Marc's Canyon Country Trip

H. Marc Lewis, August-2005

The middle of August, I visited friends in the Denver, Colorado area -- Jonna and Alan Fleming, Beth Dixon and Flash. They all gave me excellent recommendations for Colorado roads to take on my way to the canyon country of the four corners (UT/CO/AZ/NM) area, where I was headed next.

One of the first roads they recommended was the "Peak to peak" highway above Boulder and Fort Collins, aka CO Hwy 7. There was some great scenery to go with the excellent motorcycle road, this being one of the best shots. It's a chapel on a monastery/convent grounds, just north of the highway (specifically, Church-on-the-Rock at Camp Saint Malo). I took several shots with the Canon Digital Rebel XT SLR and then put it away before I noticed a woman artist had just arrived and was already at work. So I got this shot with my Minolta Dimage Xt.

I continued with a ride through Rocky Mountain N.P. which turned very interesting as I entered Estes Park. It had just started to rain, heavily, and I was congratulating myself on having put on my raingear before getting wet. That isn't always the case. I'm usually too optimistic and figure that either I won't get wet, or that the rain shower will be too brief to require stopping to don raingear.

As I neared town, the rain turned to hail. Very large hail that hurt when it hit my legs, even through my raingear, Aerostich riding suit, and jeans. I had to open my visor a bit as it was wet and fogged up, when I noticed I was in the tire tracks left in about 3" of hail standing on the road. I was surprised that I wasn't more concerned, riding along at 30mph, but somehow I wasn't.

In town the deluge overcame the drainage system and the outer lanes and sidewalks were completely under water. The cars were creating big bow wakes just like power boats. Lucky for me, just a mile or two out of town the skies cleared and the road was dry.

Rocky Mountain N.P. was awesome, and reminded me a lot of similar looking passes in the European Alps. The road reaches 12,183', and is claimed to be the highest continuous paved road in the United States. Unfortunately, the weather was a bit dicey, and there were long lines of very slow traffic, so I never stopped to take any photos. I hate having to pass the same vehicles twice!

Back in Fort Collins the next day, Beth and Flash said I just had to visit the Swetland Zoo, the creation of a very talented welder and junk collector. He had an eye for car, truck and farm machinery parts, and could visualize them as parts of prehistoric (or sometimes alien) creatures. These dinosaurs are typical -- the feet are parts of farm equipment, the legs and hips are automotive A-arms, the head is made from two oil pans, and the ribs are suspension springs. Neat, huh?

I headed southwest along CO Hwy 285 and as usual for that time of year, afternoon clouds formed over the mountains and thunderstorms developed. Here's a small cell just west of the road. Those mountains are pretty tall, as the fields are at about 7-8000'.

Hwy 285 is quite pretty, with varied scenery. I followed it to US 50, and headed west from there. Due to having only 5 days to spend, I skipped several of the interesting side trips that had been recommended, including CO 149 and 160 over Slumgullion, Spring Creek, and Wolf Creek passes -- all over 10,000'.

Next stop was the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, in southwest Colorado near Montrose. It turned out that there was a very neat, twisty motorcycle-friendly road leading down into the canyon. The photo above doesn't do it justice. The nice lady at the park entrance booth told me I could get good photos just about anywhere, but that the "bikers" all seemed to prefer this road.

The bottom of the canyon. Well worth the ride down, and a perfect place for a picnic and a relaxing afternoon nap. I didn't linger, however.

Back up at the canyon's rim is the visitor center, and this viewpoint on a narrow point of rock. I thought this shot was even more interesting than the view into the canyon -- I can never seem to get a photo that shows the perspective when looking down into a deep canyon. Black Canyon is pretty impressive, however, and well worth a visit. I'd never even heard of it before this trip.

From Montrose, I turned south to ride the famous "Million Dollar Highway" into Durango. I've heard two stories about how the highway got its name. One is that it cost $1,000,000 per mile to build. The story I prefer, however, is that the name derives from the value of the low-grade gold ore that makes up the roadbed itself.

Ouray, CO is where the Million Dollar highway starts. The roads were very uncrowded the last week of August, and that made them even more fun to ride on a motorcycle. I passed only one car in my lane (a Jeep, actually, that pulled way over for me to pass -- thanks, folks!) and saw less than one oncoming car per 5 minutes.

I stopped at Silverton for a cup of coffee, and saw this old half-track in front of a biker-friendly bar. Just had to get a photo of it. There were lots of motorcyclists, mostly in small groups of 2-4, on the road that day.

The view from Molas Divide, at 10,900'. The scenery on this road was spectacular, but frustrating as you kept seeing stuff you wanted to photograph, but knew that just around the corner was something even more amazing. I didn't take nearly enough photographs.

Partially that's because it is so awkward to shoot a digital SLR from a motorcycle. You have to stop, remove gloves, sunglasses and helmet, find a safe place to set them, then dig the camera out of it's padding in your luggage, take the shots, then reverse everything. It would be so much easier in my truck, but not nearly so much fun when underway!

At Four Corners, I took the same shot about 25 million other tourists have taken. Me, standing in Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico all at the same time. When I was here 20 years ago, you just rode right up to the monument, and there were a few blankets spread around with tourist trinkets for sale.

This site is on Indian land, and now has a small entry fee. It also is surrounded now by wooden stands displaying all manner of Indian crafts, particularly jewelry. In fact, the variety and prices here were better than anywhere else I visited. If you're in the market for gifts, this is a good place to get them at much lower prices than you'll find elsewhere.

The next segment of my trip included Mesa Verde N.P. and is covered in another Webpage...

After Mesa Verde, I headed southwest to Monument Valley. This shot is taken from the visitor's center. 20 years ago you got here for free, and had to pay only if you went into the park (the 17 mile dirt road in the photo above). Now you have to pay just to get to the visitor's center, whether you take the dirt road or not.

I wasn't sure how long it was going to take me to ride up to Moab, so I debated about taking the dirt road. I asked one of the park rangers, and she said there were numerous stretches of very loose sand. My R1200GS doesn't do loose sand well, so I elected to push north on the paved road.

Heading out of Monument Valley I saw this in the rear view mirror, and stopped to take a photo. There's a group of bikers in the lower right center to the right of the road, doing the same thing. I saw lots of motorcyclists in the canyon country, most on cruisers and in groups, riding bare-headed. The occasional BMW GS or KTM rider I saw was typically riding alone, with a helmet and full riding suit.

I waved at darn near every motorcyclist I encountered, and found most of them, even though they were primarily on Harleys and metric cruisers and I was on a BMW "adventure touring" bike, waved back. Some even beat me to it.

On UT Hwy 261, just north of Mexican Hat, is a park called "Gooseneck" above the San Juan River. Here's the view from the rim -- a series of big "switchbacks" in the river that created these weird big formations of land.

Further up Hwy 261 was Moki Dugway, a feature described to me by my friends as an abrupt unpaved climb up a steep cliff, where the paved road then continued north. There were several signs on 261 prior to this, warning travelers that the road was not recommended motor homes, RVs or vehicles towing trailers.

I stopped here to take this photo because it was hard to believe the road didn't simply end at the base of the cliff. But if you look carefully in the upper right edge of the photo, you can just make out the geometrically straight lines of a road and a switchback.

And here are some of those switchbacks. The road I took the previous photo from is in the middle left of this photo. Some of the switchbacks were paved, but the straighter parts between them were still gravel. From the top you can see all the way south to Monument Valley.

Wilson's arch, on UT 191 between Monticello and Moab, UT. One of the prettier arches in the southwest, and visible from the main highway. In fact, I parked and walked just 20' or so to get this shot. I believe this is on private land, or at least was at one time.

Arches like this are created by the twin effects of water (seeping into cracks, freezing and expanding thus breaking the rock) and wind (picking up sand and blasting the rock). They are constantly being formed, and being destroyed, by erosion.

The Colorado River flows past Moab, and this is a shot from about 10 miles downstream from town. There were a couple people swimming just off the point in the center of the photo, but they're too small to make out. This is the point where the paved road I was on turns to gravel.

I asked some workers at the potash plant if this road ascended to the mesa top above at a point where a huge rock had tipped over the road, creating a natural tunnel. One guy said "yes". Apparently he was dead wrong. The rock formations the road passed through were pretty gorgeous though.

Later, someone told me this is the dirt road that runs the length of Canyonlands N.P., a distance of well over 100 miles. I think I got another shot of it from Dead Horse Point (photos below).

Another interesting rock formation from the dirt road above. While I was shooting this, a Jeep came by so I flagged it down to ask about the road. After I'd voiced my question, they said "Okay" and just drove off. After a few seconds and realizing there was a hint of a German accent in their one-word reply, I realized they were probably tourists who rented the Jeep, and didn't have a clue as to what I'd said. Hearing foreign languages, particularly German, was quite common in the National Parks.

Dead Horse Point is a Utah State Park just northeast of Canyonlands. It overlooks Canyonlands and the Colorado valley to the east. Some locals told me it was one of the very best places to be at sunset. They were 100% correct. This was the view as I arrived, about 45 minutes before the sun went down.

The viewpoint is at about 6,000', and the Colorado River, visible in the following photos, is about 2,000' feet lower. The name, according to one legend, comes from a band of wild mustang horses that were left corralled on the point, but with the gate left open so they could return to the open range. For some reason, the horses remained there and died of thirst.

Ten minutes later, this shot is from the same spot, looking down on the Colorado River. The layers of sandstone forming the canyons were carved by erosion, primarily due to the river, over a period of 150 million years. The dirt road visible in this photo is, I believe, the same one I described above, and runs the length of Canyonlands N.P.

Some fires, or maybe just the wind, had put a lot of suspended stuff in the air, and it was quite hazy. The upside of that was that the sun turned quite red as it sank towards the horizon, casting a very reddish light on everything.

Just a few minutes before the sun disappeared beneath the horizon. It was magical up there -- totally silent, and just two other people there with me. I fired up the iPod my family gave me on my birthday a few weeks prior, and listened to some very inspiring music as I sat there watching the color change. Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man would have been perfect, but I didn't have it, so I settled for some Ravi Shankar ragas, and a couple haunting polyrhythms by Central African artists.

At the moment the sun set, I adjusted my camera to overexpose by a couple stops so I could get this shot. The sun was barely illuminating some of the cliff tops with a light that was almost florescent in intensity. It was actually very much "dusk" when I got this shot. Digital cameras are amazing, except for their damn linear response and truncated dynamic range.

The next morning I arose before dawn and rode into Arches N.P. (the gate is open 24 hours, with a drop-box for you to pay the entry fee). I stopped at the Courthouse Towers where a bunch of people had set up cameras on tripods. It looked like a good place to witness the sunrise, and it was certainly a popular spot. It turned out the photographers were all Italians, and only a few of them spoke English.

And it was a great spot!

The rising sun cast a red glow on this formation that reminded me a lot of Ayres Rock (now called Uluru, I believe) in central Australia. Of the handful of parks I visited, I think Arches had the most spectacular rock formations of all. I could spend two or three weeks there alone, taking photos, and probably only begin to capture what's there. I imagine in the winter it's a totally different experience, too.

Delicate Arch, from the south, an hour or so after sunrise (the park recommends sunset as the best time photos of this arch). You can actually hike all the way up to this arch, and if you look closely you can just make out some people below the opening. It's a big arch. It's also a long fall if you get too close to the edge.

Someone told me they put a huge billboard with a picture of Delicate Arch on one of the major Autobahns in Germany, and thereafter the influx of German tourists to all the southwest National Parks very noticeably increased.

In hiking back down from here, I stopped to visit with a nice couple from India. We shared a bunch of information about the good places to see in our respective countries, and life in general in 2005. The three of us felt strangely connected as human beings in the presence of such geographic beauty, and the world seemed a bit smaller, but more friendly, as we talked.


I rode a lot of passes in Colorado that were over 10,000' in elevation above sea level. Independence Pass, the second highest I rode over, was my favorite. The road up from Aspen, CO twists through a beautiful aspen forest, and the day I rode it was almost devoid of traffic. The summit would look like a pass in the Alps if it had a resturant/bar. The ride down the other slope was equally fun, though the character of the road was quite different.

I spent the night in Leadville, CO and awoke to find a thick coating of ice on the bike. It would run as long as I kept my thumb on the starter, but stop immediately after I let go. So I pushed the bike into the sunshine and went next door for an early morning cup of coffee. The cafe was closed, so I went back and experimented with throttle manipulations until I got it started. Later I got email from another R1200GS rider who lives in a very cold area, and parks outside, and said his bike does the same thing. Weird.

Later that day I rolled back into Denver, to witness the finish of the Ironbutt Rally and help record ending odometer readings.

A few days later I was home, safe and sound...

Copyright © 2005, by H. Marc Lewis. All rights reserved.