Editor’s Note: Ah! If we could only go back in time and give ourselves some advice! This guest post is really special to me because, 20 years ago, Mark made his first contribution to our website — and he’s back to share what he has learned about travel since then. Mark’s posts and pictures keep getting better and better. Stick with this one until the end for some truly profound and life-changing travel advice, it might help you enjoy the moment and save some regrets for your future self. By the way, Travels With Charlie is one of my favorites and a classic book to read on your next trip.
Once a journey is designed, equipped and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”~ John Steinbeck, “Travels With Charlie” (1962)
When one hears “mountain biking” and “Utah,” one word usually comes to mind: Moab. But thanks to modern technology and smartphone trail apps, endless lesser-known (and lesser crowded) trails are at our fingertips. I discovered a trail called Thunder Mountain near the tiny Utah town of Panguitch that looked like an exciting “off-the-beaten-trail” option, described by various riders as being a “rollercoaster” and due to its red rock terrain, “like riding on Mars.” Checking the map, I noticed two national parks nearby that have been on the hiking bucket list for years: Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef. This trip is coming together! The only thing left to decide was how to get there from California, and this decision didn’t take long: Road trip! As I’ve found on many travels, getting there on lesser-known highways can be half the fun. So let the driving commence…
I left South Lake Tahoe heading east in the early am, and it didn’t take long to see how Highway 50 in Nevada got its alias as “World’s Loneliest Highway”: Long desolate stretches disappeared into the endless mountain ranges of the Great Basin Desert. The terrain resembled some late 60’s spaghetti western movie; Eastwood’s “High Plains Drifter” came to mind. Aside from the occasional road stop town, civilization was sparse.
After passing through the tiny town of Austin, which featured a film-worthy cemetery alongside the highway, I decided to take a detour south down Highway 376. This empty stretch through a mountain range was even lonelier than 50, with no towns at all and civilization zero. I eventually came across Highway 375, which had a welcoming sign that read “The Extraterrestrial Highway.” What the…? Shortly thereafter, I came across the tiny town of Rachel, which featured a few trailers, a rusty abandoned mining rig, and a welcome sign that read: “Population: Human: Yes. Alien: ?” Farther up the highway, what was slowly coming into view had me wondering if this was all a dream (lol). Standing at least 30 feet tall in front of what looked like a military barrack… was a giant alien-looking creature. It was apparently standing guard for the “Alien Research Center” (which was unfortunately closed). After exploring a little, I came across a sign that revealed what all this alien stuff was about — I was near the infamous Area 51!
After spending the night in a cabin just outside Panguitch Utah, up next was the original inspiration for the trip – the Thunder Mountain bike trail in nearby Red Canyon.
When I finished my pre-ride checklist, I hopped on and started a gradual climb on a paved bike trail along Highway 12 amongst chiseled red rock ridges, rock spires, and a massive tunnel archway cut out of red rock that cars were zipping through on their way to Bryce. After more climbing, I turned onto a dirt road towards the forested south entrance to Red Canyon. My mountain bike app had good news: I’d finally reached the trailhead.
The trail immediately started to deliver the goods. Tree-lined singletrack flowed smoothly down the mountainside, made an abrupt turn at the bottom section, and then headed back up around the next ridge. This sequence repeated multiple times and made it easy to get into a rhythm as I worked my way closer to Red Canyon. Seeing the tops of red rock ridges in the distance, I got the sense the trail was slowly building up to something much more.
With trees slowly disappearing and terrain turning more barren, I could tell I was about to enter a new phase of the trail. After rounding a turn, the trail made a sharp turn skyward towards the top of a barren ridge. After huffing and puffing to the top, I stopped to catch my breath and enjoy a stunning canyon view – and could see the town of Panguitch about 10 miles in the distance.
For the next part of the ride, I felt like I was on Disneyland’s Thunder Mountain ride. Some quick ups and downs along red and white ridge tops gave incredible views of the valley below. After some barren ridge tops and a few more turns, two giant red rock hoodoos appeared just off the trail. And looking around the surrounding rocky terrain, I might as well have been on planet Mars. The solitude of being the only one on the trail only added to this otherworldly sense. Up next was more rollercoaster action in a parfait of red and white rock, eventually leading to a series of tight switchbacks down to the shade of the canyon bottom. I found myself with a silly grin as I coasted down the final stretch towards the parking lot.
For some relaxing post-ride scenery, Bryce Canon was calling. I stopped at the Sunrise Point vista and headed down Queen’s Garden Trail. Almost out of gas from the ride, it was a perfect post-ride stroll through more head-turning rock formations, steeples, gateways and tunnels.
Day two was exploring a national park that doesn’t get the attention of Zion or Arches: Capitol Reef. The road there had a perfect photo opp waiting for my “abandoned places” photo collection in Kingston – a crumbling gas station with an original 1950s pump and the shell of an early ’70s muscle car that never left the station.
Entering the Capitol Reef gives the same sense of awe one gets when entering Zion or Yosemite; You feel like a speck of insignificance amongst towering rock monoliths. I embarked on the Grand Wash hike, which is Capitol Reef’s answer to Zion’s The Narrows. Hiking in between the eroded rock walls as the wind whistled through the canyon was extremely peaceful. Capitol Reef is significantly less crowded than Zion, and I came across only two other hikers on the entire trail.
On the return hike to the car, I came across a trail sign for Cassidy Arch. Steep switchbacks led the trail out of the canyon, and to the top of a series of connected orange and white rock monoliths. The trail made a rough semi-circle along the eroded rock, disappearing for stretches into wide open spaces with huge rock slabs, boulders and occasional tree trunks. Eventually, I noticed some people standing in the distance at a vantage point, looking down into the valley with their cameras out. As I got closer, Cassidy Arch finally came into view. And what an arch it was – looking wide enough to drive a car across. Hikers took turns taking photos, looking like train set miniatures standing on the massive arch. The fascinating thing was, the arch was actually in view for much of the hike – but hardly visible from colored canyon walls behind it. The scale of Cassidy and the eye-opening hike to get there makes it my favorite pick between the two major natural bridges in the park (Hickman Bridge being the other).
As I had a final meal at the Cowboy Smokehouse (second visit) in Panguitch, I reflected on the road trip that inspired my first article, Discoveries of American Highways, for The Argonauts about 20 years ago, and how my urge for exploration has changed over the years. Back then, I recall there was a sense of “urgency” to check off every box, bolt from location to location, and pack last minute with as many sites as possible. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it prevented me from really savoring special locations and discoveries that deserved more time. While I still try to pack as much in as I can, if something special comes along that squeezes another location out, then so be it. As Steinbeck observed, “the trip takes us,” and trying to fight this with a schedule only takes away from the adventure.
Back then, I also recall viewing travel as an “escape”, and frequently in my mind was that lingering feeling that “in a few days, it’s back to reality at home.” That prevented me from really being “in the now” and enjoying the trip to the fullest. As the last twenty years have passed — faster than I could have imagined — I’ve realized exploring this planet to the fullest is my reality. It’s one of the things that makes me tick.
On a recent walk along the San Francisco’s Chrissy Field, I found a plaque with a quote that resonated:
“I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out until sundown. For going out, I found, was really going in.”~ John Muir