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About Utah: Canyon ride enters alpine wonderland

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Editor's note: Columnist Lee Benson is spending the week bicycling west to east across Utah, from the Nevada line to the Colorado line. His columns will reflect what he sees, hears and experiences along the way.

FAIRVIEW to HUNTINGTON — The entrance to Fairview Canyon is as subtle as the upcoming terrain is unexpected.

Turn at the road between the two gas stations on the north edge of town and go up. Clear the trailers, the grazing cows, the auto repair shop and the rusted cars and there it is: Switzerland.

Or maybe Colorado.

Utah tends to hide its mountain masterpieces behind sleepy towns and sun-baked desert land. Fairview Canyon is a case in point. One minute you're pedaling past farm fields that owe their very existence to irrigation, then you turn due east onto state Route 31 and see the "Scenic Byway" sign.

And you think, "Yeah, right."

And then you round the bend and run smack into steep mountainsides flush with pine, spruce and aspen trees, towering cliffs and cascading streams.

And that's pretty much just the hors d'oeuvre. After nine miles of climbing you reach the first summit, featuring a commanding view of nothing but 360 degrees of forest, forest and more forest. At the center of it is the midpoint junction of the Skyline Drive, aka "Highway to Heaven," with 30 or more miles of celebrated four-wheel-drive dirt road heading off in either direction.

Another five miles up and you're at the final asphalt summit of nearly 9,700 feet, surrounded by peaks that rise to nearly 11,000 feet. Few paved highways in Utah reach higher.

Then comes a descent down Huntington Canyon 34 miles long, which is merely sensational if you're on a bicycle, featuring rolling curves and views of a series of clear blue-water high mountain lakes.

The state's largest elk herd calls this place home, as do large extended families of trophy fish, and as you hurtle on the downhill miles you can't help but applaud their good judgment.

At an elevation of 8,575 feet you pass Electric Lake, a cutthroat paradise that came into existence in 1974 when a dam was placed on Huntington Creek, flooding the old coal-mining ghost town of Connellsville. The setting is spectacular. Up here, even the man-made stuff looks nice.

But as the elevation drops lower and lower, the landscape begins a metamorphosis from green and blue to brown and gray. The trees thin out. The stream is no longer easily visible. There are no more lakes. Signs warn "Coal Trucks Entering Highway."

The turnoff to Crandall Canyon is eerily silent. It's been 11 months since six miners and three rescuers lost their lives in the Crandall Canyon coal mine, and its gates have been locked tight since.

By the time you arrive in Huntington, a municipality not much larger than Fairview, you find yourself back in a sleepy town surrounded by sun-baked desert land thirsty for irrigation.

Except for the "Scenic Byway" sign just past the gas station on the edge of town, there is little to suggest the alpine wonderland you just traversed.

Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com and faxes to 801-237-2527.