Southwest Tour: Waiting for the Thaw

    American Honda
    Apr 29, 2013

Had enough of winter? Then get ready to ride, because spring is a’comin’!

So you’ve eaten more than your fill of chestnuts roasted on an open fire. And if Jack Frost nips at your nose just one more time, you’ll haul off and kick him in the shins. Feeling a little tense, are you? Relax pilgrim, you’re not losing your grip on reality; it’s just the winter doldrums setting in.

Over the years, we’ve found a motorcyclist’s best defense against the wintertime blues is a strong offensive push—in the form of concrete plans for a road trip just as soon as the landscape thaws out a tad. To that end, we’ve assembled a potpourri of luscious road trips with destinations scattered all around this great country of ours. From desert to mountains, prairies and the seashore—whatever flavor you favor, here it is.

Even if the scenery outside is still done up predominantly in shades of white, it’s certainly not too early to start thinking about your next riding destination.

OK, imagine this...

The year is 1540 and your boss, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, has given you a new assignment: go north from Mexico and help locate the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola, a.k.a. the Seven Cities of Gold.

Now, this is exciting stuff. You and your company of men will be among the first Europeans to explore this part of the New World. And when you locate the Cities of Gold, you’ll obviously be first in line for incredible riches, glory and a big promotion to boot. You set off with high hopes.

Weeks later, reality sets in. You and your men continue to drag your sorry armor-clad carcasses through miles and miles of wide-open desert and you’ve not seen a single speck of gold. Sure, the wealth of grand vistas and geological formations amaze you and your men; nothing in Europe approaches this natural wonder, especially on such a spectacular scope. But this is a business trip, not a vacation.

At long last, the arid desert reveals a hidden treasure. Not gold, but water, and lots of it, something you, your men and your horses desperately need in this arid clime. But there’s a catch: You stand on the banks overlooking this clear, cold, raging torrent, but it lies 500 feet below, straight down a sheer cliff. You gaze across the vast chasm to the far shore, a span covering many miles; how much water has churned past for how many centuries to erode such an immense rift in the Earth?

But never mind the splendor: You need water and you need to cross if you want any chance of finding these so-called Cities of Gold—about which you’ve grown more than a little skeptical. So you send scouting parties upstream and downstream to locate a river access and fording point. Days later, your men return and report their search has been fruitless; this huge canyon and the coursing torrent that formed it cannot be crossed. And so it was that Captain Garcia Lopez de Cardenas returned to Mexico, a failure.

Fast-forward centuries, and we are way ahead of the good captain. In the ensuing years, we’ve managed to build a grand total of one bridge within a 600-mile stretch of the Colorado River: the celebrated Navajo Bridge. Throw in one more crossing downstream at the world-famous Hoover Dam, which bottles up what is now Lake Mead—another triumph of modern technology de Cardenas was fated to never behold. Better yet, where he had to make do with hay-burning European mounts pumping out 1.0 horsepower, we’re equipped with a fleet of Honda’s finest ground-gobbling touring and sport-touring machines.

Unless you want to count nearby Las Vegas, to this day no City of Gold can be found in these parts. However, natural wonders abound, and by linking these two crossing points a loop of 700 to 800 miles reveals many of the Southwest’s most picturesque sights, some famous, others less so. We’ll begin this tour at the Hoover Dam simply because it’s impossible to miss something this big, then proceed clockwise as we tour these wonders of the Southwest.

Hoover Dam is a testimony to American determination, rather than nature’s artistry. Built during the Depression, thousands of men and their families came to Black Canyon to tame the Colorado River. And in less than five years, they completed the largest dam of its time. Now, more than 75 years later, Hoover Dam still stands as a world-renowned structure. The dam is a National Historic Landmark and has been rated by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of America’s Seven Modern Civil Engineering Wonders.

From Hoover Dam, we jump over to Nevada’s scenic State Highway 167, which skirts Lake Mead. It’s an undulating ride, perfect for the bikes we’ve chosen. Located near the north end of the lake, the Valley of Fire is Nevada’s oldest and largest state park. The rough floor and jagged walls of the park contain brilliant formations of eroded sandstone and sand dunes more than 150 million years old. At dawn and sunset, these features often appear to be on fire when glowing red with the sun’s rays; hence, the name Valley of Fire.

Native American petroglyphs can be found located on the cliff walls in the park, which offers a number of great hikes ranging from strenuous to easy-to-do even while wearing riding boots. If you have never been in a slot canyon—a very narrow canyon with high walls—this is your chance. Try the trail that begins at the White Domes picnic area. Nearby you can also visit the abandoned movie set used to film “The Professionals,” starring Burt Lancaster and Lee Marvin. This is the only movie set left in Valley of Fire. The Park Service no longer allows movie sets to be abandoned in the park; this set has been here since 1966 when the film was produced.

Next, we motor along Interstate Highway 15 and head east to St. George, Utah. Although the flat, straight road is not a motorcycling challenge, you’ll get a front-row view of vast stretches of desert landscape—an interstate worthy of scenic road designation on some maps. After putting in miles of steady-state cruising, we thoroughly enjoy the short, winding uphill climb along State Highway 9 that takes us to Hurricane, Utah. Once there, it’s nearly impossible to bypass the nearby wonders of Zion National Park, even though it means backtracking to return to our loop.

Zion National Park encompasses some 150,000 acres of wild canyon country, with the vast majority of visitors visiting Zion Canyon, arguably the most visually arresting sight to be found among the many geological wonders in Utah. Here you will see sheer red and white sandstone cliffs towering 2500 feet above the North Fork of the Virgin River. These spectacular cliffs gradually grow closer together upstream until they are separated by a mere 30-foot gap in places.

In addition, the Kolob Canyons of the northwest feature a separate visitor center. A short scenic drive leads to a high vantage point with panoramic views that serve as a stark contrast to those in Zion Canyon, which follows the river along the valley floor. This region is equally spectacular, albeit on a slightly smaller scale. Also, there are good hiking opportunities and the region is much more tranquil and less crowded with visitors.

Back to Hurricane, and State Highway 59 takes us up a steep grade to a high plateau. After 25 miles we cross into Arizona, where you can drop in on Pipe Spring National Monument.

Few people visit Pipe Spring, but the old fort here is worth a short visit. At the visitor center, a 10-minute video explains the history of the area. A path leads through gardens and past areas of crops to the fort and to several other buildings and exhibits. These include a blacksmith’s shop, riding sheds, plus two ponds with resident fish. The spring itself is covered by the fort; the water runs underground through pipes and across one room in an open trough before emerging to supply the ponds.

Next, we continue to Fredonia (wasn’t that the name of a fictitious country in a Marx Brothers film?) where we pick up U.S. Highway 89A (for alternate) that takes us east, then south to Jacob Lake. Here, a detour on Arizona State Highway 67 takes us on through the Kaibab National Forest to the gorgeous North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. This dead-end road is little-traveled and it culminates at Cape Royal. It’s a spectacular and thoroughly enjoyable ride, especially with the lack of traffic; well worth the time. But beware; the road climbs to 8800 feet, a high pass that can be quite chilly in summer and is closed in winter.

Back to 89A, we ride through Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, a 293,000-acre monument located in northern Arizona, which includes the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness. The monument is a geological wonder, with its centerpiece the majestic Paria Plateau, a grand terrace lying between two great geologic structures, the East Kaibab and the Echo Cliffs monoclines. The Vermilion Cliffs, which lie along the southern edge of the Paria Plateau, rise 3,000 feet in a spectacular escarpment capped with sandstone underlain by multicolored, actively eroding layers of shale and sandstone.

Next we cross Navajo Bridge, contained within the boundaries of Grand Canyon National Park. This is the only crossing of the Colorado River for a stretch of 600 miles, and the $15-million steel arch bridge carries traffic across Marble Canyon, 470 feet above the Colorado River. The old Navajo Bridge, built in 1929, remains alongside the new span where it still serves as a pedestrian-only bridge. Definitely worth the stroll and look-see, and don’t forget to spit off the bridge.

At the town of Cameron, we hang a right onto State Highway 64 and look for the Little Colorado Gorge Overlook. The narrow gorge of the Little Colorado conceals an astonishing depth, and the walls are almost colorless, gray, grim, and forbidding—a striking contrast to the upcoming vistas of the Grand Canyon, as seen from the South Rim. Here, Grand Canyon National Park can be quite crowded, but the view truly lives up to its billing—photographs just don’t do justice to the scope and majesty of Grand Canyon. Plan to spend a little time here and just soak in the magnificent vistas.

Riding south on Arizona 64 takes us across the Coconino Plateau to Interstate Highway 40 and the town of Williams. If you have a weakness for old steam-powered trains, at Williams you can hop aboard the historic Grand Canyon Railway and chug back for a reprise viewing of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. The trip includes an entourage of cowboy characters, strolling musicians, and a mock train robbery as train travel from the early 1900s is recreated during the scenic 65-mile journey.

After 40 miles of westbound travel on I-40, we exit at Seligman to pick up the longest stretch of the original Route 66. This isn’t just an 88-mile detour for nostalgia’s sake—though that’s plenty reason in and of itself. In 22 miles you’ll find the Grand Canyon Caverns, a natural limestone cavern 210 feet underground with walls formed in prehistoric times by an inland sea. Fossils and the bones of long-extinct animals have been found in the caverns. Visitors enter and leave the caverns by means of an elevator, and while the Grand Canyon Caverns have been open to the public for more than 75 years, each year new discoveries are uncovered.

Route 66 takes us through the towns of Peach Springs and Valentine along the Hualapai Valley before we land in Kingman, a good spot for refreshments. Finally, a last dash up U.S. Highway 93 brings us back to the Hoover Dam.

With our loop complete, we can revel in the thought that within a few days of spectacular riding, we have discovered more treasures than Captain de Cardenas found in his entire lifetime, at speeds he never dreamed possible, aboard machines complex beyond the farthest stretches of his 16th-century imagination. Add that all up, and the sum total is better than striking gold.

Honda Powersports
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