Ever since that bully morning back in 1908 when President Teddy Roosevelt leapt on the back of a horse, galloped to the rim of Arizona's Grand Canyon, and deemed it "the most impressive piece of scenery I have ever looked at," Americans have been devising ways in which to observe and fully appreciate the Southwest's magnificent ditches. These days, you can fly over canyons in balloons, buzz them in small prop planes, float through them in rafts, or hop in a car and join the long summer lines of rubberneckers who drive through and around them. Or you can ride a bike.
This last option has a few advantages. You move at a leisurely pace. You always have a sunroof. There's built-in air conditioning. You can see the canyon at a human, not birdlike, scale. And, like all things that you have to sweat a little to attain, it seems sweeter in the end. There are some caveats, of course, not the least of which has to do with the fact that the pertinent geology requires a fair amount of uphills and downhills, but in the end, biking and canyons seem to be a good match.
Nowhere is that more true than in Bryce, Grand and Zion canyons, three national parks that form the holy triangle of Southwest landmarks along the Arizona-Utah border, and where Backroads Bicycle Touring runs a nine-day, three-canyon cycling tour this summer and fall. There's a choice between staying in tents ($795, plus $120 bike rental) or in bed-and-breakfasts ($1,295, plus the bike), but the important stuff -- meaning the route -- stays the same.
You start out atop a 2,000-foot-tall amphitheater made of red rock in Cedar Breaks National Monument in southern Utah -- not a bad spot to begin, since its 10,400-foot elevation makes for an easy first descent 4,000 feet before you reach the distinctive rock columns and Alice-in-Wonderland spires of Bryce Canyon.
After a day of "rest" (this is largely a euphemism, as most use the day to explore the bat-cavelike galleries of Bryce), the caravan heads west toward the Grand Canyon, stopping for a possible swim (for those of you keeping track, that's at mile 70). After one more day in the high desert, you emerge at the relatively unpopulated North Rim of the Grand Canyon. From where you end up, at the southernmost end of the "Grand Staircase," you might just be able to make out the hordes of cars and hotels at the South Rim, host to more than 90 percent of the canyon's tourists. Two days of "rest" here usually means day trips to Point Imperial and/or Cape Royal, the latter of which threads out on the Walhalla Plateau into the heart of the canyon. Don't bother bringing the camera to the cape: Trying to wedge 360 degrees of beauty into one measly frame can only prove frustrating.
Day 6 brings a 121-mile-run backtrack to Zion, a mostly downhill affair that's made more enjoyable by what's waiting at road's end: the park that Mormon settler Isaac Behunin decided should be named after "the heavenly city of God." While old Isaac might not have been far off in some respects, it's doubtful that heaven has the sort of traffic snarl-ups that plague Utah state Route 9 during the high season. A word of advice: Go after Labor Day, or be ready to dodge Winnebagos. Of course, hassles tend to be forgottenwhen you're standing in one of Zion's 20-foot-wide canyons that rise up for 1,000 very sheer feet on either side.
Like many bike tours, this one comes with a key asset: the support van and trailer to pick up stragglers, fix flats and haul the victuals for roadside picnics. Like few tours, this one comes with a bit of a warning -- consider it only if you're comfortable with single-day tours of 40 to 60 miles. With dramatic elevation changes and temperatures that can vary dramatically, it's best to be ready for anything.
It was a few years ago on a Backroads tour that a group coming up on
the North Rim of the Grand Canyon ran into something a little unexpected: snow. "There was no way we were going to get on the road that day," says Suzy Parker, who led the trip. "We still had to see the canyon, so we all just rented skis."
Teddy would have been proud.
If you go . . .
Resources: Backroads Bicycle Touring, 1516 Fifth St., Berkeley, Calif. 94710-1740; (800) 245-3874
Readings: "The Sierra Club Guides to the National Parks: Desert Southwest" (Stewart, Tabori & Chang; $18.95)