Back to the Canyons of the Gila

What about the weekend? Oh, the Jamboree. How about Monday? AZ Trail-bike scouting by Patagonia. Maybe next Wednesday…?

It didn’t seem too likely, but Lee and I were trying to make a bikepacking trip happen. We were about to hang up. I still had the calendar open. Wait, what about day after tomorrow? It was a longshot, but neither of us had considered the immediate future.

Weather is good now… no time like the present!

The Arizona Trail is complete, and so is the (soon-to-be) legendary Gila Canyons (*) passage. But it’s not open yet. They are still drilling test pads near Kelvin and the road has not yet been converted to non-motorized trail yet. It’ll be a few more weeks yet.

(*) Formerly the White Canyon passage.

The singletrack west of the road is brilliant, wending its way through a thick stand of saguaros.

photo by Lee Blackwell

Plummeting down to river level, in a tidy set of freshly cut switchbacks.

Back to the railroad bridge, back on familiar ground.

Familiar and beautiful ground. The trail seemed to have more flow than ever. A product of more traffic? Less overgrowth and less of those pesky flowers we’re so used to on spring Gila bikepacking trips?

photo by Lee Blackwell

Doesn’t really matter, the riding was good, period. Over analysis might only spoil the moment. Why question things when they are going so well?

I brought the “big” camera along, and with my pack loaded with food and water it was a bit of a pain (literally for my back) to drop the pack and get it out. But super fun to play with, too. I blew quite a few shots, thinking myself to know more than I do, but even if I didn’t get the exposure quite right, the clarity of the images and the speed the camera operates at is pretty impressive.

I brought my “point ‘n shoot” too, knowing I’d see shots I couldn’t get with the big camera in time. I much prefer ‘in situ’ photos, anyway, so we didn’t fiddle fart about setting up shots. Ride ‘n shoot, try to keep the rhythm of the ride going.

We rolled onto new-to-us trail after looking somewhat longingly toward Walnut Canyon and the Battle Axe (the old route for both hikers and bikepackers).

photo by Lee Blackwell

Some of it was grassy (and barely there) trail near river’s bottom. It’s nice to find a little shade (yes, it was warm enough to appreciate it) and ride a little in the bosque, but portions might get a little interesting in the rain/mud.

Portions had hike-a-bike, too! A couple wash crossings aren’t quite finished yet, and in general the trail needs a bit more benching / work. It’s still quite passable, with misgivings only a blip on the radar. It was brilliant to stay on singletrack nearly the whole time, and save oodles and oodles of climbing compared to the Battle Axe / Martinez 4×4 extravaganza we used to ride.

We (mostly I) had some tire inflation issues (some kind of non-cactus stickers) that slowed our progress and cramped our style. Both of us (without saying it) felt like we wanted to be a little further into the upcoming big climb before nightfall. So we skipped checking out and (possibly) refilling at the flowing creek we spied on the last trip.

And besides, the evening was just becoming itself.

Light beginning to bend.

Air falling to stillness.

Imagination coming to life.

By happy coincidence, we ended up on the same ridgeline as our last trip, right at the same time of night, right when we started thinking about a place to call home. A minute’s twilight pedal took us to our campsite, where we pushed aside the rocks we had brushed back in before leaving last time.

We started a little stick fire, consumed left over subways, and settled into a nice evening under the stars and nearly full moon. I played with my camera (how are you supposed to focus in the dark???) and reviewed some of the best shots of the day. It was 8pm when we called it a night, and Lee discovered that his thermarest was no longer holding air. Doh! That combined with a bit of a hydration pack leak made his beddy-bye not look so hot anymore. It was a bit of a long night for Lee, but at least it was never too cold, and you wouldn’t hear him complain in the least.

We commenced the climbing of magical singletrack once the sun graced the spires and crags around us.

We had rushed through this part of the trail last time, so it was nice to approach it with a fresh morning and fresh eyes.

The colors in the rock and veg were so bright they pained our poor little morning eyes.

We climbed amongst cliff and saguaro, reaching ‘the top’ all to soon, for this is trail to be savored.

There the view shifts from the rugged ridges of the Gila River to the depths of upper Martinez Canyon. We stopped for a ‘nibble on cheese’ brunch.

But not for long, the upcoming trail was pulling us in like a magnet.

This is the small piece I helped lay out, and this time besides enjoying it we were doing a small survey of construction notes for anything that we thought needed work or was unsafe. It’s all pretty good, though we made note of a few things.

I love the wide and (almost) overbuilt nature of the trail. It gives you plenty of time to spin the head as you pedal along, instead of focusing on negotiating rocks and steeps, challenges I hear some mountain bikers are normally known to enjoy.. ..

Either Tim’s or my handwriting. Based on how legible it is, it’s gotta be Tim’s.

By the time we were done rubber necking and taking waypoints above upper Martinez, it was a bit later in the day than we would have liked. Since we failed to get water last night, our supply was looking a little thin. Original plan was to turn around to ride Gila Canyons back, but with our water source unknown and significant riding between here and the only reliable one (the artesian well by Battle Axe), we opted to continue north on the AZT. So we climbed by the big marbley rock, caught our first view of picketpost, then kept descending down mucho fun trail.

At Telegraph Canyon we opted for the more direct route into Superior — the 4×4 road. Beautiful in its own right, it has been a while since either of us have been on it. On one of the rubble strewn ramps I was ripping along, admiring my Lenz 29er’s ability to make rocks disappear, when one particular rock made its presence known in a big way. Never saw it or adjusted line or weight, so it slammed the rear rim and cut a hole in both the tread and near the bead.

It was looking like tube time, which was OK since we were done with cactus and stickers, but at Lee’s suggestion we aired it up as much as we could, then vigorously bounced the wheel up and down to make the Stans sealant bubble and foam, getting it to the hole right by the bead. I only had to air it up once more as we descended, then it was golden!

Picketpost reflection. Water, but it was too late to turn around. We also noted that Trough Springs was not that far off route, full of water, and trickling audibly from our vantage above it on the road.

photo by Lee Blackwell

We had other plans for refreshment! I was able to finally repay a longstanding debt to Mr. Blackwell. The origins of said debt have been obscured by the fogs of time, and obfuscated by so many good rides in the area. We think the debt arose on our 2005 thru-trip on the AZT. In any case, the fact is that at some point I promised him Dairy Queen would be open so he could secure frosty blizzard blissment. But alas, DQ was long closed when we got there.

The OPEN sign was lit as we pulled in. A great wrong has been righted, the balance of a debt settled. Ice creamy goodness was quenching our thirst. All was right in the world. Until, we got cold sitting in the shade! Simple fix — go sit in the sun.

Alright, the ride wasn’t quite over yet. We tried to hit the balance between gluttony and gut bomb since we still had to do the ‘shuttle’ portion of the ride. Self shuttle on pavement, that is. It’s not a bad ride, really. As long as you don’t consider long 10% grades to be ‘bad’. Before we knew it we were cruising by the Ray mine, and coasting into Kelvin to the completion of another amazing Gila bikepack.

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