you have been through some awesome country. Thanks for the great photos and thoughtful narrative. I fought a fire in the Virgin mountains and thought it was a cool landscape. I have wanted to ride around Bryce and Zion for some time and your photos help me cimmit more to that idea. Hope you find a plump thanksgiving dinner wherever you find yourself next week. Glad that your bike is strong and your body is happy. brad

    1. Hey Brad!
      Maybe we should get out there sometime in the next year– that has been one of the coolest legs so far!

      I had many bean burritos and cheap, good tequila for Thanksgiving

      I hope all is well with you!

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