The Road to the Bottom of the Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon is 280 miles long, and in some places over a mile deep. It's the main stem for a network of side canyons carving thousands of square miles of the Colorado Plateau into some of the ruggedest terrain on Earth. The land below the Rim is only accessible by river, pack trail, or helicopter - except for one road.

Diamond Creek Road heads north from Route 66 at the town of Peach Springs, tribal headquarters of the Hualapai Indians. It runs across their reservation and descends 3600 feet in a 22 mile route to the river.I heard about it from some river rats - they use the road for take-out and re-supply on their whitewater runs through the Canyon. They said it was rough, and frequently washed out by flash floods.

That's all I knew about Diamond Creek Road. I wanted to ride it, wondered if a road bike could handle it, and just happened to have one in need of a test. Off we went.

I tied a duffle bag of camp gear across the rear of the Blast's saddle and rode out east on 66. The old highway bends northeast at Kingman, running alongside the Santa Fe tracks into big empty high desert bounded by mountain ranges and the distant cliffs of the Colorado Plateau.

As the road gradually gains elevation the desert brush gets thicker, and old ranchhouses begin to appear, tucked into side canyons miles back off the road. This is still the outback working West of cattlemen and cowboys.

I rode into Peach Springs a little after 2 p.m. I knew the Tribe required a trespass fee for access to reservation land, so I stopped at the Hualapai Lodge, a new motel and restaurant complex, and went in to the front desk for information. Turns out that's the place to buy a permit, and it's at the intersection of Old 66 and Diamond Creek Road.

The Hualapais I've met so far have tended to be a little reserved at first, but once they get a person's drift they're relaxed and happy to chat. For $10 I got a permit to ride in and camp overnight, and a sketch map of the reservation roads. I topped up the tank with a gallon of regular from an old service station across the street, and headed north for the river.

Half a mile later we were past the last house and off pavement. This was my first experience with the Blast on a dirt road, so I took it easy and felt it out. The brakes and tires were fine, but the ride was rough over 20 mph, so I just thumped along in second gear, slid forward in the saddle to lessen the bumps, and took in the scenery. I could see the purple depths of the Canyon far ahead in the distance.

The road follows Peach Springs Canyon down to the river. Cliffs rise on both sides, steadily getting higher and closer as the road drops. Narrow breaks in the walls open on wide steep side canyons, and boulders swept into piles and ridges show the force of their floods smashing into this main waterway. Keeping the road open must be a constant job, and machines were working on it as I passed.

Diamond Peak marks the end of the road.



In the last mile, Diamond Creek crosses the road from the right, just deep enough to put the exhaust under water, "blubblubblublublub". From here on creek and road share the narrowing canyon and there are several more stream crossings, some with water up over the footpegs. The exhaust blubbered like a kid getting horsed around under water, but the engine beat steady.

We hit some deep patches of loose rounded riverbed rocks, but the bike's low, centralized mass kept it from turning into a pig, and I was able to power it through.

We pulled up on the beach beside the Colorado around 4:30. The green water of the river tumbles white over Diamond Creek Rapid, with the sound of rushing wind and water. Red cliffs rise thousands of feet above the inner gorge. Except for this road, entering the depths of the Canyon is a rare privelege reserved for those who can afford a high-dollar "outdoor experience". I felt like I'd ridden the Blast in through the back door of the Sultan's harem just in time for dinner.

There were two campsites on the beach, with shade ramadas and stone fireplaces. I hiked around and found another one, with a little more privacy, on the sandy bluff overlooking the river. The trail leading up to it from the beach was ankle-deep sugar sand, but there was another trail 100 yards back up the road that looked like it might be passable.

I rode the Blast up there and got it aimed straight at the trail. First we had to cross the stream, then climb 20 yards of sand and boulders to the top. I didn't know if the bike would do it or bust, but when in doubt, give it the gun and hang on.

The under-slung muff hit the water like a torpedo, spray flying widely on both sides. We hit the hill running, and I tried to steer over the easiest line up the trail, with the bike fishtailing wildly, engine screaming, and muff sliding bonk and clonk over the boulders. The rear wheel must've been spinning 35 mph, but it got enough traction to get us up the hill and over another hundred yards of sand to the campsite. When I pulled up there and stopped, the bike sank in to the rims. Good hoss.

I unloaded the packs and set up camp, then took off exploring on foot, "looking for firewood". The river pools calmly above the rapid but still has a powerful current. I followed it upstream, scrambling over huge fragments of the granite canyon wall. By land or water this is big rough country to travel.

I didn't find much wood along the river, but there was more than I needed back up the road. I roped up a bundle and hiked back to the camp. The gorge was already in shadow, the sun gone behind the 3,000 foot high cliffs across the river. I got a fire going and kicked back to enjoy the sights and sounds and sensations of camping in the Grand Canyon. When the fire burned low the stars were out. I laid my bedroll out on the sand and fell asleep listening to the rapid.

White noise works - I slept 10 solid hours. A few dry wood shavings got the fire back to life and it cooked up the morning coffee. Peace and quiet.

Until half a dozen big expedition rafts pulled in. As soon as their bows hit the beach people piled ashore and started unloading tons of river running gear: ammo cans, crates, boxes, dry-bags. It looked like a river landing in the old days, when steamboats came ashore in the middle of nowhere to unload supplies and equipment for miners and ranchers in the backcountry. They had the longshore drill down pat; this is 227 miles downriver, and they may have been out for weeks.

They had their whole outfit, including the rafts, packed up and headed out by 10. I gave them an hour's head start, then got underway myself.

But before we left, I got some water from the rapids to christen the bike. I'd really been giving it the whip, and it was thriving on it, so I named it O.

We got through the sand, over the rocks, and across the creek. Riding up to the next water crossing I gave it some speed to make sure I didn't stall in the middle, and the aerodynamic muffler scooped up a head-high tidal wave all the way across.

I kept the bike thumping along up the road at 15 or 20 in first or second gear. The view from the saddle was just as striking on the way out. A couple of hard bumps caught me sightseeing, but the bike behaved well and didn't throw me over the handlebars. It was a rare and beautiful ride.When we got back on pavement I was sorry it was over.

A hard wind was blowing outside the shelter of the canyons. Twenty miles down the road I stopped to check out the Hackberry General Store, a '50s time warp with classic cars out by the pumps and a little old-fashioned diner inside - with Free Hot Coffee! No gasoline, though.

The wind got stronger as we went west. Big tumbleweeds blew across the road, and I saw birds take off and fly backwards. It was hitting us broadside, but the Blast rode rock-steady even with the big duffle across the saddle. All I had to do was dodge the tumbleweeds.

The bike was well decorated with road-grime when I got it home. I thought cleaning it would be a big chore, but it took all of five minutes with some spray detergent and a hose. I spent another five with a damp sponge and a chamois to bring the gloss back up. I checked out the muff/skid plate expecting dents and scratches - nothing, no damage.

I thought the bike's scant ground clearance would be a real handicap on a rough-road adventure, but it wasn't so - in fact the low center of gravity was an advantage in situations where a road bike typically gets out of hand. The Blast is a refined, modern roadster, but I guess it still has rough frontier roads in its blood.

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joe@gazette9.com


 

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