Glacier, Yellowstone, Tetons, Zion, Yosemite
Bryce & Grand Canyon & Death Valley
by Chris and Carmen Daly - Sydney, Australia - September 2010
As we climbed higher and higher on the Going-to-the- Sun road in Glacier National Park in northern Montana, my wife kept telling me over the intercom, in ever anxious tones, that there were sheer drops just over the small stone wall at the side of the road. Completed in 1932, the road has been cut into the steep sides of the mountains and as it twists and turns, you feel you are hanging out over the valleys; but the views are amazing. Glacier has six peaks higher than 10,000 feet, all with permanent snow cover. Finally, we reached the summit at Logan’s Pass where the Visitors’ Centre flies both the US and Canadian flags as the park straddles the border of both countries. We had reached the northernmost point of our trip and had taken nine days and ridden 1,544 miles to get there from San Francisco.
Following our great trip in northern California, Oregon and a bit of Nevada in 2009 (see “National Parks via ST1300” on the California Motorcycle Adventures website), Carmen and I returned in 2010 with two friends to see some more National Parks and scenic areas. We purchased an annual pass on-line from the US National Parks Service before we arrived. At US$80, this covers two motorcycles and four individuals for entry into National Parks and National Monuments and it paid for itself very quickly.
In 24 days during September 2010, we visited nine National Parks: Glacier, Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Grand Canyon, Death Valley and Yosemite. All up, we travelled 4,275 miles (7,250 km) in California, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah and a little bit of northern Arizona. Our longest day was 300 miles and the shortest was 120 miles and we rarely travelled on interstates. We had half a day of rain, were stopped by snow for a day and had 110 degrees (43 degrees Celsius) of sizzling heat in Death Valley, but otherwise the weather was nice and cool and excellent for riding. We also experienced the beautiful colours of Autumn, especially in Montana and Wyoming. Most of the trip saw us riding at an elevation of five to ten thousand feet, even when we were on the plains, and when we reached Death Valley we were at the lowest elevation in the USA, 200 feet below sea level.
We stayed in a few B and B’s but mainly at chain hotels/motels. Chains like Best Western, Holiday Inn, La Quinta and Comfort Inn provide an excellent level of accommodation at an average of $85 - $120 per night plus they provide a buffet breakfast. Our best accommodation was at the quaint Robin’s Nest B and B in San Andreas CA with Bill and Karen. We had stayed there on our 2009 trip and made this the first stop. At 140 miles from San Francisco, it is an easy first day’s ride, the welcome is warm and it provides a good starting point to ride over the High Sierras. Lunches and dinners on the road are not a problem as there are diners and restaurants everywhere and always close by to the motels/hotels. Food is cheap and plentiful so that we generally shared a meal between the two of us. The service is always good in the USA and the diners and restaurants are good places to meet the locals and learn about the area.
We crossed the Sierras via Ebbett’s Pass (8,730 feet) on highway 4E, a good bike road, and headed north staying in the old cowboy town of Virginia City before heading east on highway 50 – America’s loneliest highway- and a great ride. We then headed north via Austin and Elko in Nevada up to Twin Falls, Idaho to the picturesque Snake River Canyon and Shoshone Falls. Evel Knievel tried to jump the canyon in 1974 on his sky cycle but ended up parachuting down to the canyon floor. Riding further north into Idaho through Sun Valley and Redfish Lake was very scenic and highway 75N is a great bike road as it winds its way through forests and then canyons. From Stanley, it follows the Salmon River and has bend after bend of excellent tarmac through great river and mountain scenery. As we got closer to Challis, we wanted to turn back and ride the route again the other way! By day 7 we were on highway 93N and rode the Lost Trail Pass and the Chief Joseph Pass, both over 7,000 feet, as we passed from Idaho into Montana
Arriving in Missoula, Montana, we asked two motorcycle cops at a gas station about directions to our hotel. They told us to fall in behind their Honda ST1300’s and we had a police escort through town to the hotel. Heading further north on highway 93, we visited the American Museum at Polson which has everything from old school rooms to vintage motorcycles and is worth seeing. The day after Glacier, we encountered our only day of rain as we skirted the southern border of Glacier NP along highway 2 east which is another good bike road. We were running parallel to the river and railway much of the time and saw immense trains pulling over 100 wagons loaded with containers and which had three locomotives pulling and two pushing, to help negotiate the steep grades. As we came out of the Rockies onto the prairies, the railway tracks were protected by huge wooden snow barriers to keep the winter snow drifts off the tracks. The prairies were where an estimated 80 million buffalo had roamed in the early 1800’s until they were shot out by the late 1880’s nearly to extinction by white hunters. In Columbus, we visited the Museum of the Plains Indians which had lots of good material and then continued on to Great Falls MT which is on the Missouri River.
Next morning, we planned to visit the Lewis and Clark Museum for a few hours before heading south to the Bear Tooth Pass, which is considered one of the best motorcycle roads in North America. However, our plans were to be scuttled by something which can turn up in Montana at any time of the year: - snow. When we came out of the museum (very worthwhile seeing) the bikes were covered in an inch of snow and so we had a lay day and had to miss Bear Tooth. Departing Great Falls the next day, there was no snow but it was very cold and for most of the first 100 miles, the temperature hovered between 37-41 degrees F (3-4 degrees Celsius). Although highway 89 south was a good motorcycle road with beautiful scenery, we were too cold to appreciate it! By afternoon, it was 82 degrees F as we reached Yellowstone National Park. We spent the next day riding through majestic Yellowstone spotting deer, elk and bison, stopping at bubbling springs, waterfalls, steam vents and geysers and enjoying the excellent road and clear sunny skies. We did the touristy thing and stopped at Old Faithful and it was great to see it erupt. We continued south through Yellowstone and entered Grand Tetons National Park which was a carpet of colour with flaming gold trees, red leaves and blue lakes everywhere.
We were now in Wyoming and heading south toward Utah. We travelled down highway 530 into barren mesa country toward the Wyoming-Utah border and then following advice from a local the night before, we turned off on Sheep Creek Drive to do a scenic loop through tall, narrow canyons of sandstone cliffs and caves and saw red trout spawning in a clear stream beneath a wooden bridge. Climbing out of the canyon through stands of yellow Aspen trees, we headed briefly back north to the spectacular Flaming Gorge lookout and then resumed our southern route via Red Canyon to Vernal Utah.
Riding from Vernal to Torrey through the “high desert” at 8 to 9,000 feet, we came across one of those out-of-the way roads that make you smile. This was Utah 72 south which commenced at the I 70 and headed south to Loa. It had a new surface, no traffic, great views and 30 miles of just about continuous, well-cambered curves. Next day we spent in Capitol Reef NP just outside Torrey. You drop a thousand feet from Torrey (elevation 7,000 feet) as you enter the park which has incredible scenery of red cliffs sculptured by water and wind to resemble sphinxes. Next day we spent in Bryce Canyon NP which was probably the most scenic of the national parks with salmon pink rocks eroded by a previous sea and then by millions of years of storm water into crazy shapes called “hoodoos” plus arches and spires.
We stayed at Kanab, Utah that night just a few miles from the Arizona state line in the Parry Lodge motel. Kanab is called “Little Hollywood” as lots of westerns were made in the area in the 1950’s and 60’s. Actors and film crew used to stay in the Parry Lodge which has separate little white bungalows, each bearing the name of actors and actresses who stayed there. Each night, there is a talk on the history of the place plus an old western film at the motel. We stayed two nights and rode down highway 89 south through Ponderosa forests and hills on a lovely winding road, stopping to buy turquoise jewelry from Navajo people at a roadside stall, to the north rim of the Grand Canyon.
Next stop was Zion National Park in Utah before heading back into Nevada. We headed down the interstate towards Las Vegas on what is actually a great bike road cutting through canyons and then skipped through the ring roads around the edges of Las Vegas at 60mph following the directions which Ilene had given us and trying desperately not to get sucked into any exits which would spill us into the city. What a mad-house as we tangled with the morning peak hour traffic who all knew where THEY were going at 50-70mph and with Highway Patrol cars everywhere nabbing drivers. Geoff stuck to my tail like glue and thankfully we escaped Las Vegas without incident and headed out along 95 north where it was 100 degrees F by mid-day as we turned off for Death Valley, California. By the time we had stopped to look at the desolate beauty of Zabriskie Point in the Amargosa range and then reached the aptly named Furnace Creek Ranch in Death Valley, it was 110 degrees F. We had a look around the Visitors Centre and learned about the mule trains which used to tow wagons of mined Borax to the railhead at Mojave for shipment and then went back to our aircon at the Ranch. Leaving Furnace Creek at 7am, it was 79 degrees F and we climbed through the desert vista from minus 200 feet to a 5,000 foot elevation in 40 miles. We saw lots of bikes riding to and from Death Valley and it is one of those places which everyone probably wants to visit once in their lives just to say they have seen it and (hopefully) survived.
After Death Valley, we worked our way across to highway 395 north and up to Lee Vining. Then it was up the scenic Tioga Pass ( elevation 9,945 feet) and into Yosemite NP where Carmen and I had started out national parks adventure the year before. A day later we were back at Mountain View and the odyssey was over. Riding in the USA is great. The people are extremely friendly and welcoming, the drivers are courteous, the food is plentiful and cheap and the road surfaces are fantastic. Add in magnificent scenery and lots of interesting and historical places to see and you can see why so many riders head to the USA.
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