Thunder Mountain

I was sad to leave Zion. Though the RV campground I stayed at in Springdale was a bit crowded, the whole town felt very homey and I could easily see myself staying there for another week. But I felt like I had to move on. So, off to Bryce Canyon it was!

Back before I had left on this trip and I was still in the planning stages, my handy-dandy Good Sam trip planner advised me that the quickest and preferred route from Zion to Bryce had a tunnel with a low height restriction of something like 11’4”. That was a problem because Mike and I measured that I had a clearance of about 12’. Was I really going to have to back-track a huge part of my route just to get over to Bryce? Well, when I got to Zion, I discovered that RVs are able to get through the tunnel with an extra $15 fee for traffic control, which basically means the Ranger stops all traffic on the two-lane road so you can drive your RV down the middle of the road since the height there is 13’1”. Whew! At least I wouldn’t have to take the long way around, although, I was a little nervous about this. What if I steered too far left or too far right? One foot of clearance was not much at all!

That morning, I drove into the park, paid my $15 fee and made my way up the steep and windy road to the ranger station just before the tunnel where there was a line of cars waiting to get through. A few minutes later the line moved, but the ranger stopped me. She checked off my receipt and gave me some brief instructions on driving through the tunnel. I could sort of see the entrance now. It was definitely small! After waiting several more minutes, an RV about the size of mine emerges from the tunnel. As it drove by, the driver smiled at me, waved and gave me the thumbs up. I smiled and waved. A string of cars followed. The last car to come out of the tunnel handed the ranger a baton, signaling he was the last car. Then, it was my turn. I slowly pushed the gas pedal and pointed for the tunnel. Well before I got there, I centered myself over the yellow line and made sure my lights were on. I gripped the steering wheel tight and fixated my eyes on the yellow line. As soon as I entered the tunnel, it was pitch black. It was then I realized my headlights were horrible, absolutely horrible! I crept along at 25mph. At one point, there was a big opening in the tunnel and a bunch of light beamed in, but I dared not look over and instead focused on my yellow line. Finally, after a mile of darkness, I came out into the light again. I was elated I made it through without ramming my air conditioning unit into the roof of the 85-year-old tunnel. From there, it was a fairly uneventful hour or so drive to Ruby’s Inn, my home for the next several nights just outside Bryce Canyon National Park.

When I had ridden with Morgan, he recommended that I check out the Thunder Mountain mountain bike trail if I got the chance. He said the views were amazing. So, the day I got to Ruby’s Inn, I was determined to ride the Thunder Mountain Trail. Thus, began my research and planning. In my research and planning, I discovered it was out in the middle of nowhere and I had passed the trailheads on my way to Ruby’s Inn. It was about eight miles back. The suggested route was to start at the Upper Thunder Mountain trailhead (east-end) which stemmed off the Coyote Hollow trailhead. After about eight miles of trail, it will spit you out at the Lower Thunder Mountain trailhead (west-end). This route gives it a more downhill feel, though it sounded like there was still a fair amount of climbing involved. And from what I read, the last mile or so down to the parking lot was a blast! My dilemma in this whole thing was that since I’m travelling with my cat, I can’t just leave my RV parked somewhere for several hours, not knowing if there’s going to be shade or not. So, I basically need to either hitch a ride to the trailhead or just ride my bike there. Unfortunately, there were no bicycle shops or mountain bike guides anywhere in existence in this area. For a while, I seriously considered riding the nearly 30 total miles but I knew that was really pushing it. After talking to Mike about this, he suggested I at least get the number of a taxi or shuttle service in case I got done with my ride and was completely too wiped out to pedal the 13 miles or so home. What I great idea!

I headed over to the reception desk of the main lodge and asked if there was some sort of taxi or shuttle service. The receptionist told me there wasn’t.

“Nothing?” I pushed, desperate.

“No,” she half-empathized.

“There’s no one that I can pay to take me somewhere I want to go?” I was persistent because I REALLY didn’t want to pedal those extra miles to get to the trailhead and back.

“Let me ask,” she said and she explained the situation to a coworker. The coworker sort of had the same response but added, “There used to be a guy but I don’t have his number anymore…” she opened a drawer in front of her as if looking for his number.

I kept pushing them, “There’s no way you can get his number? Nothing you can do?”

The coworker said, “Just a second,” and disappeared into the backroom for a minute. She came back out, grabbed her phone, and started looking through her contacts. She found it and wrote his name and number down. “Here, he’ll be able to help you.”

I thought it was a little weird she initially said she didn’t have his number and then a minute later was flipping through her phone for it but, whatever, maybe he’s like a local’s-only guy or something. I thanked her and quickly went back to my RV to give this guy a call.

“Hello?” A scruffy voice answered on the other end of the line.

“Hi, is this Jim?”

“Yeah, who’s this?” He sounded much older and perhaps smoked a cigarette or two in his life. I told him my name and my situation and he said for $40 he could drop me and bike off at the trailhead and pick me up on his way back from St George. I knew the timing probably wouldn’t work out to be picked up but if I could at least shave off some mileage, then that was all that mattered to me.

“Ok, so I’ll see you at the front of the lodge at 6:30 tomorrow morning,” he said.

“Ok, sounds good,” I agreed.

“Alright. Byyyyyyeeeeeeeee,” he said, elongating the word into 2 syllables. Huh, I thought. Weird.

I was a bit nervous at the thought of biking this unfamiliar trail alone out in the middle of nowhere. So, I just made sure to be prepared. Instead of taking my smaller bike pack, I decided to take my day-hiking pack. In there, I loaded a wool shirt, a rain jacket, a light, tons of food, my first-aid kit, all my biking related accessories and three liters of water. It felt like it weighed 20 or 30 pounds by the time it was packed.

Morning came and as I rolled up to the front of the lodge I saw a white 15-seater passenger van with a faded blue “Scenic Tours” decal across the side. A guy in about his 50s sat on the wall in front of the van, smoking a cigarette.  “Hi, are you Jim?” I asked.

“No, he’s inside. But this is his van.”

“Oh, ok.” A few seconds later I saw a shorter, older guy coming out from the lodge, coffee in hand, wearing dirty ratty jeans and what probably used to be a black hoodie sweatshirt but was now faded gray. He reminded me of a penguin as he walked. “Hi, Jim?” I knew it had to be him.

“Morning!” He was very nice and cordial.

He opened the side doors where I saw the first bench was taken out, so my bike could fit no problem. I loaded the bike in there and he tied the seat post to the back of the passenger seat headrest with some white nylon rope. I hopped in onto the next bench and buckled in. The inside of the van wasn’t exactly the accommodations you would expect from a commercial vehicle that had “Scenic Tours” displayed on the side. But again, I concluded he was a local guy who provided transportation as a side gig. Jim got into the driver’s seat and the other guy got into the passenger seat. Jim didn’t mention anything about dropping someone else off or anything, but okay. He started the engine and pulled out. Over the blaring country music, I vaguely heard him say something about having to pick up his car, “It’ll only take five minutes.”

“Okay,” I answered with some hesitation. I remembered I needed to clarify which trailhead I needed to be dropped off at since there were two for Thunder Mountain. So, I told him I needed to go to the Coyote Hollow trailhead.

“Okay, I’ll take you there.” He tried to chat a little, but I could barely hear him over the music.

“Uh-huh,” I said, pretending to hear what he was saying.

We drove down the highway for a few miles and then he started slowing down. As he took a right turn onto a dirt road, he said again, “I gotta pick up my car. It’ll just take five minutes.” I had already started getting a nervous feeling about being in a van with two strange guys and I knew it was clearly not a legit transportation business. But once he turned up that dirt road, my woman-traveling-alone instincts kicked in full-throttle. Everything in the van became some sort of accessory to my kidnapping and murder. I noticed the neatly folded blanket lying on the bench next to me. I zeroed in on the extra white nylon rope dangling from his center console. I found some comfort knowing I had my SOG pocket knife that Mike gave me in case I were ever in this very type of situation. It was already attached to the pocket of my shorts. I inconspicuously put my wallet and phone into my other pocket in case I needed to leave everything behind and run the hell out of there. As we continued up the road, we drove by a couple who were camping and they watched us pass by, probably wondering what a Scenic Tours van was doing on that road.

Jim pulled off to the right where I could see a tent covered with a blue tarp and a white car parked next to it. Okay, I thought. There’s his car. They’re not going to kidnap and murder me. I felt slightly better when the other guy got out and got into the white car and started following us back down the dirt road. I breathed more deeply when we continued down the highway in the direction he was to drop me off. But as we passed the Red Canyon Campground, I got another sinking feeling. I knew we had already passed the Coyote Hollow Trailhead. So, I kept a close eye out for what would now be the Lower Thunder Mountain Trailhead because I knew it was not too far from the Red Canyon Campground. Much to my relief, he began slowing down and I could see the sign just off the side of the road. He pulled off and drove right up to the trailhead. He opened the doors and helped me and my bike out. I gave him the $40 and told him I’d probably be done way before he’d be driving back through here, so I’d just bike back to Ruby’s.

“Okay, well, I’ll stop by and see if you’re here,” he said.

“Okay, thanks so much for the ride!” I was slightly embarrassed of the demented scheme I conjured up of what these two guys were going to do to me, but I was also glad to just be out of that situation and to be alone on my bike.

Now, for the next dilemma: he dropped me off at the wrong trailhead. My choices were to either ride up the paved path to the Upper trailhead which would tack on about 10 extra miles, or ride the trail backwards. I chose to ride the trail backwards. Remember I mentioned reading about the last mile down to the parking lot being a blast? Yeah, well, I got to climb all that instead. And then climb some more. And climb some more again. The trail started at 7,050 feet of elevation and climbed to 8,200 feet. It’s a good thing the views were spectacular! Much of the trail was loose rock, particularly on some of the switchbacks. There were a few high, narrow ridges with exposure on both sides. At times, it was unnerving to think I was out there alone.  It wasn’t until I was a few miles to the Upper trailhead that I finally crossed paths with another solo rider. It was a tough ride with a lot of hike-a-bike when the climb was too steep and rocky. I was a bit relieved when I finally caught sight of the parking lot and soon began my eight-mile trek home on the paved path that paralleled the Highway. Fortunately, a lot of it was gravity assisted, though, the last few miles were a grueling pedal.

Author: Debora Schwartz

I am a traveler, a writer, an outdoor enthusiast and a tiny house dweller.

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