Thunder Mountain Trail, Utah. A hoodoo that resembles a statue from Easter Island.
These hoodoos came out of nowhere on the Thunder Mountain bike trail in Red Canyon in Utah. Lined up as if spectators, like a statue from Easter Island, they were an indication I was entering the thrilling second half of the trail with its Mars-like rock terrain.

Desolate Highways to Thunder Mountain and Beyond

Editor’s Note: Ah! If we could only go back in time and give ourselves some advice! This guest post is really special to me because, 20 years ago, Mark made his first contribution to our website — and he’s back to share what he has learned about travel since then. Mark’s posts and pictures keep getting better and better. Stick with this one until the end for some truly profound and life-changing travel advice, it might help you enjoy the moment and save some regrets for your future self. By the way, Travels With Charlie is one of my favorites, and classic book to read on your next trip.

Once a journey is designed, equipped and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”

~ John Steinbeck, “Travels With Charlie” (1962)

When one hears “mountain biking” and “Utah,” one word usually comes to mind: Moab. But thanks to modern technology and smartphone trail apps, endless lesser known (and lesser crowded) trails are at our fingertips. I discovered a trail called Thunder Mountain near the tiny Utah town of Panguitch that looked like an exciting “off-the-beaten-trail” option, described by various riders as being a “rollercoaster” and due to its red rock terrain, “like riding on Mars.” Checking the map, I noticed two national parks nearby that have been on the hiking bucket list for years: Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef. This trip is coming together! The only thing left to decide was how to get there from California, and this decision didn’t take long: Road trip! As I’ve found on many travels, getting there on lesser-known highways can be half the fun. So let the driving commence…

I left South Lake Tahoe heading east in the early am, and it didn’t take long to see how Highway 50 in Nevada got its alias as “World’s Loneliest Highway”: Long desolate stretches disappeared into the endless mountain ranges of the Great Basin Desert. The terrain resembled some late 60’s spaghetti western movie; Eastwood’s “High Plains Drifter” came to mind. Aside from the occasional road stop town, civilization was sparse.

A black top road disappearing into the horizon and glaring sun.
Nevada’s Highway 50, aka “the world’s loneliest highway,” stretches across Nevada from Carson City across the Great Basin Desert to Utah. One warning side on this highway read “No Gas for 150 Miles.” The highway isn’t completely without civilization though, and passes through some tiny towns like Austin and Eureka.

After passing through the tiny town of Austin, which featured a film-worthy cemetery alongside the highway, I decided to take a detour south down Highway 376. This empty stretch through a mountain range was even lonelier than 50, with no towns at all and civilization zero. I eventually came across Highway 375, which had a welcoming sign that read “The Extraterrestrial Highway.” What the…? Shortly thereafter, I came across the tiny town of Rachel, which featured a few trailers, a rusty abandoned mining rig, and a welcome sign that read: “Population: Human: Yes. Alien: ?” Farther up the highway, what was slowly coming into view had me wondering if this was all a dream (lol). Standing at least 30 feet tall in front of what looked like a military barrack… was a giant alien looking creature. It was apparently standing guard for the “Alien Research Center” (which was unfortunately closed). After exploring a little, I came across a sign that revealed what all this alien stuff was about — I was near the infamous Area 51!

The extraterrestrial highway complete with a giant grey alien.
Highway 375, aka “The Extraterrestrial Highway,” is a 98 mile stretch in southern Nevada with some fun road curios. I came across this alien in front of the “Alien Research Center” in Crystal Springs and unfortunately, it was closed. An “Area 51” sign on the building clued me in that I was close to the secretive Air Force facility that has been the subject of endless conspiracy theories.

After spending the night in a cabin just outside Panguitch Utah, up next was the original inspiration for the trip – the Thunder Mountain bike trail in nearby Red Canyon.

When I finished my pre-ride checklist, I hopped on and started a gradual climb on a paved bike trail along Highway 12 amongst chiseled red rock ridges, rock spires and a massive tunnel archway cut out of red rock that cars were zipping through on their way to Bryce. After more climbing, I turned onto a dirt road towards the forested south entrance to Red Canyon. My mountain bike app had good news: I’d finally reached the trailhead.

Thunder Mountain Trail and expansive views. Visible dozens of miles away are snow-capped mountains.
Thunder Mountain Trail offers expansive views and exciting ups and downs over ridge-tops. I was only the one on the trail for a long stretch of this hidden gem of a trail.

The trail immediately started to deliver the goods. Tree-lined singletrack flowed smoothly down the mountainside, made an abrupt turn at the bottom section, and then headed back up around the next ridge. This sequence repeated multiple times and made it easy to get into a rhythm as I worked my way closer to Red Canyon. Seeing the tops of red rock ridges in the distance, I got the sense the trail was slowly building up to something much more.

An other-worldly landscape full of colorful hoodoos. The second half of Thunder Mountain Trail.
The colors alternate from Mars-like to moon-like on the second half of Thunder Mountain trail, making this one of the most geologically unique (and beautiful) trails I’ve been on.

With trees slowly disappearing and terrain turning more barren, I could tell I was about to enter a new phase of the trail. After rounding a turn, the trail made a sharp turn skyward towards the top of a barren ridge. After huffing and puffing to the top, I stopped to catch my breath and enjoy a stunning canyon view – and could see the town of Panguitch about 10 miles in the distance.

For the next part of the ride, I felt like I was on Disneyland’s Thunder Mountain ride. Some quick ups and downs along red and white ridge tops gave incredible views of the valley below. After some barren ridge tops and a few more turns, two giant red rock hoodoos appeared just off the trail. And looking around the surrounding rocky terrain, I might as well have been on planet Mars. The solitude of being the only one on the trail only added to this otherworldly sense. Up next was more rollercoaster action in a parfait of red and white rock, eventually leading to a series of tight switchbacks down to the shade of the canyon bottom. I found myself with a silly grin as I coasted down the final stretch towards the parking lot.

For some relaxing post-ride scenery, Bryce Canon was calling. I stopped at the Sunrise Point vista and headed down Queen’s Garden Trail. Almost out of gas from the ride, it was a perfect post-ride stroll through more head-turning rock formations, steeples, gateways and tunnels.

A picturesque trail under blue sky and puffy clouds, and past sculpture-like hoodoos. A sign reads "Queens garden. Sunrise point. Horse trail."
The Queens Garden trail heads down to the floor of Bryce Canyon from the Sunrise Point vista point. It doesn’t take long to find yourself surrounded by rock steeples and other fascinating rock formations. According to the Bryce Canyon Country website (https://www.brycecanyoncountry.com/erosion-in-bryce-canyon/), the erosion that created Bryce goes back 100 million years, and is still continuing; the hoodoos shorten 2-4 feet every century.

Day two was exploring a national park that doesn’t get the attention of Zion or Arches: Capitol Reef. The road there had a perfect photo opp waiting for my “abandoned places” photo collection in Kingston – a crumbling gas station with an original 1950’s pump and the shell of an early 70’s muscle car that never left the station.

An abandoned gas station and car. The rusted and sun-faded building are beautiful pieces of "road art".
On road trips, I love discovering abandoned “road art,” and came across this gem in Kingston, Utah (pop. 142) on Highway 62 en route to Capitol Reef from Panguitch. I post photos of these discoveries on Instagram under the handle “roadamericana.”

Entering the Capitol Reef gives the same sense of awe one gets when entering Zion or Yosemite; You feel like a speck of insignificance amongst towering rock monoliths. I embarked on the Grand Wash hike, which is Capitol Reef’s answer to Zion’s The Narrows. Hiking in between the eroded rock walls as the wind whistled through the canyon was extremely peaceful. Capitol Reef is significantly less crowded than Zion, and I came across only two other hikers on the entire trail.

An isolated trail. The Grand Wash Trail is painted in pastel colors and showcases different kinds of erosion.
The Grand Wash trail in Capitol Reef offers incredible rock geology, with all sorts of erosion waves, holes, and strata. Much less crowded than Zion or Arches, I came across only two other hikers on the trail.

On the return hike to the car, I came across a trail sign for Cassidy Arch. Steep switchbacks led the trail out of the canyon, and to the top of a series of connected orange and white rock monoliths. The trail made a rough semi-circle along the eroded rock, disappearing for stretches into wide open spaces with huge rock slabs, boulders and occasional tree trunks. Eventually, I noticed some people standing in the distance at a vantage point, looking down into the valley with their cameras out. As I got closer, Cassidy Arch finally came into view. And what an arch it was – looking wide enough to drive a car across. Hikers took turns taking photos, looking like train set miniatures standing on the massive arch. The fascinating thing was, the arch was actually in view for much of the hike – but hardly visible from colored canyon walls behind it. The scale of Cassidy and the eye-opening hike to get there makes it my favorite pick between the two major natural bridges in the park (Hickman Bridge being the other).

Mark Loftin stands atop a red rock arch going over a gorge. The arch is huge and Mark is barely visible.
Cassidy Arch was a beautiful hike out of Grand Wash gorge in Capitol Reef. This photo was taken from the main vantage point at trail end by a fellow hiker. To give an idea of the arch’s size, I am barely visible at the center of the bridge.

As I had a final meal at the Cowboy Smokehouse (second visit) in Panguitch, I reflected on the road trip that inspired my first article, Discoveries of American Highways, for The Argonauts about 20 years ago, and how my urge for exploration has changed over the years. Back then, I recall there was a sense of “urgency” to check off every box, bolt from location to location, and to pack last minute with as many sites as possible. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it prevented me from really savoring special locations and discoveries that deserved more time. While I still try to pack as much in as I can, if something special comes along that squeezes another location out, then so be it. As Steinbeck observed, “the trip takes us,” and trying to fight this with a schedule only takes away from the adventure.

Back then, I also recall viewing travel as an “escape”, and frequently in my mind was that lingering feeling that “in a few days, it’s back to reality at home.” That prevented me from really being “in the now” and enjoying the trip to the fullest. As the last twenty years have passed — faster than I could have imagined — I’ve realized exploring this planet to the fullest is my reality. It’s one of the things that makes me tick.

On a recent walk along the San Francisco’s Chrissy Field, I found a plaque with a quote that resonated:

“I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out until sundown. For going out, I found, was really going in.”

~ John Muir
Cowboy's Smokehouse Cafe. A sign with a cowboy lassoing cattle. A wild-west-style town.
Cowboy’s Smokehouse Cafe and downtown Panguitch Utah (pop. 1520). I found myself at Cowboy’s twice due to its great barbeque and super friendly service. I recommend the three-way meat combo.

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