Southwestern Utah's Parowan Gap Loop
Though it’s just over three hours south of bustling Salt Lake City by car, Parowan Gap feels like traveling back in time, as the narrow mountain pass was used for centuries as a shortcut through the Red Hills. Today, cyclists along the route can see evidence of petroglyphs and other historical elements — and take pride in the fact that they’re riding part of the Tour of Utah.
Parowan Gap is one of Utah’s most epic loops, offering a moderate, 50-mile ride that’s heavy on history and bragging rights, as it’s part of the Tour of Utah route. Just over three hours south of bustling Salt Lake City by car, the narrow mountain pass was used centuries ago by Fremont and Anasazi people as a shortcut through the Red Hills, and they’ve left their mark — literally. Parowan Gap is dotted with ancient petroglyphs, some of which are thought to be some 1,000 years old, depicting humans, wildlife, and intricate patterns.
The ride begins and ends at Cedar City, which has long been considered a primary tourism gateway to southwestern Utah. It’s conveniently located an hour and a half from Bryce Canyon National Park, an hour from Zion National Park, and just 30 minutes from Cedar Breaks National Monument. (If you're well conditioned, you can make the 20-mile, 4,000-foot-elevation-gain ride to Ceder Breaks or beyond.) The town’s two bike shops are within walking distance of its historic downtown, where you’ll find lodging, restaurants, and summer festivals galore.
To get to Parowan Gap, you’ll head out of town on northbound S.R. 130 (part of the U.S. Bicycle Route System, USBRS 79). Depending on your starting point, it’s about 13 miles to the right-hand turn onto Gap Road. Enjoy this mostly downhill cruise, because the climbing begins in earnest at the turnoff. After about six miles of up-and-down — the net gain is just under 300 feet, but expect a few steep climbs and descents — you’ll see a small parking area for the Parowan Gap Petroglyphs on your left. Plan to bring a bike lock and take a break here: You won’t want to miss the highlight of this ride. A quick hike up to the petroglyphs to see the messages left over hundreds of years by Fremont and Anasazi (Ancestral Puebloan) travelers is well worth the effort.
When you’ve had your dose of history, continue southeast on Gap Road for wide-open views of the Escalante Desert on either side. Another eight miles of steady climbing will deposit you in Parowan, the first year-round settlement in southern Utah and a vital part of its mining history. Take a right onto Highway 91, which you’ll follow through the town of Summit and back to Cedar City.
A loop through the Gap from Cedar City is a manageable day’s ride. The gently graded route gains just over 1,500 feet—the steepest climbs are just before Parowan Gap itself — over 50 miles. In the summer months, it’s crucial to get an early start to avoid the midday heat. Bring plenty of water and snacks, as the route offers few pit stops until Parowan, which is 30 miles in.
To make the most of a ride through Parowan Gap, time your trip to coincide with one of many observation events throughout the year. (Fun fact: The petroglyphs and rock formations of Parowan Gap acted as a calendar for early residents of what’s now Iron County.) The Southern Utah Space Foundation brings telescopes to the Gap on the Summer Solstice, when Venus, Jupiter, and the moon form a perfect triangle overhead. At the end of the summer, spectators gather to watch the Overseer, a rock formation resembling a face, as it swallows the sun and signifies the start of cooler temperatures. And then, of course, there’s the Tour of Utah, which draws cycling enthusiasts to the state every August to watch the pros grind it out.
Headphones aren’t recommended on this rural route: Highway 130 doesn’t have a generous shoulder, but it disappears altogether on Gap Road.