You can see an awful long ways from a 1,000-foot perch. Even on a hazy day.
Lake Powell shimmers in the afternoon sun a hundred or so miles in the distance, while a purplish haze lends an eerie three-dimensional effect to the series of canyons and cliffs of the deep southern Utah desert.Closer, the incandescent hoodoos of Bryce Canyon glare an angry orange, just as they do every afternoon.
The incomparable "Powell Point," located at an elevation of 10,000 feet, offers an unforgetable and distinctive perspective: sheer cliffs dropping more than 1,000 feet on three sides, vistas reaching more than a hundred miles in seemingly every direction, and the 8,500-foot-elevation Bryce Canyon actually lying below you.
"It's a paradise lost," states Peter Heumann.
And it's a mountain bike paradise found. Heumann, an influential Southern California mountain bike advocate, returns to the Bryce Canyon area every year to ride the mountain and desert trails around Bryce Canyon.
Each year, he brings more friends. And each year, he's won a lot of converts to bicycling the Bryce Canyon area.
Said Mark Langton, associate editor for Mountain and City Biking magazine, "I've ridden trails all over the world, and these trails (around Bryce Canyon) rank with the best of them. They are really that good."
Better than Moab? Not better, Langton says. But certainly as good as. "Which is saying a lot in itself," he said.
Bryce Canyon mountain biking may not have the reputation of Moab or Crested Butte, Colo. In fact, few but the most enthusiastic get-away-from-the-crowd mountain bikers have discovered it.
But state and local tourism officials recognize they are sitting on a tourism bonanza still in its infancy. They point out that but two years ago, it was a rare sight indeed to see a mountain bike anywhere near Bryce.
Now it is fairly commonplace. "Word's getting out: If you want to bike and you want the great scenery, but you don't want to fight the crowds, then Bryce Canyon is the place to go," said Jean Seiler, a Garfield County tourism official and active promoter of mountain biking.
Avoiding the crowds is "all part of the provincial charm of the area," Heumann adds. "You can ride the trails all day and never see another soul. And where else in the world can you ride the red-rock desert in the morning and in the afternoon the same day be riding on alpine plateaus among the antelope and elk? The variety and diversity of scenery here is awesome."
Variety and diversity are words used a lot to describe mountain biking in the Bryce Canyon area. And it's that variety over a longer bicycling season (early March to mid-November) that has local officials believing Bryce Canyon can compete with the heavyweights in mountain biking.
In the fall, early spring and sometimes even the winter, the area east and south of Bryce Canyon is fast becoming known for its scores of spectacular red and white cliffs and canyons in, through and around the Paria River country. While much of the area is proposed wilderness area, existing roads - of which there are hundreds of miles - are a mountain biker's dream come true.
In addition to major attractions like Kodachrome Basin State Park and Grosvenor's Arch, there is the growing popularity of Cottonwood Canyon and a stunning assortment of nearby slot canyons so narrow you can touch both walls at the same time as you pedal through the wash.
And there are tempting gorges so deep the bottom is but a distant blackness seemingly daring you into the forbidden.
In late spring, throughout the summer and most of the fall, the Bryce Canyon area offers a whole new set of bicycling options: forested plateaus, rugged mountains, pristine mountain lakes and enough wildlife to conjure up memories of what Yellowstone used to be like.
The Dixie National Forest surrounds Bryce Canyon on the west, south and southeast. There are literally hundreds of miles of old jeep trails ideally suited for the mountain biker, as well as scores of single-track trails, some of which have yet to feel the print of a bicycle tire.
One of the most popular single-tracks is the last mile of the trail to Powell Point.
"There are so many trails in so many areas," Heumann said. "Just when you think it can't possibly get any better, you find another one. And another. And the amazing thing is you don't have to compete with cars or motorcycles or other backcountry users. Instead, you're competing with elk and deer and antelope for the trails. There's nothing like it anywhere else."
Of course, Heumann and his pals (all members of the Concerned Off-Road Bicyclists Association and key figures in the Southern California bicycling community) probably aren't too excited about revealing their Bryce Canyon secret.
But state officials are actively promoting bicycling in parts of Utah other than Moab, and Garfield County is certainly not shy about wanting mountain bikers in Bryce Canyon country. Earlier this year, they hosted a "Bryce Canyon Mountain Bike Adventure" - a mini-festival, of sorts - to expose cyclists to the idea of mountain biking in that area.
Bicycle trail guides are now available to many of the trails on the Dixie National Forest (the Bureau of Land Management locally has been slower to jump on the mountain biking bandwagon, officials say).
"The potential for mountain biking is phenomenal," Seiler said. "We believe the smaller towns here offer a great base for mountain biking and each has its own different terrain to offer."
While improved and unimproved camping is abundant in the area, Seiler said many mountain bikers have found the real attraction of Garfield County to be the abundance of inexpensive motels and restaurants. And virtually every major area in which to ride bicycles has at least one small town to service cyclists' needs.
"It's nice to come back after a day on the trail and find a bed and a shower and someone else to do the cooking," Seiler said. "Some of the motels will even help shuttle mountain bikers to the trails or pick them up. We're seeing that kind of spirit catching on among the businesses here."
Heumann agrees, saying the hospitality of Garfield County adds a new and unparalleled dimension to the experience.
"You've got the scenery of Bryce Canyon as the center piece, you've got the most scenic bicycle trails anywhere in the world and you've got people who bend over backwards to help you out. It's a treasure for mountain bikers."
(Mountain biking in Bryce Canyon National Park itself is restricted to paved roads only. The trails referred to here are all outside the boundaries of the park and within the management areas of the National Forest Service and the BLM.)
For more information about mountain biking or tourism opportunities in Garfield County, call 1-800-444-6689, or write Garfield County at P.O. Box 200 Panguitch, Utah, 84759.