What a privilege it is to live on the edge of the wilderness. Plot the course on any heading of the compass head out of town in Southern Utah and within a few miles the pavement ends, cell phone coverage weakens and solitude envelopes the traveler.
Since moving to Hurricane I’ve become increasingly fascinated with the Arizona Strip. That vast desert that has been literally cut off and set aside from civilization. Not set aside by act of congress, but by nature itself through the Colorado River and the cutting of the Grand Canyon. When leaving St. George South, the traveler can cover more than 100 miles in a straight line before encountering any paved road.
This year I’ve explored the most accessible edges of the Arizona Strip by gravel bike. I’m kept away from the remote reaches by sheer logistics of needing to carry enough water and have enough free time to make deeper explorations. I’d been searching for established bikepacking routes into the Arizona Strip when I learned about the Plateau Passage on BikepackingRoots.org
The Plateau Passage is a 1,200-mile bikepacking route that stretches from Las Vegas Nevada to Durango Colorado. Developed by pro ultra-endurance cyclist, Kurt Refsnider and local backcountry cycling guru, David Harris, the route is a jewel of adventure in the Southwest.
I’ve made it a goal of mine to ride as much of the entire full course that I can over time. So for a weekend here and there I’ve been sampling some of the segments that are closest to home.
Over the last couple weekends, I rode the first segment of the Plateau Passage between Las Vegas and St. George.
Like watching a great movie for the first time, it’s best when a route is discovered with new eyes. It’s better not to know where the twists and turns are. Discovering who the good guys and bad guys are and how long this climb will last and what the condition of the trails are; all part of the adventure, learning something new with every bend in the turn and twist of plot. For me, it’s important to know where the water and possible camp spots are and let the experience fill in the rest of the detail.
Without spoiling the experience for the reader, the route out of Las Vegas had its share of wonder with wetlands and red rock canyons before reaching State Road 107 through Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Normally, I’m averse to riding paved roads, but the wide shoulders, rolling climbs, and amazing scenery was welcome in combination with the faster tarmac.
After Lake Mead, the route turns West and then North through the Valley of Fire State Park. First the route covers the main route through the park, but then the route quickly goes from paved thorough fare to primitive trail as you begin exploring the northern reaches of the park and transition to ATV roads. The pace slows as the sandy washes turn the cycling explorer into a bike pushing hiking voyager. No matter, the slower pace allows for a more careful consideration of the red rock corridors.
At mile 85 the route enters the Moapa Valley, where there are hotels, restaurants, and resupply options. With stops in Moapa Valley, Mesquite, and finally St. George the first 200 miles of the Plateau Passage can be done entirely without camping, if that’s not your thing. I chose to spend my first night dry camping just south of Moapa Valley where I had the company of a fox that was insistent on trying to get at my beef sticks all night long.
After a sleepless night, thanks to Mr. Fox, the next morning I rode through Logandale for a quick resupply before climbing up and crossing Mormon Mesa. The Mesa had a feeling of strangeness, like a place people go to get lost or find themselves. Along the way there was a shine marked “Welcome Polish Negative” that appeared to be some annual gathering place in the middle of nowhere. I imagined strange rituals or maybe just some silliness as those building the shrine wondered how it would be interpreted by adventurers for years to come.
After a stretch across the mesa, the route drops down the valley towards Bunkerville. The road becomes a ribbon of sand that rides the swells of dozens of dry washes that cut perpendicular across the road. A sloppy ride down the sandy road to the wash, followed by a slow push up the sand to the next crest of the swell, then do it again, and again, and again. The swells repeat relentlessly until the intrepid explorer finally resigns to accepting and even enjoying the slow sloppy shoe filling sand.
After the existential sand experience I had run low on time upon entering Mesquite. I would need to tackle the remainder of the route another weekend so I called for a ride home.
Joined this time by my adventure companion, with strong winds from the North in the forecast we decided to reverse the last portion of the route and ride from North to South leaving Hurricane. From the terminus of River Road the route climbs (slowly at first, then angrily) into the Arizona Strip to the top of the Virgin Mountains. Slowly grinding and sometimes pushing, we reached the Cedar Pocket overlook where those taking the efficient route between Mesquite and St. George could be seen below driving on I-15. Continuing to climb, sage brush becomes cedar trees, then large pine trees as the route tops near 7000’ above sea level. After reaching the summit the course enters a long descent south along Hatchet Valley in the Grand Canyon Parashant National Monument.
The descent is long, straight, and rough, punctuated by corrals and the occasional cattle guard. Enveloped by the security of towering ridgelines on both sides of the road, it has a feeling of being both very remote, yet safe and secure in the enclosure of the parallel barrier reefs.
Heading south the valley saves the best for last with a forest of huge Joshua trees in the shadows of the mesas. A final farewell before the route makes the stiff climb and over Lime Kiln Road and into Mesquite.
For bikepackers and adventure cyclist looking to explore the Southwest, the Plateau Passage provides an established route with helpful data on water sources and route information. More importantly, it seems to be curated not for efficiency or ease, but instead places an importance on experiencing much of the best geography of the Southwest. For me it was a way to get started on my exploration and appreciation for the Arizona Strip. Now having struggled up a few rocky climbs, waded and pushed through miles of sand, and been humbled by one vista after another, I’ve sampled enough to know there is much more to explore.
Words by Logan Phipps. Images by Logan Phipps and David Lisonbee.