The Story of Thunder across the Mountainside

Horses, Running Up the Hills

Brian Head They began arriving Friday afternoon, at first a trickle and then an avalanche. Many of them rode in from the desert directly up the Markagunt Plateau to a resort town that is often the coolest spot in the country. They rode fat bikes painted as colorful as the sunrise, many of them with custom graphics and personalized license plates; some were painted with scorching flames, many cost more than a sports car. They brought their own rock and roll band and partied long into the night. They ran up a tremendous tab in the bar at the Cedar Breaks Lodge. And they were polite, putting their cigarette butts in ashtrays and holding the door open for ladies.

"They" were the 200 riders participating in this year's Thunder on the Mountain motorcycle rally, which shows up each July to Brian Head, a ski resort perched at 10,000 feet in southwestern Utah.

There is some inextricable link between summertime and motorcycle riding. For many who have learned the joys of wind through your hair and open scenery all around, the onset of summer is a demand to take to the road. And now, bikers from around the southwest have begun taking their passion for one weekend to the tender fir and aspen-cloaked mountainsides of Brian Head where on a clear afternoon you can look out on surrounding mountains and deserts in three states.

"There's a freedom to being on the road," said one rider who came with her husband and several friends from Las Vegas, about three hours away. "You see more, and you see it from a different perspective, and that is part of the attraction. When we come up here, we can see all the mountains, and some guys really get into the rolls and curves in the road." Or, as event coordinator and rider Larry Hughes told me: "When you are in a car, you drive across the countryside. When you are on a motorcycle, you become a part of it."

From the Mojave to Alpine Tundra

Brian Head Mountain Motorcycle RallyEveryone must know the sound of a Harley — the chop is so distinctive and memorable the bike's makers are trying to patent it. When a group of bikes would cruise by at Brian Head their noise seemed to fill the canyon, briefly.

Every summer, bikers go looking to ride. Rallies like those in Sturgis, South Dakota have become legendary. Brian Head's rally is much smaller, though growing. This weekend saw about 120 bikes and almost 200 bikers, nearly twice the number from last year. The bikers always parked in a single file line with their front wheels slanted to the left.

Bikers on Saturday took a 160-mile swing across the Markagunt Plateau, a 9,000 to 10,000-foot high undulating mountain covering roughly 400 square miles. The plateau which is freely interspersed with alpine lakes, ancient forests, 11,000-foot high peaks, summer snowfields, old lava beds, and features like those found at nearby Cedar Breaks National Monument: huge natural amphitheaters filled with stair stepping red, pink and orange grottoes, hoodoos, spires and goblins. The bikers, besides enjoying the scenery and the driving, were playing a game of poker. As Hughes explained it to me in the morning as he was making pancakes for the rally riders, riders stop at different checkpoints and pick up a few playing cards. When the ride is over, everyone compares their hand. The best hand wins $300. The worst hand, $100.

"The bikers come up here from some place like Las Vegas, and until they get here they have a hard time believing it can be so cool," said Brian Head Chamber of Commerce executive director Dani Katwyk. "But I check my thermometer every day, and even last summer when it was so hot in Las Vegas I never saw it get above 75 degrees here." Katwyk said despite whatever grim reputations bikers carry with them, Brian Head is happy to have them. "They come here in the summer and fill up our hotels, which the mountain bikers don't always do since a lot of them camp. All I have to do is provide beer - bikers seem to like Bud and Bud Light, not trendy microbrews," she added "and they just come up and enjoy themselves. Many people think that because it is a ski area, it is dead in the summer, but we have things like this going on all the time."

View from Brian Head Peak "It's the freedom of being out on the road," said a woman named Debbie who was stationed at the fifth and final poker table. "It's a lot of things that makes biking special. You see more and different things and you get it from a different perspective. You can smell more on a bike than in a car, like fresh air and the trees. But, of course, if you pass a skunk then you will smell that, too."

But it isn't just the scenery that makes biking fun for Debbie. It is also the power, the danger and the exhilaration of steering two wheels across mountain curves, dips and swales.

"There's an attitude of freedom and a statement that bikers make," she continued. "A lot of them are rough and tough, and biking shows everyone they can handle it. But a lot of bikers now, like me even, we are just yuppies who work in an office during the week and get dressed up and bike on the weekends."

Despite Thunder on the Mountain, Brian Head in the summertime is better known for a different type of biking — mountain biking. Mountain bikers, many of them riding $1000 and $2000 carbon fiber, titanium or oversized aluminum bicycles, flock to Brian Head where they can ride over 100 miles of single track up and down the peak. The ski area even runs a lift for those who want only to bike down the hill, not up it.

At the motorcyclist's breakfast, held at the bottom of the resort's longest chairlift, one of the cooks cracked open a can of Coors and poured it into the pancake batter. "To keep the pancakes fluffy," Hughes explained when my mouth fell open. "That's not so easy to do up here," said another cook. Hughes was making a huge pile of sausage, fried potatoes and pancakes for a growing line of bikers. The smell of the sausage mixed easily with the morning. One biker turned with an odd look to the man behind him. "I've never seen you without leather on. You look funny."

"When you ride with a group, it's a feeling of power," Debbie told me later. There's a persona and an aura to it. There's an element of fear, and one of excitement. This is a friendly group, partly because of the smallness of it. You come up here and everyone already has something in common - biking, or Harleys or Hondas or whatever they ride - so it's easy to make friends. And there is a real mix of personalities and people.

Bikes Dip and Sway With the Road

Brian Head Mountain Motorcycle RallyThe chop from the motorcycles echoed - briefly - across the ramparts, forested meadows, and shrinking snowfields atop Brian Head Peak.

In a dew-covered meadow where the bikes couldn't go, penstemmon, paintbrush and Mountain bluebell swayed in the morning's summer breeze. Atop Brian Head Peak it was cold and windy. Below, a line of hikers skirted a small patch of snow. A golden retriever trailed two mountain bikers in bright lycra. There was a glint of sunlight in the ski area parking lot from a car door closing. Beyond, on the road to Cedar Breaks, a single file line of bikers dipped and swayed across a high alpine meadow and back below treeline into a tall, dark fir forest. Another group of bikers stopped at the North View pullout inside the monument and gazed across the grand and impossibly-colored amphitheater. Porter and I crawled down off the summit a little bit, in through rock crags where pikas whistled and chipmunks scurried and miniature spruce ferns clung to rock and the wind did not blow.

I picked out mountains in the morning sunlight: the Aquarius Plateau, the buttes in Zion National Park, the Pine Valley Mountains, the Wah Wah Range, the Tushar Mountains and far, far off Wheeler Peak and the Snake Range. Another group of bikers - or maybe it was the same ones - rode back across the treeless summit and down to Brian Head.

If you've got questions or suggestions for someplace to visit, write me at jeff@utah.com. Otherwise, I'll see ya on the road!

A special thanks to Cedar Breaks Lodge.

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