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The wheels of my BMW turn almost silently as I exit the paved driveway and turn onto Hwy 128. Leaving the confines of Sorrel River Ranch Resort and Spa doesn’t evoke even the slightest twinge of remorse. I plan to fully enjoy the luxury of my base camp, but as beautiful and welcoming as it is, the surrounding Martian-like landscape is irresistibly drawing. This isn’t the Utah I thought I knew.
Utah is recognized for many reasons, like its Great Salt Lake and a strong Mormon history that helped shape the distribution of today’s roughly 2.5 million inhabitants. After spending only a brief amount of time in the southeastern portion of the nation’s 11th largest state, it’s readily apparent that the Anasazi had far better taste in landscape architecture than Brigham Young. These ancient pueblo Native Americans are well known for their cliff dwellings and other iconic ruins, such as the Chaco Canyon sites.
Geographically we’re talking about a healthy portion of Utah’s 84,900 square miles southeast of the Wasatch Mountains, with Interstate 70 cutting across the upper section. It extends south and east past state borders where Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico connect at the renowned Four Corners.
Only 20 miles from the Sorrel River Resort lay the city of Moab, which has come to be one of the most commonplace names to represent this area. Incredibly popular with mountain bikers and 4×4 enthusiasts, the red rocks have come to symbolize much of what these groups stand for. It’s also perfect for dual-sport and adventure riding, which is exactly what I’m here to do. Taking off for a ride on BMW’s all-new F800GS proved that laying two-wheeled tracks without burning leg muscles is just as fitting.
A long series of water crossings started our ride and were just the beginning of a wide sprectrum of terrain we encountered.
As we prepare to depart, the morning light is soft, but only because the sun has yet to escape the towering bluffs overhead. It doesn’t take long before we trade asphalt for a stretch of dirt road. Knobby Continental tires have been spooned onto our steeds, and the dust kicked up by my companions is thick as we head towards Kokopelli Trail. This could be a very long day. Fortunately, water crossings start to come hot and heavy. Our course zigzags across a shallow stream at least 30 times in the next few miles. The pegs become slippery, but this is what riding is about as my dusty grimace changes to a crusty smile.
The region may be parched on the whole, but it’s by no means devoid of sizeable water sources. The Green River works its way south from Wyoming to converge with the Colorado River. Eventually they feed into the most popular freshwater destination in the state, 186-mile long Lake Powell. Another popular Utah destination are the Wasatch Mountain ski resorts, but if it’s groomed slopes you seek, the deserts of southeastern Utah are not for you. The world-class powder opportunities available in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains are actually closer to the Moab area.
Our course is a clockwise loop, east and away from the stone rainbows of Arches National Park. Signs inform us that this terrain is part of the Manti-La Sal National Forest, one of six designated areas in the state. The wilderness has no regard for political boundaries. Spilling across to the Colorado side, we follow it as the sun climbs higher. The changing light plays games with my vision from time to time. Massive canyon walls are flattened, shifting back and forth from three dimensions to two in an unsettling optical illusion. My neck is getting a workout from swiveling the Troy Lee Designs helmet side to side as I take in the unique, reddish scenery. The many variations of rock form a geologist’s dreamscape. Not only are there yellow, red, brown and tea colored striations, but the formations are equally as unique, from jagged and deadly to smooth faces pockmarked with hollowed out bubbles. The wind and water have been unforgiving through the years.
But it’s not all rocks and dust. Higher elevations bring wooded terrain. Aspens are towers of shimmering gold. The leaves are silenced by my Parallel Twin, but sound isn’t necessary to experience the quakies’ well-known rustle. The dirt road has been mostly cleared of fallen leaves by the multiple bikes in front of me, but an occasional flash of fall’s brilliance catches my eye as another is shaken from its perch.
One of the highlights was the impressive display at the Gateway Colorado Auto Museum owned by John Hendricks.
Our eventual target is the picturesque Gateway Canyons resort in western Colorado. Slated as our lunch stop, there’s more to this facility than white-glove service and tasty sweet potato fries. The property also houses the Gateway Colorado Auto Museum, which is the private collection of John Hendricks, founder of the Discovery Channel, American car aficionado and all-around rich guy. He paid $3.24 million for a 1954 Oldsmobile F-88 concept car, just one of the 45 US-made autos inside his seven different galleries. Even non-car buffs will appreciate the themed displays.
Remounting the Beemer, I commence on one of the longer highway stretches. Filled with mild but enjoyable imperfections, Hwy 141 twists its way down a canyon alongside the mighty Colorado River. It quickly reminds me that it has yet to divulge every wonder as white walls with vertical black striping come into view. Not long after passing the tiger motif, my attention is drawn skyward where dark clouds are forming with malicious intent.
If only I had a full-faced helmet, or at least a bandanna to wrap cowboy-style around my nose and mouth. The rain is painful. My face is unprotected below my goggles, and the biting drops are relentless, angry. The pavement is instantly more treacherous and soon a pair of cautious riders are slowing me up, trudging through the misery. There’s no reason to force a pass in the gloom, but several miles of worrying how those knobby tires are holding up is more than enough for the rider behind me. Unable to bear the leisurely pace, there’s a downshift, a bob and weave and his hand signals me to tag along. Secretly I’m relieved, anxious to reach a patch of blue sky.
Hitting triple digits is almost violent in these conditions. I can only hold a hand over my nose for a second or two before losing nerve. The sting! Another set of twisties brings our speeds to almost within reason, but my nerves are taut like a strand of Anasazi bowstring. A straightaway and my guide pins it. Cussed rain…
The pelting finally subsides in time to cruise through Bedrock on a mostly dry Hwy 90. Wait, was that even a town? A U-turn to make another pass and a quick stop at the general store built around 1883 earns a photo, just to prove this place even exists. The rain is still out there, so no time to waste. This sample section of pavement is enough to demonstrate why the 130-mile trip between Moab and Telluride is a common weekend haven for sportbikes. At this point we’re not far from the state line. We could take 90 all the way back to Utah’s Hwy 191, hop the 128 and be cracking a beer in less than two hours, but that’s not what this German motorcycle is meant to do, rain or no rain. So, it’s back into the spider web of Manti-La Sal dirt roadways, where the dust-killing moisture is now a blessing.
Over the 10,700-foot crest of Geyser Pass, aspens give way to evergreens. The scent of pine sneaks under my helmet, along with an occasional whiff of dung. This is open-range country, and I’ve dodged almost as many cow patties as rocks.
That growing sense of reaching our destination is getting stronger. Perhaps it’s a fear of more piercing rain, the call of a cold beverage or just the desire to make good use of these final miles with one last shred.
Regardless, the right hand automatically responds as I tie myself to another companion’s rear fender. He’s faster on the pavement, this I know, but I figure it’s a good way to learn a thing or two.
Our illegal pace blurs the roadway. There are no painted lines, only streaks of crack sealant that writhe and squirm beneath our tires like snakes on the Temple of Doom floor. Suddenly the black lines are shiny; fresh sealant that immediately slows our mad rush. The tires are again proving their worth, but we know better than to push our luck this close to home.
Our speed has increased, but so do the frequency of scenic photo ops. Nobody seems willing to let a panoramic go unrecorded by our digital canvasses. At every turnout, riders point to distant crags and attempt to recognize the notable landmarks. Names are tossed around with reckless abandon. Few, if any, are accurate. With nothing worthwhile to add, I keep my mouth shut. Most have as good a chance at guessing as I do, but it doesn’t matter. The landscape’s stark faces, some jagged and others flat as sheet metal, don’t require labels to be magnificent. Though anxious to resume the ride, I know it will take much longer than my brief vacation to draw weary of these sights.
We pop off another dirt road for a final jaunt down Hwy 128 back to the resort. It’s good timing because unlike the sluggish sunrise, sunset comes quickly here. The palisades have just begun casting their long shadows before sunlight drops off the horizon fast enough to catch you unaware.
Flying west out of Grand Junction, my face is glued to the plane’s Frisbee-sized window. Like the many challenges we faced on our brief ride, Utah has proven to be a very versatile place, and seeing it from an aerial standpoint helps give some scope to the enormity of it all. If it weren’t for the many aspen groves dotting this rusty landscape like blotches of golden fungus, it might be easy to assume there is little variety here. But as I learned, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Rating Utah Gold
With little to moderate traffic and even less debris, the paved sections feel safe. However, as we understand it, weekends bring a surge of fast cars and sportbikes to enjoy the curves all the way to popular Colorado towns like Vail and Telluride – a fact not lost on the local fuzz. Pavement quality is rough and patchy in some sections, but we didn’t notice anything particularly dangerous like chuck holes. Off-road sections are well-maintained where the county crews are active, and more remote areas offer enough rocks, water-crossings and the occasional animal sighting to keep riders interested and awake.
We didn’t expect to be so enamored by a bunch of red rocks, but the striking cliffs and desolate, disfigured landscape are awe-inspiring. Perhaps a portion of what makes it so nice is that it isn’t the flat, crappy terrain of northwestern Utah..
The food available at the Sorrel River Ranch Resort and Spa and Gateway Canyons is great. What was really lacking was some experience with smaller local offerings. We love to eat, and often times the dive joints have some of the best. Next time we’re in the area we’ll be on the lookout for less high-end establishments.
The locals are few and far between in these parts. The few that we did encounter were all nice enough and the working staffs at the facilities were exceptionally courteous. There was one gentleman in particular who wanted to fight our entire group, but not only is that another story entirely, we figure he was just a bad apple.
Lodge and ranch-style bungalows are private, secure and very well presented. Over 100 Google users ranked Sorrel River Ranch Resort 4.5/5 stars. We’d go a bit higher.
The BMW F800GS is a superb machine, and great for what we encountered, but we didn’t feel comfortable taking the 800 on the more serious off-road terrain.