story and photography by Janet Borg
[Utah Motorcycle Rides: Touring Torrey was originally published as a Favorite Ride in the February 2009 issue of Rider magazine]
The late September timing means peak fall foliage, low tourist traffic, and cool daytime temperatures. I grinned, picturing three days of riding pavement and dirt around Capitol Reef National Park, Boulder Mountain and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. It was time to head south to Torrey.
A four-hour ride southeast from Salt Lake City, Torrey is decades removed from the stress and hustle of urban life. Motorcyclists from around the world are drawn to this tiny town of 120 for its solitude, vast network of paved and dirt roads that crisscross millions of acres of public lands, and nearby national parks and national forests. In a 30-mile stretch of road, riders can sweep around stunning red-rock cliffs, snake along gut-wrenching drop-offs, plunge through narrow canyons and soar over 9,000-foot mountain passes.
I arrived in Torrey a day early, and on a whim, joined the visiting BMW Sport Touring group for an off-road ride. These riders have been coming to Torrey twice a year for 10 years, and initiated me on one of their favorite rides up Boulder Mountain. A day of dirt, rocks, mud, hail and wind resulted in me dropping my bike twice. I later learned the ride coordinator was aptly named “Killer.”
Sunday dawned with a mind-blowing saturation of oranges and reds streaking across the sky and bouncing off Torrey’s red-rock cliffs. Today Ron was leading the 150-mile GS ride along Highway 12 over Boulder Mountain (pavement), and then onto the gravel and dirt of, gulp, Hell’s Backbone Road. Years ago I remember bouncing along this road in a truck, and I recalled a certain rickety bridge across a deep chasm. What would this feel like, exposed and vulnerable, on a motorcycle?
At 9 a.m. with gas tanks topped off, seven of us headed south on Highway 12, one of the chosen few “All-American Highways,” climbing through sunbursts of aspen glowing gold and amber in the morning light. Numerous pullouts along the road are mandatory for first-timers. Twenty-four miles later, we arrived at Highway 12’s high point of 9,400 feet on Boulder Mountain. My favorite overlook is here: A stunning view of the nearly 2 million acres that compose the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Thirty-eight miles from Torrey is the equally small town of Boulder where the Anasazi State Park features a museum with artifacts excavated from a nearby prehistoric Indian village. At the Hell’s Backbone Road intersection, 42 miles from Torrey, we stopped for a quick heads-up from Ron. “You may want to let some air out of your tires for the dirt section,” he suggested.
With full Camelbaks strapped on, sunglasses adjusted and tires properly deflated, we headed up the dirt road, each on our own journey. I was excited about the ride but had mixed feelings about the new and improved Hell’s Backbone Bridge. Road conditions can change quickly on this mountain, and I wondered if it would be washed out and rutted from recent rain storms. Thankfully, we were treated to a well-maintained gravel surface generously endowed with washboards, as expected.
As we climbed up Boulder Mountain, I caught glimpses of the vast valley floor below. Suddenly, we popped out of the trees and there, thrown across a chillingly deep chasm, was the narrow Hell’s Backbone Bridge. Standing in the middle of the bridge, I could see golden stands of aspen that contrasted beautifully with the deep green of ponderosa pine against salmon and white sandstone cliffs.
The show took my eye all the way up to Boulder (11,300 feet) and down into Escalante Valley (5,800 feet). A person could spend hours here and see only a speck of this tantalizing landscape.
As I walked back to the bikes I suddenly noticed a big, dark cloud bank looming overhead. Should we continue along the ride to Widtsoe as planned, or cut it short and make a beeline back to the pavement? As we peered at Roy’s map, Ron said, “If it rains, the road surface from here to Widtsoe gets really slippery.” Steve was the only one running knobby tires (the rest of us had Metzeler Tourances), so we decided to take the safe option and ride FR 154 south from Posey Lake directly into Escalante and back onto Highway 12.
We pulled into Escalante, dusty but dry. Today we were just passing through town, on our way back to Torrey on Highway 12, but Escalante is worthy of an overnight stay. A couple of my favorite things include hiking among the rainbow-colored trees in Petrified Forest State Park and bird watching at Wide Hollow Reservoir State Park.
Heading east from Escalante is a 10-mile stretch of road that climbs through desert sage and piñon. Then, with no fanfare or announcement, we crested a hill and the landscape abruptly transformed into a wonderland of sinewy and undulating sandstone. In all directions we could see deep, jagged canyons, vast sandstone mesas and weird stone formations. The grandeur and intricacy of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument defies adequate description in words or photographs.
A few miles later we stopped at the Kiva Koffeehouse, a beautiful red-stone restaurant perched on a cliff overlooking lush greenery that marks the confluence of the Escalante River and Calf Creek. As the seven of us laughed about the morning’s journey over coffee and iced tea, Steve lamented a missed photo opportunity that morning. “When I saw the trail sign reading ‘Upper Death Hollow Access,’ I wish I’d stopped,” Steve said. In this part of the county, trail signs and place names often do a better job of capturing the essence of a place than a photo can. Another good example is The Hogsback, just down the road from the Koffeehouse. This precipitous stretch of road snakes along a narrow roller coaster of ridgeline. Sheer cliffs fall from either side, spelling doom for any rider whose concentration lapses for even a second. Stunning views reward those who dare stop and peer over the edge.
Back in Boulder, temperatures dropped from the high 70s to the low 60s and the threatening clouds finally opened up. I stopped to put on an extra layer of warmth and raingear, and the rest of the group followed suit. We rode in and out of rain, breathing in enticing scents of sagebrush, pinyon, juniper, pine and fir all the way into Torrey.
I can’t imagine a better group of people I could have served my time with in Torrey. They picked up my bike, adjusted the chain, delivered well-deserved razzing and encouraged me to keep riding. Was I now a better rider after serving time in the saddle? I think so. More humble, too. The skills I gained navigating loose pea gravel and cornering on washboard roads are real deposits in my confidence bank. I have learned to treasure those all-too-brief moments of sheer motorcycle-riding pleasure, whooping with delight along a deserted mountain road.