Monument Valley | Motorcycle Travel
We sat on our motorcycles, overlooking Monument Valley from the north, feeling this Navajo chant resonating deeply inside, absorbing the awesome beauty and majesty of the vista that lay before us. I was mesmerized, appreciating the moment-to-moment shifting of light and shadow and color, taking it all in with every breath, with every sense. My riding buddy and I silently shared the tranquility, the moment and the incredibly powerful beauty of the place—she, every bit as captivated as I.
Then, in a rude blast of noise and violation, a minivan came rushing up near us and skidded to a stop in a cloud of dust. The four-wheeled tin can ruptured at the seams and from them a hoard of noisy kids erupted. The parents—screaming conflicting orders to their seemingly deaf brood—tried to coax the last child out to see the sights but Shrek on the minivan’s DVD player was far more interesting. Dad pleaded, “We’ve come all this way. It’s beautiful. You might never see this place again.” Mom sympathized with her smaller version, “Aww, leave her alone. Everything has looked the same for the last 200 miles. It’s so desolate. I can’t believe that people actually live here. I can’t wait to get to Vegas.” How can members of the same species respond so differently to the same stimuli? The biker cliché of destination, journey and life jumped right out and became real. Thankfully, the interlopers were quickly gone, eyes glued to the screen in the minivan, blazing a trail to Vegas. Yet it took a while for the aura of the magical place to return to what it had been. We took the time. We made the time. It’s the one big thing that elevates motorcycle touring above any other form of recreational transportation—that sense of actually experiencing a place as you ride through it—the minute changes of temperature, smell and life. “Beauty is before me.” (Click image to enlarge)
Canyon de Chelly, Monument Valley, Valley of the Gods, Canyonlands, Arches, Capital Reef, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Grand Canyon, Lake Powell, Antelope Canyon—any one of these special places is a world-class destination in itself. To have all of them situated along a wonderfully convenient Grand Loop through northern Arizona and southern Utah is simply breathtaking and what makes this loop such a popular destination for foreign travelers. Underutilized and underappreciated by U.S. tourists, much of it is wide open and uncrowded—perfect for a motorcycle tour. A rider can enter the loop anywhere along its path and easily follow it around and back to the starting point in a week to 10 days. It is a trip well worth planning. It is the ride of a lifetime. (Click images to enlarge)
In the predawn dark, we turned over the big twin engines of our Harley touring bikes—hers a brand new purple and silver, factory custom Road King and mine a well-experienced, black and chrome Electraglide Classic. We elected to make a single hard push from Houston to Gallup, N.M., to allow us as much time in canyon country as possible. A marathon ride like this is neither recommended nor particularly fun, but sometimes it’s worth it.
Relaxed and refreshed by a good night’s sleep, we began our Grand Loop ride by heading directly to Chinle, Ariz., and Canyon de Chelly. This national monument is a deep, wide and winding canyon cut into the sandstone by various rivers and streams, beginning with the Chinle Wash. The ride to and around Canyon de Chelly is fantastic. The roads are smooth, with new blacktop winding around the rim of the canyon, gaining and losing elevation with the surrounding terrain. The many scenic overlooks provide views both deep into the four gorges that make up Canyon de Chelly and up to the panoramas of the high plateaus and mountains in the distance. Throughout the canyon, well-preserved, cliffside ruins are remnants of the Anasazi who thrived in this area for a thousand years until the mid-1300s when, for reasons still unexplained, they simply disappeared, leaving behind a rich legacy of dwellings, petroglyphs and pottery. The canyon itself lies entirely within the Navajo reservation, and access to the canyon floor is limited to 4-wheel and horseback excursions escorted by Navajo guides. It’s great to be exposed to the local history and culture by the people who have lived here the last 400 years or so, and, at the same time, experience the canyon from the awesome perspective of being within. “Beauty is around me.” (Click images to enlarge)
From Chinle, we headed across the desert to Kayenta, Ariz. The roads were empty of traffic and, as the sun approached the western horizon, the air took on a bit of October chill. The sky and the few high, thin cirrus clouds were illuminated with the most glorious shades of blue, pink and purple. “Beauty is above me.”Surrounded by the ever-changing hues of the desert responding to the light show from above, with only the syncopated sounds of the Harleys and the wind, it was a glorious evening ride to Kayenta, the doorway from the south to Monument Valley.
Monument Valley Tribal Park is on the Arizona-Utah border and is one of the most brilliant jewels in the American Southwest. Its scenic wonders populate a long list of the most memorable Western images in movies, advertising and still photography. Yet nothing captures the sheer majesty and power of the place like being there. The ride up U.S. Highway 163 from Kayenta to Mexican Hat, Utah, runs right through the valley, which is broad and flat, ringed with high red rock cliffs and populated with mesas, buttes, monuments, spires and red sand dunes. Monument Valley is a treasure trove of scenic delight, history and Navajo culture. I have ridden the short scenic loop that is open to the public without escort, however, I heartily recommend paying one of the local Navajo companies for a guided tour. The three-hour journey will reward you with up-close and personal photo opportunities of the physical beauty, as well as historical and cultural perspectives that are necessary to fully appreciate the wonders of Monument Valley. I have, in the past, talked the guides into letting me ride the full tour if road conditions deep in the backcountry permit; unfortunately, this time they didn’t, at least for the big Harleys. Make certain to time your arrival at the visitor center to allow for either a sunrise or sunset. It is truly a magical place, and as the sun rises or sets, the entire palette shifts, coloring and being colored by sky and earth. We sat at the rim looking down into the valley at Mitten View and saluted the end of a fabulous day of riding by smoking a prized 10-year-old Cuban cigar, brought along for just this occasion—a Monte Cristo #2. “Beauty is below me.” (Click image to enlarge)
Following the religious experience of a Monument Valley sunrise, graced by a crescent moon, the ride north was delightful in the cool of the morning. A quick detour to see the Goosenecks of the San Juan is another side trip that is a must. From an overlook high above, you look down into the 1,000-foot-deep canyon cut into the layered slick rock by the San Juan River as it wanders back and forth in an accordion path. It meanders 22 miles in length by water, yet just over a single mile if you were to take a straight line. It is an awesome spot for a picnic or a cigar.
From Goosenecks, the road ahead leads to Canyonlands and Arches National Parks, seldom-visited jewels in the Grand Loop. These two parks, though right on top of each other near Moab, Utah, couldn’t be more different for the rider. Canyonlands is characterized by rides along the high plateau and breathtaking overlooks down into scenic panoramas with a scope and majesty that defy comprehension. Arches is more intimate, allowing you to get up-close and personal with the arches—large and small, massive and delicate—that give this area its name. (Click images to enlarge)
From Moab, a good day’s ride took us out to Utah Highway 128, which runs alongside the Colorado River for miles in a canyon—sometimes just wide enough for the river and the road—with the canyon walls soaring a thousand feet straight up. Then we rode on to Utah Highway 12, universally rated as one of America’s most scenic byways. It was a smooth and simply lovely road of twisting, perfectly banked curves switching back and forth, with cliff face on one side and deep canyon on the other. Then, out of nowhere, the cliff face simply disappeared and the plateau fell away on both sides. The narrow, twisty road now ran along a razor-thin ridge, barely wide enough for the no-shoulder, two-lane road, with precipitous falls into deep canyons on both sides. The road wound on through cedar, gloriously colorful aspen and piñon pine forests, through Capitol Reef National Park and the Grand Staircase Escalante. We finally ended the day at the threshold of Bryce Canyon, buzzing with the sensory overload of the day’s ride.
From an elevated overlook at Bryce, the horizon, far in the distance, was not yet showing even a thin line of real light, but rather simply a dilution of the darkness. Soon, however, the sun began its ascent, first dimly edging and then providing that magical golden light that seems to illuminate from within Bryce Canyon’s hoodoos, spires and cliffs, with their hauntingly beautiful golden glow. The bizarre shapes and sheer numbers of the hoodoos make you step back and marvel at nature’s handiwork. The art of the sculptor, they say, is to be able to look at that solid, shapeless block of substance and see the art that resides within. Then, with patient skill, remove all the material that isn’t art. In Bryce Canyon, nature’s art is everywhere, and the process of sculpting and refining goes on moment by moment. As we experience it, it is changing slowly, constantly, beautifully becoming something new for us to witness on our next ride through. “Beauty is around me.” (Click image to enlarge)
By 9 am we were in the saddle and headed for the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and two wonderful nights of luxury in the cabins at the fabulous Grand Canyon Lodge, a log-constructed relic from the 1930s. The dining room, verandas and multiple overlooks provide everything you could ask for from the Grand Canyon—all within walking distance—but we couldn’t resist the wonderful roads, and spent much of the day exploring away from the lodge, returning only for sunset cocktails and cigars. (Click image to enlarge)Despite the October cold morning (27 degrees at 8,500 feet), the Harleys kicked right over. (I’ll never give up fuel injection.) The ride out of the North Rim through huge, wide-open meadows and lush pine forests was spectacular. The new blacktop road was almost too smooth and perfect. By the time we wound down the switchbacks off the Kaibab Plateau and along the Vermillion Cliffs—less than 90 minutes after leaving the lodge—the temperature was comfortably in the mid-70s and lovely for the ride into Page, Ariz., home of Lake Powell and Antelope Canyon. A 50-degree temperature change in 90 minutes proves the value of layering clothing when riding.
Antelope Canyon, undiscovered by tourists until recently, has long been the secret spot of serious photographers looking for a surrealistic fairyland carved out of multihued sandstone slickrock. This slot canyon is only a few feet wide in some places and never wider than a small room. It wanders and winds for a quarter mile before opening up again on the other side. The red, orange, and yellow sandstone walls of the canyon are scoured, rounded and sculpted by the periodic floods that rush through the narrow defile at speeds up to 80 mph and nearly 50 feet deep. Thus, the canyon is constantly reshaped and formed. The soft sand floor of the canyon immediately begins to build up again with sand blowing in from the narrow crack a hundred feet above. It is because of this flooding that care must be taken and weather reports checked, especially in late summer, when thunderstorms miles away can flood the canyon without warning. In 1997, 11 hikers were killed in a flash flood in Lower Antelope Canyon. The thunderstorm that caused the flood was 10 miles away while the skies above Antelope Canyon itself were clear. Yet the beauty and lure of this canyon is undeniable. The light filtering through the narrow slot above usually never makes it directly to the canyon floor, instead illuminating the walls with a constantly changing kaleidoscope of light and color. Photos require a tripod and some experience. I found that my average exposures were 20 to 35 seconds. During a three-hour visit to the canyon, I traversed its short length more than a dozen times, each wonderfully, rapturously different. “I walk in beauty.”
Ten days later, we returned to our entry point on the Grand Loop. We had ridden 2,600 delightful miles—plus the 1,100 miles each way getting there. We saw new things, met new friends, relearned the joy and importance of riding with a buddy who sees things and experiences life at the same level, bought wonderful Navajo jewelry, saw our first giant condor in the wild, walked in the tracks of ancient peoples and even dinosaurs, and found the world’s best Navajo taco at the Tuba City truck stop. But mostly on this road trip through canyon country, we did indeed live (a slightly reworded version of) that Navajo chant. “I ride in beauty.”