Cycle-touring in Utah | A Photojournal

 After months of dreams and weeks of preparation, at the end of August I flew to Las Vegas to begin what would be a 6-month bike tour, taking me through parts of the USA and New Zealand. My journey began in Utah, with plans to visit three of the state’s National Parks before riding into California. Safe to say when I set out on this journey I was a cycle-touring novice and a combination of ignorance, disorganisation, bad luck and just general life knocked me down. Ten days after taking my first pedal-stroke I was on a flight home, unsure as to whether I’d ever get to cycle down the California Coast or through the mountains of New Zealand. But when my journey began here, in Las Vegas, I didn’t know where or how it would end. 

Day 1

The day of departure arrived and I was waiting for something to go wrong from the moment my alarm rang at 4.30am. Nothing did exactly, but as I sat in the American-Italian fast-food chain of a cheap casino hotel on the outskirts of Las Vegas I wondered what exactly I was doing here.

First impressions of Las Vegas: unbearably hot, unsurprisingly tacky. It was 2pm when I dragged my bike-box and luggage in from the 40-degree heat outside and was reluctantly greeted by a large and air-conditioned yet dark and dim room, lit only by the gaudy, bright lights of the hundreds of slot-machines squeezed tightly into the space – though most of them remained empty, but for a wrinkled woman in a pink tracksuit who sat smoking a cigarette, throwing money into a machine, and beside her a 20-stone man who appeared to have realized his luck had run out for the day, sipping somberly on a super-sized fizzy drink instead.

I was starving, and in the search for food I found a bingo room, cinema, all-you-can-eat buffet, three more restaurants, four fast-food spots and a Starbucks, naturally. I chose something called a stromboli (America’s take on Italian food – greasy and rubbery with a hint of oregano) and then retreated to my room to unpack my bicycle, comforted by the prospect that tomorrow I would be pedalling away from the starchy sheets and artificial air of this 6th-floor hotel room.

Day 2

“Your bike is gone.”

Those were the nightmarish words that abruptly sent my trip into turmoil. We (myself and my mum who was joining me on this part of my cycle-tour) were on a shuttle bus from Las Vegas, Nevada to St George, Utah to avoid cycling on the interstate highway, when an hour into the journey we realised that somehow my bike had disappeared from where it was strapped on top of the van, fallen somewhere between here and Las Vegas while travelling at 80mph on a busy freeway crammed with huge wagons and edged by rubble and broken car parts on either side. I felt sick.

I imagined my bike mangled in a gutter by the side of the road and all I wanted was to wake up from this nightmare. But things were about to get worse when a loud thud told us that my mum’s bike had also fallen from atop the van. The box had split open and parts were scattered on the road, rocks filling the box and dust covering the bicycle.

It was an unbelievable, impossible situation. But what made it even more unbelievable was that, not only did we manage to recover both bicycles from the side of the road, but the damage was also incredibly minimal. My blue Condor was left with but a scratch – not even a puncture. My mum’s Trek would need to be replaced eventually but would make the trip for now. Whether it was luck, Karma or the cycle-touring Gods who had saved our bikes, I couldn’t have been more relieved.

Day 3

Start: St. George | End: Cedar City

By the time we had retrieved and loaded our bikes it was already 11am and Utah greeted us with an oppressive wall of intense heat. It was almost 100 degrees already, the kind of heat that makes you feel dizzy and nauseous. At 10 miles I had a puncture, which was frustrating but gave us a chance to sit down in the shade for a while. At 15 miles we stopped for water, and again around 5 miles later — it was slow going.

We met a few gravel tracks (not fun on a road bike with added weight) before deciding to join the interstate highway, where we clung to the edge of the hard shoulder as 20-ton wagons came thundering past. The heat was making the 50 miles we had to cycle around 10 times more difficult, and I was chucking water on myself every half an hour just so I didn’t feel like my head was about to explode.

We arrived in Cedar City just as the sun was setting. By the time the tent was pitched and we had eaten some dinner, it was already dark and all I wanted was to sleep.

Distance: 54.7 miles | Elevation: 3,993ft

Day 4

Start: Cedar City | End: Red Canyon

It was still dark at 6am when we woke up, but after yesterday we knew we needed to leave early to beat the midday heat. We also knew we were climbing a mountain today.

It was a 20-mile gradual climb, with some gradients of 8%. Not hugely difficult on paper, but add around 15kg of luggage to that and it’s a whole different story. We also weren’t carrying any food due to our own disorganisation and the fact that we left so early.

Needless to say, after climbing at snail-pace for around three and a half hours, we were overjoyed to finally find Auntie Sue’s; an American-style diner-cafe in a cute little Alpine village named Duck Creek. I ate French toast doused with maple syrup, bacon, eggs, coffee and blueberry pie. Then we hit the road again.

Fuelled by our super-sized lunch and with a tail wind blowing us along the road, we cycled as long as we could that day. We eventually stopped along Scenic Highway 14 at Red Canyon campground, aptly named for being surrounded by towering red rocks that became even more vivid as the sun began to set.

Distance: 65.5 miles | Elevation: 5,813ft

Day 5

Start: Red Canyon | End: Bryce Canyon National Park

It was a short cycle into Bryce Canyon National Park, and after two hard days on the road it was clear that we were both relieved to be swapping our cycling shoes for walking boots and leaving the bikes alone for a day or so.

When my mum cycled across America 25 years ago (as part of a two-year world tour), Bryce Canyon National Park was her favourite place. I think I’m more of an ocean and mountain person than desert and rocks, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from Bryce… But I was completely blown away that day.

I remember being stood on the edge of a 500ft cliff, below me were hundreds of thousands of unique rock formations (known as ‘hoodoos’) protruding out of the earth. The scene was filled with every shade of orange and yellow and gold you could imagine. So vivid and vibrant. Like nothing I had seen before.

The stresses of our first few days of cycling vanished into the fresh air as I looked at the vastness and beauty before me. It was maybe the first time I had truly appreciated the incredibility of nature, and knowing we had cycled to get there made it so much more significant.

Distance: 17.3 miles | Elevation: 1,216ft


Day 6

Start: Bryce Canyon National Park | End: Hatch

I woke up at midnight, and after lying awake for about half an hour, I plucked up the courage to run as silently as I could through the eerie darkness to the toilet block. The door had a ‘WARNING: MOUNTAIN LION SIGHTED’ poster taped to it and there were numerous reminders we were in Black Bear Country around the whole campsite.

After that I couldn’t help but lay awake listening to every single sound in the woodland campsite, until even my own breathing and heart racing was enough to keep me awake. Then I actually heard something, the rather distinct sound of an animal scuttling past the tent. And silence. I sat up abruptly. “There’s something outside”, I whispered.

It wasn’t a small animal, and there were definitely more than one of them. One minute they were far away and the next right outside the tent – so close that we could hear their breathing through the thin canvas. We soon realised that the noise was hooves – it must be deer. But I didn’t fall asleep again that night, all I could do was listen.

Morning at last. In a sleepless daze we wandered to the edge of the canyon and watched the sun rise and cast a deep orange glow onto the hoodoos. As we wandered back to the tent we spotted the deer that had kept us awake all night. By day they looked so harmless, running from us as we approached; afraid of our presence just as I had been afraid of theirs the night before – our role’s reversed by daylight.

We hiked again that day and then cycled out of Bryce into a 20mph headwind, before stopping in a tiny nothing-town called Hatch along Highway 89. We pitched our tent on a small patch of grass beside a farm, and despite the constant moaning of a cow all night I slept long and deep.

Distance: 27.3miles | Elevation: 666ft

Day 7

Start: Hatch | End: Kanab

The wind would not be in our favour today, so we left early again to try to minimise the worst of it. It was one straight, long road all the way to Kanab, our destination for the night.

The terrain was rolling at first, then a long stretch of downhill before the climb of the day, up to 6000-or so feet. We then had to descend again to around 4000ft where we ended in Kanab. We were headed for the Grand Canyon, this was just a stop along the way.

The owners of the campsite in Kanab were Randy and Virginia from Florida who had travelled to almost every state in America in their obnoxiously large RV. Virginia gave us a tour of their ‘home’, which featured a wine cellar, an electric fireplace and – Virginia’s pride and joy – a washer-dryer tucked away in the wardrobe.

Compared to our tiny tent and foldaway camping stove, RV life seemed pretty luxurious. But I wouldn’t have swapped – I was growing rather fond of climbing mountains with 15+kgs of luggage strapped to my bike.

Distance: 52.1miles | Elevation: 1,818ft

Day 8

It felt like our trip had only just begun, but it came to a rather abrupt end at 1.15am the next morning when a phone-call from home told us that my grandpa, my mum’s father, had died suddenly and unexpectedly in the night.

We cried all night in our little green tent and then moved to a motel room the next day, making arrangements to fly home as soon as we could. I was terribly sad my grandpa had died but also terribly sad that we would have to leave. There were so many more miles I wanted to cycle, hills to climb and adventures to have… But some things are more important than seeing the world.

That night there was an incredible thunderstorm and I was at least grateful for not being in the tent when the thunder got so loud I thought the earth might explode.

Day 9

Start: Kanab | End: Zion National Park

I suppose when you get over the initial sadness, times like these remind you of that old cliché – make the most of every moment. It was Monday, we were in the middle of nowhere, it was Labor Day weekend meaning almost everything was closed, and we had to travel 250 miles to Las Vegas for our flight on Wednesday afternoon – with two bikes, four panniers and a great desire to see as much as possible before we had to leave. We couldn’t go to the Grand Canyon; it was in the wrong direction. But we could still stop at Zion National Park.

As we followed the red-paved road of Zion – with our bikes and luggage strapped to us and the rocks towering above us – I felt like the world was boundless as long as you had the desire to explore it. I knew then that I did and that I had to come back here one day.

We hitched a lift through a one-mile tunnel, chucking our bikes into the back of a pick-up truck and sitting next to a couple of kids on their way home from a camping holiday with their dad. At the other end of the tunnel, the landscape is quite literally breathtaking. Jagged canyon walls frame a scene of red rocks dispersed with bushy green trees, a clear blue sky and fluffy white clouds. We swept down a series of switchbacks to reach the valley floor, accompanied by a dozen or so friendly motorcyclists on Harley Davidsons who, like us, were stopping at almost every corner to capture the setting.

We did a couple of short hikes that afternoon, but my desire to do and see more was overwhelming and painful, knowing that there wasn’t time. That night we watched the sun disappear behind the canyon walls and cooked chilli on the camping stove, a fitting end to our last camping meal and our last night in that little tent. For now at least.

Distance: 41.5miles | Elevation: 2,352ft

Day 10

Start: Zion National Park | End: Hurricane

I channelled most of my frustration and sadness into that last bike ride, and with the aid of an almost entirely downhill route, we cycled away from Zion faster than we had all week. Then we were back in Las Vegas in another seedy casino hotel. We’d come full circle, just much sooner than planned.

Distance: 23 miles | Elevation: 548ft – all downhill

It was a bittersweet goodbye to Utah. I knew I wanted to explore so much more of this state. Seeing some of the most incredible, breathtaking pieces of nature and losing my grandpa all in the same few days was overwhelming. But travelling – and especially by bicycle – comes with all it’s ups and downs; you can never quite predict what the next day will bring – whether it be riding through the rain, meeting new, life-long friends or booking a flight home. Or maybe that will happen all in one day… Despite everything, Utah fuelled in me an even greater desire to travel and to do it by bicycle. Pitching my tent somewhere new every night, turning a corner and seeing a steep hill to climb, riding under the open sky and sweltering sun – I was in love with it all. Two months after taking that first pedal-stroke in Utah, I took another first pedal-stroke in San Francisco. I couldn’t let the journey end just yet.