This is the tale of how two bikepackers found themselves staring into the Grand Canyon. Except that they couldn’t see the Grand Canyon. They couldn’t see further than a hundred feet, through the blizzard and through the fog.
They had pedaled and pushed their bikes some 650 miles to get there, over mountain ranges, through desert and forest. It was a beautiful day, right until they rolled up to the Bright Angel trailhead, to disassemble bikes and transform from biker to hiker. Then the snow fell and the wind snarled.
And they realized they didn’t have any rain gear. Or a tent. But they did have yellow vinyl ponchos, purchased minutes earlier. What could go wrong?
Montezuma Pass, where most AZT journeys begin
You see, it had been an extremely dry winter. Arizona had hardly seen a drop of moisture for months. The bikepackers were more concerned with heat than cold and moisture. The long term forecast held zero chance of rain. They could always pick up rain gear along the way, they reasoned. Even the overly cautious and conservative Grand Canyon ranger, who made them sign a form stating that what they were attempting was “not recommended”, was skeptical they’d even see a drop, despite the forecast.
But how did they get there? Well, one of them has been organizing an informal race on the Arizona Trail for some years. He had planned to race this year, but as the winter went on the idea of touring started to look more attractive. He really wanted to put fresh tracks on the northern portion of the route, and he really wanted to show “the trail” to the other bikepacker. The other bikepacker, his love, was in full-on touring and “see the world” mode. What better way to see Arizona? She was easily convinced to join, even with short notice.
And so, we aired up our Panaracer Rampage tires, added a few pieces of ‘long trip’ gear to our kits, and posted to Facebook looking for a ride to the border. A kind and complete stranger volunteered to come fetch us from a Mi Ranchito breakfast (thanks Tony Clemente!). I love the mountain bike community and how people are always willing to give back and help others.
a better place to start an AZT thru-ride?
I had ridden the traditional start to the 750 twice last spring. It always feels so unnecessarily rushed to me. Parker Lake is where the action begins, and where I’m used to starting the adventure.
Instead I cooked up a GPS track I called “border boogie.gpx” that eliminated the out/back to the border, and maybe saved a little bit of climbing. I was hoping we’d find a border obelisk (as above) to officially call the start of our journey, since the official AZT (closed to bikes) starts at one. The border road was beautiful, and held a few stinger climbs.
We were soon into the fray, sparring with the Canelo Hills.
I’ve always wanted to stop at the first creek — Parker Creek. No chance it’ll happen on a race effort, but then we aren’t racing!
I also knowingly made the rookie mistake of bringing brand new custom insoles along, and they were already hurting my feet. Perfect excuse to dip the tootsies in the creek and enjoy the beautiful setting.
Yes, the Canelos have their own special brand of rugged beauty. I rather enjoy riding them, as long as it’s on no more than a yearly basis. I especially loved them in tour mode and with only minimal tire paranoia. Slice a tire? Big deal. Fix and move on, maybe seek a new one in Tucson. Steep climb? Big deal. Dig into the pedals and crank it out. Pacing is for suckers. Get hot? Take a break in the shade. Need water? Go search it out from one of many sources. Or, bonus – find half a gallon with your names on it, mysteriously left for us! Trail magic.
We weren’t racing, but we were on a bit of schedule since I needed to be back in time for the AZT race. Neither of us could completely remove ourselves from expectations of what ‘good time’ means, and from comparisons to racing. We told ourselves we would try to move quickly and skip sections of the 300 if needed, and stick with the trail up north.
So even with a late start, it was a little unnerving to our race-brains when the sun set before Patagonia. I was happy with the idea of camping in the Canelos. But I was also tiring out, not yet 100% over my cold and lacking quality sleep going into it.
The clincher on our decision to push on was, of course, the great Velvet Elvis Pizza. I have insulted the pizza gods far too many times, riding right by it, despite the Canelo sized hole in my stomach. It was time to right that wrong. It’s such a unique restaurant, and the “Poncho Villa” Pizza with root beer float was divine.
Had there been trail out of town we could ride out to camp on, I think we would have. But neither of us fancied a dark highway. So we grabbed a room and stayed up too late watching bad TV. It was a nice parallel to last year when I also got a room in Patagonia, spent a sleepless night with a revolting stomach, and strongly considered continuing on in tour mode. One thing was missing, though — Ez! Now, here I was, back in tour mode, and with the best tour partner I could imagine!
As I laid in bed I was pretty sure I’d made a big mistake with the insoles. A detour back home for my old and blown out ones seemed likely. Oh well.
stellar views of Mt. Wrightson from Hog Canyon
I love waking up in a trail town, wandering out in the early morning to find a big breakfast, then hitting the trail. Gathering Grounds is one of the best stops on the whole AZT. We scored a bunch of hot calories, and homemade pastries to go.
We exercised our touring privilege to take a small shortcut on the race route. Hog Canyon is a wonderful climb, and a much more logical connection back to the AZT. Too bad the signs at the mouth of the canyon are vaguely prohibitive. I *think* it’s fine to pass through there, but can’t feel good about directing dozens to do so without explicit permission. I would love to change the AZTR route.
As soon as we merged back onto the AZT we kept our eyes peeled for Sirena. She’s out on her AZT Trek thru-hike, hiking and promoting the trail in gateway communities all along the way. Everyone we saw out on the trail was talking about Sirena and asking if we had seen her. It was great to see how many people she was getting out on the trail! Check out the AZT Trek link for more events and the chance to hike with her. There are still plenty of opportunities to join in on the AZT party with her, and they all seem to feature lots of good food and tons of AZT stoke.
We sat down at the creek to dip my achy feet and sample tasty delights from Gathering Grounds, hoping we’d give Sirena a little more time to finish the Wilderness portion of the Santa Ritas. But eventually we decided the AZT wasn’t going to ride itself, so we better get to it.
Much of the trail near Kentucky Camp practically does ride itself.
Though somebody has to stop and open all the gates! We kept a daily gate total, just for kicks, one that Eszter reported on ‘the facebook.’ We haven’t yet gone back through to come up with a Grand Total yet, but it’s a big number. It was fun to exclaim the current number any time we caught sight of one. “Seven!!!”
Spring has so many phases in southern Arizona that it’s hard to keep track.
This was an early start for an AZT thru-trip, and we got to see some unique plants and flowers.
John Paul hiked here from Mexico. He said his legs were “no good” today, so he was resting up. It’s always fun to see thru-hikers.
On to Las Colinas! There’s good riding to be found out there.
I always think it’s going quickly, then the last mile comes and reminds you the Colinas reputation is well deserved.
Trail name: Hasnohorse. He seemed perfectly at peace on the trail, and seemed to really know what he was doing. He was also jealous of our bikes, currently sitting in a wide corner and on very smooth trail.
Yeah! Trail like that! The Cienega corridor! 30 miles of singletrack, all built by volunteers starting in massive project in 2004. Many mountain bikers contributed to this section of trail, and I have so many memories tied up in it. Lots of early Wednesday mornings meeting Bernie and the Flintman to lay out the next piece. On weekends we had volunteer groups 80 strong show up — more people than we could manage at times. I remember the pieces of trail I hastily laid out when the crews built more than we expected. I remember all the bureaucratic push and shove that ended up scrapping pieces we had built already.
And now, there is a continuous line of singletrack where before there was none. When I toured the AZT in 2005 with Lee Blackwell, we had to ride the highway through here.
Stopping for a shade and carrot cake break in the culvert under Hwy 83. There’s a fun techy move that is no longer on the trail, once ADOT forced us to use the culvert rather than an “at grade” crossing at Sahuarita.
Golden hour was taken in from the seat of our bicycles, winding in and around Colossal Cave.
No better place to be, as far as we were concerned. We hoped to camp at La Sevilla, but found it pretty jammed with people, including two fellow bikepackers, Dave and Yuri. Through ‘the facebook’ we had pieced together whose tracks we had been following, and who had left us the water at Canelo Pass, finally catching up to them at the campground. They had a similar idea to us — ride the pieces they wanted to, skip what they didn’t, though they only had time for the 300.
We rolled up ‘my’ section of trail to the pass overlooking the Rincon Valley, then called it a night.
The morning was cold, as they always seem to be in the Rincon Valley. But the singletrack is sweet. Rincon Market called us for breakfast!
It was a pleasant morning for a bike ride, as we waved to many a roadie riding predictably early. Then we took some neighborhood trails en route to Redington.
While cruising along, we broached the subject of Oracle Ridge. Eszter had no interest in riding it. I enjoy it in a sick and twisted way, but have done it enough in recent years, so I didn’t have my heart set on it. When it was clear we weren’t going to do it, I started thinking “why climb Lemmon at all?” Why climb up just to descend a dirt road? I offered the idea of taking the San Pedro valley around to Oracle, thinking myself clever. Eszter had already thought of it, even though she’d never been back there, but wasn’t brave enough to suggest it.
Seemed like a good idea to me!
We stuck on the route through the 4×4 extravaganza. I love the challenge of having to choose your line. I also love catching air off rock ledges.
Instead of continuing with the extravaganza, we took the singletrack to the giant disco-ball tree, continuing up the drainage towards the AZT. This is another connection I would love to add to the route, as it is much more in character with the AZT.
At the end of the drainage we found the tank rapidly filling itself, and spraying water out the bullet holes. Shower time! It was a much needed opportunity to cool off.
Life is good when you have a red velvet cupcake on board.
We joined the AZT for a few short miles before jumping on Redington Rd for less familiar country.
We talked a lot about the perceptions of touring and racing, of tracking and not being tracking. I asked myself, what kind of example am I setting by skipping sections of the trail, of the race route? After all, I am putting forth the implied expectation that people in the race ride sections like Oracle Ridge. When you’re racing you can’t just skip stuff because you come up with a better idea.
I quickly realized that, if anything, I was setting a very good example. More people should get out and tour the Arizona Trail, and do whatever they want! The race is just an arbitrary route that some nutcase dreamed up. It’s awesome that the race gets so many people out on the trail, and out pushing limits. But more people should tour than do now. More people should eat pizza at Velvet Elvis, and stop to dip their feet in the creeks, stop to chat with thru-hikers.
And unexpected route changes can lead you to places like this! After descending endlessly from Redington to Ez’s exclamations of “it’s so BIG out here!”, we dropped down big saguaro hill, which is just above river level. We then turned north to push into the wind. It was hot and dry, but San Manuel wasn’t all that far, where cold drinks awaited.
I still find it odd that they paved Webb Road. Made for a pleasant climb for us.
We had enough time to jump back on the trail in Oracle State Park. I rarely get to ride out here, so it was a real treat. We rode trail because we wanted to, and because it was fun. And that is pretty much the whole point of the trip.
We also ate huge plates of Mexican food at Casa Rivera because we wanted to. Oh, the taco tour is living up to its name! The A-frame Chalet in Oracle is one of the cheapest and best motels on the trail (ask for the thru-rider discount!).
We were through the first few days of the trip, making good time (almost too good?) and hitting our stride. The Black Hills and Ripsey are next! Thanks for reading along.