Grand Enchantment on the Safford Morenci Trail+

photo by Lee Blackwell

It started innocuously enough. Lee and I pedaled a graded dirt road into the Black Hills east of Safford.

The original idea was to recreate a memorable bikepack we did on a rather iconic section of the Grand Enchantment Trail some years back. We hiked our bikes a lot back then, but the memory of that had faded, replaced by the strong sense of “we need to go back there” that lingered.

But re-creating a ride that we know already ‘goes’ isn’t nearly as exciting as, well, something that we don’t know. When I took a look at Maestro Brett’s latest GET maps I quickly realized there was trail we had not been on. It looked steep, and remote, and full of water crossings, and probably hike-a-bike. Just a brief mention of the new section was all Lee needed — new country calls to him loudly.

the range does indeed look good

We wanted to hit the unknown stuff first, and in the downhill direction, so we pedaled the ‘self-shuttle’ portion of the ride first. In this case, it’s the Black Hills Backcountry byway. We had time to stop and read all the informative signs along the way, this time.

And what’s this? A gazebo with picnic table and a huge view of all the terrain we would be immersing ourselves in over the next several days! It was practically begging us to camp there, with the roof being a good full-moon sleep aid.

Then, just after night fell, the wind picked up. The mice started scurrying around. Lee’s air mattress blew into his bike and sprung a leak. The wind only increased its fury through the night. The cold seeped in from the ground to Lee’s core.

It wasn’t the greatest night of bikepack sleep we’ve ever had.

To the Gila River, where Lee’s puncture was obvious and repaired with a small piece of nylon cut out of the stuff sack.

Meanwhile, I looked for birds. And there were many dancing through the cottonwoods.

Already down some time and tired from the night, I suggested we alter our plan to grab a good night in the motel before launching off into the ‘doing of the thing.’ That also meant we could take a little side trip in search of… a hot spring!

An abandoned rail way turned singletrack, on a shortcut bearing? Yes, please!

photo by Lee Blackwell

Sand and steep rock made sure we didn’t ride our bikes all the way, but a bike was a pretty good tool for rolling over hills and dropping back to the river in search of hot water.

Hot water was found. Too hot, largely. At 180 degrees, it’s the hottest in AZ, but if you mix it with river water, you could maybe get it just right. Lee and a young couple did some digging, but I settled for a “half” soak — back half hot, front half cool. Not golden, but I’ll take it.

We rolled into the funky mining town of Clifton with time to spare. First stop was Roy Tyler’s Texas BBQ place. Before we were done there, we had bellies full of food, pie and ice cream. We had also met the mayor, half the city council, and collected a stack of business cards from various characters that call Clifton home. Lee’s personable way does well at making friends quickly.

We took the evening to spin unloaded around town, exploring the cave jail, churches, giant loaders and other nutty aspects of a town steeped in history. It’s too bad much of the the original town has been swept away in various floods of the San Francisco river.

Everyone was so friendly. “You guys look decidedly non-local.” Yeah, bikepackers aren’t exactly common around here. Neither are thru-hikers since even the GET skips these towns now.

The night at the motel was good. I awoke and was facing the only part of the ride I was not looking forward to: climbing 1000 feet, steeply, through the massive Morenci mine (largest copper mine in North America, dwarfing Kennecott, Silver City, Butte, etc), dodging mine traffic the entire way.

Out came the stack of business cards, and Lee’s talents. A few minutes later, he had a ride secured through the mine from none other than city councilman, jokester, sole republican of Clifton and owner of the Texas BBQ joint.

Being ‘pure’ (i.e. pedaling every last mile) is overrated.

Leave it to Scott and Lee to find a way to integrate hike-a-bike into what should be a straightforward ride between the towns of Clifton and Morenci.

The “Greenlee County Healthy Lifestyles Trail” does still exist and provides a traffic-free way to climb between the towns. But it’s changed a little bit since our 2008 GPX track.

The good Roy Tyler dropped us and our groceries just past the mine. We still had 1500 feet or so to climb on the deserted highway. We’ll call it semi-pure.

It was semi-rad, for sure, as we climbed towards the White Mountains, mingling with the mexican blue jays and acorn woodpeckers along upper Chase Creek.

And then, at long last, we were on the GET proper, into the meat of it, with 3+ days of food, a willingness to hike and a voracious appetite for new country.

photo by Lee Blackwell

Our expectations were set appropriately low. Any section we rode was considered a bonus.

photo by Lee Blackwell

We could tell someone, at some point, cared about this trail. But the current conditions? Less than favorable for mountain bike travel, despite the fact that we were losing elevation rapidly, there wasn’t a whole lot of riding going on.

Catclaw and other overgrowth is a real problem on a narrow trail bench. Beyond that, it’s been my observation that last year’s monsoon rains were ideal for growth of cheatgrass in the mid elevations of Arizona. Think Canelo Hills. Except the Canelos probably get 500x the traffic that the GET receives.

The winter’s brief freeze and snow was not enough to push the grasses back. So even sections that might be followable/rideable were often obscured and left the poor little bikepackers back on their feet.

In short, it isn’t hard to imagine that this trail could be more rideable under better conditions.

“This might be the hardest 3000 feet of elevation we’ve ever lost.” It was sure a good thing we weren’t going up (thanks to Master Brett’s suggestion).

“What, you want to go all the way up there? You’re crazy.”

Time wasn’t running high. Progress had been minimal all afternoon. But I had a hunch, given some vague hints on Brett’s maps, that this was the area, and that it was not to be missed.

What we found amazed us.

Magic springs coming from the cracks.

Hawks screeching and strafing us, repeatedly.

Magic trees and caves.

It is not hard to imagine and feel the vision quests that might have occured here.

Or the spirit animals that, at times, inhabit it.

We continued the quest of our own (whether or not it qualifies as visionary or a fool’s errand, I don’t know) further down the GET, as the ‘trail’ was simply in the jumbled streambed.

At dusk cottonwoods began to appear in the drainage as we picked our way down. Then, a spring! Clear water. We called it a night, enjoying the luxury of a wet desert camp, meaning extra coffee, emergen-C and even some whiskey that I surprised Lee by carrying.

The morning’s route continued down the drainage, occasionally rideable, and always highly interesting.

Painted Bluff slickrock! Ah the tasty little nuggests only available to the adventurous bikepacker.

Perhaps such nuggets will be enough to sustain us as we fight our way down to Eagle Creek? Occasionally bits of unrideable trail took us out of the drainage, presumably around pour-offs or other obstacles, but it was always slow going.

After nearly 24 hours, we had only covered 13 miles, while losing several thousand feet. But we had reached Eagle Creek, and it was running higher than expected.

The next 9 or so miles were following the creek, downstream, with an estimated 50+ fords. For the first couple miles there was rumored to be a ‘pack’ trail, but given the lack of use we’d seen anywhere so far, we were skeptical.

There was, at times, some paths to follow, as we repeatedly played the game of ‘do we ford here’ or continue fighting the brush on our current side, hoping to save two fords?

It’s a fun game to play, really. You just can’t have any expectation of making much progress.

After reaching a ranch house the topos indicated a jeep track to follow for the rest of Eagle Creek. Poking around left us skeptical. Brett had suggested we perhaps exit Eagle Creek on the other side of the jeep track, climbing thousands of feet away, but avoiding further slow travel and many fords.

We opted to stay in the cool shade and with the cool water. It was simply too beautiful and too rare a thing to leave, even though we new it was going to be slow. The jeep track was semi-followable and ill used, but it did improve vastly as the afternoon wore on.

We started getting the confidence to ride a few fords, perhaps as water level fell a little, drainage widened, and definitely as the water temperature warmed. It was fun to go flying into the creek with speed, losing it just as you hit the channel, and dumping your shoes straight in.

We don’t often get to ride with water in AZ. And, oh, what a setting.

We were followed by multiple black hawks as we made our way through the tight bends and oxbows of the rhyolite cliffed creek. Black hawk is a new bird for me!

photo by Lee Blackwell

Energy levels were not high as we paused to take a break where the route climbs away from Eagle Creek. Time estimates of what remained were not promising. Did we have enough food to actually push this thing through? Our second day on the GET was running out of daylight and we’d only covered 23 GET miles total!

There was a bailout, back to Morenci and Clifton, at this point. But Lee delivered my favorite quote of the trip, “yeah, but then we don’t get to see our country!” For Lee, seeing the country is always the highest priority, riding or hike-a-biking, tired or energetic.

We pedaled past the eastern terminus of the Safford Morenci trail. The sign marking the terminus was almost shiny, it felt so new, in direct opposition to the state of the trail, or the history of the trail.

It’s an old pack trail, through supremely rugged terrain, that once linked the farms (Safford) to the mines (Clifton/Morenci). Remnants of the original trail can still be seen, especially in places where it has to cling to cliff walls in order to make passage.

The BLM has revived the route and signed it, with some (imaginary?) fanfare some years ago. That fanfare seems to have conincided with the last time we rode it, when conditions were quite agreeable to the adventurous cyclist. We were about to learn just how things have deteriorated since.

While briefly a steep and rubbly 4×4 road, it was semi-rideable. As it turned to singletrack, the effect of the bovine inhabitants of Smith Canyon became apparent. There were stones and baby heads everywhere.

We pushed bikes into the failing night, scanning the terrain for any flat and stone-less ground that might afford some rest. It took a while before we found a couple of tiny cubbies big enough for bikepackers to lay their weary heads.

photo by Lee Blackwell

It was a cold morning at nearly 6000 feet, but our position was favorable for early morning sun. I think a few cows had also figured out this early morning sun perch. They came in the middle of the night, snorting at us in disapproval of us taking their sleeping spots!

We crested Bellmeyer saddle to grand veiws and much elatement. We had crossed the Turtle Mountains and were on a downward pitch to the next riparian wonderland — Bonita Creek.

photo by Lee Blackwell

I remembered climbing a fair bit of this singletrack, terrain pulling me upward like a magnet, last time. Cheatgrass and catclaw once again had other ideas on too many sections that I would have loved to coast down.

But what did remain was brilliant, and freeing, and lovely, and so much easier than dragging bikes up through baby heads. The singletrack ended quickly, and for the first time in 3 days, we had open 2-tracks to coast on.

It might have been the first time that our bikes did us much good. In a rational, logical way. But what is logical about crossing this terrain in the first place? After all, a smooth and swift highway can take us where we’re going orders of magnitude faster.

photo by Lee Blackwell

We dropped into Midnight Canyon, as the excitement level peaked, and our bikes continued to be highly ‘useful.’ Where by useful I mean incredibly fun.

Choke rock! No regrets at the possession of two wheeled bicycles were offered as we coasted and pedaled our way down the magnificence of the slot.

photo by Lee Blackwell

It is not every day you encounter a rideable slot canyon to ride through, to wonder at.

photo by Lee Blackwell

And to not want to leave behind. Partly we stopped for shade, partly we stopped because of the beautiful spot, and the zone tailed hawks (another new bird!) flying overhead.

And partly it was because we knew the ‘fun’ was over. Bonita creek was here, and the infamous Johnny Creek loomed ahead — in the uphill direction.

photo by Lee Blackwell

First we had to get there. Riparian areas are a unique and wonderful thing in the Arizona Desert. But keeping a trail or route anywhere near them is near impossible. Little blue ‘Brett’ flags kept us on track, got us to the ford spot, and away with muddy feet.

photo by Lee Blackwell

Those feet struggled to wrangle bicycles up and out of the lower reaches of Johnny Creek, on centuries old trail, chopped precipitously out of sheer rock. It’s a sight to behold, and just on the edge of what’s possible to push up with full water bags on our backs.

Into the slot of Johnny we go. Even for thru-hikers, the pace through here is not quick. But it’s delightful travel, in a way, picking your lines and marveling at the geology throughout. Some water obviously runs fast through here!

If not for the concave curve of the slot, midday shade would have been hard to come by. It was slim, even still, but Lee is a certified master of napping. Somehow he perched himself on a tiny ledge, completely in the shade.

“Perfect, when my water bag is done filtering, it’ll fill up and fall off on my face. That’ll mean nap time is over.”

The nap was declared good, though only a ‘2-sided’ nap. For the best recovery results, Lee recommends a 3-sided nap (lying on back, and both sides).

It was enough that we resumed charging up the slot, finding occasional pieces of new trail that would guide us out of the drainage for the stone dams and other obstacles that might prove difficult for horses (or bikepackers!). They sure didn’t overdo the bench construction or pruning on the new sections though.

Johnny done. Time to push bikes up steep roads, somewhat of a relief?

But we had forgotten about “Johnny Two”, the next canyon of singletrack. Some of it was good, and some was choked with brush and finally had us wanting to cry “Uncle.” Enough raising and lowering of loaded bikes over boulders. Enough slamming of pedals into legs. Enough cat claw skin loss.

But the end was reached, again with fancy sign. As we laid in the dirt elated at completing our second traversal of the Safford Morenci trail, Lee was heard to mutter something extremely rare. “I don’t know, Scott, that was bordering on ridiculous.” [the amount of hike-a-bike and difficult conditions]

Bordering on ridiculous, but not actually ridiculous.

The evening light, the quiet spaces, the open roads, the fact that we’d seen zero humans in the last three days, the sheer joy of coasting and wind on the face [thanks bikes!], the satisfaction of completing our visionary (to us) quest.

photo by Lee Blackwell

Well, that was all pretty damn nice. We coasted for miles and miles, down into the Gila Valley and towards Safford, where the ride (or hike?) was over.

Thanks for a great adventure, Lee. I’m looking forward to the next bike/hike adventure, whether on the GET or not. I love that we are still able to get along so well and see such country. It’s truly a rare and special thing.

4 comments to Grand Enchantment on the Safford Morenci Trail+

  • Zort

    This stokes my desire to GET some!

  • Tim

    I mapped this trail for the gubernment and man o man was it a pain in the ass on the western end. Just a boulder valley that I carried my bike over for hours. (I don’t think they had finished “restoring” it yet)
    Then down by the river a rancher warned me that a mountain lion had been seen nearby. Ahhh shiiiit.
    Really cool to see someone do this route since I don’t know of ANYONE else that has.

  • Cool photos, Scott! What brand is that backpack in the first picture? looks slick.

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