Bicycle trip through the western regions of the USA

Part 1: Arizona


Part 2

Amersfoort, June 1995

This summer I had the time and opportunity to fulfill my American dream, taking a fully loaded bike tour through the western region of the United States. At the time I didn't yet have access to the Internet, so I planned my route conventionally by reading outdoor magazines, borrowed books and an old Rand McNally Atlas.

My first thought was to start in Denver and to finish in L.A. Taking into account flight availability and wind direction, I finally changed my plans and decided to start in L.A. and cycle to Denver. Another advantage was that I didn't need to worry about packing my luggage, because I could conveniently leave my suitcase and bike box at my cousin's place in L.A.

This decided, I managed to send an E­mail to my cousin, using a prehistoric modem (1200 bps) and a local BBS. I asked for weather information and maps, which I was happy to find a week later in my (snail)mailbox! I booked a flight to arrive on the 4th of July, Independence Day in the U.S.

Tuesday July 4, arrival in Los Angeles

My bike was packed in a huge cardboard box that was provided by KLM (Royal Dutch Airlines). I only had to twist the handlebars 90 degrees, remove the pedals and lower the saddle. No wheels needed to be removed. I protected my bike with empty panniers and my foam sleeping pad, and tied the box firmly using two plastic belts and extra tape. I've used this box already twice, but its condition was good enough for yet another trip. The rest of my gear, plus presents for family and friends in LA, were packed into one suitcase. I didn't have to worry about weight limitations: 32 kg is a lot!

After more than 10 hours in flight and a safe landing in LAX, everything seemed to run smoothly until I attempt to pass immigration. The official was very suspicious: "What are you doing here, and why?" Obviously, they don't believe that I'm from Holland, but rather an illegal immigrant from the Far East. "What's your profession? Who's paying your trip?" followed by more silly questions. What the @#^/!!! That's none of their business! Finally I had to wait one hour for a secondary interrogation. There goes my American bike dream up in smoke, I thought desperately, expecting to be sent back home within a few hours...

Another interrogation followed. I had to prove I'd really come from Holland, so I showed them some Dutch chocolate... Now they wanted to see my credit card. After showing it, they finally let me go. Luckily my aunt and cousin were still waiting in the arrival hall.

The temperature outside was pleasant compared to Holland (25 C). Not bothered by a jet lag, I stayed up late that evening and joined my cousin to watch the Independence Day fireworks at Rose bowl stadium. We had a good view from the so-called Suicide Bridge. Driving through the streets of Pasadena, it felt as if I never had left L.A.....

The next few days I spent inspecting and testing my bike. Although the cardboard bike box already showed some suspicious­looking holes, my bike was still in good condition. The temperatures had risen to past 30 C. Because of the heat and L.A.'s notorious smog, it was hard to cycle around for pleasure. Instead we made getaway plans for the weekend. My aunt and cousin were willing to bring me by car to Flagstaff, Arizona, great! I didn't have to worry anymore about how to bike across the hot Mojave desert (where temperatures can be greater than 45C).

Flagstaff was a good starting point for my trip. The city is build on the high Colorado plateau (7,000 ft, about 2,000 m) in the vicinity of the Grand Canyon. The plan was to cycle from Flagstaff via the Grand Canyon to Utah, while visiting Zion, Bryce and Arches National Parks along the way. Then I'd cycle eastward through the Rockies, ending up in Denver. I'd then take the bus, train or plane back to Los Angeles. Denver­LA by Greyhound bus (one way) costs about $100 and 24 hours driving! Amtrak (by train) charges $160 for one way ticket, just as expensive as a round trip ($168) and maybe not much cheaper than flying. Well, I'd decide in Denver.

At the American Automobile Association (AAA) office, members can obtain a lot useful maps and guides for free. I got a very good road map titled "the guide to Indian Country", which covered parts of Arizona, Utah and Colorado. A small problem was the transportation of the bike on the car. A bike rack was the solution: it had to be fixed on top of the trunk with nylon straps. I didn't trust it; it didn't look very safe. My suspicions were confirmed during a test drive on a bumpy road, when suddenly my bike jumped into the air! It turned out that the straps were not tied properly....

Saturday July 8, Los Angeles ­ Flagstaff, Arizona

Early on the road, we headed for our first stop, Laughlin, Nevada, a gambling town. After passing the San Gabriel mountains we'd finally left the LA smog behind. At Barstow, in the middle of the desert, we stopped to tank for gas. When leaving the comfortable air-conditioned car, it felt like stepping into an oven: outside it was 115 F (45 C) in the shade! In Laughlin, a booming gambling town on the borders of the Colorado river in the middle of the desert, it was also pretty hot. What am I up to? Biking in such temperatures isn't fun anymore! We'd made a longer stop here to check out the casinos. After a few hours and losing lots of quarters, we headed for Arizona. Soon after Kingman the landscape gradually changed from desolate desert into hilly, friendly green pine­forested terrain. The weather also changed into occasionally heavy but refreshing thunderstorms. In the late afternoon we'd arrived in Flagstaff, where the surrounding mountains were still covered with patches of snow! Thanks to higher elevations the temperature was much cooler over here than in the desert. The green landscape reminded me of Germany's Black Forest or the Vosges in France.

After checking into a motel, we visited Sunset crater, a nearby old volcano. Walking through the black lava fields, it felt like a forest fire destroyed the whole area. Too bad we were not allowed to hike on top of the crater, but besides, the sun was already set and it was getting dark. The motel room had two enormous queen size beds with a lot of pillows. I could park my bike inside the room! On a cable channel a very long report of the Tour de France was broadcasted. It's again Indurain, who humiliated all his competitors. It amazed me he didn't wait for next day's long time trial, but already attacked in the stage through the Ardennes (what later turned out to be one of the most exciting stages of the Tour).

Sunday July 9, trip to Sedona

The radio was playing Lou Reed's "Sunday Morning" while we were driving down the scenic road to Sedona, just 20 miles south of Flagstaff. The narrow, winding road followed the gorgeous gorge of Oak Creek Canyon. Marvelous and spectacular red rocks protruded above dark pine forests. Too bad I left my bike in Flagstaff!

After visiting the beautifully located church we checked out the tourist center of Sedona to buy souvenirs and had some lunch. In the afternoon we took a small hike in the rugged back country. It was almost like a small version of the Italian Dolomites, but with red sandstone instead of white limestone cliffs. After returning to Flagstaff, I said good­bye to my aunt and cousin, who returned to Laughlin, where the hotels were much cheaper (only to blow out their extra cash at a casino in Nevada on the way back home). I loaded my bike and pedaled to the next campground just outside of town.

Monday, July 10, Flagstaff ­ Grand Canyon (138 km)

The first stage took me from Flagstaff to Grand Canyon National Park. With a comfortable tail wind I pedaled through a landscape of rolling hills covered with meadows and dark pine forests. It reminded me a lot of the eastern part of Norway and Sweden. The snow­capped San Francisco Peaks accompanied me during much of the route.

When I got closer to the National Park, the landscape didn't change dramatically. Even after entering the park it was still the same, I'd even call it flat. I could have been driving through the forests around my hometown instead. But then, after a sign directing me to Mather viewpoint, the secret finally revealed: a majestic wide colorful gap appeared in the earth. Although I had already seen a lot of pictures in books and magazines, slides from family, TV programs etc., the real thing impressed me enormously, yes it was VERY impressive indeed.

It was still early in the afternoon when I looked around for a nice campground. Too bad, free camping wasn't allowed in the park, so I headed towards Grand Canyon Village. As I could expect, the campground was already full, but I didn't want to turn back and look for a campground outside of the park. I sneaked past the gate, and looked for a spot to share. Then I encountered a guy who happened also to be a Dutchman traveling by bike! His name is Erwin, and he was taking a cross country trip. Started just a week ago in L.A, he encountered a lot of problems attempting to cross the California desert. Sometimes he had to hitch a ride from a pickup truck. He was carrying plenty of water, but it was boiling in the bottles and he nearly suffered from dehydration. This heard I felt it was a wise decision not to bike through the intense heat of the desert in the middle of the summer. Erwin shared a spot with two Danish bicyclists, who were also traveling cross­country, but from the east to the west coast. I remembered seeing them while I was resting in the shade a few hours ago, when they were heading south.

Of course Erwin didn't mind sharing the huge campsite. After pitching my tent and having a refreshing shower, we'd decided to make a guided evening walk with a ranger. We followed a small part of the South Kaibab trail, a hike below the rim. A hike in the canyon is like the opposite of climbing a mountain: after a relatively easy descent, followed by a steep and strenuous climb back. Going all the way down to the river with an elevation difference of 7,000 ft. was not recommended in one day! On the descent we passed several climatic levels: from a cool temperate climate like Canada on top of the plateau, to a hot Mexican like desert environment on the bottom of the canyon. But on this leisurely evening walk we didn't go so far down below. The views and scenery were truly amazing, I desperately wondered how to take pictures with my compact camera, knowing that the result would never look as real as it should be....

At the end of the day, around sunset, the views were not as bright as early in the afternoon. According to the ranger this haziness was caused by the smog from Southern California... Darn, the pollution of LA was following me even here, hundreds of miles inland!! :­(

Tuesday July 11, Grand Canyon Village

The paved road along the west rim was only accessible by bus or on bike. We decided to leave our bikes at the campground and took the free shuttle bus to the west rim trail head. It's amazing that we hardly met any other hikers on this trail, except at the outlooks close to the bus stops. After a 10 miles long and wonderful hike, with lots of photogenic stops, we took the shuttle back to the campground. Just as we arrived in the self service restaurant to have some lunch, a heavy thunderstorm broke. The heat wave was moving eastward, followed by the monsoon from Mexico. Anyway, the cool temperatures were better for cycling and besides, we'd now a nice tail wind when heading east!

Wednesday, July 12, Grand Canyon ­ Tuba City (85 miles/137 km)

Because Erwin and I were planning to cycle the same direction, we decided to ride together for a while. Erwin was used to get up very early, too early for my standards. After convincing me we'd better to avoid the heat of the afternoon (or in these days, be prepared for the afternoon's thunderstorms) I finally agreed getting up early. Around seven we left the campground (without paying since we shared a site with someone else) and pedaled our bikes over the East Rim Drive to Desert View. We combined a visit to the old ruins of the Pueblo Indian with fixing a flat tire. Near the Watchtower at Desert View, we threw a final glance at the Grand Canyon.

Erwin was sponsored by a cellular phone company. In exchange for wearing T­shirts and making some pictures for advertising, he could use the cellular phone without any charge. Unfortunately, the phone didn't work in this remote part of the country! That's some good advertising!

After leaving the National Park, a long descent followed. Until Cameron the route was still very scenic, passing the rough Little Colorado gorge and splendid views over the badlands of Painted Desert in the distance. After Cameron we met a lot of traffic on highway 89. Especially we'd to watch out for exceptionally heavy loaded trucks. Before the heavy thunderstorms started again, we'd found some shelter in one of the many Indian stands along the road. After hours of waiting, it stopped raining. My initial plan was to travel further north on the "89" to Utah, but now it was already too late. Besides, it wasn't fun to bike on this busy highway with still so many miles to go. I decided to join Erwin, whose plan was heading east and finds a place to stay in Tuba City, 20 more miles to go. After a steep hill we entered the town, and since there was no campground we checked into a youth hostel. Since we were no members, we paid a lot for one room, $40. Unfortunately we also missed the broadcasting of the first mountain stage of the Tour de France on TV.

Thursday July 13, Tuba City ­ Marsh pass (87 mi/140 km)

That day I definitely decided not to return to the "89" that would bring me into Utah. Instead I joined Erwin a couple of days more. The plan was to follow the "160" to Monument Valley. From there I planned to cycle north to Moab and Colorado. I could still visit Zion and Bryce Canyon on my way back from Denver to LA.

The route between Tuba City and Kayenta was less interesting than the miles we had left behind. This area was very inhabited, no villages, just some trailers where Native Indians lived. The map showed a village that only appeared to be an abandoned trading post. Luckily there was an ice­cream car parked along the highway! Thirsty of the heat the snow cones tasted very good. After 55 miles we stopped for a lunch break at a small cafe at the turnoff to Navajo National Monument. A sudden heavy thunderstorm kept us waiting in the cafe for hours and hours. We were now in the Navajo Indian Reservation. Unlike the rest of the State Arizona, the Navajo Nation observed daylight saving time, which meant another hour went by without notice! At the crossroad a narrow road was leading to the cliff dwellings of Navajo National Monument. As soon the skies cleared up, I jumped on my bike and visited the cliff dwellings, 9 miles further uphill. Erwin didn't want to join me climbing the 9 miles. He'd already gone to Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado some time ago, where more beautiful examples can be visited.

The climb wasn't too hard at all, but the ruins were hardly visible from the viewpoint and only accessible by a guided hike over a very strenuous trail. It was already past six and the guides already went home. The scenery along the road and the canyon itself made the ride worthwhile though. Back to the cafe we decided what to do next. Staying here in a trailer park didn't seem to be very attractive, there was mud everywhere. Seven miles further, on the Marsh pass (6,750 feet), there seemed to be a motel. In the meantime, it started raining again. Soaking wet, we arrived at the motel. "A room costs normally $90, but all right, for some poor wet bikers, we only charge $70" told the receptionist. As soon as the thunderstorms went by, we asked if it was allowed to pitch our tents on the nice green lawn next to the motel. Luckily they didn't mind, so we had again a free campsite.

Friday July 14, Marsh pass ­ Monument Valley (63 mi/102 km)

A quick descent to Kayenta. In the distance a small moving spot turned out to be another cycle tourist! A guy from Switzerland, cycling from Grand Junction to San Francisco. He stayed last night in Kayenta's Hilton Hotel, so he started not long ago, just like us. From Grand Junction to Moab he encountered some problems, a long dirt road without any villages in between. Since I had also the intention to cycle from Moab to Grand Junction, I've been warned what is to come...

From Kayenta we took the turnoff to the narrow US 163. Along the road several billboards were announcing the beauty of the scenery ahead of us. And indeed, a very brilliant route was leading to Monument Valley. This area of lonesome rock formations is world famous as scenery in movie pictures and cigarette commercials. The weather was also gorgeous: cool temperatures, bright blue skies and a little tail wind, just perfect. At a stand a native American was selling Beef Jerky. Dried and salted meat, made of the best parts of beef. It tasted delicious.
On the border of northern Arizona and southern Utah, we stopped at the huge welcome sign. A French photographer approached us and asked if he could take some pictures for a photo reportage about the "American Dream". Of course we didn't mind since this setting would perfectly fit in our American bike dream.

Mitten view campground at Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park is situated at one of the most scenic spots I've ever been. From the rim of the plateau we'd a wonderful view over the valley. We would like to pitch our tents just on the edge of the rim. Since all the scenic spots were booked, we asked to share the site with a friendly Italian family. Being still early in the afternoon, we still had time to ride the valley drive: a 17 mile unpaved loop road winding down through the park. I had some problems biking the steep downhill grade from the campsite into the valley. My Giant Expedition touring bike was not very convenient for this off­road work. Erwin's Specialized MTB was apparently better and faster in this terrain. Anyway, it was a great ride pedaling along the red brown mesa's and buttes with fancy names like elephant, camel, three sisters and totem pole. The landscape of Monument Valley is formed by erosion processes. What once (millions of years ago) was a solid massive plateau, now only the resistant sandstone rock formations remained, while the weaker sediments were flushed away.

Part 2