Southwest Utah Desert Mini-tour

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This is the time of year that we usually go to Ouray, Colorado for our annual ice climbing trip, but my friend Kai couldn’t make it, so we decided to try something different. Since building up a couple old bikes for multi-surface touring, I have been wanting to take them out. Southwestern Utah down around St. George is much lower in elevation and usually quite a bit warmer than up here so I planned a short bike tour taking in some road and some dirt. The highlight would be Gooseberry Mesa, arguably a mountain biking mecca that rivals Moab.

I would be riding my 1990 Stumpjumper that I converted to an all road adventure bike complete with a Wald basket, Jones Loop bars, a Brooks B17 saddle, and so on. I have been using it as my commuter for the past year and it has been really comfortable. It turned out to be a great adventure touring bike, on and off road. I had 1.75 inch Continental Tour Ride tires on it.

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I outfitted it with a mix of bikepacking bags by Oveja Negra, Bedrock Bags, and Revelate Design bags, along with a pair of Lone Peak panniers. Up front a Granite Gear Zipp Sack (size medium), modified with a some thin plastic and stiff foam in the bottom to give it more support, fit perfectly in the Wald 137 basket. I used small velcro straps to secure it to the sides of the basket then used a bungie net over the top. This carried my sleeping quilt, puffy jacket, and other lightweight clothing. On the back rack we each carried a two liter Playpus water bag once we left the road and headed into the desert.

Niels was riding my recently built up 1994 Specialized Rockhopper that I bought off ksl.com for $50. It was outfitted with another Brooks B17 saddle, a cheap Sunlite Elson Roadster bar, a wide Electra front rack, a Planet Bike Eco rack on the back, and Schwalbe Fat Frank balloon tires. I also stitched my own leather handlebar grips. When Niels first rode it, he exclaimed, “this thing is a freaking beach cruiser,” and was skeptical, but after an hour on the road he was sold and said it was super comfortable, even off road. The Fat Franks were not ideal for this kind of riding, but they were certainly up to the task.

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On Tuesday, the day after New Year’s day, we drove the 3.5 hours down to St. George and parked at the Harmon’s grocery store parking lot and geared up. After a quick lunch, we headed out of town on country roads toward the town of Washington. Within a few miles we hit a nice graded dirt road along the Virgin River, passing occasional ranches. The weather was cool, in the fifties, and very pleasant. It was really nice riding weather. It was very pretty as well, with red rock cliffs and typical Utah desert scenery all around. It felt really good to be out pedaling through a beautiful landscape, especially in Winter.

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Country roads between Washington City and Hurricane

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In the town of Hurricane (about 18 miles away), we stopped for a break and picked up the key for the yurt we would be staying at later. We left Hurricane in the afternoon eager to get to our stop for the night before dark.

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Leaving Hurricane
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Heading up and out of LaVerkin

After passing through the small town of LaVerkin we climbed for awhile before descending down to the Virgin River again. We arrived in the town of Virgin around 5:15 pm. The two cafes that I had investigated both seemed to be closed. Not a good sign. I had reserved a small cabin at the Zion River RV Resort. Because the nights are so long, we planned on sleeping indoors on this trip so we could read and relax and not have to spend 14 hours in a tent.

What trip is complete without some drama—a wrong turn, an unexpected storm, mechanical issues? Or maybe you booked the cabin for the wrong week. I had my weeks wrong and booked the cabin for the following week and they were completely sold out. Hmm, they had tent sites, but we didn’t even bring a tent, and the thought of sitting out all night didn’t appeal to us, especially since there were no open restaurants in town. The reservation lady felt sorry for us and suggested that maybe we could hire her husband to shuttle us to the next town, Springdale, 14 miles down the road. We probably could have ridden it, though by this time it was full on dusk, we were tired. We did have lights on our bikes, but this was also the main artery in and out of Zion National Park and there were lots of cars on the road. And it was a narrow road with narrow shoulders. We paid Dale $20 to take us to Springdale, one bike in the back of his Ford Explorer and one tied on top. We got a reasonably priced room at the Driftwood Lodge, and were very relieved. Total mileage for the day was 29 miles with 1902 feet of climbing.

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The ride to Springdale

When we unloaded out bikes Niels’ rear tire was flat, from a thorn. So he got to repair that, but in the comfort of a nice motel room. Springdale was a big disappointment. Dale assured us there were lots of restaurant options in town, but it turns out only two restaurants were open and both were packed with tourists, mostly European and Chinese. We had to wait for an hour and half for a mediocre meal. Oh well, it was better than nuts and energy bars for dinner. After dinner we settled into our books, Don Delillo’s White Noise for Niels and Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther for me.

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The view from our motel room

We slept in the next morning. We had a short day of riding, and it was 27 degrees when I woke up at 7:30. The motel room had a microwave so we made instant oatmeal and hot chocolate for breakfast and headed out about 10:00 am. We rode two miles back to the town of Rockville, then turned left across the Rockville Bridge over the Virgin River.

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Heading south and west toward Rockville

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After about a mile we turned off the paved road and rode about a mile and a half to the ofd Grafton Ghost town. It was first settled by Mormon pioneers in the 1860’s and was abandoned in the late 1920’s. We first visited the cemetery outside town. Four of the town’s original buildings have been restored, the schoolhouse/church, and a couple houses. It was pretty cool wandering around wondering what it would be like living in this harsh desert environment. After our short visit we road back to the junction of the Smithsonian Butte Backcountry Byway. This is a nine mile dirt road with spectacular views of the very impressive Smithsonian Butte, Grafton Mesa, and the Canaan Mountain Wilderness.

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Heading toward Grafton

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This is what happens when you’re messing around
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Grafton Cemetery

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The schoolhouse/church is built with a limestone foundation and adobe bricks

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Heading back to Smithsonian Butte Road

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We had been warned at the bike shop (Over the Edge) in Hurricane, that the road was steep going out of Grafton and it had recently been graded and was very loose in places. He wasn’t kidding. There were some sections of the road that were probably 10-12 percent grade with deep 6″ powder dirt. We pushed up those sections. But the steep and loose parts were over in about three miles. Once on top, it was a nice graded dirt road with only occasion sandy sections. This was really pretty desert that I had not visited before. We kept reminding ourselves that it was great now, but once spring hits the temperatures rise past 100 degrees and it’s pretty unbearable down there. A perfect place for a winter mini-tour though.

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Nearing the top

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Before long we hit the junction of Gooseberry Mesa, turned right and gradually climbed up onto the Mesa. Past the main trailhead, and just beyond the Windmill trailhead we ran out of road at the Gooseberry Mesa Yurts. Our yurt sat literally 30 or 40 feet from the edge of a massive drop off, probably more than a thousand feet down to the desert floor. It was spectacular. And the yurt was really nice with several beds, a wood burning stove, camp stove, lanterns, pots and pans, etc. I had never stayed in a yurt before, and I was really impressed. A nice deck wrapped around two sides of the yurt and there were two fire pits out front near the edge of the mesa.

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View from the front door

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Reward for reaching the yurt

After we unpacked, ate, and relaxed a bit, we went out for a short ride on some of the spectacular singletrack. It was pretty slow going through some technical sections on our bikes but great fun. We rode along the edge of the mesa with great views back toward Smithsonian Butte.

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We had a really nice relaxing evening. We built a small fire in the stove and before long it was t-shirt weather inside the yurt. We cooked and ate, sat on the couch and talked, read, and just relaxed. Later that evening we made hot cocoa and sat out on the rim under a full moon. We were feeling really grateful to be in such a beautiful place, and feeling even better that we had arrived under our own power.

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That’s Hurricane off in the distance

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On day two we only rode 18 miles with 1800′ of elevation gain. This gave us time to explore the Mesa and relax. The yurt was toasty warm inside, while outside it was cold and windy.

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Sunrise on Gooseberry Mesa

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The last day was pretty casual. We got a fairly early start, leaving the yurt at 8:30 am. It was still pretty cold out and windy. We rode the dirt road back to the junction then just a few miles down to Highway 59 and the small community of Apple Valley. Once on the highway it was mostly downhill, sometimes up to 8% grades so we made the 11 miles to Hurricane in 40 minutes. We later found out from the guys at Over the Edge bike shop in Hurricane that we could have ridden dirt roads and singletrack all the way back to Hurricane. That would have been nice.

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We took a short break in Hurricane, then retraced our route back to St. George and were at the car by 1:00. After eating a large pizza we drove home, ending a really nice trip in the desert. Our last day was 42 miles with 3334′ of descending and almost 1000′ of climbing.

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Bike path along the Virgin River in St. George

It was a great trip. The weather was good, the scenery spectacular, riding varied, and our bikes were well suited for this kind of ride. It was a nice Winter break on bikes for a change. It is an area of Utah that I would like to go back and explore more. I definitely want to go back and ride the singletrack on Gooseberry Mesa and the surrounding areas.

Trip totals: 89 miles, about 35 on dirt roads, 4700′ of climbing.

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