G.E.T. Part 1 – The Safford Morenci Trail

I’ve been dreaming about this trail for some time. Before the highway, before the Black Hills Backcountry Byway, there was a pack trail that linked the farms (Safford) with the mines (Morenci).

It came to my attention due to its inclusion on Brett Tucker’s Grand Enchantment Trail. From the very beginning I knew I couldn’t rest until I had attempted to ride it. With multiple slot canyons and recently (re)constructed trail, it was an irresistible adventure.

Lee Blackwell signed on for the ride, and I can’t think of anyone better for this kind of caper. He’s the king of enduring hike-a-bike and difficult conditions, always able to maintain a positive attitude and appreciation just for being “out there.” We planned to ride the Safford Morenci Trail and continue with the GET route into New Mexico, budgeting about six days to do so, including time to “shuttle” ourselves back by paved and dirt roads.

We parked Lee’s car at the Safford Regional Airport and began pedaling late in the morning. It was already warm, but we were headed to higher country.

The graded climb over Solomon Pass went quickly and featured a man vs. machine race. When I heard a truck behind us I figured we would get passed, but he was moving just a hair faster than us. We beat him to the top and continued on into the valley below.

I love being a bike tourist. Pleasant 2-tracks and 4wd roads continued through gold hills, lined with bushes and volcanic rock. We would soon get more than our fair share of that dark rock.

We saw a few vehicles on mine exploration missions, walked a bit in the sand, then crested a pass that dropped us to the BLM Safford Morenci Trailhead. As I signed in I wondered what Brett would be thinking when he saw that we actually signed in and attempted the trail.

Would we make it through? Would he follow tire marks in the sand to Morenci?

Singletrack started off well. Groomed trail lined with rocks. This is too easy.

We stopped and congratulated ourselves on finding some primo trail. Not 50 feet later the word primo faded from our minds as sharp vegetation and boulders appeared. “They brought the dignitaries and higher ups this far, but no further…” says Lee.

But it was still a good ride. Just a tad overgrown and requiring a dismount every now and again.

We came to a 4wd road that Brett had suggested we take since the “trail” is simply the wash. But the fall-line 4wd looked none too attractive–straight up and direct sun exposure. We opted for the wash.

This was the trickiest spot. We handed our bikes up the concrete dam after the boulder trap.

We rejoined the 2-track that dropped us through interesting rock formations to the head of Johnny Creek. This was the first slot canyon, but Brett had warned us about it and suggested we seek out an alternate route. I had an alternate of sorts planned, but nothing could convince us (yet) that Johnny would be that bad.

It started out quite nice, really. There were pieces of trail to pick up, and they were a breeze. But soon there was nothing but brush to lose skin on and loose rock to slide on. Time to walk.

No biggie, it was downhill and our bodies were not sick of lugging a bouncing bike… just yet. The canyon got slower and slower as the rocks and walls became more interesting. Green water appeared and out came the sandals. A few moves required careful negotiation of our steeds. Then we came to a 10 foot high cement dam.

We handed bikes down (a solo rider would need to drop his bike and I’m not so sure about going back up with a bike).

The canyon narrowed and thankfully the cobbled rock disappeared.

Time to ride!! If only briefly.

More Johnny Creek

A metal trail sign directed us away from the wash following some semblance of a trail. It was taking us above the canyon, hike-a-bike style, to bypass an impassable pour-off. Once the climbing was all said and done the trail was very rideable, though quite precipitous. We were both tired enough of walking that we rode it anyway.

View of lower Johnny Creek and Bonita Creek from trail

The trail descended through some interesting stone cut switchbacks (potentially rideable, but the price for failure was too rich for my blood). We dropped back to the (now wide open) wash to resume walking.

For some reason I was convinced there was more singletrack to be found, so I crossed back and forth, occasionally following game trails with high hopes. I can definitively say that there’s no singletrack. In my explorations I ended up on the southern embankment which quickly became choked with brush. I backtracked but didn’t want to go all the way back, so I found a somewhat reasonable spot and dropped my bike off the edge, trying not to kick too many rocks onto it the process. I walked to a different spot to hang/jump down to retrieve my bike.

Lee was waiting at perennial Bonita Creek. The water was a welcome sight as I was running low. It had taken 3.5 hours to cover the 4 miles of Johnny Creek. Lee’s comment at Bonita summed it up “it’s a good thing Johnny wasn’t any longer!”

I sat in the shade and pumped about 200 oz. We then readied ourselves for the next challenge – Midnight Canyon. There was no alternate for Midnight, and to keep ahead in the morale game we set our expectations appropriately. It’s probably going to be at least as slow as Johnny. Flags placed by Brett led the way to the mouth of Midnight.

The initial foray into the floodplain went well — rideable sand. Gone were the cobbles, gone was the brush.

Before we knew it we could touch both sides of the slot and were still pedaling.

Beautiful red rock.

Solid surfaces continued.

A wall appeared ahead of us, but large mortar steps took us easily up the slope.

I lost GPS signal in the slot, which brought an immediate panic attack. Where am I?!!!

Midnight canyon opened up to impressive views of the Turtle Mountains. It was a quiet evening, and the pedal strokes were effortless. I stopped to snap pictures as Lee pulled ahead.

There was a good campsite where new singletrack branched off a 4wd road. I was shocked to not find Lee there. He was up ahead, on the trail.

He knew as well as I that there was no chance of a reasonable place to camp until we reached (at least) Bellmeyer saddle (in the pic above), some 1500′ above us.

I was happy because a little night riding/hiking means less sleeping bag time.

We rode as much as we could as the sun set pale yellow behind us. Progress was slow, but we marveled at the quality of the trail. There were some nutty sections alright, but generally very well done. We walked once it got dark.

It seemed to get steeper as the darkness engulfed us. Or we may have just been getting tired. The word deathmarch was tossed around in our heads.

But the saddle came soon enough. No views for us, and we found it too windy to camp without tents. We proceeded down the trail but there was no ground free of rock. We made due with what there was.

I think I’m still not heat acclimated, because I could hardly eat anything before calling it a night, and I felt warm in my sleeping bag. At least I had plenty of water.

In the morning I walked back up to the saddle to check out the view and search for my wayward sandal. Last time I saw/felt it was somewhere before it got dark. I wasn’t about to walk to the bottom of the climb, but luckily I found it not 500 yards from where we camped.

Eventually Lee started stirring (I’m so uncomfortable camping with my minimal setup that I’m often waiting for the sun to come up so I can get up) and we packed up to head down the trail.

Our first introduction to the descent was a little shaky. I reeled in my expectations and resigned that we might be walking.

Another turn later the trail showed its true character — a hootin’ and hollarin’ rocky descent through oaks and junipers. Big time payoff and obviously recent construction. Rocky as hell, but we don’t push big bikes (29ers with full suspension) just to look cool.

Our bikes got a good workout and the smile grew on my face. 6000′ to 4000′, just like that.

Cobbly 4wd continued down South Smith Canyon, interesting in itself, though not as narrow and cliff lined as yesterday’s adventures. We continued to the west terminus of the official Safford Morenci Trail, where I commented “Awesome! Thanks for all the great trail work.”

A brief section of graded road dropped us to Eagle Creek, flowing wide but only shin deep. Lee immediately took to the pump house location and started settling in for a shower and extended nap. It was a beautiful spot, but I was fired up and wanting to continue exploration.

The nighttime push over Bellmeyer Saddle had been costly to our energy stores, and we were debating about whether to skip a more obscure continuation of the Safford Morenci Trail: Gold Gulch. I thought for a moment, deciding quickly that I didn’t want to miss it. So I proposed that I follow Gold while Lee took a nap, following the (surely) faster road climb instead.

I knew that Gold Gulch was the most “technical” of the slots and that I might not be able to get through with my bike, solo. But it was easy to rationalize that I’d just turn around if it wasn’t possible. Easy to say that now!

First I had a handful of Eagle Creek fords and some beautiful canyon country to admire. Sand traps stopped me dead in a few spots, but jumping into the cool water was a great respite from the heat. I thoroughly enjoyed the trip down Eagle Creek, and marveled as I saw the opening to Gold Gulch.

I pedaled carefully through the labyrinth and was surprised to find a ~20 foot pour-off suddenly in front of me. I knew there was one impassable one, but wasn’t expecting it so soon. I doused my head in the pleasant trickle of water that fell from it, then back tracked to find the old trail around it.

There was only one spot it could be, and soon enough I found old metal bars that used to hold rock to the cliff face, providing more tread for stock animals. I didn’t need it, but I did need some careful placement of the bike as I made my way up the exposed face, eventually descending back into the slot.

Interesting challenges presented themselves. For a few narrow spots I had to lead the bike in front of me, nudging and kicking it to get the front tire turned correctly. Some spots were only as wide as a tire for the bottom 2-3 feet. I scraped and bent my front rotor a one spot.

Then I came upon a more serious pour-off. The first thing that came to mind was to get the bike wedged as high as I could. I could then climb unencumbered around it and pull it up from the top.

This worked beautifully for the above pour-off. The bike was wedged a few feet off the ground and I was able to climb up the white spine to the right. Pulling it up was no big deal from there.

I was pretty proud of my bike-cayoneering technique and eager to test it further.

“Oh boy,” I muttered out loud as I stared at an even taller pour off. First thought was “not possible.” Then, “maybe.”

“We shouldn’t have split up. What am I doing here by myself?”

Turn around? Not a chance, not until I at least try.

No way I was going to get the front tire over the lip of the choke rock, but I could get it several feet off the ground, wedged under it. Without thinking too much I had the bike wedged and proceeded to climb around it.

Bike shoes are not exactly the best for this kind of thing, and I’m no rock climber. In other words, I made it to the top, but I didn’t have positive thoughts about going back down, especially with the bike in the way. So now the task was to pull the bike up.

I had several ideas (using various straps) that would have worked better if I’d thought of them before climbing up. I couldn’t see an easy way to pull the bike out from under the choke rock. But there was a chance the wheel might roll around it, if I could get a good angle on it.

I couldn’t. I had to lean so far over the edge just to reach the bike that I could only pull one direction. For a moment the imperative to get the bike up almost overrode common sense. I thought about putting both hands on the bike. But one arm was on the side of the canyon, supporting me and keeping me from tumbling off the edge. It’s possible I had enough weight that I could have used both hands, but I doubt it. The fact that I considered it, and almost moved my arm was pretty damn frightening. Unfortunately I had loosened the bike enough that if I let go with the other arm I was pretty sure it would fall.

At this point I should have let it fall and thought of something else. But instead I entered a desperate struggle, tapping every bit of strength my body could muster. The front tire would not go around the rock, but by pulling the handlebars and eventually the stem I got the rear wheel to move up. For a moment the rear end of the bike was suspended out into space, before I let it crash into the side wall so it was somewhat stable. I could then move back a bit, grab the seat and flip it completely around with both arms.

I made it, but it was a little too exciting for me. I’m sure there is a better way to negotiate such an obstacle with a bike, but I’m not all that certain what that method is. Taking the wheels off, tossing them up, then dealing with only the frame was one idea that may or may not have worked. Having another person to hand bikes up — now that would have been a winner.

So it was a foolish move to split up, but so it goes.

At the moment I was worried that I hadn’t yet seen the worst of it. But I wouldn’t try anything like that again. If it looked bad I’d simply ditch the bike, walk to the road and find Lee for assistance.

Sure enough I came upon another obstacle that was even higher. Impossible without a rope, but I had seen that the left side wall had eased up before I entered this particular chasm. Sure enough, there was a route through some brush and over a boulder. Gratefully the slot opened here and I was soon blasting through sand, safe and sound.

I exited Gold Gulch by a steep 4wd road, rejoining the road Lee would be on. To my surprise he wasn’t at the prescribed meeting place, so I sat down in the shade, running the events of Gold Gulch through my mind.

He must have overslept on his nap, but eventually came riding up the road. “Wow, a lot happened in the hour and a half I was sleeping by the river,” he says.

I don’t think either of us were ready for how much Eagle Creek Road climbed before reaching the highway. Back up to 5000′ we went, with the sun beating down us. Big views of the mine waited for us on the highway.

Those trucks are about as big as my house.

Miles of blissful coasting brought us into the town of Morenci. Copper prices have turned this sleeper into a beehive of activity. The pizza place was jammed full of miners and the cafe took over an hour to churn out our grub. Well worth the wait.

By the time we bought groceries it was late in the afternoon and the wind was unreal and out of the south. Our plan from here was about 70 miles of road riding, so it was an easy choice to roll on down to Clifton and get a room rather riding a few unpleasant miles just to camp on the side of the road.

We toured Clifton in the evening, checking out the old cave drilled jail and the catholic church (nicest building in town, of course!). The church choir was practicing, complete with accordion and trumpet. After filling us in on some of the local news they played a tune to send us on our way.

A pleasant evening in this interesting, if somewhat derelict, town.

I slept well at the Rode Inn, though only after I spent a good 15 or so minutes running through the Gold Gulch scenario again.

Coming next… road riding to Mule Creek, meeting both foot and bike travelers, Maple Peak, the Wildbunch Trail, lost hound dogs and more adventure!

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