What could be better than spectacular scenery paired with delicious food? Jen Murphy takes a luxe cycling tour through southern Utah’s national parks on an epic culinary adventure
I wish I could fall in love with the all-American road trip. But hours in a car make me fidgety. My aversion to sedentary sightseeing is one of the major reasons that by my 30s I still hadn’t seen the legendary landscapes of America’s national parks. I’d trekked in Nepal and biked through wine country in France, but I had to yet to experience Yosemite, Yellowstone or the other wild playgrounds in my own backyard.
When a friend told me about TerraVelo Tours, I knew my American road trip dreams had been realized. For me, the perfect road trip is by bike, not car. TerraVelo founders, David Levine and Rebecca Martin, found it crazy that so many Americans fly to Europe for bike vacations when they have spectacular scenery at home. “The difference is the level of luxury,” says Levine, who has cycled through more than 60 countries. “In Europe you can bike to a chateau for the evening and have a three-course gourmet lunch at a winery. We wanted to bring those standards to the States.”
In 2014, Levine and Martin introduced week-long itineraries in California, Wyoming and Utah. In a nod to the traditional park experience, cyclists camp along the way. TerraVelo camping, however, is far from roughing it. Levine and Martin developed a five-star mobile glamping safari. Tents feel more like boutique hotel rooms, outfitted with Molton Brown toiletries and furnishings from ABC Carpet & Home, and a lounge tent has a fully stocked bar, club chairs and board games.
TerraVelo’s southern Utah itinerary, which takes in five national parks in seven days, provides the ultimate deep dive into some of America’s most celebrated settings. I immediately enlisted my friend Phoebe, who admitted she was more intrigued by the fancy tents than the cycling.
It’s a short drive from the St. George airport to camp, where our group of 15 is fit for carbon-fiber specialized Roubaix Expert Ultegra bikes. When Phoebe confides she usually rides a beach cruiser, the staff switch her to a hybrid so she can ride in a more comfortable, upright position.
Part of the appeal of traveling with TerraVelo is the flexibility. Guests who want to push their limits (me) and ride 100 miles a day can join the peloton group, while saner individuals (Phoebe) can opt to ride 20 to 35 miles a day, and spend the rest of the afternoon hiking, horseback riding or simply relaxing at camp. “I’m quite happy hanging at camp,” Phoebe assures the team after we assess our roving home for the next week.
TerraVelo’s chef and sous chef have prepared a welcome feast of escarole salad with apple, blue cheese and hazelnuts, and apple-marinated tomahawk pork chops. “The food may turn me into a peloton-level cyclist so I can justify eating more,” Phoebe whispers as she requests seconds of the chocolate pot de crème.
Our first morning we set out to explore Zion National Park. I always thought geology was boring, but this trip converts me to a rock nerd. It’s impossible not to be awed by the otherworldly landscapes, which seem to dramatically change every 10 miles. Our guide points out that millions of years ago we’d be pedaling through a vast desert. Intense winds blew the sand dunes on top of one another forming the cross-bedded red and white strata of Zion’s towering Navajo sandstone cliffs. The next day, in Bryce Canyon, we find ourselves surrounded by the area’s famous hoodoos — tall, skinny spires that look like totem poles chiseled from stone.
When you travel with TerraVelo, it’s easy to unplug. I rise each morning for sunrise yoga. Phoebe sleeps in and books afternoon massages. There’s no Wi-Fi at camp and very little cell service. Nightly entertainment consists of campfire conversations, guitar singalongs and Mother Nature. One evening a guest astronomer brings out a high-powered telescope so we can gaze at the Milky Way.
Day four is like a best-of-the-best hit list. We start out riding along Scenic Byway 12, pausing to snap pics at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and the wild Hogback Ridge, and cross into Capitol Reef National Park. With so many famous national parks, Utah’s state parks fly under the radar, even though they’re equally impressive. As we ride through the Martian-like terrain of Goblin Valley State Park, named for its spooky, goblin-shaped hoodoos, I can’t help but wonder if this area would have national status if it were in a state like Delaware, without so much competition.
Phoebe surprises me the next morning at yoga. “I really want to try the crème brûlée French toast so I need to move more,” she whispers as we settle into our first Down Dog. I try to stifle my laughter. Our breakfast spread is impossible to resist. Yes, there are fresh juices and smoothies for the virtuous. But like Phoebe, I fall for baked, buttery, sugary goodness.
We take a break from the bikes today and raft the Colorado River along the south end of Arches National Park, then hike to the iconic Delicate Arch where we picnic on poached tuna sandwiches and quinoa and avocado salad. I worried that a backdrop of rocks and desert would get tiresome, but when we reach Canyonlands National Park on day six I’m still mesmerized. Phoebe complains her legs are tired but I convince her to join me on Grand View Point Road’s 3,000-plus foot descent. “Downhill is easy,” I insist. “Gravity does the work.” While I find the descent thrilling, Phoebe finds it terrifying. Luckily, the sag wagon is always right behind ready to scoop up weary riders. Halfway down Phoebe hitches a lift and happily takes in the views from the van.
Our final night we give way to total indulgence. The chefs have prepared an elegant meal of braised quail with poblano chiles, chorizo and saffron, cilantro pesto-spiked whipped potatoes, and Brussels sprouts with walnuts and pomegranate. Wineglasses full, we toast our adventure, then go around the table and each share a highlight from the week. Everyone struggles to choose just one — hiking the red sands of Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, cycling past Chimney Rock, post-ride massages. When we get to Phoebe she doesn’t hesitate: “Getting to eat s’mores every single night.” Her answer leads to a bet over who can toast the perfect marshmallow and that leads to another late night singing, drinking and burning way more marshmallows than we brown.