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Hop On/Hop Off Tour

March 11, 2020

Even against medical advice, this couple realizes that you should never underestimate the healing powers of a good motorcycle ride.

Story and Photos by: Curtis and Karen Nickel

No one likes to cancel a planned transcontinental motorcycle tour. Vacation dates set, motorcycle ready and national parks’ campsites reserved. We were ready to head off on our motorcycle adventure to celebrate the end of my wife Karen’s cancer treatment. But here I was, two weeks before our start-off date, sitting in a hospital waiting room in the middle of the night and waiting to hear the results of Karen’s emergency surgery for complications from chemo and radiation therapy. She certainly could not ride to the American West, and I was not going to leave her behind. So, we activated Plan B. 

I didn’t want to pull a motorcycle trailer all the way to Utah, so I fitted the best made motorcycle carrier I could find to the front hitch of my truck, checked our stable and decided that Karen’s neglected Suzuki TU250 would be the best fit. I fondly remember long cross-country road trips 40-plus years ago on bikes with much less power. So, 12 days after Karen’s discharge from hospital and against medical advice, we loaded up our truck camper, fitted the carrier with the TU250 and headed west.

Classic Childhood Heroes

Our first destination was Monument Valley on the Arizona/Utah border, but on the way we just had to stop at Dodge City, Kan., home of my childhood heroes: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson and, of course, Doc Holliday. After paying our respects to the denizens of Boot Hill and swigging a sarsaparilla at the infamous Long Branch Saloon, we headed west over the Rockies to Utah. 

During our ride through Monument Valley, the epitome of the “true” American West, we held our breath around every corner and with every rise and fall of the road as the iconic mountain monoliths appeared before us and then disappeared from the mirror. We felt like we were following the trail blazed by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in the movie Easy Rider, although they both rode much cooler bikes. 

We camped in the desert, watching the setting sun light the sandstone cliffs on fire. I watched a line of motorcycles riding under the butte where wagon trains and stagecoaches passed in times gone by. This was where the movie Stagecoach began the modern era of western genre of cinema. Squinting, I thought I could imagine John Wayne in his dusty cavalry uniform leading Troop C in Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon or chasing Cochise, the famous Apache chief, with Henry Fonda in Fort Apache (both filmed in Monument Valley).

Listen to the Locals

Motorcycle back in its carrier, we headed to Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, but not to the popular South Rim (along which we have ridden a number of times). Rather, we headed for the park’s more desolate, neglected and arguably more beautiful Northern Rim. We camped at Jacob Lake, waking in the morning to very cold temperatures and 2.5 cm of snow covering everything. 

The locals provided some good advice: wait until the sun dried off SR67. This 70-km winding route rises 427 metres through the Kaibab National Forest, past burned-out trees from previous fires, small lakes and open meadows to reach the abyss of the North Rim. The weather was misty and foggy when we arrived, but that cleared up as the day progressed and we were treated to wonderful vistas as we walked along the North Rim trail. We were disappointed that Point Imperial Road, which leads to the eastern vista points, was closed to vehicles because of the weather, but lunch at the Grand Canyon Lodge more than made up for it.

The Intense Scenery of Zion

We had a reservation to stay along the Virgin River in Zion National Park back in Utah, so we headed northwest and down from the Kaibab Plateau. Once our camp, overlooked by the brooding Watchman Mountain, was set up, we unloaded the bike and rode along the dramatic vistas of the Zion-Mt. Carmel Scenic Highway. The route twists its way through hairpin switchbacks up Pine Creek Canyon and through the 5 per cent-grade 1,710-metre Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel. We could not resist stopping at a few of the trailheads for some short hikes into the rugged hills. 

While parking for four-wheeled vehicles isn’t plentiful, we always found a spot for our little bike. No private vehicles are allowed on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, which follows the gorge carved by the Virgin River. But the park’s bus is free and stops at all the important vistas and hiking trails. 

The hike to the Temple of Sinawava, where the canyon narrows to only 91 metres was as far as we could go because the Narrows were closed due to dangerously high water. The heavy rains from the previous week had washed out the Emerald Pools trails, meaning that we could walk only to the first waterfall. 

Gravel Riding Fun

A hike from the Court of the Patriarchs (a trio of peaks – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – that overlook Birch Creek) along the river to our campsite revealed blossoming spring flowers on the canyon floor. A trip to Springdale and beyond (on SR9) led to some interesting dirt and gravel riding roads, particularly for dual sports, dirt bikes or small bikes like ours. Many of the early scenes from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were shot on the banks of the Virgin River just west of Springdale, Utah. (Who can forget the sequence in that movie in which Paul Newman rode on the bicycle with schoolteacher Katherine Ross to Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head?)

After several days at Zion, we headed to Bryce Canyon National Park (also in Utah). By now, we were pretty adept at putting the TU250 on and off the carrier. Staying at the venerable Ruby’s Inn campgrounds, we were able to explore both the roads from the park entrance to Yovimpa Pass (altitude: 2,547 metres) and SR12 to Red Canyon and the trailhead to hike the Mossy Cave Trail. 

Towering red stone spires, massive eroding hoodoos, steep cliffs, waterfalls and grottos presented themselves in various shades of red, orange, pink, yellow and cream. The hike descending from the canyon rim, past the Queen Victoria Hoodoo and down into the Queen’s Garden to walk among the wind-, water- and snow-eroded whimsical stone formations was one of our favourite hikes of our trip. The riding and the hiking in this true geological fairyland pumped up our adrenaline at every twist and turn.

Our next campsite was in Dead Horse Point State Park in Utah, situated between the Canyonlands and Arches national parks. A nine-metre neck of land connects the point to the plateau, which was once fenced by cowboys who let the wild mustangs on the point die of thirst. Thelma and Louise drove their 1966 Ford Thunderbird over the cliff down the trail from our campsite in the iconic movie of the same name. (Thelma and Louise is one of Karen’s favourite female buddy movies.) 

On to Moab and the Arches

Our first priority was SR128 from Moab, Utah, a road that winds along the upper Colorado River from Moab and past the Red Cliffs Lodge. This ranch was where Ford filmed Rio Grande, which featured John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. There we enjoyed the Moab Museum of Film and Western Heritage’s collection of artifacts and photos of the Hollywood stars that worked on the many classic motion pictures filmed at the ranch. 

The next morning’s ride was on SR313 with its breathtaking panorama as we descended toward SR191 on our way to Arches National Park (still in Utah). Once past the traffic jam at the gatehouse, we rode the undulating curves of the mountain road winding its way through the park. We likened it to driving on Mars, only the speed limit was 45 mph (72 km/h) and the road was nicely paved. We were in awe of the marvelous sandstone arches, tall spires and balanced rocks. 

We could picture Indiana Jones’ escapades in the amazing terrain spread before us. (Scenes from The Last Crusade and Temple of Doom danced in our minds.) A stop and a hike were mandatory at each spectacular area: the Windows Section and its remarkable series of arches; the amazing Balanced Rock; and the famous Delicate Arch. The parking lots at viewpoints and trailheads in Arches are always crowded and open spots are scarce – unless you arrive on a motorcycle, of course.

A Change of Scenery

Next on the destination list was Wyoming. We drove through the quaint town of Jackson, past the National Elk Refuge to Grand Teton National Park, where we camped at the park’s northern border. We were heading to Yellowstone National Park, where we had a reservation for three nights at the centrally located Canyon Village campground. This was early June and many of the campsites at the higher elevations were still snowed in, but that wasn’t an issue for us in our truck camper. 

Yellowstone is a great park to explore in any vehicle. Good paved roads winding around mountains, past waterfalls, through deep forests (some burned up from past forest fires) and past hot springs, geysers and mud pools. We had to see as much as we could because inclement weather was forecast for that night. Old Faithful, check; the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, check; hot springs, check; boiling mud pools, check; and, of course, buffalo, elk, bears (both black and grizzly) roaming freely, check. And then it snowed! 

Snowy Detour

Almost 30 cm landed on our campsite. The other motorcycles and their owners’ tents looked like forlorn snow sculptures built by forest fairies. Enough snow fell in the mountain passes to close most of them to traffic. We headed northwest, past herds of elk and buffalo barely visible in the blinding snowstorm, through one of the last open passes at Gardiner, Mont., and circled around the northern end of the park – Montana was an unplanned but pleasant diversion – on our way to our last national park destination, the Badlands of South Dakota. Along the way, we detoured to Cody, Wyo., to tour the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, which showcases the exploits of one of the most colourful scouts and showmen of his time.

Karen and I had biked the Black Hills around Sturgis, S.D., in the past and had briefly passed through the Badlands while riding a big touring bike, but this time we camped just south of the park on the banks of the White River. We had time to explore the winding roads, unique geology (wonderful structures made of eroded sandstone) and walk some of the canyon hikes. It was nice to slow down and enjoy the ride and the stops along the way. We were now ready to head home. The bike was stowed on the carrier one last time and we made a beeline back to Ontario. 

Just What the Doctor Didn’t Order

Karen and I have been on many transcontinental bike trips to the Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic (almost) oceans, but this trip became a motorcycle adventure that was unlike any other we have had. We observed first-hand the health benefits of taking a road trip that included camping (actually, on this trip we were “glamorous camping” – a.k.a. “glamping”) and motorcycling in fantastic locales. We began the trip only days after Karen’s post-operative intravenous line was removed. The home-care people taught us daily wound-dressing care and although Karen’s infection recurred only days into the trip, the antibiotics we had on hand took care of that.

At Dodge City, Karen could barely make it up Boot Hill. By mid-trip, she was enthusiastically jumping on the pillion for daylong rides. Toward the end of our journey, we were riding to trailheads where she was completing quite strenuous canyon hikes. We learned that riding a small-displacement bike, even two up, on the most exciting riding roads around and through the U.S. Midwest’s national parks actually works as a medical treatment. 

We kept up with the pack when we had to and got lost on roads other riders might not have attempted on their big, loaded-up bikes. Many motorcyclists (and other travellers) were interested in our ride, asking the inevitable question: “How did you guys ever come all this way from Ontario on that bike?” My stock answer: “We left most of our equipment back at the campsite.”

2 Comment

  1. Great article, Curtis and Karen. You capture the beauty of the region, and seize the day. Well done!

  2. Curtis and Karen Nickel’s Western National Parks article is superb in every way. Some articles make destinations seem “so-so” but their article and the photographs hit the spot. The frequent inclusion of specific route numbers really completes the coverage supplemented by the map. Well done.

    I have motorcycled through most of the parks covered in the article but the Nickels also took the time to hike here and there. Wonderful.

    If this corona virus self isolation and travel bans period passes by this summer, my wife and I plan a two week hiking holiday in Utah (and Arizona: North Rim) and we plan to visit as many of their preferences as possible.

    Thank you.

    James Stokes-Rees

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