Monday, March 19, 2012

The Arizona Trail: Gila Monsters, Tortoises and a whole lotta sweet singletrack

I've been working on constructing a new self-guided tour on the Arizona Trail in southern Arizona between Oracle and Superior, AZ for going on a year now. I've been fortunate to have maybe the most qualified person on earth helping me - Scott Morris from Scott knows pretty much every inch of the Arizona Trail in this region and also owns a GPS software mapping company! On top of that he's just a great guy and someone who I feel fortunate to have met.

My good friend Kevin Waterbury of Knolly Bikes and I had just finished up a week in Sedona with Dirt Rag Magazine for their spring bike test, so the timing was great to take a few days to scout out the AZ Trail with Scott. Scott had just finished the Sedona BFL and was tired, but I managed to coerce him with cold beer and food. I get paid to guide why shouldn't he?

We met up early in the morning with Scott in Oracle where we immediately realized Kevin and I weren't very prepared. Honestly it was a little embarrassing for a professional mountain bike guide, but hey, we all make mistakes. We were without latex/slime tubes and heading into some of the thorniest, rugged country there is. Brilliant! Live and learn....and poach shit from Scott who was nice enough to oblige.

The trail out of Oracle is defined by lots of ups and downs along narrow, rugged singletrack. It's nowhere near "cruise" level - it demands your attention on the ups and the downs. Scott pointed out a very distant reddish-colored ancient volcano, Antelope Peak, as our destination by lunchtime. He mocked, "it will be frustrating how it never seems to get closer for a while." Hahaha!

Kevin soon had his first of a few flats (see: unprepared Matt and Kev) and we chilled while we debated the merits of the Blackburn Mammoth pump. Scott would occasionally vanish into the brush with his camera in hand to capture some spring flowers blooming or a cool perspective on us changing a flat (above). Flat fixed and we kept on rolling.

By the way, these pix are horribly out of order, so just try and enjoy them.

We hit the AZT water cache behind Antelope Peak and had a relaxing break before continuing on into the "Boulders" section of the AZT - fun, flowy section of trail that trends downhill. Scott pointed out the jagged ridge line in the distance as the Gila Canyons area - our day 2 terrain.

Scott - ever the photog!

Deep into day one Kevin and I were pretty whipped and the desert rat Scott Morris looked fresh as a daisy! He pointed out a distant unnamed peak with switchbacks scored across its face...the AZT as it turns out. Keep in mind we were well into what will be day 2 of a designed 4 day trip...all on day one. Maybe in the past, or further along in the season I would be a little stronger and this would seem like cake, but I was dragging.

The singletrack climb up what I was now calling the Prickly Nipple was beautiful. I was definitely fatigued, but I was suddenly climbing pretty well with a good attitude as my surroundings were pretty inspiring. What a special place! I didn't even mind that much when I realized I had a flat (my first and only surprisingly). I pulled over to fix it and felt very at peace with the evening light settling onto us. I didn't break any records finishing the climb, but I had a stupid smile the entire time. Just one of those moments.

The reward for the climb up the Prickly Nipple was the best descent of the whole route down to the little 'burg of Kelvin. I'll be very interested to go back and ride this section a little fresher as it is one of the more epic descents I've ridden anywhere. I can picture it even now as I write this with snow falling outside here in Durango.

We hit the Florence Kelvin Rd and found the trailer very nearby. We immediately cracked some cold beers and I got dinner started - honey mustard chicken and leftover Mediterranean quinoa salad! There wasn't a ton of chatter as we were all tired on some level and looking forward to some sack time. I didn't even do the dishes - I stuffed them into a garbage bag to be done at home.

We rose to a chilly morning on day two and ate up some granola and yogurt and got ourselves packed up to roll. I didn't sleep all that well, but enough to say I rested and recovered to an extent. The riding on day two continued on gorgeous bench cut singletrack; contouring around a ridge toward the Gila River corridor. I took a weird spill in the first mile of riding on some loose rock in a turn that hurt like hell. I sort of super-compressed my arms in and the resulting pain in my elbows left a bit to be desired. I would survive of course, but it wasn't really how I had hoped to start the day quite frankly.

The first half of day two was all about well-built singletrack along the Gila River. I love seeing new trail built at sensible grades with some nice flow in mind. It was taking some time for me to warm up, but I was happy enough just to enjoy the views and the great Arizona Trail singletrack. Huge hats off to the Arizona Trail Association and the work they've spearheaded. Well done. Every time I caught up to Scott our conversation kept circling back to, "Isn't this trail amazing?"

As we neared midday, Kevin was struggling a bit with the heat, so we stopped at our last chance on the Gila River and had a soak and did our best to treat some water through my shirt and some purification tablets. The river water was cold; what a great relief and a great way to bring the core temp down! We had some lunch and took in the peacefulness of the riverside oasis.

Lunchtime lounging was over - it was time for the big climb up through the Gila Canyons. I'll say now that we'll be calling it an end to day 3 before this climb as it's a lot to tackle in the second half of the day. In a 4 day trip I think it makes more sense for folks to recover and start the climb in the cooler morning temps. It means a sizable final day, but I really feel it's the best course of action.

I gotta say I was feeling good chugging up the trail into the Gila Canyons. A big part of it was the excitement of my surroundings. This section of the Arizona Trail through the Gila Canyons is nothing short of surreal. Simply stated, it's an honor to get to ride my bike here. Scott and I rounded a corner and found a desert tortoise chilling in the middle of the trail. So cool! I was definitely getting the tourism brochure version of the Arizona Trail - a gila monster on day one and then a desert tortoise on day two. Sonoran Desert I love thee.

The climb to the "summit" is no joke. I say "summit" as there are a few false ones that reveal themselves as new canyons to conquer. No matter - this guy will just enjoy the trail clinging to the side of the mountainside. I had definitely returned to a pretty fatigued state, but my mind and attitude were so positive and happy. I was talking to myself out loud (happy or delirious?) and really enjoying the "queen's stage" of the trip.

We finished up the Gila Canyons and bailed out on the F4 Rd instead of finishing the last handful of miles into Superior. It was getting late and we had a lot of shuttling of vehicles around left to accomplish. Scott baited us with how good the final stretch was, but we just didn't have the energy or time. I'll leave it be with the idea that I still have a bit of new sweet singletrack to discover. :)

My final thoughts - as a mountain biker I think the Arizona Trail is a top five to top ten resource for those who appreciate the joy of backcountry travel and exploration. It's phenomenal. I simply can't wait to get back out there. In this day and age I think adventure and an escape from the daily minutia can be hard to come by - I cherish places like this.

As the Hermosa Tours guy I think we have a very unique and stunning trip for experienced mountain bikers to enjoy. We'll be offering this as a self-guided tour starting this fall 2012 for around $375 per person as a 4-day, 3-night trip. This trip has been a long time coming and I can't wait to share it with others.

Finally, a huge thanks again to Scott Morris and his company Topofusion. Couldn't have done it without you.


  1. Great story. The area looks awesome. I think I will have to put it on the "MTB Bucket List". See you in the Fall.

    And I will make sure to go tubeless with Stan's sealant.... (PS like everybody in Arizona does!!!!)

  2. A few us from Colorado participated in the 4-day tour in April of 2014 riding from Oracle to Superior. All I can is is nothing short of amazing, scenic, breathtaking, fun, challenging and simply put, some of the most amazing riding ever. I can honestly say that the last section along the Gila River and up the Gila Canyon may be the most memorable singletrack we have ever been on. I still get smiles and goose bumps thinking about that trip.

    And yes, be prepared - extra tubes, stans and even spare tires. The rocks are sharp and needles/cacti everywhere.

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