From May 17 to May 21 of 2015, I traveled 2,396 miles from northern Utah to Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, and back to northern Utah. What follows is my long-winded recap of the ride. Hopefully it’ll prove useful to someone.
When riding longer distances, I normally like to be on the road at 6 a.m. However, it was raining hard at that time last Sunday. I watched the local weather reports until about 9 a.m. and it looked like I’d have a good window of time within the hour to avoid the rain. At 10 a.m., the rain stopped where I live and I headed south via I-15. Within five minutes after leaving, it was raining hard again. About 10 miles south of my house, the roads were dry and remained that way the rest of the day. I got off I-15 as soon as possible and rode UT Highway 28 from Nephi to Salina, UT, about 50 miles south. From there I got on I-70 and headed east for about 30 miles. While I’m not a big fan of interstates, I must say interstate riding in Utah is about as good as it gets where interstate scenery is concerned. On this day, traffic was light on the interstates so the riding was good.
I exited I-70 at UT Highway 72 and rode the twisty, mostly empty tarmac to its highest point at 9000 ft, then descended and turned east at Loa onto UT Highway 24.
With the sun coming through the clouds, I trekked eastward through Capitol Reef NP, a destination I’d visited several times and highly recommend. It’s among the least visited NPs in the nation, certainly in Utah, but it packs a lot of scenery along the short main route through the park.
From there I continued riding east on 24, then turned to the southeast on UT Highway 95 through Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Because it was Sunday, traffic remained light with most boat haulers and motor homes headed in the opposite direction. Crossing the Colorado River, I noted that it actually contained high levels of flowing water due to the spring runoff at higher elevations.
On past trips through the canyon, mainly in summer and autumn months, the river had been reduced to mud and narrow trickles.
Continuing on 95, I turned south at Blanding, UT, onto US 191 and rode 25 miles before transitioning onto US 163 toward Valley of the Gods, another 15 miles to the southwest.
VoGs is BLM land that’s traversed via a 17-mile, well-maintained gravel road. Inside, VoGs has a handful of free campsites, most situated under its most dramatic rock formations. I’ve stayed there several times in the past and never left without finding a good spot. Camping there is primitive but the solitude and star gazing are well worth any inconveniences. The only ‘disruption’ was a guy strumming an acoustic guitar and singing softly into the evening. I could not see him, but I heard his welcome music from somewhere, probably a quarter mile or more away. In years past, due to limited space on my motorcycle, I’d never taken a mattress pad with me camping; my hips usually paid the price in the morning. This time I took a self-inflating sleeping pad made by Alps. The ‘regular’ size pad is a bit narrow, but it fits nicely strapped to my motorcycle and when inflated, is very comfortable. I slept well and woke up the next morning pain free.
While the day began well, Monday turned out to be the worst day of the trip. After exiting VoGs at UT Highway 261, I rode six or seven miles, turning off into Goosenecks State Park to view the twisty San Juan River from high above. While the canyon lighting at 6:30 a.m. was poor for photography, the view was worth the six-mile round trip diversion.
After Goosenecks, I continued another mile or two on 261, turning south again on US 163 to Mexican Hat, UT, where I had breakfast. After breakfast, I continued south on 163 through Monument Valley and into Arizona.
At Kayenta, AZ, I headed east on US 160 into New Mexico. Just across the border, you can see the prominent 7,000-foot Ship Rock formation on the horizon. I’ve never gotten closer to the formation than US 160, but there’s probably a gravel road that would get you nearer if you had the time.
Driving another 30 miles, I turned south on US 550 and spent three hours battling brutal crosswinds. I don’t know what the wind speed was, but I was exhausted from keeping the bike upright and straight, and my left shoulder was in great pain when I got off the road at Kirtland Air Force Base on Albuquerque’s east side. I stayed the night on base hoping my motorcycle would not be blown off its center stand; it remained upright.
The next morning at 6 a.m., I got on I-40 and traveled 50 miles east to US 285, the road I decided to ride all the way to Carlsbad, NM, about 210 miles south. From its beginning just off I-40 to just north of Roswell, NM, 140 miles away, US 285 was mostly empty of other vehicles; it is a very straight four-lane roadway and driving speeds averaged well above 80 mph, despite the 70 mph posted limit. At one point I was cruising along at 102 mph and a car quickly approached from behind. I thought I was about to receive a felony speeding ticket, but instead a Nissan family sedan blew by me – I didn’t think Nissan family sedans could go that fast! After Roswell and for the remainder of the day’s ride, I again battled strong crosswinds. At Carlsbad, NM, I turned southwest onto US 62/180 and traveled 17 miles to Whites City, NM, and the entrance to Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
From the entrance to the visitor’s center, the road is seven miles of well-maintained, gently twisting curves.
At the visitor’s center you can pay a nominal fee to go on a guided or unguided tour of the caverns below. If you have a National Parks Access Pass and elect the unguided tour, there is no fee. Carlsbad Caverns NP was excellent! I’d always kind of avoided the park as I thought it would be a kitschy tourist trap, kind of like something you might have found along US 66 in its heyday. After all, there are billboards along the road to the park proclaiming that you can “Eat at a restaurant 800 feet below ground!” or words to that effect. In fact the caverns were amazing. While naturally dark, there are electric lights throughout. The stalactites, stalagmites and other geologic features and pathways are lit in very thoughtful and artistic ways. High ISOs and wide apertures are necessary to capture decent photos. Many tourists, however, used flash, taking away some of the ambience for other visitors. My best guess is that the ‘Big Room’ had a perimeter of one mile and a ceiling height of at least 100 feet, maybe more. For perspective, those are human silhouettes in the lower left corner of the photo below.
According to the National Park Service website, the ‘Big Room’ covers 8.2 acres. Anyway, the expected 15-minute visit took me three hours and I remain in awe. I highly recommend a visit and it is a suitable main destination for any road tripper.
After Carlsbad Caverns, I rode 35 miles west along 62/180 into Texas to visit Guadalupe Mountains NP. This park is not well known, at least it wasn’t to me, and I suspect this is because it’s not necessarily designed for tourists who like to get out of their cars, walk a few feet to a park feature, take a picture or two, then get back in their cars to drive to the next park feature for photos. Instead, Guadalupe has no roads to speak of, but the young woman working in the small visitors’ center told me it had an extensive wilderness trail system meant primarily for hikers and backpackers. Nonetheless, the park was beautiful in a West Texas sort of way and it was worth the side trip.
After Guadalupe, I rode back to Whites City where I planned to stay in the campground near the Carlsbad Caverns entrance. I’m sure there are other campgrounds in the area but the only other one I found kind of near to Carlsbad Caverns was a primitive area at Guadalupe Mountains NP. Whites City is nothing more than a tourist enclave. It has a campground, RV park, gas station, grocery store, souvenir/general store, and restaurant. Campground spots normally rent for $20.03 per day but the camp manager let me have one for $10. Only four of the approximately 20 spots were filled. The campground has showers, potable water, picnic tables and grass, but the young lady working in the grocery store informed me that Whites City is dry, thus no beer for sale. For beer I had to make a 32-mile round trip to Carlsbad, the nearest town. I guess this trip for beer, after an already long day of riding, shows what a lush I am. After drinking a few beers, the sky got dark and the wind calmed down to almost nothing; I slept very well.
About 4 a.m., the winds returned with a vengeance. I tossed and turned for another hour but further sleep was not likely so I packed my gear and was on the road at 6 a.m., heading back toward northern Utah. I got back on 62/180, then US 285 and stopped for bacon and eggs at the Chaos Café in Artesia, NM. After eating, I continued north on 285 to Roswell. There I turned west on US 70/380. After 50 miles, I veered off to the northwest on US 380 toward Carrizozo. The two-lane road meandered through small towns with lots of Spanish- and Pueblo-style architecture and great scenery.
Two hours later I was back on the interstate, this time I-25 heading north, then I-40 heading west. I fought strong crosswinds and semi trucks from San Antonio to Gallup, NM, where I got a hotel room for the night. The only thing I can tell you about Gallup is that it has a Denny’s which served okay spaghetti and meatballs.
At Gallup I slept well and once again hit the road at 6 a.m. The ride was mostly uneventful. I rode New Mexico/Arizona Highway 264 from Gallup to Tuba City, AZ, a road I’d traveled in the past. The road has some interesting high-desert scenery but the main goal is to finish the 200 miles as quickly as possible. After 264, I headed north on US 89, crossing the Glen Canyon Dam at Page, AZ.
After Glen Canyon, I put the camera away since the day was murky-gray and taking pictures would have been an injustice to Utah’s beautiful and never-ending scenery. I continued riding westward on 89 through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. I turned north on 89 at Kanab, UT, toward Zion and Bryce Canyon NPs. The good news for this stretch of highway is that besides dramatic scenery, there are plenty of passing lanes so that a motorcyclist only has to follow the many boat haulers and motor homes for no more than a mile or two at a time. I arrived in Panguitch, UT, where I had originally planned to stay the night, at about 2 p.m. Instead of staying, I had a good tailwind and the Extra-Strength Tylenol tablets I took earlier were working so I kept riding.
Heading north out of Panguitch, 89 remains a beautiful route with lots less traffic. I stayed on it for another 200 miles with brief stints on I-70 and US 6, before getting back on I-15 at Spanish Fork, UT. I-15 offered heavy traffic, one major accident and rain. After 13 hours and 670 miles on the bike, I arrived home at 7 p.m. Thursday.
The trip was a good one and I’d recommend something similar to anyone. If I were to take the ride again, I’d choose a few other non-interstate routes in New Mexico and I’d take two or three days longer to explore the state. Utah is where I live so I’m lucky to travel its roads nearly every weekend!