We’d planned to do an REI bike, hike and camping tour of Bryce & Zion in September 2020. Due to Covid that was, of course, cancelled. We were delighted to discover Lynn & Pat’s company Tandem Bicycle Tours leading an all-tandem tour that was hotel–based, with only a dozen tandems. We were lucky enough to get in from the wait list. They work with Black Sheep Adventures to support the tour and they were fabulous.
We spent 4 days driving down to the start in St. George, Utah, a full week cycling and hiking, and a quick 3 days back home. It was sunny and mostly pretty cold all week. We had a fabulous time logging about 250 miles and 16,743 feet of elevation gain. One of the biggest challenges, coming from Seattle’s sea level, was cycling and hiking at altitude. But we did amazingly well. We hope you’ll enjoy the stories and photos we share below.
Driving to St. George
Our generous neighbors, Paulina and Luke, offered their fully-tricked out camper van “Maxi” to transport our bike and gear to Utah. It was going to take around 21 hours of driving so we cut it into 5 legs, hoping that we’d squeeze in at least one bike ride. First we drove to visit my brother Phil and his wife Greta in Tri-Cities. We had fun playing pinochle, working on a jigsaw puzzle and helping Phil repair his new e-bike. We took their advice and stayed along the Snake River at the Oregon-Idaho border at Farewell Bend State Park the next night. We decided to try a Utah State park near Salt Lake the next night which had great views of the Great Salt Lake. The next day we turned inland to a campground we’d reserved in Antimony, UT. We bought 5 gallons of fuel at $5/gallon to be sure we could make it. We enjoyed a great hike in the mostly empty campground and were able to tap some WiFi from the General Store. We also had the privilege of driving through a herd of sheep walking down the small town of Aurora’s main street. That was a new one for both of us.
We took turns driving every hour or so and tried to walk and stretch whenever we stopped. We’d also scouted out Costcos along the way for good gas prices. We both had good books to read when we weren’t driving.
On our last day of travel, we snuck in a 20 mile ride on the way to St. George – just a short out and back from KenarraVille to New Harmony. The headwinds were terrific! Little did we know that was to be a pattern. Once we’d checked out the hotel which was to be our starting place for the tour the next morning, we went to Snow Canyon Park to try to score a campsite. Alas when we got to the entrance the sign said “Campground Full”. But since it never hurts to ask, as Sheila likes to say, I queried if it was really full. The ranger said there might be a vacancy since they’d had a cancellation. That turned out to be accurate so we got the last spot in the park. We had time for a shower and a very short hike before dark. It was a place you could easily spend a week and still not see it all.
We were ready for our biking adventure to begin. But first here are photos of the driving leg of the trip. Each section will have a group of photos you can view as a slideshow.
Sunday October 17: Torrey to Capitol Reef
25.5 miles, 1150’ elevation gain
Sunday they planned to shuttle us from St. George to Torrey, a 3+ hour drive. It was an amazing sight to behold, 2 fifteen passenger vans each towing a trailer with a half-dozen tandems on top. We wore masks even though we were all vaccinated and tested negative. The drive gave us a chance to get acquainted with each other. Along the way we got to see the childhood home of Butch Cassidy. Woohoo.
Once we emptied the vans in Torrey, we went on a 25 mile ride though Capitol Reef National Monument. There were giant sandstone formations left and right. We rode mostly with a couple (Jim and Trish from Louisville) celebrating their anniversary on their new Bike Friday. The ride gave us a chance to see what riding at altitude felt like. At one point I got nauseous halfway up a hill and quickly shot an energy gel to regain my strength. The group photo at the top was taken at the turnaround moments before the last two bikes arrived. Sorry! All of us were psyched for the real trip to start.
Monday October 18: Torrey to Boulder
36.9 miles, 4039’ gain
Today’s ride was all about the climb over Boulder Mountain Pass. It was nearly 20 miles long, more than half of our ride. It varied from a steady 4% to more than 10%. All we could do was just keep turning the pedals. We topped out at 9600’ with winds pushing the bike every which way. Did I mention the temperature? 25 degrees or 16.6 with wind chill. We used 60% of battery but were glad that the traffic was light and the shoulders were wide. The ride down was steeper, but the winds kept our speed below 40. We were soon joined by Neil and Sally (also e-assist) and Scott and Cyleen (without a motor). We stayed at Hell’s Backbone Grill & Farm with well-appointed amenities including two massage chairs! Those won us over after that difficult ride. We enjoyed a hot soy chai while we tried to warm up and waited for our bags to arrive. Our dinner was provided by the on-site award-winning restaurant. This woman and chef-owned, farm to-table restaurant is an anomaly with their Buddhist principles in a Mormon town of 200. The organic and locally sourced food was excellent including our vegan option (kale salad and tofu veggies with rice). Sheila found this long but interesting article about their efforts and the area in general and this 9 minute PBS video about them which has some breathtaking drone shots of the area.
Tuesday October 19: Boulder to Tropic
66 miles, 4308’ gain
Another beautiful sunny day, with blissfully lighter winds. We hit the day’s top speed ¼ mile from start, 43.6 mph. We rode Escalante Staircase along a narrow ridge with vistas on both sides. There were some fast and twisty descents. We did use our electric assist, “Tess”, for help on the ups. There was a lot of putting clothes on and taking them off. In the afternoon we had another long, but gentle, climb. It was fun to race Neil and Sally to top of the last pass. Then we rode easy, until barn fever had us use level 3 over the last 4 miles. Leftover Breakfast burrito from Backbone for lunch, then another for dinner plus a microwave baked potato as tonight’s dinner was not included.
Wednesday October 20: Tropic to Bryce Canyon
44.7 miles, 4256’ gain
This felt like the toughest climb of the trip because it came after 2 days of climbing. We were worried about running through the battery so we used it as little as possible. But we really needed to use it and were happy to have the boost. Weather turned cloudy for a while, then sunny. We were off by ourselves in front much of the day. This route took us to Rainbow Point, 9115’ elevation at mile 28 (notice the snow in the photos). We had to stop often because of the effects of altitude as well as the cold wind. We ate a little every time we stopped and drank a lot. So we peed a lot too. TMI? All along the way there were magnificent vistas. The hoodoos were striking. None of the pictures can do them justice. Got to the top and discovered some teams had sagged to the top. Some then opted to ride down. Some who had ridden up opted to sag down. We rode both ways stopping at a couple of viewpoints we’d skipped on the way up. We were VERY tired puppies when we got in. Glad to have a day off the bike planned in Bryce.
Thursday October 21
Hiking in Bryce Canyon
Today started with a bang, literally. We’d been told the sunrises here were spectacular. Sheila, having been awake for hours, bundled up and tried to sneak out to see it at 7:30. But the door required slamming. I leapt out of bed, threw open the curtains and saw more orange and red on the horizon than I could believe. I threw on my clothes and chased her to the nearby rim of the canyon. The brilliance of the pre-rise was dwindling rapidly, but we stayed out and took lots of photos of the changing light on the hoodoos.
We soon breakfasted at the Bryce Canyon Lodge where we are staying. The lodge wasn’t seating anyone indoors for meals. Black Sheep Adventures, our tour leaders, managed to secure a private dining room for our group bubble for dinner last night and breakfast this morning. It’s been pretty amazing to function so normally together. It was particularly nice since it was 26 degrees outside!
Most of the group set out on a 5-6 mile walk into the canyon together. That was a bit more than we could do, so we plotted our own course and started about 30 minutes later, hiking about 3.5 miles. For those watching on TV, we took the winding route from Sunset Point down to the canyon floor, then past Queen’s Garden, and back up via Sunrise Point. It was amazing. The spires towered over us as we went down. Deep clefts opened up alongside the trail. Ancient trees clutched the earth, oftentimes with huge roots exposed from erosion. The setting demanded pictures, yet the pictures fail to capture the majesty of the scenery. When we reached the bottom of the canyon, we crossed paths with our compadres taking a break at an intersection. After a short visit, they continued north while we headed south.
One nice thing about touring in October is the lack of crowds. There was enough space between hikers that you felt alone, if not off the beaten track. One funny instance occurred when we saw a couple Sheila talked to at an overlook on yesterday’s ride. They recognized us because of Sheila’s turquoise glasses and our tandem talk headsets even though we weren’t wearing our cycling gear.
After a late lunch, we chased alleged WiFi spots, better known as “why try”. Then we gave in to the cool temperatures and relaxed with books and prepped for our last riding day tomorrow.
Friday October 22: Bryce Canyon to Zion
44 miles, 1675’ gain
The plan for today was the most complicated yet. We had to avoid a long, busy Highway 89 and a 2 mile long tunnel on the way to Zion. That meant we actually rode three short legs. Everyone was urged to “not dawdle” so those transfers would be as efficient as possible. Since we had packed the night before, all we had to do was start riding at 8:50. Of course that meant the first leg was COLD… 28 degrees! It was all on bike trail from Bryce to Mt. Carmel Junction which was pleasant but relatively unremarkable until we dropped through Red Rock Canyon. Again, pictures failed us because in the early light these rocks were bright red/rust colored. We stopped around mile 16 having only gained 370′. Fred and Dave, our Black Sheep guides, loaded up the trailers. Then we piled into cars for the 45 minute drive to Mt. Carmel Junction.
Bikes were unloaded and we prepared for the next leg by reloading all the gear we’d removed so the bikes could be on top of the vans. Since we were 2,000′ feet lower and the sun was shining, everyone stripped down to shorts and no jackets for the first time all week. By the time we reached the valley floor it would be a warm 83 degrees. Some grabbed lunches from the local Subway. We had tons of ride food (gorp, fried potatoes, energy bars, even a chocolate soy shake) so we headed right out. This segment was one long easy up, followed by an equally long, but a bit more steep descent to the Mt. Camel Tunnel from which bikes were prohibited. Bikes are supposed to be spaced out 4 bikes/half mile inside the park. Our leaders told us the Rangers weren’t going to allow tandems in AT ALL originally. Some sweet-talking followed and we got the OK before we left Bryce. It was a good thing. Once we got into the park proper, it was all huge cliffs bisected by windy roads. Nearly every pullout was crowded with cars, so we rolled down with Sheila grabbing pictures on the fly. Somehow, Fred scored a turnout big enough for both our vans just shy of the tunnel. We were the second bike there. I took a stance on a boulder to be quickly visible to the other riders so they wouldn’t miss the vans. Once again we loaded the vans with bikes and riders and made the 2 mile transit. They only let vehicles go one way at a time in the tunnel.
Bikes off one last time and teams went down as they were ready. This section was full of hairpin turns as we approached the canyon floor. We were very lucky to catch a large gap in the downhill traffic. We were most of the way to the park entrance on the canyon floor before cars started to pass us. We went directly to our hotel, the Desert Pearl, a classy place with a pool, hot tub, full kitchen in each unit and a bidet. We bought new Black Sheep Adventures jerseys, our first new ones in many years. Later we all went out for Mexican food which was very good, but spicier than we might’ve chosen. A walk home closed out our last long ride of the week.
Saturday, October 23: Exploring Zion’s Canyon
20 miles, 675’ gain
We had to decide what to do on our last day. Zion was MUCH more crowded than Bryce had been, plus it was a Saturday so there would even more people. We opted to combine a short ride with a short hike to get another view of Zion. We wore our new Black Sheep jerseys. Fit is such a funny thing for bike gear. Fred had said they were European and ran very small. Every company has their own sizing methods and none of them work for Sheila who is very short-waisted. But we found if she wore a Men’s Large it fit mostly OK. Conversely, I fit better into a Women’s XL. Go figure. Since we were going to hike at our mid-point, we left most of our heavy bike gear behind and stuffed the essentials into a backpack for me to wear while riding. That enabled us to hike with the backpack and not leave anything valuable on the locked bike while we were off hiking. It worked well though it made it harder for Sheila to see anything.
We left around 10:30 to ride 10 miles into the narrowest portion of the canyon. Along the way we crossed and re-crossed the Virgin River which carries 5,000 tons of stone downstream DAILY as it carves its way down the canyon. When we got back on the park road we were in a section which only had trams and bikes which made the cycling much easier. Only rarely did we need to pull over to let trams go by. We used Tess’ battery power liberally to make it a rest day. Even so, we were passed often by riders whose bikes didn’t even require them to pedal! We also saw three other tandem teams from our tour riding back down the road as we road up.
We thought we were beating the crowds until we got to the end of the line at the Temple of Sunawava. Trams were spilling hundreds of passengers every few minutes there. We masked up as we struggled through the waves of humanity as we started our hike. Sheila said she was feeling claustrophobic. Many people were going on “riverwalks”. They’d rent special sneakers, waders and long wooden poles to keep them warm and “dry” as they’d hike down the river in the river. We were passed by many groups of them either heading further upstream or retreating down the trail we walked up. Eventually, we found a spot by the river where it felt somewhat secluded to share a lunch and a break. We saw a large crane sitting on a log, then were surprised by 2 women walking down through the river. They said it had been there when they went up early this morning. Feeling pressed again, we opted to head back to the bike. The trip downhill was very pleasant. We had an early dinner at a nearby Thai place to avoid the lines and to eat outdoors. We had a lovely view of the sunset on the mountains. All we have left is packing for our imminent return to Seattle. It’s been a great trip with great folks. Note: the first image is courtesy of Liz Brown who took the sunrise at our hotel, the Desert Pearl, swimming pool this morning.
Parting is such sweet sorrow
We’ve had a fabulous week and made new friends who we hope we’ll stay in touch with and possibly ride with again. As we pack for the hour drive back to St. George in the van we’re completing this post. We want to thank our fearless leaders Lynn & Patrick of Tandem Bicycle Tours and Fred & Dave of Black Sheep Adventures for all their attention to detail and extra effort to address everyone’s needs. We’ll take 3 days to drive home to Seattle in Maxi. We’ll stay at a couple of the same campgrounds and will be offline as connections on the road are inconsistent at best. We’re looking forward to sleeping in our own bed and seeing our cohousing family again.
So glad to be home. We decided to drive longer the first two days so that we could get home earlier on Tuesday and do all the settling in, like unpacking, laundry and cleaning Maxi (the van). So we didn’t stay at the same campgrounds. Spencer found a remote and nearly vacant little place called Lake Walcott. It was the first time on the trip we had rain and the first time we were driving in the dark. The second night we stopped again at Phil & Greta’s and again enjoyed both pinochle and puzzling. As we were leaving we saw this rainbow. The photo of us hugging by the van was taken by a stranger at the rest area who said “I have a cute picture of you two if you want it…”.