Scenic Byway 12 is by far the most beautiful road this journey has taken us on so far. In fact, we have both voted for Utah as our favorite state thus far largely due to the last 124 miles on Route 12. So, we have a lot to catch you up on.
On Tuesday morning we woke up to the clucking and scratching of the resident chickens around our raised garden-bed-turned campsite. We packed our bags quickly so we could backtrack a mile from the campground to the Escalante Petrified Forest for a hike before it got too hot.
Luckily for us, it was a cool morning blanketed by clouds that kept the sun at bay as we made our way up the ‘moderately strenuous’ trail.
The trail was narrow and steep but we decided that ‘strenuous’ was a bit of an overstatement. The main trail is a mile long and connects to the Sleeping Rainbows trail, a steep and rocky section .75 miles long. Although we were impressed by the main trail’s abundance of small fragmented pieces of petrified wood, we knew that the more difficult section of trail would be all the more spectacular.
On the Sleeping Rainbow trail we began to see bits of petrified wood scattered on either side of the trail and started to become overwhelmed with its geological beauty.
We marveled at the spectacular diversity in color and shape. The deep reds and browns result from iron oxide, the blues and purples from cobalt, and the opalescent pinks are pasteled by manganese.
We soon came to entire trunks of this wonder preserved through time which seemed to be just for our eyes. We touched what once was a tree and now are minerals filling the void. One energy taking the place of another.
We instantly felt a connection with these petrified trees.
We tried to imagine a single tree’s life span, the flood that tore it out of the ground, being buried, then resurfacing millions of years later as a rock.
We then tried to relate it to our fraction of an existence in this form, on this earth.
Petrified forests are a geological marvel. Although petrified wood results from a process similar to fossilization the term petrified is reserved for terrestrial plants.
Here trees were uprooted and carried downstream where they were the covered by sediment. This created an anaerobic environment, or one free from oxygen, which kept the wood from rotting.
This extra time allowed minerals to impregnate the pores of the wood to create casts of what was once the tree.
Half way through the hike we came to a view of the valley below and cliffs beyond. We stopped, ate our snack, and watched the light change as the sun grew taller.
We concluded the hike just as the park was opening, paid the fee, then went on our way. We stopped at the general store for food and a thrift store in hopes of finding long johns before we left Escalante, then hit the road again.
As we expected, the clouds swelled and turned grey. We got about 10 miles out of town when we felt the first rain drops. Taking the safe route, we looked for camp. Luckily for us, we quickly came upon a designated free camp spot which had a spectacular view. We quickly created a cubby with the tarp and some trees, then stuck our bikes and tent underneath. We spent the afternoon reading, before we fell asleep early to the patter of rain.
Bright and early Wednesday we woke up, methodically broke down camp, an got to the road to find Mi had a flat. 20 minutes later, we had fixed it and were on our way to Boulder.
Since we met Troy and Berta in Valle Vista, AZ, we have heard about the road between Escalante and Boulder being mind-blowingly beautiful and terrifying. We were told that a narrow portion called the Hogback sits close to 7000ft with steep cliff on both sides.
The entire climb up 8-12% grade up was by far one of the most impressive portions of route 12. It was almost a blessing that we were forced to walk, lugging our bikes along, so we could take the time to savor it and get a better look. We saw caves, waterfalls, the Escalante river, cliffs and mountains.
When we finally made it to the Hogsback, we were satisfied by the spectacular view, but not terrified. We had imagined a spine-tingling balancing act along the crest of a mountain but it turns out that it wasn’t so narrow nor scary as we thought. The cars in the quiet canyons, so early in the morning, created an echo effect that made it easy to know when a car was coming, from which way, and it’s approximate size. We had plenty of time to move to the side. The road was narrow, and the cliffs steep, but moving at a bicycles pace, we had no worry of flying over the edge.
Upon arriving in Boulder a few miles later, it started to pour. The first thing in town happened to be the only mini mart, The Hills and Hollows. To our surprise it was a health food minimart. We bought organic fruits and vegetables, and the other staples in our diet like beans, bread, nuts, energy bars, coconut water, honey, almond butter (it was less expensive than peanut butter!), and more at a fair price and all organic.
We spent a couple days in Boulder to wait out the rain. Just ahead was the 9600ft climb up Boulder Mountain where it would most definitely be snowing. Although the rain put a damper on the bicycle riding, it gave us a chance to relax, which we cherish ever so much when a normal day consists of climbing and descending mountains with the power of our bodies.
Yesterday we walked as much as we cycled as the steep climb into unfamiliar elevation put a lump in our chests that shortened our breath and made our assent all the more challenging.
Some of Utah’s many charms include its diverse climates and landscapes that span from blood red canyons to mountains bearded with lush greenery. The transition to alpine took us by surprise when all of a sudden we were surrounded by aspen trees. They enclosed us on either side like a bristling army standing shoulder to shoulder, thousands of them crowding together to take a look at us. But they were ghosts- leafless and ashen white with thin branches like bones without meat on them.
We rode through the forest on a road crisscrossed by creeks, with the occasional waterfall.
Riding early in the day gives us the advantage of encountering fewer cars. Plus, riding next to water amplifies the sound so we know when cars are coming. Once the cars leave us and the air returns to its unsullied state we can hear the wind whispering and the creek chattering and the birds gossiping.
Unlike drivers who even when driving slowly to take in the sights catch only a glimpse of where they are traveling through, we see and experience many orders of magnitude more than they can from a car. We can see the footprints of deer and their larger cousins in the gravel beside the road, we smell the pines and the crisp air as we take ragged oxygen-starved breaths in the thinner atmosphere, we feel every incongruity of the road and see without blind spots. Some of the things we have seen we wish we hadn’t, like the innumerable animal victims of collisions and the garbage. Throughout our trip we have been warned repeatedly by everything from sternly worded signs in the national parks to airy quotes on bumper stickers to leave no trace and pack out what we pack in. We are diligent in picking up every scrap and are discouraged to see roadsides in such bad shape, especially on ‘scenic byways.’ That is why we have decided to amplify our environmental impact by helping pack out what others have left behind. We started by pledging to each pick up ten pieces of trash but before long we had filled the garbage bags attached to our front racks.
We took our lunch break on an embankment with ponderosa pines standing at attention before us. It was quiet except for the occasional roar of a plane overhead.
Jet planes rend and crosshatch the sky that was too blue and too clear and perfect to be allowed to survive unmarred by humans. There are no clouds in this blue blue sky above the greenest green pine trees, except for those long thin scars following a plane.
We continued climbing until about four o’clock when we consulted our map. We wouldn’t have time to make the summit and start the descent before it got dark and any higher we climbed that afternoon would put us at a higher and colder elevation. So we were elated to come across an overlook that was only marked as a bathroom on our map. It turned out to be a seldom used campground on a knoll surrounded by the thin white trees that made the hill look like a bristle brush. It was a great campsite.
Except for the sign warning of bears. Bears? In southern Utah?
Apparently we had set up camp in bear country so we did what any logical person would do, send Kelly up a tree with our bags of food and some bungee cords linked together. With the food and toiletries safely in a tree we felt less nervous.
It was a cold night but luckily we came to the fantastic realization that we can zip our sleeping bags together, thus reducing some of the chill. At about 9000 feet it sure was chilly!
The next morning after shaking the frost off our tent and sharing breakfast with a neighboring camper we set off to conquer the summit. After about five miles of climbing and stopping at every scenic overlook we made it to the summit at 96000 feet.
There we snacked, celebrated our achievement of successfully making our highest climb yet, and bundled up for the ride back down the mountain. With each of us wearing two pairs of gloves, a bandana over our face, a beanie, and goggles (some day we will write about the glorious necessity that is dust goggles on the Tips page) we set off.
Tearing down steep grades is exhilarating and as Kelly likes to say, “that’s why we climb mountains”- to enjoy the scenery we just earned in the climb and to feel the sweet satisfaction of having the wind whip by our ears as we fly down the other side.
The scenery changed again once we dropped below 8000 feet. Suddenly as we turned a corner, the whole horizon was a splash of color, red replacing the green, as forest gave way to cliff and canyon. Turning another corner a great mountain of red rock rose from the desert like a sphinx but much older and wiser.
The change in vegetation and landscape announced that we were approaching the next town on our map. We passed through the sparsely populated town of Grover, which was incredibly lush and idyllic, on our way to Torrey.
We are writing from a little cabin, we’re talking 6′ by 12′ little, just outside of Capital Reef National Park. It has an unfinished wood interior and is furnished only with a bed and a memorizing view.
Out our window we are watching the setting sun turn the red rocks blue and fold the horses in their pasture in shadow. We can see the mountain we just climbed and descended and the layers of diverse environments we traveled through. No cars whizzing by and it’s so quiet we can hear the horses chomping the grass. Much of our time in Utah has been spent in the relative vicinity of horses; Mi is thrilled and takes every opportunity to feed them handfuls of grass from the other side of the fence.
Tomorrow it’s on to Capital Reef national park. It is late now, way past our bed time, so we wish you all sweet dreams, or a good day depending on when you’re reading this. Happy trails!