A blog about outdoor adventure and Vanlife

Bike Tour- Salt Lake City to Albuquerque (part 1 of 2)

Bryce Canyon, Utah

In June, 1999 we rode our touring bicycles from Salt Lake City, Utah to Albuquerque, New Mexico.  It was a simple idea:  Explore some of the American West by picking two airports, finding a flight we could afford (in our 20s we were far from financially flush), and riding from one to the next via back roads.  We knew little about Utah, or Southern Colorado, or Northern New Mexico; it just sounded like a fun adventure and the distance seemed about right for the time we had.

Southern Utah has some unbelievable roads

Family portrait at one of the scores of unmarked intersections in the middle of nowhere.

The trip ended up being 1,200+ miles over three weeks, mostly on obscure back roads, with about 300 miles on dirt roads on our touring bikes.  We had only a few hard destinations along the way:  Bryce Canyon National Park, and to visit one of H’s college friends in Durango.  All other destinations and routes were chosen by spreading out the map each morning and evening.  “This road looks smaller” was often the guiding principle of route finding.  Taking the road less traveled seems to be an ongoing theme.

Red meadows and miles of dirt roads

It was also a trip that set our relationship in motion.  H and I had been dating for just a few months when I asked her if she wanted to go on a bike tour.  Going bicycle touring together can either make or break your relationship.

Family photo

There is nothing like freezing in driving rain, baking on 100+ degree days, sleeping in the dirt off the side of the road, bathing in snow melt streams, and 100+ mile days in the saddle to learn about yourself and each other.  Love it or hate it, no one feels indifferent after bike touring.

1999 seems like a century ago in terms of technology.  All of our planning and route mapping came via map, compass, guidebook, taking wrong turns at unmarked intersections, and asking directions in the little towns we visited.  Cell phone?  Nope.  Internet? Nope. GPS?  Nope.  Digital camera?  Nope.  Ipod?  Nope.  Our technology was limited to a film camera and a little AM/FM radio with one speaker.

We traveled on little rural road like this one, or dirt roads for most of the trip

Most of our pictures were taken with either disposable box cameras (easiest to take pics while on the bike), or with my “real” camera.  In the end, digging my hand-me-down SLR with it’s manual F-stop and shutter speed settings out of the panniers was a pain.  The constant road vibration also didn’t do the focus any favors.  The grainy, vintage look of the pics was because they were scanned from film.

We flew into the Salt Lake City Airport and assembled our touring bikes in the baggage claim of the airport.  Prior to 9-11-2001, airport security was lax.  We built up our bikes in the baggage claim with gear strewn about,  loaded them up, and abandoned the bike boxes in the airport next to a garbage can; something probably not possible today.  In those days, bikes could also fly free with a USCF racing license.

Miles of dirt roads and big skylines stretching to the horizon

Inside jokes in a relationship build through common experiences.  One that has continued for H and I nearly 13 years later is “REI miles.”  We asked directions at the airport to the local REI for maps and camp fuel and were told it was “about a mile.”  Awesome!  Nearly two hours later, we arrived at REI. (According to Google maps, it’s 15.5 miles away by freeway from the airport, much longer on unfamiliar surface streets).  An “REI mile” in our relationship means that it’s really far away.

One of our many free camp spots hidden just of the road.

On our first night we camped off the road next to a little creek.  The best camping on our trip came by just finding a nice place along the way (we always pack everything out and leave no trace except flattened grass where the tent sat).  On the second day when we climbed up to 8000′ only to find our way blocked by snow.  A bit of rerouting, and we were on our way again.

8000′ Woo Hoo!

8000′ elevation seemed awesome. Till we found this a mile or two later.

Abandoned grain silos and dirt roads

We rode toward Bryce along back roads stopping here and there in little towns for directions.  Some of the “towns” were little more than a dot on the map with perhaps a general store and a few houses.  This is Mormon country, and we were clearly outsiders with our bikes and funny clothing far from the beaten path.  In more than one little “town,” women hurried their children out of sight and “the man” came out to talk to us.

One of my favorite free campsites of the trip. The rain started soon after this pic was taken

A day’s ride from Bryce Canyon, we found a beautiful little campsite well off the road surrounded by willows at the confluence of two streams.  As we were having breakfast, clouds began to roll in.  The temperature dropped and the wind picked up.  The first drops began to fall as we were hurriedly packing up.  It was about 60 miles to Bryce Canyon, mostly on dirt roads into a stiff headwind.  Funny how relationships build vivid memories. H, in an effort to stay warm was absolutely hammering on the bike.  I was struggling to stay on her wheel on a dirt road, with muddy, gritty spray blasting off her back wheel into my face.  The snow line was only a few hundred feet above us, and the nearby hills were turning white.  I did my best to take my turn at the front, but H was the hero and did the lion’s share of pulling that day.  We arrived with teeth chattering and drenched through our rain gear at Ruby’s Inn outside the park, where we warmed up with hot cocoa and packaged danishes.

I was lucky enough to have decent rain gear and gore-tex socks.  H had a cheap clear plastic cycling cape, blue plastic rain pants, and her feet were stuffed into plastic produce bags.  I offered her mine, but she refused.  More than a decade later, she still tells me of being insanely jealous of my rain gear.

It was nearly dark and near freezing when we set up camp in Bryce Canyon.  We went to bed grumpy and cold, not knowing why Bryce Canyon was such a big deal.  In the morning, we found that our hiker/biker camp site was perched on the rim of the Canyon.  In the morning, as the sun was rising- Wow!  The pictures, grainy and scanned as they are, will tell the story better than I can.

What we woke up to!

H checking out the hoodoos

Photo op on the Rim of Bryce Canyon

From Bryce Canyon we pedaled East to Escalante, UT.  Southern Utah has such an incredible color pallet.  Those who remember watching Road Runner cartoons have seen the crazy rock formations.  Riding through Southern Utah was just like a Road Runner cartoon.  Cliffs and rocks seemed to defy gravity among a sea of color.

Pedaling through the painted desert to Escalante, Utah

Our campsite in Escalante, Utah- in a rare dry moment.

The road to Escalante was stunning.  Every mile could have been in a travel guide.  The next morning, we were stuck in our tent  in the campground in Escalante, UT that morning as frequent cold, dumping thunderstorms rolled through.  It’s funny how people remember things differently.  I’m a detail guy:  I remember miles, details, roads, directions, etc.  H has an incredible memory for songs, and voices, and easily associates memories with things that happened along the way.  She reminded me about the Escalante campground.  In a nearby camp site, a guy was playing his guitar all day as thunderstorms rolled through.  He played only one song, for 6-7 hours:  The Beatles, “Here comes the Sun.

Here comes the sun, here comes the sun,
And I say it’s all right

Scaring sheep in the middle of nowhere

Little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it’s been here
Here comes the sun, here comes the sun
And I say it’s all right

Little darling, the smiles returning to their faces
Little darling, it seems like years since it’s been here
Here comes the sun, here comes the sun
And I say it’s all right

Sun, sun, sun, here it comes…
Sun, sun, sun, here it comes…

I made the decision that we needed to get going in the afternoon.  As soon as we got the tent packed up, a cold drenching thunderstorm rolled through.  H was furious with me as we took refuge in the visitor’s center, only to be told by the Ranger, “looks like the heaviest rain is coming.”  This early in our relationship, I was just beginning to learn of her hatred of being cold.  She told the ranger, “You can blame, Mr. Smarty Pants here, he thought it was a good idea to leave now!”  Boy was she mad.  Later we took refuge at a gas station/convenience store with a cook-your-own-burger conveyor belt Rube Goldberg machine (laden with grease), and a cashier with the biggest glam rock hair ever (think motley crue on steroids) and freakishly long fingernails who watched us with disdain she filed her nails.

H in her piecemeal rain gear. The thunderstorm just missed us but was dumping just up the road

When we asked about the road to Boulder, UT, we were told by several people in Escalante that we couldn’t make it on bicycles.  The roads were too steep and too narrow to be ridden on bikes.  Not the first or last time we’ve been told that what we were doing was impossible or crazy.  The fear of getting drenched and cold was our biggest fear (it took several hours to warm up from our trip into Bryce).  We set out for Boulder along a beautiful, winding highway.  At one point, we were climbing up a steep grade being chased by thunderstorms.  When it looked like we were going to be drenched yet again, we stopped and hurriedly put on our rain gear.  The thunder storm missed us by about 100 yards, and we were only hit by a few stray raindrops; just up the road, we could see the rain coming down in heavy sheets with lightning strikes and the cracking of close thunder.

We rolled into Boulder, UT without incident and without getting wet.  In Escalante, we made the decision to ride dirt roads through Capital Reef National Park on the Burr Trail (naturally, we chose the obscure way to travel through Capital Reef).  Thunderstorms and heavy rain cells were still moving through the area.  Afraid that the rain would make the dirt roads impassable on our skinny-tired touring bikes, we stayed in a motel for two nights waiting for it to pass.

Road to the Burr Trail, Capital Reef National Park

It was worth the wait.  Capital Reef was an incredible ride.  Massive geologic formations rise out of the ground like castles and buttresses.   Trying to explain the scale of the rocks is difficult.  It was an incredible, but hard day of riding.  We were each carrying at least 2 gallons of water on the already laden touring bikes.  The riding was incredible and technically challenging.  We definitely put our mountain bike skills to work keeping the loaded bikes upright on loose dirt roads.  We made our way to the Lake Powell ferry and were passed by a vintage car group.  Model Ts chugged past us as we chugged over steep climbs.  When we took the ferry, the ferry dude must have been impressed that we rode there on touring bikes.   He held all the cars and let us board first and exit first.

About to head into the rock formations of Capital Reef

That’s our road snaking through the desert floor

H seems like a speck among the rocks

Great descent on the bike (albeit pretty aggro on loaded touring bikes)

Somehow H caught this pic of me descending on a loose dirt road- while she was riding too!

Steep climbs through Capital Reef. Not long after I took this pic, a vintage car group chugged past us- the only cars we’d seen in hours.

First to board the Lake Powell ferry

From Lake Powell to Durango was a bit of a blur.  We rode through Cortez, Colorado then crossed into Colorado on a tiny, two lane road.  The only indication that we had crossed into Colorado was that the roadside mile markers changed.  We were traveling on such rural roads that we found ruins native American cave dwellings and petroglyphs just off the roadway; a testament to history without fanfare or national parks.  Very cool.

Fortresses of rock in the desert

H feeds a friendly horse an apple along a rural dirt road

Part 2 has been posted- Bike Tour- Salt Lake City to Albuquerque Part 2

Thank you everyone for the “likes” and kind comments.  We are very humbled to be selected for Freshly Pressed.  We have several months of writing projects for the blog.   More stories coming…

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62 Responses »

  1. What a story and a start to a long relationship. You set a solid foundation for years to come and memories that will last a lifetime. I’m jealous of you guys. The guts and tenacity it took are inspiring. I’d love to tackle such a ride some day. I just need to quit saying some day. Can’t wait for Part #2.

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    • Thanks! Writing about the trip really refreshed my memory about it. I have an hour or two of scanning old pics. I realized that if I didn’t convert them to digital pics, I’d rarely look at them and my memories would fade. It’s been a good experience. I’ll get part two out ASAP.

      Traveling by bike was easier when we were younger and had less responsibilities and job commitments. These days, we do shorter adventures- but revel in them just as much. You’ve been making some great posts as well.

      Like

  2. Awesome! This is a nice journey, beautiful! 🙂 It’s amazing how you guy could ride a bike for a long trip…

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  3. Beautiful!

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  4. What an amazing bike ride!

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  5. Wow! What a trip! We did this…but in a rental car in winter…got to see Zion too. Love the hoodoos! Your old scanned photos are great! We love to travel too. Check out our visit to Japan at: http://millayt.wordpress.com/2012/04/24/hiroshima-nagasaki/

    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

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  6. Excellent story along with some beautiful photos. I seldom read blog entries from start to finish but yours kept me interested the whole way.

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  7. wooww!!! amazing pictures.. looks like a blast.. 😀

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  8. Reblogged this on 8BIT.

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  9. Great stuff! Yes, bike touring makes one appreciate the small things, warm bed/sleeping bag, being dry (not not sweating at 100 degrees F!), etc. We’ve been in the Santa Fe and Alburqueque area.

    Looking at your photos taken in 1999 makes me realize I had better do something about some of my photos going that far back..! At least you have these pics, to tell and remember a wonderful trip?

    Are you still doing some bike touring?

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    • Hey Jean-

      Thanks! Yes, please post your adventures!

      We’ve done several other bike tours (large and small) since that trip. And still log several thousand miles on bikes each year. Like most people, our available time has changed as we’ve gotten adult jobs. We still have epic adventures though (the whole blog is about adventures large and small). We also have Daisy Adventure Dog who is part of our family, so we plan different adventures that are dog compatible.

      Like

  10. Amazing.
    This is really a good work. I appreciate your efforts behind that. Have a great day!
    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

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  11. Lovely post. In 2009 I biked for 6 days from Toronto to Montreal and can relate to the physical challenges and the bonds that are formed with fellow cyclists.

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    • Bike touring has those physical and mental challenges. Not all of it is always fun in the moment. Sometimes the road and views unfold so spectacularly that the sheer beauty, and endorphin high overwhelm the physical challenges. Other times (such as fighting a headwind for hours or riding along a busy freeway with traffic blasting by at 70mph) are not so much fun.

      When recollecting those adventures later, the not-so-fun parts always seem insignificant in the end.

      We have a few other long (obscure) bike tours to write about. I’ll get those posted sometime, but have about a year of writing projects ahead for the blog.

      Like

  12. Amazing pictures! Uplifted the mood.

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  13. Beautiful. Splice it into a commercial and send it to the UK Tourist Board. The biking? Short routes biking would be fun. Maybe you know the best spots to host biking vacations in spectacular scenery. Thanks for sharing.

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  14. That looks awesome. I love riding on a bike. Thanks for the post. I’m glad you were freshly pressed.

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  15. Wonderful. Great story and love the photos.

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  16. Incredible! I’d love to see that part of the USA. I need some amazing journey photos for my blog, but I haven’t done anything like that.

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  17. Even with the vintage camera, those shots are amazing! Love a good touring story. Can’t wait to read the rest!
    I have been reliving my Trans Canada cycle tour – makes me long for another adventure. Glad to hear you guys are still out there living it up on the bikes!

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  18. Nice adventure.

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  19. This makes me so happy. There’s something untamed, ancient and wild about great expanses of orange layered rock… lovely you shared.

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  20. Congrats on Fresh Press, and soul-stroking photos. When we stop taking these adventures, we get old. Ride on.

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    • Thanks! You are so right. Adventures keep us young. You get old because you decide you are old. I have friends still riding and doing epic adventures well into their 70s. My neighbor (a minister), finally stopped skiing in her 70s.

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  21. Great! What was your average speed?

    Also, do you attend Critical Mass? Although I suppose you won’t like Critical Mass (if there’s one in your city) because you’re a heavy rider. 😛

    You can read about ours here: http://aisjournal.com/2012/04/27/coming-back-from-critical-mass-8-in-dhaka-what-it-was-what-was-there/

    Like

    • I’m hoping to dig up my old journal with our daily mileage and average speeds. We are both avid road riders and paceline and draft on almost every paved road. Riding with front panniers limits your top end speed to 30-32mph on the downhills, unless you have a tailwind. They really stick out and create a lot of drag.

      Interesting question about Critical Mass. I rode in a bunch of them in the early days in San Francisco (last Friday of every month). It was really fun in the “early” days. Sometime around 1996 the attitude changed when then mayor Willie Brown publicly taunted Critical Mass. The next week, 10,000 riders showed up and shut down the city. (That’s what happens when you dare the troublemakers and anarchists to show up). From that day forward Critical Mass was more antagonistic than fun. It’s mellowed out in recent years, but I haven’t ridden any in years.

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  22. Tienen un a gran enrgia para yegar a todos estos mundos sigan asi.

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  23. Love this post. Utah is my playground, and the Boulder/Escalante area is stunning. Heading that way at the end of this week! I love remembering how tech-free our lives were just a decade or so ago. Thanks for writing! Check me out at theusualbliss.com if you have time. There are some shots of the Boulder area in my post called “Travel Bug”.

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  24. That must have been an amazing trip! 🙂 Great pics; how long did this take you?

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    • Thanks! The trip took three weeks. I think that’s about 400 miles/week average or about 57 miles per day on paper. We had a few “rest” days- a day and a half waiting for the rain to end in Boulder, UT, 3 days in Durango, CO, and two days in Santa Fe. There were a few short days, and a few 100+ mile days as well.

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  25. deli mi sikmiş sizi amk.ordan oraya mal gibi gidiyosnz.

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  26. I am a lucky-duck. I grew up in Utah. I have made the drive from northern to southern Utah several times… in a car. I am impressed that you did it on bikes! How inspiring. I can’t wait to find out how the rest of the trip went. Great pics, too.

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    • Thanks so much. Utah (indeed much of the American West) is absolutely jaw dropping. Even the flat straight featureless drive across the salt flats is cool.

      We did another road trip Through Utah and Colorado in 2010- A subject for another blog post or two. We spent a few days mountain biking in Park City- which has hands-down the most incredible network of mountain bike singletrack I’ve ever seen.

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      • Ahhh, PC is my hometown! I grew up there and went to dear old PCHS. LOVE it there! I can’t wait to see the pics!

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  27. a wonderful trip to remember 🙂

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  28. what an incredible read! thank you for sharing such beautiful photos & detail from your bike trip!

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  29. how fantastic 🙂 i would love to do this one day 🙂

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  30. WOW what an incredible trip with breathtaking scenery. Looking forward to the next installment.

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  31. Wonderful landscapes and adventure! . . . Great to know that you and H are still going strong!

    http://arabianmusings.wordpress.com/

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  32. Good post and awesome photography. 🙂

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  33. I love Utah and travel there at least a few times a year from Denver. Great story and photos!

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  34. My son Sebastian is about to embark on a 4 week- 4 state trip from Utah AND ALONE!…. not sure if this is the smartest, but he has always been head-strong and if I’m correct, will do it in spite of what ever the “walls” that come in his path. Could you offer some thoughts/ guidance?

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    • Hey Scott-

      I’d be happy to offer whatever thoughts and guidance I can. I’ve done solo bike touring in my 20s as well.

      I’d just say that attitude is the biggest limitation in ability to do, well anything. Quick story for you. H and I were riding around Lake Tahoe last October and ran across a young guy on a bike tour. We rode with him for a bit and talked to him, then invited him to stay at our house since it was expected to hit the low 20s that night.

      Anyway, he had just graduated from college in Alaska in May, was a boy scout, and saved money through college by working and living at home. He was not a serious cyclist in the slightest. After graduation he set out on his bike with a friend and did the Alaskan highway, inland through Banff, through Montana, back Oregon coast (where his friend stopped), down the California coast, then to Reno to visit relatives. When we ran into him, he was headed back to the California coast to ride to San Diego, then to St. Louis to visit relatives. Really nice kid, probably 21 or 22 years old, traveling perhaps 10,000 miles by bike, just because he wanted to see the U.S. before he had to get a job in earnest. Great adventure.

      I have lots more information for you, from nuts and bolts of bike touring to reassuring you. (I’ve logged over 100K miles on the bike as an adult, and have thousands of miles of bike touring, including solo. H and I also are both professional firefighters in real life). Send me your questions/concerns, and I’ll do my best to answer them (probably offline instead of on the blog).

      Like

  35. Fabulous ride, thanks for taking me along. I’ve ridden a lot of places, but never along your route (although I’ve driven a lot of it so I know the country). Other than the Pacific coast route your trip looks like about the best in North America.

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    • Thanks for the kind words. Writing about the after 12 years brought back lots of memories. The desert landscape is so different than our usual stomping ground.

      I have two more bike touring trips to write about. Riding the Pacific Coast, and an 800 mile trip in eastern Washington, British Columbia, and Glacier National Park. Perhaps when days are short during the winter…

      Like

  36. Congrats on being FPed for the second time!! Loved this first FPed post as well 🙂

    Like

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