Grand Canyon Connector Bike Tour
Right after Stephen and I finished our Pacific Coast bike tour from San Francisco to Los Angeles, we talked about what our next tour would be. He brought up the American Southwest.
Unfortunately, work and life got busy for the both of us, and as time passed I thought our commitment would sadly fade away like most grand plans made between friends in the moment. But I was wrong. Two years later, I’m on a flight to a small town in Utah with an itinerary and a helmet.
To plan the route and itinerary, we took the Grand Canyon Connector ACA route and modified it to fit our criteria:
- an 8-day trip excluding travel days
- 1 rest day in Zion
- 1 rest day in the Grand Canyon
- 60-70 miles a day
- motels for lodging, no camping
Given the rest days, we ended up deviating from the ACA route at the very end, finishing the trip in Flagstaff instead of Phoenix. Here is the RideWithGPS route that I created for the trip:
And the itinerary:
|Day||End At||Mileage / Elevation||Accommodations||Notes|
|Friday Jul 12||0||Home -> Cedar City, UT||Fly into Cedar City Regional Airport||Knights Inn Cedar City||Stephen and Ryo fly in during the evening, go to bed early at motel.|
|Sat Jul 13||1||Springdale, Zion National Park||57.6 mi +990 ft / -2938 ft||Bumbleberry Inn||Pick up bikes from Bike Route, bike to Springdale. Check-in to motel and explore Springdale in the evening (energy permitting).|
|Sun Jul 14||2||Springdale, Zion National Park||0||Bumbleberry Inn||Full day exploring Zion.|
|Mon Jul 15||3||Fredonia, AZ||42.0 mi +3098 ft / -2444 ft||AirBNB in Fredonia||Bike the windy roads through Zion National Park. We will need to hitch a ride in a pickup across the cars-only tunnel. Cross into AZ.|
|Tues Jul 16||4||Marble Canyon, AZ||66.4 mi +3265 ft / -4326 ft||Marble Canyon Lodge||Beautiful desolation|
|Wed Jul 17||5||Cameron, AZ||72.1 mi +2605 ft / -1814 ft||Cameron Trading Post||Beautiful desolation|
|Thu Jul 18||6||Grand Canyon Village||48.5 mi +1916 ft / -1550 ft||Yavapai Lodge||Arrive in Grand Canyon Village in the evening. Possibly catch the sunset at the Grand Canyon.|
|Fri Jul 19||7||Grand Canyon Village||0||Yavapai Lodge||Full day exploring Grand Canyon|
|Sat Jul 20||8||Flagstaff, AZ||81.4 mi +3194 ft / -3109 ft||Canyon Inn||Bike into Flagstaff. This is the hardest biking day, and we should wake up early to get started as soon as we can. Hopefully the weather is nice. Otherwise, we might need to hitchhike or find an alternative way to get to Flagstaff.|
|Sun July 21||9||Phoenix -> Home||Fly out of Phoenix Sky Harbor||Drop off bikes at bike shop in the morning to be packed and shipped. Take Arizona Shuttle to Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. Stephen and Ryo fly out in the evening.|
Due to how desolate parts of the route are, we also purchased a bicycle roadside assistance plan offered by Better World Club. For a pretty reasonable annual price, they offer roadside assistance on any road in America.
Stephen and I took different approaches to ship our bikes. I shipped mine from a local bike shop to a bike shop at the start using FedEx. He checked his as part of the flight.
Luckily, I had most of the necessities for a tour like this from a previous tour. Overall, I would say that I slightly over-packed for this trip. if I had to do this trip again, I would bring 2 backpacking meals instead of 4 and skip the clipless shoes and notebook. Here’s what I took:
- cycling shoes
- hiking sandals
- 3 pairs padded bike shorts
- 10 underwear
- 10 regular pairs socks
- swim shorts / shorts
- padded cycling gloves
- heat tech fleece
- 3 dry fit shirts
- 1 cotton shirt
- ear mitts
- sunglasses / glasses strap
- body wash
- toothpaste / toothbrush
- first aid kit
- wet wipes
- paper towels
- lip balm
- stove / gas
- backpacking meals
- air pump / patch kit
- 5 extra tubes
- tire levers
- bike lock / tire cable
- handlebar bag
- Grand Canyon Connector ACA map
- external charger
- charging cords
- water storage bag / water bottles
- wireless headphones
- hi-visibility vest
- rearview mirror
- bike lights
Day 0: Flight to Cedar City
Walking into the Cedar City airport, there was a big crowd of families holding up signs saying “mission accomplished”. I realized later that my flight was full of Mormon missionaries and not American service members.
Later, I had a couple of hours to kill while waiting for Stephen to land at the motel, so I was watching TV in the bed when I noticed a small bug moving across the bed. I looked closer and at first, I thought it was a small spider. Crushing it revealed the true identity: a fat bedbug. Stephen arrived from the airport just as I was figuring out a motel to transfer to. Luckily we were able to book a room in another motel, and I promptly put everything in the dryer to eliminate any hitchhikers.
Fun facts about bed bugs that I learned on my phone while waiting for the dryer to finish:
- bed bugs at all stages of development can survive 2-6 months without food
- bed bugs were common before WWII, then largely disappeared due to the widespread use of DDT. Now they have made a comeback due to us using less DDT
- 30 minutes in a dryer on high will kill bed bugs at all stages of development (as long as the heat reaches and stays at 120 degrees)
Day 1: Cedar City to Springdale (57mi)
We start the day by getting Stephen’s bike assembled and picking up my bike from the local bike shop. The TSA has damaged his bike during the inspection so we get it fixed up at the shop. This delay pushes our start time to around noon.
As we start to leave Cedar City, the landscape opens up and for the first time we get to feel the wind in our faces and the open road ahead. Over the next couple hours, we bike through a small dust storm, intense mid-day heat, down an interstate highway, and past a house where we stop to pet miniature horses.
We ended up under-eating and under-hydrating and hit a wall as we got to the 2/3rds mark on the ride. Even though today was the shortest and the most downhill day, it was the hardest. I get a flat due to a staple on the road and change my tire.
The sun is so hot that my toes feel like they’re burning. We stop at a grocery store after we realize our mistake and take an hour break to recoup over bottles of yellow Gatorade.
Finally, we start getting closer and closer to Zion as the sun goes down, eventually making it too Springdale in the dark.
Over dinner at a restaurant in Springdale, we reflect on the most significant moments on our first day.
Stephen: At the beginning of today’s ride as we left Cedar City, we had a conversation about why we are doing this trip and what makes it fun for us. We talked about masculinity and rugged individualism and the harder the journey the better the reward. We both work in tech and build solutions to make things easier but it’s nice to experience something hard, use your body and see what it can do. When I sat down at the super market I thought about that. I felt exhilarated and scared and that’s the best you can expect from an adventure.
Ryo: Getting a flat on the hottest stretch of the trip. No shade. Just sunshine at 100+ degrees. I’m mentally on autopilot as I change the tire. Stephen bikes back up a giant hill in the heat to check up on me. Thankful to have friends who will bike up the hottest roads for me. Proud that the newly installed tube holds until we get to our destination.
Day 2: Hiking the Narrows
Today was a rest day, so no biking. Instead, we spend the day hiking The Narrows, a small river that has cut a narrow canyon into the red stone. We should have rented a stick to make walking over the slippery boulders easier. But we managed. Took about 3 hours to get to the point where the canyon was empty.
In the evening we go to Zion Pizza and Noodle which ends up being our worst restaurant experience on the trip. It costs $16 per plate of Sbarro quality pasta and they don’t even seat us. You win some, you lose some.
Day 3: Springdale to Fredonia
We get breakfast at the inn’s restaurant in the morning, then we spend an hour and a half getting ready to head out and having our bike tires repaired at the bike shop across the street. I get my worn out stock tires replaced with proper touring tires with more puncture resistance and Stephen gets an inner tube replaced. Then we head into Zion National Park and up the steep switchbacks that lead to the tunnel where we have to hitchhike.
A Spanish-speaking man and his son who translates for us let us hitch a ride in their pickup and refuse the cash we try to give him. We bike for another hour, and then suddenly Stephen’s rear derailleur contorts strangely and is unable to switch gears.
We troubleshoot on the side of the road and notice a lack of tension in the cable, and I start to feel nervous since we don’t have the tools or knowledge to fix it. Our only option at this point is to head back 2 hours to where we started and see if the bike shop can make quick repairs. We hitchhike back again through the tunnel, and get to enjoy the switchbacks again but going down. We are lucky and the shop can fix it in an hour.
Also, they had a cute dog
At this point, we are leaving in the hot mid-day heat at 4 pm and still have ~50 miles ahead of us with plenty of elevation. I doubt we can make it to Fredonia before sundown, but could make it to Mt Carmel Junction, and hopefully call the bicycle roadside assistance to take us to Fredonia. We suffer through our second climb of the switchbacks and hitchhike for the third time into the tunnel, which we have become pros at. The rangers don’t directly help, but they do let you know how much time you have to find a ride, which is about 5-10 minutes from when they stop traffic. The trick is to find an empty pickup truck. Most people were willing to help out if they have room. The last guy even took our picture in the back of his truck:
After making it through Zion, we rode briskly to beat the sunset and barely made it to Mt Carmel Junction. Under the bright teal and pink lights of the Thunderbird restaurant, I called Better World Club, and within 45 minutes, a pickup truck from a local tow company was there to shuttle us to Fredonia! The driver said that they had never in 20 years gotten a call to pick up cyclists.
A half-hour later we are driving through Fredonia looking for the AirBNB. As we approach the address, it gets creepy since it’s night, there are no street lights, we’re in the countryside, and we are essentially about to just walk into a strangers house and call it a night. The hosts are camping so they left the backdoor open to us.
We enter the AirBnB and discover that no one has cleaned since the last guest. Rumpled sheets, dirty towels, and most unfortunately a soiled and clogged toilet. Bummer. A whining dog that has been locked in the other bedroom keeps me up.
Day 4: Fredonia to Marble Canyon
At 4:30 am today I’m still awake and feeling miserable because I hadn’t gotten any sleep yet due to the whining dog in the other bedroom and the meowing cat in the house. Sadly, I think about having to bike another 70 miles and contemplate just giving up and abandoning everything. I wake Stephen up once the sun starts coming out and we head out early. Petting the goats in the backyard lifts my spirits and makes me less grumpy.
Today we have a big climb (~5 hours of uphill) through a minor mountain range covered by forest. At the top is a restaurant where we eat a late lunch at the Jacob Lake Inn. Although from the picture it’s hard to tell, this meal ends up being the best one we have this entire trip. In particular, the cranberry sauce on the sandwich tastes like they used fresh-squeezed orange juice.
We take a nap to recharge, then in the afternoon we spend 3 hours speeding downhill, rolling out of the forest and into the desert scrub. It’s just a single lonely road cutting straight through the desert. In the distance, the tall walls of more canyons are visible.
Finally, we get to tonight’s motel, which is on the edge of the reservation. Tomorrow we bike through the Navajo reservation, and since it’s so much hotter here we’ll head out when the sun comes up.
Day 5: Marble Canyon to Cameron
I get woken up by Stephen and I realize the sun is coming up which means we have to leave ASAP. We rush to the gas station to eat breakfast and fill up water. For the past 3 days, we have been eating jimmy dean microwave breakfast sandwiches from these gas stations and I’m getting a bit tired of them but they have a lot of calories which is good for the ride. We head out and it’s more emptiness and desert. Yesterday and today are the only days so far where nothing big has gone wrong. There are a lot more cars on the road today rushing past. One gets close to us while laying on the horn which confirms my suspicions that 1% of drivers are just bad people.
Our midpoint today is a gas station in the middle of nowhere called “the gap” where we ate more gas station sandwiches for lunch. We rested here for a couple of hours while eating ice cream sandwiches waiting for the heat to come down. The next 40 miles were a bit of a struggle since the wind was just enough to cancel out the decline in altitude. We find shade in empty roadside stalls meant for selling Navajo crafts to rest and refill water bottles.
Luckily, at the end we are rewarded with a nice lodge. I had a Navajo taco for dinner. Tomorrow we have to wake up early again but the day after is a rest day so I am looking forward to sleeping in soon.
Day 6: Cameron to Grand Canyon Village
Start a little later, we check out and eat another round of gas station egg salad sandwiches in the parking lot as the sun rises. We ride out of Cameron and there are trailers on dusty lots, some boarded up. Behind the barbed wire, guard dogs bark and poke their heads through the gaps. We see a roadrunner cross the street and we slowly ascend, beginning our daylong uphill journey. After climbing up a road built on sand, we eventually get to the Kaibab forest. We start to get a sneak peek of what the Grand Canyon will look like. I motivate myself by thinking about tomorrow’s rest day and sleeping in. It gets hard about 4-5 hours in, as it is getting hotter. Break at the Desert View general store and the tomato soup is great. Arrive at Grand Canyon Village in the dark. I eat a massive salad for dinner.
Day 7: Rest Day in Grand Canyon Village
We spend our rest day hiking down and back to Indian Garden on the Bright Angel Trail. At the bottom, we take a nap on a large flat rock in the shade. It’s evening by the time we make it back to the rim and we are exhausted and hungry.
Day 8: Grand Canyon Village to Flagstaff
This day is our longest ride yet, almost 80 miles. So we wake up early and make some progress on the ride before the heat arrives. First, we fill up our tires at the visitor center bike shop. Surprisingly, our tire pressure is down to 40psi after 4 days of riding, and getting it back up to 100psi feels great! Then, we take a bike path to Tusayan and head downhill on a highway to Valle. The Chevron there is our last rest area before the empty road to Flagstaff. In Valle, there is an abandoned Flintstones-themed “Bedrock City” that we stop at to take some pics.
Later in the ride, we hear loud buzzing and look up to see high voltage power lines hang low over the road. The buzzing gets louder as we pass under, and then we start getting electric shocks on our hands and thighs where we are brushing up against the metal frame of our bikes. Ouch! In the afternoon, the temps climb and we start looking for shade but there is none to be found. Just grass and scrubby bushes. Eventually, we find a lone tree with some bones underneath it and park ourselves there for a couple of hours of siesta, which these days means browsing the web on our phones.
The last segment to Flagstaff is all uphill and we take fewer breaks since the sun begins to set and we wanna get outta there. We see a mysterious koala-like animal climbing a pine tree, which I later learn is a Coati. As we get closer to the city, we pass by houses with horses that gallop over to the fence in curiosity and packs of barking guard dogs that follow. The sun has set by the time we reach the city limits.
Observations and Advice
To anyone looking to do a tour of this route or any others, here are some of the things I learned on this trip.
Ship Your Bike Early
Don’t be a fool like me and ship your bike last minute. Issues with shipping can happen every step of the way, and for a one-way tour where the motels are booked in advance, you don’t want to stress about not starting on time. My bike had an issue where the label was damaged in transit and delayed it by 2 days. Luckily, it still got there (barely on time).
Water Consumption (in the summer in a desert)
For two people, we had 16 liters of water carrying capacity in the form of a 10-liter dromedary water bag and various bottles and smaller water bags. We assumed that we would consume at most 1 liter of water per hour, so we could last 8 hours before needing refills. This capacity ended up being just right for us where we always felt like we had enough to drink, and some extra to wet our bandanas or rinse our hands. If we were to do this trip again, I would have brought a hydro flask or thermos to keep a refreshing stash of cold water until the hot afternoon. Also, we learned that downing a bottle of water first thing in the morning was essential in starting the day hydrated.
Buy Better World Club Roadside Assistance
About a week before the trip, I was figuring out what we could do if we had bike trouble in different parts of the tour. After some searching, I found Better World Club which is an AAA competitor that offers roadside assistance just for bicycles. For a pretty affordable annual rate, they will pick you up anywhere in the US where there is a road and drive you 30 miles. I was lucky that I signed up because it ended up saving our entire trip on our third day! This service is a no-brainer for anyone on a bike tour in the US and essentially turns all of your unsupported rides into semi-supported ones.
Hiking Sandals > Clipless
I tried 2 types of cycling footwear on this trip: clipless shoes and hiking sandals. The clipless shoes were great for two days until I got contact dermatitis from wearing the shoes for so many hours. I wore the sandals for the rest of the trip and they were more comfortable and almost as performant. If I were to do this trip again, I’d just bring the sandals and leave the clipless at home.
Bring Your Own Sunscreen
Bring your favorite sunscreen and toiletries because there are no Walgreen, CVS Pharmacies, or any other major stores between Cedar City and Flagstaff. The selection of sunscreen is limited in between. I had to use some scented, greasy stuff because I ran out of my own and had to buy whatever was at the gas station.
Long Sleeves > Short Sleeves
I tried both the long and short sleeve dry-fit shirts and ended up preferring the long sleeves. Not having to repeatedly sunscreen my arms was convenient and because of the low humidity and constant airflow during the ride, there was virtually no heat trapped by the extra fabric.
Get Puncture Resistant Tires
This route has a high concentration of road debris in the form of dried goat’s head weed nutlets (yes this is the actual term). They are dried plant seeds that easily pierce through normal bike tires. As a result, I got 2 flats on the first day on my stock tires. Luckily, the local bike shop in Zion installed the more puncture-resistant Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires which resulted in no more flats for the duration of the trip.