The frenetic wail of old violins in need of new strings rang out from a rounded, red rock amphitheater. Guitars, makeshift drums and the pounding of worn leather boots on stone kept time to the music. Men and women danced in circles, their clothes sweat stained and threadbare under a starry sky. Campfires illuminated the festivities and cast flickering, grotesque shadows that contrasted with the glowing, amber cliffs. It was here at Dance Hall Rock that Mormon pioneers camped and gathered as they waited for passage at Hole in the Rock over a hundred years ago.
The vision faded as my imagination came back to the present. My eyes focused away from old-west specters to my wife, as she danced alone in the natural hall wearing a modern tank top and shorts. Her interpretation of a 1870s-era jig looked more like a kick-and-step shimmy down than a sweep-the-floor square dance, but after pictures were taken, her moment to “get down” at Dance Hall Rock was well documented. Dance Hall Rock is the place where pioneers camped while the wagon-train route to Hole in the Rock was explored. It was here where square dances were held so men, women and children could pass the time while they waited to continue their journey.
We too used Dance Hall Rock as a respite from our own long journey to Hole in the Rock. We scaled the cliffs, took in the view, and ate lunch on the slickrock floor before walking back to our bike-laden vehicles to continue down the road. Our mission was to follow the wagon tracks of hardy pioneers, by mountain biking our way to Hole in the Rock, stopping along the way to take in the history of one of Utah’s most impressive feats of makeshift engineering.
Hole in the Rock Road is the path the pioneers took in the fall of 1879 on their way to create a new settlement in southeastern Utah that would become the town of Bluff. The route from Escalante to Hole in the Rock is 62 miles, and their expedition would prove to be a difficult one. Plagued by a lack of water and seemingly impossible-to-travel terrain, 250 people in 83 wagons with over a thousand head of cattle slowly plodded along the road until it ended at Forty-Mile Spring, just beyond Dance Hall Rock. From there, a new route had to be established, which ended at the edge of a 1,200 foot cliff overlooking the Colorado River as it flowed through Glen Canyon.
These days, Hole in the Rock Road is the gateway to a buffet table of Utah’s premiere slot canyons. Every year, thousands of adventurous people flock to the sandstone slits that line up along the Escalante River drainage to squeeze their bodies through constricting walls of rock, swim in bug-infested potholes, and rappel down vertical formations that act as pipes for desert water. Others simply come to these canyons to trace the flow of dried river beds or mimic the paths carved out by eons of flash floods and wind. This natural spectacle means vehicle traffic is constant on the washboard road just off Highway 12. But in the spirit of pioneers, we wanted something more – something remote and empty. So we continued down the road beyond the slot canyons in our cars to Dance Hall Rock, and then hopped on our bikes for the remainder of the trek.
But after our soiree at Dance Hall Rock, the desert air became a convection oven, and our pioneering spirit faded – pounded away by the unforgiving sun. With that, we got back into the air-conditioned comfort of our modern day wagons, and continued driving.
Kathunk! A sound of metal hitting ground was followed by a cringe-inducing clatter, which was then followed by cursing from the driver. We were all on edge. The hitch rack that protruded from our SUV’s backside sagged under the weight of several mountain bikes, and every steep dip in the rough dirt road caused a roiling fear for their safety. The rack was already bent from the torque, amplified with every bump, but our bikes seemed unharmed. Unfortunately some of us had a hard time riding in the car unscathed as each passing mile meant head-slamming-the-car-door-window rough sections. The difficult chapter of the pioneer’s travels proved true, even in modern times. With around 17 miles left until Hole in the Rock, we decided it was time to complete our trek on two wheels instead of four.
Exiting the cool interiors of our trucks was like stepping into a furnace. Our bodies were acclimated to the air-conditioned interiors of our convoy, so the 90-some-odd degrees outside consumed us with a shelter-less sun and oven air. With the engines off and only the sound of wind filtering through dry sage and switch grass, we began to feel the immensity of remoteness. Each gust kicked up bits of road sand that pelted our legs and chimed off our bike frames. Already parched, we dutifully worked to unhitch our mounts, gear up, and begin pedaling through southern Utah’s arid landscape.
Outside the boundaries of our cars, the world opened up around us, revealing beautifully unforgiving vistas composed with nothing but sand and windswept bedrock. On our bikes, the dips and bumps that caused havoc to the cars were diminished, and the joy of knowing our bikes could actually go faster than the vehicles on such uneven terrain thrilled us forward. Hard packed dirt, sand, and even slickrock fell before our wheels as the scenery became more rugged with every mile. The scene screamed for a helicopter tracking shot that zooms out to reveal how tiny we all were, riding our bikes in the middle of red rock expanse so enormous that no signs of civilization could be seen on any horizon. With the wind at our backs, we flew forward, never worrying that the tailwind would be an insidious headwind on the return. Winding through a southwest painting peppered with sculpted sandstone canyons and towers all jumbled together like thousands of melted Legos scattered across a child’s bedroom floor, our knobby tires made quick work of the awful road.
Stopping for rest and water at overlooks, we considered the pioneers’ tenacity to push on to the end in this brutal place as they made their way between cliff and canyon, dipping down through washes and up over windblown rises until the path suddenly ends where even sturdy, industrious Mormons were stopped in their tracks, but only momentarily, at Hole in the Rock.
It came into view as we came over a small rise that followed an especially rough section of steep inclines and exposed bedrock. The gash slowly revealed itself as the horizon drew up like window shades on the opposite end of a hilly crest. A circular turnaround for cars lay at the foot of some historical signage, and behind, Hole in the Rock opened like a hatchet scar splitting the beige cliff band in two. We stopped our bikes, dismounted, and finally found shade as we descended through the jaws of Hole in the Rock, while the sun-reflected waters of Lake Powell sparkled far below.
Inside, we marveled at the ingenuity of the pioneers, and found it hard to comprehend how dozens of wagons and over a thousand cattle were lowered down this steep, narrow boulder field without a single one being dashed against the sandstone. History tells us that the men who worked in these confines had very little resources for the project. A lack of wood, food for people and cattle, and freezing temperatures all conspired to derail the job at hand. It took workers six weeks of chiseling and blasting the rock before it was ready for the arduous job of lowering wagons to the river below. We traced fingertips along the dynamite and wagon-wheel scarred walls, then climbed out and up the sandstone rocks that surround the hole for an even better view that made us forget the summer sun and the still-to-come grueling ride back to the cars.
Atop the cliffs, hundreds of miles of red-rock country spread out in all directions. The land nestled under the ever-present Kaiparowits Plateau that looms over the Escalante River drainage. While standing on the rocks at roads end, we could view Lake Powell hundreds of feet below with only a single houseboat creeping along the waters as it passed by Hole in the Rock without pause. In a celebratory spirit, some of us withdrew small kites from our packs and flew them in the heat-blasted wind that dived over the rim to the lakeshore below. Meanwhile, the dark, shadowy outline of Navajo Mountain watched as it hunched on the Utah/Arizona border to the south where the entire expanse of Glen Canyon stretched away among a labyrinth of bleached stone.
As nice as the view was, what we really wanted was to jump into Lake Powell for a cool-off swim. But the afternoon was quickly aging, and we feared the bike ride back to the trucks, followed by the subsequent drive over waves of dirt and ditches for 42 miles. Rather than tempt the darkness in one of Utah’s most remote corners, we decided to mount up and return the way we came.
Of course the wind came right at us as we pedaled back. Each stroke was a bit of resistance training as we hunched over our handlebars and tried in vain to keep lips sealed shut against the blowing sand. A few declines in the road were a short relief, but constant pedaling against a wall of air was our rhythmic reality until finally, in the aging afternoon, the trucks came into view.
Parched and exhausted, we stripped out of sweaty bike clothes, slipped on sandals, cracked open cold beers kept chill in a cooler, and reflected on the day. Although the ride was difficult, our modern luxuries allowed us to journey to Hole in the Rock with relative ease. Once the journey was over for us, we could hop back into our gasoline-powered, air-conditioned cars and drive back home in time for brews and brats. But those pioneers didn’t have a home. Once safely past Hole in the Rock and the Colorado River, their struggles were only just beginning before they finally reached their destination.
Honestly, the mountain biking was nothing to write home about. The road to Hole in the Rock was flat, sandy, and wide. Nobody would want to ride here for the biking itself. But the history of the place lends its own rewards. The landscape gets under the skin. The remoteness is a reminder of our insignificance. And the discovery of overcoming challenges, both past and present, inspires. For those reasons, mountain biking to Hole in the Rock is very much worth the trip.
If You Go:
The best time to ride Hole in the Rock Road is in the spring or fall, as summer temperatures are unbearably hot and there is no shade along the road. It’s a good idea to have someone drive a support vehicle carrying food, water, and other supplies.
Hole in the Rock Road is one of the most remote areas in Utah, so there are no services. If there is an emergency, help is hours away, and that’s assuming you can even get a cell phone signal. Do not attempt to ride here if there are thunderstorms forecast for the area. Numerous creek beds must be crossed and flash floods can cut off any chance of returning to civilization that day.
To get to Hole in the Rock, take Highway 12 to the town of Escalante. Hole in the Rock Road begins only a few miles east of town. Travel down the road for 62 miles until it dead ends at Hole in the Rock.