Zion Loop Tour Report

by Rich Lesnik



"This is the most beautiful place on earth."


On Sunday, August 31, Marilyn Chin, Don Gray and I departed Oakland for the drive to Zion National Park, where, three days later, we would begin what turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable (how could it be otherwise?), memorable hiking-biking trip throughout the Southwestern corner of Utah. First, a word about the area.

Southwestern Utah is situated near the western edge of the Colorado Plateau, which is a land mass raised through a combination of tectonic plate action and geothermal pressure, to an altitude of from 4000' (Zion Canyon floor) to upwards of 11,000' (Brian Head). The area is awash with bright colored rocks and cliffs, with Navajo Sandstone lending the famous red which gives "Red Canyon" its name, and which dominates the entire region. Plant and wildlife is as varied and seemingly incongruous as anywhere I've been (including New Zealand!), and overwhelming. The various canyons have been produced by wind, rain and river erosion (the Colorado and the Virgin).

This area has been inhabited by humans for nearly 24,000 years. The earliest "verifiable" residents were the basketmakers, dating back some 2500 years. Followed by the Anasazi, then the Utes and Piutes, then the Mormons, then the rest of us. Interesting history, and be sure to check with "Ranger Roger" at Zion when you visit -- he's a remarkable store of information and humor (wry variety). You can also learn a lot about the more recent history in Dennis Coello's "Bicycle Touring Utah" which is out of print, but I have a copy I can photocopy sections of for you. Especially if you're planning a trip.

But I digress. We arrived in Zion on Monday at 11AM, after a wonderful evening in Mesquite, NV (I lost my ritual $10 at the quarter slots) in a motel which rivalled BART bathrooms for deodorant smell.

How to describe Zion? Well, it truly IS "the most beautiful place on earth". Everywhere you turn, it's different, beautiful, mysterious and totally accessible. Go there for a weekend (from Las Vegas, it's a short 2-1/2 hrs by car) sometime. You'll return over and over. Anyway, we set up camp, and proceeded to explore the Zion Canyon on our bikes, and took a short walk to the Temple of Sinawava, Gateway to the Narrows. Lots of tourists, and grey skies. But we didn't get rained on -- yet.

The next day (Tuesday) we went to Angel's Landing -- my favorite hike in Zion. At slightly over 2 mi each way, it climbs over 2000' to a parapet overlooking the entire canyon and valley, with spectacular views and some pretty dicey climbing near the end. After that, it was late lunch, back to camp and prepare for next day's departure on our bikes for the Zion Loop. Had dinner in town at a local pasta place.

We had originally planned to park the van we'd driven to Zion for 7 days, and make a totally self-contained tour of the Zion Loop. Didn't work out that way. Don had outfitted his recumbent with a B.O.B. trailer, and a combination of load and leverage made it essentially impossible for him to navigate with the trailer. So he decided to drive the van most of the way, ride when he could, and Marilyn and I would continue as planned, with the van being a "sort of" sag. I say "sort of" because, as you may know, I'm a bit of a "touring nerd" when it comes to sag support (I even have one of Bruce Gordon's famous pocket protector pen holders which says "Bruce Gordon Cycles, where the Touring Nerd is King!") so I insisted on carrying all of my gear all the way. Marilyn and Don were a team for the vacation, so for parts of the trip I was riding by myself, but most of the time we were either in touch through the van, or riding together. We all had a great time, both apart and together.

Anyway, on to the RIDE REPORT, which is what you've all been waiting for.


We left Zion at about 9AM, with beautiful weather, and headed West and slightly South on route 9 through Springdale, Rockville, Virgin, La Verkin, and Hurricane, where we had a sort of lunch stop. It had rained slightly somewhere outside of Hurricane, but stopped. Then we continued to a turnoff just before I-15, and headed south to the little town of Washington. After circumnavigating the town, we headed on into St. George, where we rendezvoused with Don at the local Schwinn shop. After a brief stop, we continued out of St. George, and followed Dennis Coello's suggestion to take the "long way" around, through Santa Clara and Ivins, on into Snow Canyon State Park. After a brief stop at a fruit stand in Santa Clara, and back on the road toward Ivins, the heavens opened up, a little at first, then full-on. I stopped to put on my full rain gear under a church awning, and saw Don (in the van) and then Marilyn (on bike) go past, on the way to the park, which was about 4 miles up the road. Continuing into howling winds and driving rain, and after a couple of wrong turns (Utah's road signing leaves MUCH to be desired), I entered the gateway to Snow Canyon State Park, just as the rain tapered off, then stopped. It's hard to describe this place right after a rain. The air is pure, crisp, and clear. The colors are all extreme, and stark. And the rocks are just incredible to see. We'll show pictures at a club meeting soon. But to really appreciate it, you'll just have to go there.

A word about the weather. Though it rained a lot on this trip, because of the altitude and temperature (4,000 - 10,000+, 75 to 95 F) we often dried off as we rode. Even soaked shoes and other gear dried off quickly. Not like rain riding in the Bay Area, where "soaked to the bone" really means "soaked to the bone." The storms WERE exciting, though.

Anyway, as I arrived, they'd been there about 15 minutes, and we got a nice campsite under some trees. Cooked and ate dinner, after setting up camp, and climbed into our tents just in time for the rain to start again. It rained on and off most of the night, then obliged us by stopping early in the morning, so we could pack up without rain, though much of our stuff got wet. Total mileage for day 1 was 60+ (my computer quit in the rain, at mile 56), with 3000+ feet of climbing, spent about 7 hours on the road, my guess is about 5 hours on the bike.


After drying most of our stuff out in the sun in the campsite parking lot, we hit the road. This was to be the longest mileage of any day of the trip. Because of conflicting mileages on different maps, my estimates ranged from 65 to 78 miles. It turned out to be 83 miles. The first 30+ miles were mainly uphill, first out of Snow Canyon on Utah Highway 8 to Utah Highway 18, then north to Enterprise (a "town" which consists largely of an as-yet-to-be-built motel, a truck stop, and a former grocery which is just an empty shell now). We lunched there, and Marilyn took over the van, allowing Don to ride the rest of the way into Cedar City. Out of Enterprise, Don and I were pacing each other. Must have been a tailwind, since we were averaging over 20 m.p.h. Mostly flat. We connected with Utah Highway 56 in Beryl Junction, and headed East toward Newcastle. A local farmer told us there weren't any "real" hills ahead, just some mild rises, then a nice long downhill into Cedar City. Three nasty climbs later, we finally hit the downhill, and arrived in Cedar City as the sun was setting behind us. Stayed the night at the KOA, with dinner at a local "Mexican" restaurant, and tried to psych ourselves up for the next day's climb from Cedar City (elevation 5800') to Cedar Breaks National Monument (elevation 10,300').


After a hearty breakfast with Don at the local Sizzler, I left for the hill. Marilyn had lit out about an hour earlier, so I didn't expect to see her 'til we reached the top. This climb is truly amazing. As you enter the road, it's mostly flat, with a big yellow warning sign: "Steep 8% Grades Ahead -- Semis Not Recommended" and "Semi Turnaround Area to the Right". You get the idea. (There actually used to be a big sign that said "Steep Grades Ahead -- Turn Back Here") Anyway, as you begin to ride the road, you realize that the miles are ticking away and you're not climbing very much (actually maybe 1000' in the first 8 miles -- pretty mild. Not to worry. From milepost 8 'til milepost 19, the road climbs, with a couple of short downhills, with long straight steep grades (not quite as steep as Diablo's summit), and lots of long switchbacks. Goes on forever. If you're into meditation, there are lots of opportunities here to practice. And it's full of "Zen moments" where you realize you're just where you are, and everything before is only a memory, and what's ahead is, really, just a fantasy. At least you WISH it were just a fantasy. It becomes all too real as you continue to climb. Seriously, though, there's something amazingly calming and satisfying about dragging a fully loaded touring bike up such a hill. I even managed to sprint to the top, following Mike Cox's coaching instructions. And Marilyn has the photo to prove it! Arrived at Cedar Breaks National Monument at 2:30, and proceeded to gawk (as everyone does) at the view from Point Supreme (elevation 10,350'), then get a campsite, and proceed to the Alpine Lake trail for the short walk before dinner. Back at camp, we cooked pasta (again), ate, and got ready for bed. Shortly after dark, it started to rain, and rained most of the night again. So here we were packing up wet stuff in the morning -- AGAIN. This was beginning to get old, and we were only on day 4 (day 3 had been, unbelievably, completely dry). Total mileage was 23.5. Elevation gain was 4770'. Time in the saddle was 4:20.

Day 4

Ah, the payoff. But first, I had to climb 4 miles, about 800' from Cedar Breaks to the junction with Utah Route 143, the turnoff to Panguitch. The downhill from Cedar Breaks to Panguitch Lake, then on to Panguitch, is 30 miles, with no really steep grades, but lots of opportunities to whoop and holler as you go down. As you can imagine, a loaded bike tends to pick up speed, but with headwinds and non-aero conditions (meaning lots of drag from my panniers), my speed stayed around 40. It lasted there for a long time! There were short stretches of mild uphill grades, and some "flats" on the way down, with a howling final 2 miles into Panguitch. I made it in under two hours, found a local RV park/laundromat, where we were to rendezvous. Meanwhile, I spread my wet gear out on one of the RV Park picnic tables, and got my clothes ready to wash. About a half-hour after Don and Marilyn showed up (they'd gone for an aborted hike in Cedar Break's famous mud, then driven down to Panguitch together -- so Marilyn is owed one screaming downhill!), we started the clothes, then watched the sky begin to darken, and clouds begin to roll in from the West. The proprietor told us it had rained cats and dogs for the last several nights (we knew that!), and clouds like what she was seeing meant more of the same. The thing that scared her, though, was the thunder and lightening. Not to worry. We wouldn't have to rely on her descriptions for the experience.

Marilyn was first out, loading her bags on the trusty Pocket Rocket Friday, and heading out US89 toward the junction with Utah Route. 12, and Red Canyon. It was raining lightly, but didn't feel like it would get much worse, so I took my time, folding clothes, repacking everything I'd just dried in the sun, and getting ready to ride the final 12 miles of the day in light rain. As soon as I got on the road, but before I even got a chance to cross to the "right" side, the rain picked up, so I figured I'd stop under the "Stardust Motel" overhang, and put on my rain pants and booties (the nylon Campmor variety, which I heartily recommend. The best $14.95 you'll ever spend on bike stuff -- they really do work.) No sooner had I located the gear, than I heard what sounded like an explosion. As I looked up, what had previously been a very wet road and sidewalk, instantly turned white, and was transformed into a 3-4 inch thick layer of half-inch sized white hailstones. Seriously, I have never seen anything like it. This layer was deposited in one giant SLAM, then the hail continued to fall. Since it was about 75-80 degrees out, it tended to melt pretty quickly, though the altitude (about 7000' in Panguitch) slowed that down.

Don had already headed out, and my fleeting thoughts during a moment of weakness, of getting a motel for the night disappeared with his van. So I waited for a break in the rain, which came after about 25 minutes, and continued on toward Red Canyon. It was like riding on a mountain road right after a snowfall, except the "snow" was real hard, large pebbles, and the cars and trucks (and RV monsters) were totally unprepared for it. Nobody knew where to go, and while the hail was still piled up, there were lots of "creative" attempts to find the double-yellow, then the shoulder. Luckily, I was able to hold the lane through most of it. Then, about 4 miles out of town, around a bend, all of a sudden, no hail, no rain, a couple of clouds, and sunshine! Go figure. When I finally reached Marilyn, she was surprised to hear there had been hail. She'd evidently beaten the cloudburst. Anyway, that night we stayed in a "Tipi" at the Red Canyon Indian RV Park, just East of the junction between 12 and 89. We drove to Bryce that afternoon, had dinner at the Lodge, and went to Inspiration Point to watch the sunset. Hopefully we'll have some nice photos to share, soon. Total mileage was 47, with 1300' uphill. No real hills.


The next day was a rest day. Marilyn and I rode (unloaded) to Bryce (I moved my gear up the road to the Red Canyon Forest Service campground for a change of pace. I don't much like RV parks, and try to avoid them if I can.) Then we descended into Bryce Canyon for a communal experience with the Hoodoos. We did the Queen's Garden/Navajo Loop hike, and ended up dovetailing with a ranger-led walk along about 1/2 mile of the canyon rim, during which we heard a fascinating talk about the geology of the Colorado Plateau and Bryce, spanning 100 million years. Bid farewell to Bryce about 6, and I rode back to the Red Canyon campground for dinner and bed. Riding was 27 miles unloaded, with about 1400' climbing. Hadn't rained except for a few drops that day. All was right with the world. Not.

That night it began to rain again.


As I awoke, I thought I heard the rain stop, so I hurried to eat a little something (we were going to meet down the road in Hatch for breakfast later) and get ready to go. Then it started to rain again. Packing up, breaking camp in the rain is really the pits. I mean REALLY the PITS. I finally decided to just cram everything into my panniers, roll up the tent, and hit the road. I would worry about drying things out later. I was late for our planned rendezvous at the 12/89 junction, so headed on down the road toward Hatch. It had stopped raining, and the sun was out, so when I got to Hatch, I simply unloaded everything, spread it out on the wooden sidewalk in front of the Mexican restaurant we were having breakfast at, and on Don's van, and had breakfast. Then it was on to Long Valley Junction (which is just a gas station), Glendale (a dying town), Orderville, Mt. Carmel (pronounced CAR.ml, not car.MEL), and on into Mt. Carmel Junction. We'd planned on riding to Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, but as we reached Mt. Carmel Junction, the skies opened up again, and an epiphany in the form of tons of water convinced us that it would be best to stop there. We even motel-ed it that night. If you're ever there, by the way, don't stay at the Thunderbird Inn (currently a Best Western). The place across the street is half the price, very clean and comfortable, and has a great restaurant.

After the rain subsided, we drove to Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park (where it NEVER rains), and spent a couple of hours poking around, learning about the weather and other conditions that form sand dunes, checking out the vegetation, and watching a couple of fools on those 4-wheel Honda motorcycles with balloon knobbies run up and down the dunes. Then, as it started to rain and thunder and lightening, we headed back to Mt. Carmel Junction for dinner and a good night's rest. Total miles for the day was 48+, 1240' climbing. About 3 hours+ in the saddle.


It was a beautiful day, and after another great breakfast of pancakes and eggs, we headed up Utah Route. 9 for the final climb to Zion National Park's East Entrance, and what promised to be a breathtaking, exhilarating downhill ride to the floor of the canyon. The climb was pretty long (about 9 miles), but not terribly difficult (about 1300'), and we rendezvoused at the entrance to the mile-long tunnel (which no longer permits bicycles to ride through -- you've got to have a ride, or hitch one with someone going through, though the ranger usually arranges the ride for you). We took the "Canyon Overlook" trail for a half-mile walk to an overlook which gave us a spectacular view from the Southeast fork of the park, spent some time picking up other people's trash (lots of that on this trip, unfortunately), then returned for the ride through the tunnel in the van, and on down the winding descent into Zion Canyon, and back to the campground. The East Entrance and the downhill to the canyon floor are dangerous, mainly because you're constantly craning your neck to gawk at the incredible scenery of this beautiful place. A truly exhilarating conclusion to 7 glorious days of riding, rain, camping, eating, rain, hiking, rain and experiencing the most beautiful natural surroundings I've ever been in. Total mileage was 24, with 1270' climbing.


We spent Wednesday hiking the Hidden Canyon trail, and the emerald pools trail in Zion, and had a wonderful dinner at Flannigan's restaurant in Springdale (highly recommended), then returned to camp. Tuesday night we'd gone to Ranger Roger's presentation on early human inhabitants of the Zion canyon, and tonight we went to a program on night critters in Zion. Both nights had spectacular sunsets. It's impossible to do justice to the colors of the rock, and the shadows cast by the cliffs on the opposing walls. The Watchman (a famous rock in Zion) seemed to be glowing from within! Enough words. You have to go there yourself to really get it, anyway.

The next day, we reluctantly broke camp for the last time, and drove (straight through this time, about 13.5 hours) the 700+ miles to Oakland and home. All in all, a wonderful trip, good company and developing friendships. I highly recommend it.

Trip Statistics

Here are the final stats:

Bye everyone.


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Last modified 1997-09-24 22:30