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Riding to the Grand Canyon During National Park Week

Tim KesselApril 22, 2016
Standing on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, trying to take it all in.

Standing on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, trying to take it all in.

In Northern Arizona, mid-April spells the beginning of the thaw of the snowpack in mountains, and the corresponding bloom of the hardiest of wild flowers below. It is also the time when early-season motorcyclists begin taking to the open road. This year, my first extended ride of the season is a spectacular roll along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. National Park Week—which is April 16-24 in 2016; the National Park Service turns 100 later this year—is a wonderful time to celebrate our nation’s treasures, and that is exactly my inspiration on this little tour.

The air is crisp and refreshing as I set out on my BMW R 1200 GS. This water-cooled incarnation of the model is new to me, which adds to the freshness of spring. It’s the fourth GS that has graced my garage; I’ve owned and loved an ’88, ’92, ’07 and now this current version. It is relationship building time.

Humphreys Peak, the tallest mountain in Arizona at 12,635 feet, was still blanketed in snow in mid-April.

Humphreys Peak, the tallest mountain in Arizona at 12,635 feet, was still blanketed in snow in mid-April.

In the Shadow of the Peaks
The ride toward the Grand Canyon on U.S. Route 180 is a vibrant roll through one of the West’s most impressive ecosystems. (See a map of the route below.) Coconino National Forest is a wonderful mix of spruce, fir, pine and aspen trees. The full array of foliage is on spectacular display as I enjoy the sweeping curves at the base of the San Francisco Peaks. The mountain range contains the highest point in Arizona, Humphreys Peak, which towers to well over 12,000 feet in elevation.

As I motor on to the northwest on 180, the trees gradually diminish in size. With the change from the Coconino to the Kaibab National Forest, the towering pines morph into smaller juniper and oaks. As the trees become smaller, the views become more expansive. The long, straights give me opportunity to really “feel” the big white GS and its impressive roll-on power. However, after 85,000 miles on my last BMW adventure mount, I can’t help but wax nostalgic. That “other” bike took me to fantastic places throughout this nation, but it’s now in the hands of my good friend. It’s time to move on.

This is as close as my new GS was able to get to the South Rim. Scenic Desert View Drive (State Route 64) is best traveled at a slow pace.

This is as close as my new GS was able to get to the South Rim. Scenic Desert View Drive (State Route 64) is best traveled at a slow pace.

Canyon Carving
No, this is not canyon carving in the pure motorcycling sense. Rather this is riding along that incredible canyon that is being carved by the enduring Colorado River. The ride along the South Rim is busy. There is really never a time that it is not bustling with tourists. However, this mid-week ride is not as frenetic as a high-season ride on the weekend would be.

The road is nicely curvy, but it is more a meander than a full-fledged ride. That’s fine. The views are so amazing that this leg of my tour is a stop-and-go affair. If you have not been to the Grand Canyon, the surreal nature of its “grandness” is hard to describe. It is a pastel-hued visual overload. The traffic thins out noticeably the farther I ride from the beehive that is Grand Canyon Village and the tourism center. The extreme eastern portion of the national park seems almost abandoned in comparison to the park’s center.

It’s on this last stretch of the South Rim ride that I start to feel truly comfortable on the new GS. The extra power and smoothness of the new liquid-cooled boxer make me excited for the summer’s two-wheeled adventures. The big beast is a keeper.

The Colorado River is way down there somewhere, below layers of rock that tell a colorful story about time.

The Colorado River is way down there somewhere, below layers of rock that tell a colorful story about time.

Final Thoughts
I feel extremely lucky to live within a day’s ride of some of the most impressive national parks in the nation. While the West is rife with such treasures, most American motorcyclists live within striking distance to at least one–so plan a visit. In the end, National Park Week was a great excuse to clean the cobwebs out of my riding technique, build a bond with a new mount and revisit the big crevasse.

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