Chris Roams

Travel, Adventures, and Photography

Strange Familiar Places

I was planning to meet a friend in Moab for some hiking but plans got rearranged and I found myself in Las Vegas with no itinerary other than to get away from the 100 degree heat that made an unwelcome early arrival. The obvious solution was to gain some elevation to cool things down a bit so I made for the East and the small outpost of Jacobs Lake on the Kaibab Plateau. Only a few hours out of Vegas it was worlds apart.

The Kaibab Plateau is a forested plateau rising above the 5,000 foot elevation of its surroundings which are in turn part of the Colorado Plateau rising above Las Vegas Valley’s 1,750 foot elevation. What a difference a few thousand feet make... I went from trying to cool myself down with a water soaked vest (which does work wonders) to riding slower in order to stay warm. Of course I am familiar with trying to stay warm on the Kaibab Plateau: I came through here once before but it was December and I was fleeing from a snowstorm, desperately trying to get back down to the lower elevation of Las Vegas. This time was a much different story.

The little outpost of Jacob Lake sits at the only road intersection on the plateau. Like most of these sorts of outposts it’s not much more than a gas station, restaurant, gift shop, camp ground, and a few motel rooms. Also like most outposts there is a reason for its existence, Jacob Lake’s is that it guards the entrance to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

The North Rim is very different from the Grand Canyon most people visit. For starters it’s very remote: only 11 miles away from South Rim as the crow flies it is 211 miles by road. While the South Rim is an easy drive from the highway in Williams, Arizona the nearest highway to the North Rim is in St George, Utah over 100 miles away. The extra 1,000 feet of elevation that the North Rim has over the South and the snow that it brings is also cause for the road to be closed down for the entire winter.

Despite the remoteness, or perhaps because of it, it’s worth the trip. Instead of the huge crowds and the miniature city that has sprung up to support them on the South Rim, the North just has a campground, a few cabins, and a restaurant serving the brave few who make the trek this far out. The main lodge building is built right into the rim of the canyon and its sunroom defines the concept of a “picture window”.

At some points along the rim it’s possible to get up to nearly 9,000 feet elevation, affording incredible views not only into the canyon but down onto and across the plains behind the South Rim. Unfortunately the road out to the Rim is a dead end so it was back to Jacobs Lake and back to the East to continue my journey.

At one of the turnoffs on the way down from the Kaibab Plateau I encountered another well-worn adventure bike heading in the opposite direction. This was Peter from South Africa, who had bought his bike in Virginia and is on his way to Alaska and then back down to South America (Peter’s Blog on ADVRider). After swapping notes on road conditions and places to stay we headed back off in opposite directions, ironically with the same destination in mind. We were both on our way to Escalante, a little ranching town halfway along the road between Bryce Canyon and Capital Reef. Peter was taking the paved route that swung far out to the West up and around Bryce while I was taking the direct route up House Rock Valley and Cottonwood Canyon that involved very little pavement.

House Rock Road doesn’t really go to or from any particular place other than cutting off a 90 mile loop of pavement. It branches off of the main road east out of Jacob Lake just after the descent from the Kaibab Plateau and heads north along dry washes into Utah where it meets pavement again near the ghost town of Paria. I had been here before as well, or at least in part: The northern end of the road offers the easiest access to The Wave and is where I had broken my clutch lever in a spill 3 winters ago when I first started riding out west. The northern end of the road is all clay which turns into a thick tire swallowing mess when it gets wet, which in the winter it does every day as the frost melts off. After repairing my clutch I eventually did get into The Wave that winter by riding in during the morning when the clay was still frozen. I camped out after completing my hike so I could leave again the next morning, only I awoke to the beginning of a snowstorm. While the ride out that day was uneventful there were some tense moments as I kept finding ice patches concealed by snow on the north-facing downhill slopes. This ride was very different: the air was warm, the road was dry, and, while the southern end was a bit washboarded, the clay that had once slowed progress down to a grinding crawl might as well have been solid asphalt.

After stopping to tighten up all the nuts and bolts that jiggled loose on the washboards a quick jaunt on the pavement brought me to Cottonwood Canyon Road, another stretch of Utah dirt that goes no place in particular, this one having supposedly been built for maintenance of a power line that runs through the canyon. This one cuts off a 133 mile loop of paved road with 46 miles of dirt. The southern end started off much like House Rock Road: a bit of washboards but otherwise easy riding. The canyon itself was spectacular, except for the ever present power lines. Unfortunately the sky clouded up and there wasn’t much light to photograph the multicolored ridges on either side of the canyon. About halfway up the road the first obstacle presented itself: a sudden drop into a deep pit of loose sand, the bane of heavy motorcycles. The standard technique to get a big bike through deep sand is to stand up, lean back, add power, and don’t look down. With a copious amount of throttle the bike wobbled its way down through the pit and up the other side without flopping over, probably the nastiest sand pit I’ve managed to successfully complete yet. After many more miles of twisty road (including one spectacularly steep hill climb) the road leveled out on its final stretch toward the pavement, where the sand reared its head yet again. Instead of a single deep pit the road was covered in the stuff, with loose ruts zigzagging back and forth from the cars that had come before me. Had I encountered this much sand on the southern end of the road I probably would have gone back to pavement and gone around but I wasn’t about to go back the 30 miles that I had come. The standard technique still applies so I accepted that ignorance is bliss, looked at the horizon, and held on for the ride. Those last few miles seemed further than the entire distance I had already come and I was certainly happy when a strip of pavement appeared on that horizon, spelling an end to the sand trap. With some new-found confidence I looped back onto the main highway and made it in to Escalante in time to grab a calzone and a tent spot at the Outfitters (with its roaming chickens) which is starting to feel a bit like home. I think I’ll get a cabin and stay another night before continuing on my way north.Kaibab Plateau Meadow - gallerySunroom with a View - galleryGrand Canyon Lodge - galleryBright Angel Creek - galleryAngels Window - galleryWotans Throne - galleryVishnu Temple and Wotans Throne - galleryShould have been a road - galleryWalhalla Ruins - galleryLooking down at the South Rim - galleryLooking down at the South Rim - galleryHouse Rock Valley - galleryCannibalism - gallery