A Bicycle Tour to the Parks of Southwestern Utah

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By Lou Melini with Chris Blinzinger — Sometime in mid-August 2020, I received an email from Chris Blinzinger; “Lou, Starting on September 11th, I am doing a bike tour starting from Nephi and ending in St. George via Capitol Reef National Park. Would you like to join me?”

I knew of Chris through several of his write-ups of tours he had ridden with John Monroe. I had never met him, but I enthusiastically agreed to join him after checking for any potential conflicts with Julie, my wife and #1 bike-touring buddy. Neither Chris nor I like to bike tour alone, at least not for more than a few days. Chris was grateful for the company, and I was grateful for the opportunity to do a bike tour with him.

After meeting Chris over coffee and exchanging a bunch of emails, we started our trip from Nephi, Utah, on the chilly and windy morning of September 11th, 2020. From the very start, we got along well.

Lou Melini riding friendly roads in the early morning. Photo by Chris Blinzinger

The start of the tour

Chris planned a great ride. The planned tour had us riding no more than sixty miles/day, save for one day. Because of uncertainties surrounding coronavirus and crowding, we made reservations for a couple of campgrounds and our bus ride home from St. George. However, our first night of camping was still uncertain. Salina, Utah, fit well in our plans for our first night lodging. Unfortunately, Butch Cassidy campground closed their restrooms allowing only vehicles with a toilet (i.e., RVs) to camp there. Knowing this, Chris made potential arrangements with the town of Sigurd, twelve miles away, to stay in the city park. The restrooms there were closed, and the added twelve miles would have made for a 70-mile first day.

Guess we'll sleep here. Photo by Chris Blinzinger

Shortly before our arrival in Salina, Chris said: I have an idea. Perhaps we should go to City Hall to seek permission to stay in the city park. Excellent idea Chris, I replied. We confidently went to the City Hall office only to find out that the Salina City Hall is closed on Fridays. We then tried the police station to get permission to camp in the city park. After explaining about Butch Cassidy campground and City Hall, the officer on duty hesitated for a moment to grant us permission. In my most polite way of asking, I suggested he was the person to make the executive decision. I also played the age card by stating I was “almost 70 and tired from today’s ride”. Within minutes we were off to the grocery store before settling in at the city park. To see if we were OK, the officer we spoke with came to check on us, as did the night patrol officer. Other than a lack of showers and some brief late-night use of the park by the town teenagers, the city park was a great first night lodging.

From Salina our destination was Loa where we had reservations at a new campground that had not yet completed the tenting area, so Chris had to reserve an RV site for the night. Similar to day one, most of the second day of riding was on roads I had not traveled upon with my bike. The morning was cold, cold enough that Chris needed to stop at the IFA country store as we left Salina to buy long fingered gloves. I almost joined him, as my hands were chilly in my long-fingered gloves. By the time we reached Sigurd the temperature was warming. On the negative side, we turned onto route 24 where the road grade increased by several degrees through a scenic forested canyon. With the addition of a slight head wind, Chris remarked that it felt as if we were riding through glue, an apt description of the morning ride. We continued on route 24 past the turnoff for route 62 where the road severely increased in grade. I had ridden this section with Julie in 2007, not remembering the steep grade. Once past the turnoff to Fish Lake we were able to speed downhill to Loa, pick up groceries and settle into the campground. As we sped down the hill, we encountered a Sports Car Road Rally of 20-30 expensive cars going the opposite direction. The campground is new, with clean restrooms and great showers, but no tent sites. We set up our tents on the softest spot we could find. Fortunately, the picnic table was light, as we moved it several times to obtain shade from our neighboring RV.

Surprise, Surprise!

It was during dinner that we both realized we forgot a day as we looked over the plans for the next couple of days. Yes, we both had overlooked a day in our trip itinerary. After a few laughs and with several reservations in place, we decided to rethink our trip before changing our reservations.

Upon leaving Loa, I could not find my American flag that adorned the back of my bike. Gone, nowhere to be found in the campground. With a shrug of my shoulders, we moved on to Torrey and a planned second breakfast. The temperature was again cold. Ice formed on the fences from early morning irrigation.

By the time we finished breakfast in Torrey the temperature had warmed enough to allow us to strip down to our short sleeves.

Lou at the campsite, a welcome sight after Boulder Mountain. Photo by Chris Blinzinger

Tough day with a great ending

After Torrey we faced the major climb of the trip, a ride over Boulder Mountain. I last rode over Boulder Mountain in 2007. The climb this time again seemed longer and steeper than I remembered. Twice we thought we reached the 9,606-foot summit with speeds as low as 3-4 mph on the frequent 8% grades. We twice made short descents from these false summits only to climb again. Perhaps the next ride over Boulder mountain I will plan to camp at one of the several forest service campgrounds. We met the Road Rally once again when we stopped at a viewpoint. Expensive, fancy cars they were. We chatted briefly with one driver who remarked how he likes riding his bike. Nice guy.

By 4 PM we cruised into the town of Boulder. Being Sunday, the small grocery was closed but there was a food truck parked at the Anasazi State Park Museum serving huge burritos that satisfied our hunger. A woman from the State Park gave us assurance that finding a primitive campsite along the road out of town would be easy, so we loaded up on water and rode on. After a couple of miles, a well-worn path led us to a perfect campsite. Chris and I were smiling big time sitting in our chairs, secluded in a shady cluster of trees.

Upon leaving camp the next morning the temperature was notably warmer. It wasn’t long before we were able to strip down to shorts and short sleeve shirts as we rode route 12. There was little traffic on the road and beautiful views every mile. As we passed Calf Creek recreation area, we were constantly reminded why this road is considered one of the most scenic roads in America.

More trip changes

So far, social distancing on our trip has been easy. In Escalante, we were the only customers during our early lunch at the only open café in town. The grocery had few customers. At this point in the ride Chris and I were reading each other’s mind when it came to food, water, and rest. It was also at this time that we decided to split the planned long day (potentially seventy miles) into 2 days, utilizing our extra day. We were both enjoying the 55-60 mile days.

Also, at lunch we decided that our plan to ride to Kodachrome State Park would be nice, but we both felt that the extra nine miles would be too long of a day. Mostly though, we needed to do laundry. Chris called the KOA in Cannonville and they had room for us.

What we thought would be a relatively easy afternoon ride turned into a slog. A 20-mile stretch of steady uphill into a head wind relegated us to no more than a 7-mph pace over a 20 miles stretch. We readjusted our mindset for a later than planned arrival. We finally reached the expected relatively short but steep climb just before Henrieville. The downhill ride with no wind to contend with was a welcome relief so that we were able to arrive a little after 4 at the KOA.

Lou Melini riding on rural Utah roads with great scenery. Photo by Chris Blinzinger

Another story to be told

Memorable stories seem to abound with every trip I have ridden. This time the joke was on me. The Cannonville KOA was laundry day. I packed all of my dirty clothes into a stuff sack, threw in my book and was off to the laundry. After tossing the laundry into the washer I went to the office for coins. In went the coins to start the wash and off I went to the restroom to pee. Picking up my stuff sack I didn’t see my book, so I started to head back to the tent to see if I left it there. No sooner than three steps I realized that I was going to have either an exceptionally clean book or one that is totally shredded with the pieces imbedded in my clothes. The washer distinctly said; DO NOT OPEN DOOR WHEN WASHER IS OPERATING! No kidding, despite my attempt, the door would not open. I frantically told a KOA worker my dilemma. She was polite but could not stop the washer. It took me an hour with duct tape to pull off the small wads of paper from my clothes. When I returned home a second washing cleaned the rest of the paper out. To add insult to injury, the book was written by a high school teammate who is being billed as the “next Tom Clancy”. I was halfway through the book. Chris was very polite by not rolling on the ground in laughter. I later emailed Andy, the author, who also had a good laugh. I was able to finish the book shortly after Christmas, a gift from Julie.

Day of uncertainty

The Cannonville KOA was nice. We waved goodbye to several motorcyclists camping near us. They provided some conversation though neither party wished to trade transportation vehicles. We picked up supplies at the small grocery in Tropic not knowing what was ahead. Soon we were climbing again to reach Bryce National Park in addition to riding into a construction zone. We rode to the front of the line to receive instruction on how to proceed with our bikes. Instead of following the construction car we were given permission to ride on the construction side of the orange barrels giving us our own private lane.

A second breakfast was not available at the turnoff for Bryce, so Subway became Plan B. After that we took the bike path that parallels UT-12 nearly all the way to US Highway 89, making several stops for picture taking as the scenery through Red Canyon is simply beautiful. The campground in Red Canyon was full, as has been the case for many of the campgrounds in this area. We decided to see what our options were for the night, so we called another campground to get lodging. The woman I spoke with said; “we only have 6 sites, $45 cash only and we are 13 miles from your location south of the US-89 and UT-12 junction”. Off we went.

Route 89 buzzed with traffic. We had a good shoulder where the road had been repaved, but bad shoulder on other sections. We again fought the wind. As we approached fifteen miles, we still had not seen the campground we called, so we called another campground, the Zion/Bryce Campground. We realized that when we Googled “campgrounds near Long Valley Junction” we were actually accessing campgrounds in Glendale, a town thirteen miles further south of Long Valley Junction. Disappointed and tired, we pushed on to the summit at Long Valley Junction. Fortunately, the long fast downhill relieved our tired spirits, and soon we were only a few miles from our destination. Another construction zone stopped us. Again, we rode to the front to get instructions for our passage. We chatted with the flagger and noted a campground just past where we were stopped. A motorcyclist next to us said that was the “Zion/Bryce KOA”. It surprised us, as we thought we had another 4 or 5 miles to go. The flagger put us ahead of the construction shuttle vehicle. About 100 yards we saw the campground sign making a quick right turn into the drive. This was the place. It turned out that this campground used to be a KOA, but with $36,000 for annual franchise fees, it no longer was part of KOA. The “$45 cash only campground” we were told is not a real campground.

On to Zion

Our original plan was to ride from the campground we had thought would be near Long Valley Junction. We would have had to ride to the entrance of Zion, hitch a ride through the tunnel, ride through Zion NP, ride Scenic Drive, and then on to the campground in Springdale for a total of nearly seventy miles. When we added in the uncertainty of obtaining a quick hitch through the tunnel, we thought it would be a long day. Chris and I each had a friend that said hitching was no problem, but they were solo. Two cyclists may make a truck with enough room for one move on.

We left the Bryce/Zion campground early. Within a couple of miles, we were stopped again because of road construction. We rode to front as we did at previous construction sites to find out how we would be handled. We met the same flagger and caught up with road construction news. After chatting a bit, we found out we would follow the lead car past the wet tar section that was being laid down. After that we could drift to the right and have our own lane. The road was downhill, so we made good time exiting the construction zone.

On this day we went as far as the campground just east of the Zion entrance a mere 27-mile ride. This plan insured plenty of time to get through the tunnel and ride scenic drive the following day. We killed time in the air-conditioned recreation/laundry/restroom building catching up on fluids, calories, and sleep. Later we asked around the campground for potential rides through the tunnel vs. sticking out our thumbs. Chris struck out 3 times, but I hit a home run on my first try from a young couple from California. They had a truck, not much gear and were leaving promptly at 6 AM.

Zion National Park

We were at our ride vehicle by 5:45, our bikes and panniers took up every square foot of excess space in the truck. Within a half hour we were at the visitor center in Zion missing the scenic views due to the darkness as a trade-off for the ride. At the visitor center we cooked breakfast at an idle picnic table using our headlamps while watching the parking lot fill up. Shortly after daylight we took off on a bike path that took us to Scenic Drive and Zion in its entire splendor. We shared the road with numerous Park and commercial shuttles as well as rental e-bikes but mostly the road was ours.

After a brief time hanging out near the closed visitor center, we went to the campground to check-in. The restrooms were air-conditioned, and the showers had plenty of hot water but the campsite itself needed some work. We moved our chairs from campsite to campsite following the available shade. I had the maintenance crew rake off the stones that ranged up to 2 inches covering our “tent site”. The ground underneath the stones was hard and difficult to drive a stake. The view of the cliffs from the campground was great so I guess I should be grateful that I rented the last tent site to be had for miles.

The end of the road

As we rode to St. George, we were again unsure of our lodging for the night. We rode a nice shoulder into the town of Hurricane to stop for a second breakfast. I ordered off the “Senior Menu” to take advantage of the “10% discount for seniors over 55”. I didn’t get the discount when my check arrived. I didn’t say anything as I chalked it up as a compliment. Chris announced he received a positive reply from a WarmShowers host in St. George. This time Chris hit a home run while I struck out.

WarmShowers.com is a worldwide website for traveling cyclists. I had once been on the Board of Directors. From that experience I know that there are problems with non-responsive hosts and guests that no-show. We had 2 potential hosts that didn’t give us the courtesy of a reply. The third potential host replied to us, but was not able to host. With the fourth request we had a backyard to camp located about a mile from the bus station. Perfect as we had 9:45 reservations for the bus ride home.

After leaving breakfast we moved onto Washington where we picked up the Virgin River trail for our final miles into St. George. We couldn’t arrive before 3 PM at our hosts’ home so we killed a couple of hours on the cushy sofas of the “Love Sac Lounge” on the Dixie State College campus.

Notes from the ride

Chris and I averaged 57 miles/day for the first 5 days, then 27 miles/day for the final 3. It was a very relaxing and enjoyable ride. With headwinds, a couple of long steady up hills and the Boulder Mountain climb our average pace for days 2-5 were just under 10 mph.

Temperatures ranged from low thirties during the first couple of mornings, but it became hot the rest of the ride once we left Escalante including a reported 102 in Zion NP.

I broke two presta valve stems, one when my bike fell over as I was doing a routine topping off of tire pressure. We did not have any mechanical issues off significance.

Chris had some stomach issues one day on the ride and I had similar problems the night I returned home. Wind and sun blistered my lower lip on the ride to Cannonville. I couldn’t get enough Chapstick on my lip to relieve the discomfort until I arrived home. I should have been more proactive with skin care. Social distancing was easy throughout the trip with two exceptions. Zion NP was seeing record crowds though we were fairly distanced from others. The bus ride home was surprisingly packed with travelers all masked up.

Considering that we had never ridden together and only met once, Chris and I traveled well together. Looking forward to 2021.

Lou Melini is a lifelong bicycle commuter, and the former Commuter Column editor for Cycling West.

Chris Blinzinger is an avid cyclist, commuter and tourer. He is a member of the Provo Bike Committee and advocate for active transportation. He tours with friends and family and hopes to ride back to his home state of Indiana in the near future.

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