THOUGH MOST OFTEN ASSOCIATED WITH MOUNTAIN BIKING, Utah is no slouch when it comes to road cycling / cycle touring, either. Just look to the Tour of Utah, “one of only five UCI-sanctioned, multi-stage, North American pro cycling events in 2014.” Over its seven stages, the race takes in some of the most varied and beautiful landscapes in the United States — lakes, deserts, canyons, mountains, buttes, mesas — traversing approximately 750 miles.
Of course, you don’t need to be at the pro level to enjoy that same scenery from the saddle of a bike. The routes below highlight some of the epic riding that will be featured in the Tour this August 4th-10th…years of training not required.
1. Boulder to Escalante
Part of Stage 2 of the Tour of Utah, this section on Scenic Byway 12 is just short of 30 miles. It takes you over the “Hogsback” — a narrow spine of a road that drops off sharply on either side into the canyon below.
On the south side of the Hogsback is the Calf Creek Campground, where you’ll find the trailhead to a 126ft waterfall, should you want to give your legs a rest from pedaling. The towns of Boulder and Escalante are also home to some excellent cuisine, serving up local, fresh organic food. Kiva Koffeehouse, near the campground, is well worth a stop to check out its unique architecture and to take in the surrounding views while sipping an espresso.
2. Parowan Gap Loop
The Parowan Gap is a natural mountain pass that was used by the Fremont and Anasazi Indians. They left a plethora of petroglyphs depicting snakes, lizards, and mountain sheep, among other subjects.
This ride is a moderate 50-mile loop that begins and ends at Cedar City. From town, head north on Highway 130 and turn right at the Parowan Gap turnoff (13 miles). This takes you to Parowan, where the road ends at Main Street. Hang a right and proceed south on Old Highway 91 (now the I-15 frontage road), through the town of Summit, and back to Cedar City. Parts of this route will be ridden as Stage 1 of the Tour of Utah.
3. Mammoth Creek Loop
The highlights of this route include riding through Cedar Breaks National Monument, a natural amphitheater three miles across and over 2,000 feet deep. With a rim elevation of around 10,000 feet, there’s a lot of climbing on this ride and temperatures can fluctuate, so make sure to bring layers. The scenery is similar to what you’d see at Bryce Canyon National Park. Note that Highway 148, which traverses the monument, is only open from late May through October.
Start at Midway (the junction of Highway 14 and Highway 148, 18 miles east of Cedar City) and head north on 148. Turn right on Highway 143, watching for signs to Mammoth Creek; Mammoth Creek Road is the first paved road on the right. Take this south to Highway 14, where you’ll take another right to get back to Midway. The loop is around 35 miles with a lot of elevation gain and takes in a good chunk of the eastern portion of Stage 1 of the Tour of Utah.
4. Capitol Reef Scenic Drive
Cyclists pay $3 to enter Capitol Reef National Park and can travel along the scenic drive that extends just over 8 miles into the park. This is a ride you’ll want to make many stops on, like in Fruita — a historic community founded in the 1800s by Mormon settlers — and to take in the views — such as the 240-million-year-old Moenkopi rock formation — and possibly for hikes along the Great Wash and Capitol Gorge trails (off-road biking is prohibited in the park). Capitol Reef National Park marks the end of Stage 2 of the Tour of Utah, just outside of Torrey.
5. Circumnavigating Utah Lake
Stage 3 of the Tour follows the western shores of Utah Lake, the largest naturally occurring freshwater lake in the Western US. This page maps out in detail a 90-mile loop starting in Orem, just south of Salt Lake City. The lake is a popular recreation destination for the Provo/Orem metro area; the Utah Lake Wetland Preserve is at the southern end of the lake and is used by 226 species of birds, 49 mammalian species, 18 types of fish, and 16 species of reptiles and amphibians.
6. Tintic Mountains Classic
At 110 miles, the Tintic Mountains Classic loop is one of the longest single-day road rides in the state. It begins and ends in Eagle Mountain, a small city west of Utah Lake, and takes in the Tintic Mountains and parts of the historic Pony Express route. With an elevation gain of more than 2,000 feet, this ride might not be the best for first-timers. Large portions of the loop are included in Stage 3 of the Tour of Utah.
7. Liberty Loop in Ogden Valley
If you really want to test your physical limits, climbing the North Ogden Divide — which racers do for Stage 4 of the Tour — might be your thing. It’s just over 3 miles of 10% grade, and is actually a spur off of this loop ride. So if you do decide to take it on, you’ll be descending down that same grade (make sure your brakes are in good working condition). The loop has been described as one of the most scenic routes in Ogden Valley; you can find a detailed map here.
8. Salt Lake City to Emigration Canyon
You’ll likely be sharing the road on this moderate 8-mile climb (5% grade) with a lot of locals. Ride from the big city into a national historic landmark with sweeping views down the length of the canyon and back out to SLC. The route through the canyon (long before the road existed) was used by pioneers traveling west into the Salt Lake Valley in 1847.
If 16 miles round trip is too short for you, continue on Highway 65 to Big Mountain Pass. This ride is the beginning portion of Stage 6 of the Tour of Utah.Feature photo: Andrew Smith