Arizona bikepacking: pushing bikes and pushing limits!
I’ll admit it… while pushing my bike up steep, rough gravel roads, there were times that I questioned our decision to spend our vacation bikepacking in Arizona. My thoughts went something like this: Why couldn’t I be like most normal people and choose a tropical holiday where I sit on a comfortable lounge chair on a beach sipping margaritas? Am I drawn to suffer like that?
The truth is that those thoughts were fleeting. While we did experience some discomfort, the majority of our time in Arizona was spent either in awe of the beautiful, remote desert that we were riding through or laughing and smiling with amazing company. Or sometimes both simultaneously. Yes, it was a vacation that gave us much more than we had anticipated.
To give a brief review, Rebecca and I had planned to fly to Phoenix with our bikes to spend our vacation riding the Fool’s Loop, a route published by our friend Miles Arbour. We had read the route description and the comments that followed it and nothing really stood out in our minds as being beyond our limits. The reality is though that we would each be seriously challenged by the trip, both physically and mentally!
The first thing we had going for us, and it would turn out to be a godsend in a number of ways, is that a Facebook friend of ours, Clark Shipley, messaged me, volunteering to pick us up at the airport and host us while in Phoenix. I doubt he had any idea what that would ultimately entail but he did it, and we benefited greatly from his generosity.
Our flights to Phoenix on Westjet were, as one would hope, uneventful. Both we and our bikes arrived unscathed and Clark was there to meet us. Almost immediately upon arriving at his house in the early evening, we set about unpacking and reassembling our bikes. Not surprisingly, we’re getting fairly quick at that. The next morning, after a restful night’s sleep, Clark and his wife Ruth took us shopping for some groceries. Unsure of how much time it would take us to complete the trip, we declined his offer for us to stay at his house an extra day to get ready. We were eager to get going and so, at Clark’s suggestion, rather than taking us to the beginning of the route in downtown Phoenix, he and Ruth dropped us off on the trail at a point somewhere north of where he lived. We were off and pedaling shortly after 11:00 AM.
Although we weren’t all that far from civilization, we found ourselves immediately riding on beautiful desert trails. All manner of prickly cactus plants lined the route, making us grateful for the new sealant that we recently added to our tubeless tires. We rode all day, stopping only here and there for 5-minute breaks. In spite of that, we found ourselves struggling to make our mileage goal. Shortly before 5:00 PM, we found ourselves in Scottsdale in the first restaurant of the day. Even though we were carrying food, we had yet to stop for a real meal because we were eager to cover some miles. By this time though, we had to stop.
Before we left, Clark had lent us his Spot tracker and as I thought he might, he had been checking in on our progress. When I opened my phone at the restaurant, I found a message from him suggesting that, based on our speed, we might have some difficulty getting far enough along the trail to find a place to camp (the area where we had stopped was still quite populated). He offered to either pick us up and drive us further out into the desert so that we could camp or instead, bring us back to his house where we could sleep in a bed and then set off again the following day. We chose the latter. Don’t judge… we were on vacation. 🙂
The next day saw an increase in the remoteness of our route and a corresponding increase in difficulty. We had a blast riding some beginner-level single track in Brown’s Ranch and eventually made our way into the Tonto National Forest. The riding conditions varied. We experienced flowy single track, smooth asphalt, and very rough and sandy washboard roads. By late afternoon on the second day, we rolled into Horseshoe Campground, content and tired.
The campground was vacant when we arrived so we had our choice of spots. We set up our tent and unloaded our belongings at one site only to find out later on that a much nicer spot by the water was just around the corner. What did we do? We picked up everything and moved, of course. For the record, it’s pretty easy for two people to move a tent if they just pull out the stakes and leave it set up. Lesson learned though… check all available sites before setting up camp!
As expected, once the sun dropped below the hills, the temperature started to plummet. We were happy to be able to make a nice campfire to keep us warm before we went to bed. We had noted what looked to be raccoon tracks before it got dark so we were careful to put food away securely before we settled down for the night.
The evening was quite chilly which made us reluctant to get out of bed first thing in the morning. We had little choice but to do so though as a couple of vehicles filled with several generations of family members descended on us shortly after 7:00 AM. They were not quiet! Apparently, this family visits that location every year and the site that we had bedded down in was their favorite. So much so that when they found out that we would be leaving, they hung around waiting for us to vacate. We weren’t put off by it though and they were quite friendly. In fact, when they saw us getting ready to filter water out of the river, they offered to fill our bottles from their supply. That was quite nice of them… water in the desert is life!
We began the day by traversing along the dam which holds back the Horseshoe Reservoir. That obstacle took us only a few minutes to figure out. En route to the next landmark, Sheep Bridge, we came across a solo cyclist heading in the opposite direction. His name was Dave and he reminded us a lot of our other cycling friend Dave who we met in Guatemala, friendly and full of energy. We spent a few minutes on the trail chatting, each sharing warnings of the hills that awaited. I don’t know how he faired with the one that I told him about but I know that I suffered greatly on the one that lay in front of us!
Sheep Bridge, which crosses over the Verde River, is beautiful. We would have definitely camped there had it not been so early in the day. Instead, we grabbed a quick lunch at one end of the structure before beginning the long and steep climb out of the valley. It was this climb that would really take its toll on me.
Probably because we had not been doing that much riding before this trip, my knee had begun to bother me a fair amount. That, combined with the rough road and the steep grade, made the climb problematic. I found myself pushing up a number of the hills instead of pedaling and this is always a source of aggravation for me. At one point, while on a particularly steep section, a driver in a truck heading in the opposite direction stopped to ask if we were OK. When I said that I was just tired, he said that “they” were just heading down to look at the bridge and would give us a lift when they came back. At first, I wondered what he meant by they as I could only see him in the truck. When I looked more closely though, I could see his young son in a car seat in the back.
We ultimately made it to the top of the first climb. At the bottom of its corresponding descent, we found a tiny stream where we could filter some water. The grade turned immediately upwards again after the stream and with daylight drawing to a close, we started thinking about camping. It was just as we were deciding on a spot that our friend, the friendly truck driver, returned on his way back from the bridge. True to his word, Xander stopped to offer us a ride and I somewhat reluctantly agreed to take it. I should point out that Rebecca went along with me on this but would never have accepted a ride if it had been solely up to her!
While driving along the bumpy gravel road, we learned that Xander was recording a video with his infant son Hunter to post on their Youtube Channel. It was fun chatting with him as the truck climbed and climbed up the steep mountain. The further we drove, the more convinced I became that we had made the proper decision to accept the ride. It’s a vacation, remember?
Xander let us out at what I thought was the top of the mountain (it wasn’t) shortly after the sun had said its goodbye. With the extremely rocky ground, it took us a bit of searching to find a decent camping spot but we ultimately lucked out with a great one. Again, we built ourselves a nice fire to keep us warm before turning in. It’s too bad that we couldn’t have kept it going all night though as the temperature at that elevation really plummeted! We camped at 1600 meters that night and were very cold in our tent, even with most of our clothes on. We awoke hopeful that the next day’s planned drop in elevation would bring us an increase in temperature.
Day four on the trail started off with an almost 20 km descent and that’s always a fun way to begin a ride! Of course, there was some climbing to follow but nothing close to the section that we bypassed the day prior. We reprovisioned in a small town called Cordes Lakes mid-afternoon and then rode on to what we expected would be the highlight of the route: the Black Canyon Trail. The BCT is reported to be one of the longest stretches of single track in the United States. Having only a small amount of experience with that type of riding, we would find ourselves pushing our limits over the next two days!
After getting our feet wet with a fun five miles on the BCT – most of it climbing – we set up camp for the evening. As we had hoped, the lower elevation made for a much more comfortable evening. We had both determined by this point though that our beloved Thermarest sleeping pads had seen better days. While they still appeared to be in good shape, they’ve lost much of their thickness, leaving us more exposed to the rocks and the cold ground.
The next day we set off riding with plans to meet up with our friend Clark at some point down the trail. Apparently, he had arranged to have a couple of days off from work (he teaches law at a local community college) so that he could ride with us. Pretty cool, eh? When we set off riding, we weren’t exactly sure when or where we would meet up so we texted back and forth a few times, trying to coordinate.
It was mid-day when ultimately we met up and Clark, on his lightweight full-suspension mountain bike, set a fast pace for us to follow. It’s worth pointing out that the BCT trail is quite exposed in many parts. We had heard the trail described as being technical and now we knew what that meant! We covered about 50 km that day, ending up at a restaurant famous for its pie and burgers, not far off the trail. It was dark when we left the restaurant though and so we made our way back on to the trail by the light of our headlamps. If it was sketchy in the daytime, it was even more so in the dark!
We camped that night at a spot Clark called the beach. We couldn’t see much of it that night but when morning arrived, we could see how beautiful it was. There was no hanging around to enjoy the scenery though… we had another long day ahead of us.
Clark seemed quite confident that we’d be sleeping in a bed that night but with more than 40 miles of trails between us and his house, that seemed unlikely to Rebecca and me. We pushed on as if it were possible though. Both Rebecca and I stretched our limits on the technical trails and this resulted in a crash or two. Fortunately, there was only a small amount of blood spilled, and no broken bones. We did have to stop a few other times to remove cactus thorns from our skin. Ouch!
As the sun was setting, high on a plateau overlooking the city of Phoenix, we reached a decision point: do we stop there at the last really nice camping spot or do we push on in the dark, making way for Clark’s house. As we were assured that the majority of treacherous riding was behind us, we all agreed to go for it. Some super fun single track followed that point and we raced along with our headlamps lighting the way. When we finally arrived at one of the southern trailheads, we found two of Clark’s friends, Mike and Karen, waiting there for us with pizza, beer, wine, water, and snacks! How awesome is that?
Funnily enough, just as we were making ready to set off again after filling our bellies with the gifts from our trail angels, another rider exited from the BCT. I imagined we shocked him a bit, coming from complete solitude and darkness into an area with a bunch of people, illuminated by half a dozen headlamps. “Would you like a beer,” Mike asked him? Without hesitation: “Yup.” The perfect response! We learned that Ben, from Alaska, had just ridden almost the entire Fool’s Loop in 3 days! Yeah, he was running a bit faster than us!
It was close to a two-hour nighttime ride from that trailhead to Clark’s house on paved roads (it would have been double that through the desert) but as Clark suggested, we did make it. By the time we arrived, we had been riding for more than 10 hours that day so to say that we were tired would have been a serious understatement.
Did we complete every inch of the Fool’s Loop? No, and that doesn’t bother me a bit. We had some great riding and to me, that’s all that matters. Speaking of riding, we still had a few days remaining before we had to catch our flights back to Canada and Clark and Ruth kept us busy with daily rides through the city and the desert. Even on the final day, after we had boxed up our bikes for the trip home, we went out for a ride, borrowing one of the many bikes that Clark has in his stable.
One particularly nice bonus that we hadn’t considered when booking our trip is that we were in Phoenix for the US Thanksgiving holiday. It was extremely nice to share that special day with our new American friends and it brought into focus how truly fortunate we both are. Fortunate to have good enough health to complete a challenging trip like we had just done, fortunate to have the resources to travel as we do, and fortunate to have so many great friends and family members spread out all over the world! We are truly thankful for all this and more!