* * *
SOUTH UTAH -- After a tasty dinner of enchilada pie packed with sliced zucchini, yellow squash and bison meat, two touring bicyclists -- Elizabeth from Utah and Nancy from Sacramento, Calif. -- strolled from their camp site at Bryce Canyon National Park to the canyon rim for a sunset peak.
The tips of the canyon's tops were illuminated as the two bicyclists exploring southern Utah carefully followed a foot path some 8,200 feet high for inspiring views of the famed national park.
Elizabeth and Nancy enjoyed the day-end visual treats as touring road bicyclists with Escape Adventures, a Las Vegas-based touring company that has taken guests for mountain bike and road bicycle tours in places from the Tetons in Wyoming to Grand Canyon in Arizona to the Pacific Coast in Oregon for the past 22 years.
Jared Fisher of Blue Diamond, who owns bicycle stores in Las Vegas and Moab, Utah, launched Escape Adventures more than two decades ago. For this particular bicycle tour in mid-June, Fisher used his vast knowledge of south Utah for his seven-day road bicycle tour that includes the Holy Trinity of national parks -- Bryce Canyon, Zion and Grand Canyon.
I joined the tour for the first three days to get a taste of a scheduled bike trip. I have bicycled across the country solo twice and have created urban restaurant bicycle tours in Tampa, Fla., but I wanted to see what it was like to pedal on an organized commercial tour.
* * *
I pride myself on knitting together my own bike routes no matter where the place and I have a very quirky style of stopping to chat with people or take photos in a spur-of-the-moment way. I have been meaning to explore south Utah's amazing landscape of high country and stunning low deserts and Escape Adventures proved to offer the right balance of tour guidance and bicyclist autonomy.
My two guides were a can-do pair of 20-somethings whose love for bicycling came through in an enthusiastic and caring fashion. Merrick Golz, 27, and Zephyr Sylvester, 23, led rides, cooked three unbelievable meals a day and struck the right balance of advising bicyclists in a friendly manner with a smile without talking down to guests. Both are avid mountain bicyclists with strong road cycling skills.
Merrick and Zephyr formed a great team, making sure tires were inflated properly to gently reminding to be hydrated while doling out helpful anecdotal tips on the road conditions and elevation changes.
The duo also prepared three stunning meals a day -- ranging from French toast in the mornings, to homemade pizzas complete with peppers and cilantro at lunch and appetizers and tasty dinners at night, including a splendid grilled salmon on the tour's first evening. The next night, a delicious enchilada pie was preceded with home-made chips and three different types of salsas. Zephyr took special care with breakfast, arranging a mini-pyramid of banana slices and sliced strawberries laid out like a mini-deck of cards before a hot breakfast was served daily.
* * *
During the days rides, Merrick and Zephyr took turns cycling with the three of us -- I joined Nancy and Elizabeth on the daily rides in south Utah -- while the other drove the Escape Adventures van and trailer.
On this day, Zephyr joined Nancy and Elizabeth for rides.
Escape Adventures offers two options for biking guests to launch a tour. In this case, Nancy met the Escape Adventures crew at The Element boutique motel next to the Las Vegas Cyclery bike shop for the trip to St. George, where they had a rendezvous with Elizabeth and myself at The Crystal Inn off I-15.
* * *
So, let's go and ride. While Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon and Zion are the Big Three, there are other scenic stops along the trip that are noteworthy and something to write home about. The first day was a case in point. We drove to Cedar Breaks National Monument, an 81-year-old national park that offers a spectacular natural rock amphitheater at more than 10,000 feet.
We lunched on turkey sandwiches with an impressive array of mustard selections and delicious soft apple cookies before we hopped on our bicycles for a five-mile ride in the hilly terrain around Cedar Breaks, before we took a right turn for a 15-mile descent to Panguitch Lake campground in the Dixie National Forest. The descent was amazing as I hit 50 mph thanks to the downward slope and tailwinds.
Elizabeth, Nancy and I joined Zephyr for a casual nine-mile bike ride around Panguitch Lake, where vacation homes dot the gentle rolling hills lining the lake.
Zephyr, who started on the job in May 2013, enjoys meeting the array of guests such as Nancy and Elizabeth. Both enjoy road cycling, with Elizabeth cranking up the hills and Nancy going slower and having her two trusty Nikon point-and-shoot cameras at her side.
"I meet so many cool people from every field," said Zephyr, who grew up in Vermont and attended Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.
* * *
The first day was an easy 27 miles -- and it was a pleasant start for the tour to see the spectacular Cedar Breaks, which sometimes gets lost in the shuffle amid the higher-profile canyons such as Bryce and Zion in south Utah.
After zipping down from 10,400 feet at Cedar Breaks to 8,200 feet at Panguitch Lake, we cycled the second day from the National Forest campground to the quaint city of Panguitch of about 1,500 at 6,500 feet. I enjoyed the display of quilts down Panguitch's main street as we pedaled through the quiet town and headed to Bryce Canyon National Park.
Before we arrived at Bryce Canyon, we pedaled through Red Canyon -- a real visual treat. We left the road and pedaled on a paved trail for about six miles or so through Red Canyon, an aptly-named canyon.
After battling headwinds from Panguitch to Red Canyon on US 89, we turned on Utah 12 to pedal through Red Canyon to Bryce Canyon. It was mostly uphill to Bryce, which took 47 miles.
For bicyclist tourists who would like to log more miles, Merrick was happy to accommodate them. For example, Elizabeth wanted to bike more miles, so she pedaled another 30 miles during the afternoon or so inside the park, while Nancy and I decided to hoof it down a loop trail at Bryce Canyon National Park. We all met up at our Bryce Canyon camp spot around 5:30 p.m. or so.
Here is Nancy checking out the hiking trail info sign and strolling through the walled trail on the way back up to the rim trail.
Our Bryce Canyon camp site was only a five-minute walk to the rim, where sunset offered wonderful photos from the rim trail.
My third and final day meant trying to pedal from Bryce Canyon National Park to another underrated natural gem -- Coral Pink Sands Dune State Park, some 72 miles away.
Biking back from Bryce Canyon to US 89 was pleasant, as it was mostly downhill and it meant another trip through Red Canyon.
* * *
But when we turned left on 89 and headed north, we bucked ferocious sustained winds of 30 mph. "The Big W," as Zephyr liked to put it, eventually forced us to seek cover and transport via the van to an alternative route, a side road miles down the road that took us back to 10,000 feet elevation and chances to see the lava rocks from ancient eruptions and the headwaters of the Virgin River. We stopped for lunch at Duck Creek at a Dixie National Forest site at about 9,600 feet. Merrick prepared two delicious pizzas and we carbed up for the rest of the afternoon of bicycling.
Between cycling from Bryce Canyon to US 89 and then a second mountain segment, we logged 40 miles -- not bad when you consider the nasty winds that forced us off US 89.
Kudos to Merrick for crafting an alternative route for us to bike in the mountains and adding more delicious scenery to a great bike trip.
We packed out bikes on the van roof and headed for Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, where windblown sand made for some fun routes for ATVs at the park.
On the third evening, Merrick drove me back to St. George from the sand dunes state park and I headed home to Las Vegas that night. Escape Adventures had provided a marvelous blend of great bicycle routes, amazing scenery, tasty food at three miles and two great tour guides who offered great insight and support.
Elizabeth and Nancy continued on to the Grand Canyon's north rim and Zion National Park.
* * *
For information, contact Escape Adventures at www.escapeadventures.com or 800-596-2953.