Park City, Utah to Rapid City, South Dakota: Sturgis or Bust!

Text: Ken Freund • Photography: Tom Riles, Brian Nelson, Ken Freund

Shortly after the Civil War, my great-grandfather and his younger brother headed west across this great country, following the first transcontinental railroad during its construction. They built their first gun shop in Laramie, WY, which was a territory then, and eked out a modest living from this vast and beautiful frontier.

Finally, I had an opportunity to ride across this rugged land and see the same landmarks my ancestors saw nearly a century and a half ago. Only I was astride a different kind of iron horse, a 2012 Harley-Davidson Switchback. The plan was for a few journalists to ride as a group, sort of like herding cats, and try out the new models from the Motor Company on the way. My final goal was the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which has been on my bucket list for many years. I was a Sturgis virgin, or a “Sturgin” in the vernacular.

Day One: Park City, UT, to Rawlins, WY

On our first morning, we set out from Park City with a short hop on U.S. 40 east, followed by a run on Highway 32. After a stop at Nobletts trailhead, which ends at a rocky waterfall, we follow Highway 35. The elevation is about 7,500 feet, and we pass Wolf Creek summit at 9,480 feet. The road twists and turns deliriously as the big twin labors in the rarified atmosphere. Stands of lodgepole pines and scattered aspen trees line the road, and the cool, fresh morning air smells deliciously fragrant.

We slowly descend from the Uinta Mountains to the town of Duchesne, where we top off the tanks. Here the land flattens out to the distant horizon. Duchesne is just west of the junction of the Strawberry and Duchesne rivers. The Duchesne River drains the southwest slopes of the Uinta Mountains, and the Strawberry River drains the eastern slopes of the Wasatch Range. These combined waters flow south and become the Green River at Ouray, UT. Cottonwood trees and willows grow along the riverbanks, while sagebrush adds its pungent scent to the air.

Soon we turn northeast on two-lane U.S. 40 to Vernal, the seat of Uintah County. Unlike most Utah towns, Vernal wasn’t settled by Mormon pioneers. Brigham Young sent scouts to the Uintah Basin in 1861 and received reports that the area was “good for nothing but nomad purposes and a hunting ground for Indians.” We refresh with some cold drinks and refuel for the long run north on U.S. 191 past Steinaker and Red Fleet State Parks toward Rock Springs, WY.

Here we start the climb back into the Uinta Mountains and the summit at 8,428 feet near Mount Lena (9,755 feet). On the north side of the pass, we first glimpse Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, with 1.4 million acres of national forest and mountain peaks from 6,000 to more than 13,500 feet. In 1869, Major John Wesley Powell was exploring the Green River and, amazed by the beautiful landscape before him, named the area Flaming Gorge. The 91-mile-long Flaming Gorge Reservoir dominates the area; the rugged terrain and aqua blue waters are spectacular. Our lunch stop is Red Canyon Lodge at Dutch John, UT, on the east side of the lake, where we have a delicious meal and take shelter from a passing thunderstorm.

We continue north on U.S. 191 to Interstate 80 east into Rock Springs, WY, and take a break to gas up. We jump back onto the eastbound superslab and soon are crossing the serpentine Continental Divide, not once but several times as it meanders along our path. This is wide-open country, and it’s about 110 miles due east of Rock Springs to Rawlins, our stop for the night. We fight strong, gusty winds and watch huge, black thunderheads dump rain in distant squalls.

We’re tired and hungry and ready to rest when we finally roll into Rawlins and the Best Western CottonTree Inn. Rawlins is the seat of Carbon County at about 6,800 feet above sea level. It was named after a U.S. general, John Aaron Rawlins, who visited the area in 1867. We take dinner at the Aspen House Restaurant, which is a lovely old home with good food and service.

(End of preview text.)

For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the May/June 2012 back issue.