While I waited for my steaming calzone to cool in the pizza restaurant in the tiny town of Orderville, Utah, and contemplated my impending southern Utah motorcycle ride, I studied the giant world map on the wall. A sign encouraged visitors to place a stickpin in the map to indicate their home. The colorful plastic balls that served as pinheads reflected an impressive worldwide span, with a truly remarkable density in most of the United States.
Southern Utah’s Dixie National Forest and the area’s national parks have a magnetic appeal for hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. For me, the promise of incredible scenery and winding roads drew me to the region on my trusty BMW.
Day 1: Zion, a Massacre, and Shakespeare
After a good night’s sleep in a comfortable and unique forest-themed room at the historic Parkway Motel in Orderville, I geared up and headed toward Zion National Park. I had no plans for dirt forays on this tour, but my big R 1200 GS was the perfect mount for the area just in case. I rolled south through lush farmland until I made the westward turn at Mt. Carmel Junction onto State Route 9.
The midweek traffic was moderately light on what is also known as the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway. The muted hues and sweeping corners on the first stretch were a nice warm-up and ultimately led to the east entrance of Zion. After stopping to pay the park’s $30 entrance fee (good for one week), I soon rolled into the shadows of striking crimson cliffs and stratified sedimentary rock formations.
The scenery morphed into the striking beauty for which Zion is famous, and the road coiled to follow the natural contours of the park’s stone majesty. After a stop to admire the massive geometrical etchings on Checkerboard Mesa, the curves became increasingly tight and entertaining.
To my delight, I spotted two mountain goats posing atop two rock outcroppings. Thankfully, they held their pose long enough for me to dismount and snap some photos. Just a few miles later, I rolled through a short but impressive tunnel carved into the red sedimentary mountain. This ride was off to a scintillating start.
Deeper into the national park, the traffic and tourist presence became denser but not so heavy as to spoil the stunning ambiance. I motored beneath sculpturesque rock formations dotted with vibrant evergreen trees. The colors were eye-popping. In stretches, the winding asphalt was crimson-hued like the cliffs, and at other times, it was the more traditional gray. After miles of riding, stopping, and photographing, I came to the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel. After waiting for an oversized RV to be escorted through the tight passageway, it was my turn.
The tunnel, which was carved during the Jazz Age of the 1920s, is over a mile long. However, it’s not the length that was so striking to me. There were intermittent arched “windows” along the span that framed glimpses of the majesty of the mountains though which I was passing. While stopping in the tunnel is prohibited, I moved at a snail’s pace to take in the living art. It was truly impressive.
I emerged from the tunnel, flipped down my faceshield, and rolled farther into Zion. In the distance, white-capped mountains rose on the horizon. What I assumed was snow was actually the top layer of white Navajo sandstone on towers like the Great White Throne. I resisted the temptation of wide-eyed sightseeing while navigating the narrow, winding road. Frequent stops gave my kickstand a workout.
The western stretch of the park is much more developed and thus more visited. I motored over the cool waters of the Virgin River and into the community of Springdale, which rests just outside the western entrance of the park. This bustling community sits in stark contrast to the more natural and undeveloped eastern entrance. I have to say, I preferred the latter.
With Zion National Park in the rearview mirror, I set my sights on a remote stretch of my tour. After a northern turn at St. George, I rolled onto State Route 18. This is a road that often parallels the route of the Old Spanish National Historic Trail through Dixie National Forest. The ride started with more of the red and white Navajo sandstone that graced Zion as I passed by Snow Canyon.
After several miles of the nicely sweeping road, I came upon a somber historical site. The Mountain Meadows Memorial commemorates a massacre that took place in 1857. The four-day series of attacks were carried out by members of the Utah Territorial Militia and targeted the Baker-Fancher emigrant wagon train. About 120 men, women, and children were killed in the tragic territorial dispute.
I rode farther north through the high chaparral terrain until making a westward turn onto State Route 56. This stretch afforded me the space to use the higher gears on the GS and take in the expansive southern Utah views. Finally, signage welcomed me to
Cedar City. The “Festival City” would be my highly anticipated stop for the night. After unloading my bags in the El Rey Inn, I had a few slices of margherita pizza and a microbrew at the bustling Centro Woodfired Pizzeria near the campus of Southern Utah University.
The university is home to a world-class theatrical experience, the annual Utah Shakespeare Festival, which runs from June to October. Anytime I can infuse a bit of the Bard into my tours, I do so with enthusiasm. In this case, I had secured a ticket to a preview performance of Macbeth. I settled into my seat at the beautiful outdoor theater and thoroughly enjoyed the spirited performance of “The Scottish Play” in the warm Utah evening air.
Day 2: Cedar Breaks and Ski Slopes
The second day of my southern Utah tour would include a serious gain in elevation, so I layered riding shirts under my mesh jacket in preparation for the crisp morning ride. The climb out of Cedar City into the mountains of the Dixie National Forest was rapid and enjoyable. The vibrant mix of conifers beside the winding path of State Route 14 was more reminiscent of a forest in the Pacific Northwest than what one would normally find in the Southwest.
I was glad I had put on extra layers. Even in late June, this mountainous area often reveals some lingering snow. I clicked on the heated grips for a spell in the early morning shade of the mountains as the temperatures dropped into the low 40s. Deep in the mountains, I made the northern turn onto State Route 148 and continued my curvaceous climb. (Due to winter closures on this part of the route, this ride is best done in late spring to early fall.)
Just a handful of miles into this stretch, I arrived at the impressive Cedar Breaks National Monument ($10 entrance fee). The Paiutes called the area “Circle of Painted Cliffs,” and the Native name is a perfect description. It is known as a smaller, less touristy version of Bryce Canyon, which is exactly why I opted for it on this tour.
It is a natural shale, limestone, and sandstone amphitheater with a rim elevation of 10,000 feet. The road follows that rim closely, offering several breathtaking views. After taking in those vistas, my ride out of the monument was flanked by mountains still laced with snow and flowing runoff streams.
Just out of the boundary of the national monument, I continued north on State Route 143 and rolled into the ski resort town of Brian Head, which sits at an elevation of nearly 10,000 feet. Some of the forests near the town were ravaged by wildfires in 2017, but the unaffected ski slopes are lush and dense. The entire ride along Route 143 was amazing.
I dropped out of the mountains, and after a short leg on the interstate, I headed southeast on State Route 20. I was fully engulfed in the sweeping corners when I noticed a series of metal sculptures that looked like a mule train in the tall Utah grass. The adjacent historical marker indicated that I was at an intersection of the Old Spanish National Historic Trail. At the end of this stretch, I headed south on U.S. Route 89. I rode through the small town of Panguitch, and then I turned west on Route 143 and rode through the Dixie National Forest for the last leg of my trip.
I was back in the serious twisties as I passed Panguitch Lake. The expansive reservoir sits at more than 8,000 feet. Tall trees, meandering creeks, and crisp mountain air were the earmarks of the rest of the ride through the national forest. I detoured south on Mammoth Creek Road, and at Duck Creek Village, I headed east on SR 14, descending out of the mountains to U.S. 89 and back to Orderville.
My southern Utah motorcycle ride did not disappoint. My exploration proved to be an area rich in both natural and human history. The diversity of the ride kept it fresh and entertaining, and the roads were a motorcyclist’s dream.