Never pass up an ice cream source: Bikepacking New Mexico and Arizona

This spring I took off on a bike camping trip for six weeks over 1,000 miles of remote and beautiful parts of the Southwest USA, meandering along dirt roads between southern New Mexico and Northern Arizona. I thought I might do some blog updates from the trail but I found it was not working out to post from my phone, so I figured I’d do a little trip overview and share some photos now that we are a few days from heading to Europe for another big adventure – hiking 500 miles across the Pyrenees Mountains in France, Spain and Andorra. More on that later! But for now, a quick recap and photos from the bike trip. 

After almost four months of planning, Dan and I hit the road on March 14, no matter the 40 mph winds that day, because it was just time to go. We arrived in Silver City after 3 1/2 days, starting out in what would be some of the driest and most remote country of the whole trip and getting horribly, terribly, blisteringly saddle sore. We treated ourselves to a dip in Faywood Hot Springs and all in all, I felt like I was getting pretty broken-in by the time  we rolled to Silver.

 

Dan had to head home from Silver (thank you to our friend Doug/Wrong Way shuttling his truck up there) and I was on my own. Erica and Martyn from Gila Hike and Bike were my warm and wonderful hosts overnight in town and after this one stop I quickly realized how hard it can be to leave the grasp of town (where friendly people, warm beds, coffee, pastries, pizza and beer all happily coexist) when on a backcountry trip!

Nervous and excited to be setting out solo, I did some grocery shopping and hit the road the next day, riding southwest toward the Chiricahua Mountains over three days, where I would cross into Arizona by way of the village of Portal. Some of the first real climbs and technical challenges of the trip started to appear on this stretch – climbing up and and around the Big Burro Mtns, a lot of rough trail on the CDT, hitting locked gates and high fences, border patrol helicopters buzzing overhead, tubeless tire frustrations and failures, and grinding away under the hot sun on a torturous washboard-esque road surface known (in my head) as “sand boarding”.  Climbing my last hill into cool, shady Portal, AZ at sunset after days of being baked in the sun was like a dream –  Cave Creek flowing cold and clear, soaring rock spires lit up by a full moon and nice, shaded creekside campsites for all. Perfection.

The dirt road up and over the Chiricahuas via Onion Gap was pretty tough, but I was starting to feel stronger each day and more confident in my riding, my bike and my navigation skills. I wandered around Chiricahua National Monument for a few hours but a lot of the roads were closed so I didn’t get to see all of all of the “wonderland of rocks” like I wanted. I definitely recommend going, and I hope to get back when more of it is open. It’s a weird and wonderful place. After another insane wind/dust storm, which caused a breakdown (emotional) in a ditch, pounding too much pavement with no shoulder, and a confusing night at a shooting range/RV park, I wound up in the town of Bisbee for two awesome days with a warmshowers host named Davey! He was a warmshowers legend! So friendly, full of information and easy going. Thanks Davey and best wishes in your own travels!

Now that I was in southern Arizona, I was pretty close to the start of the Arizona Trail, an 800 mile trail that runs north-south through the state. While it sounded like the perfect way to make my way up toward Utah, I  was turned off by multiple reports that it is incredibly grueling on a mountain bike, to the point of being way past type II fun, and just being un-fun, especially on a fully loaded bike. But then I met a woman through Davey who gave me guidebook called Biking the Arizona Trail written by a woman named Andrea Lankford that changed my mind. Lankford’s route provides many dirt road alternatives to painfully technical terrain and wilderness areas. I got exited, snapped some phone pictures of the maps in the book and headed to the Mexican border to start my way on the Arizona Trail!

Just south of Tucson, I met a man at a rest stop who turned out to be my new best friend. As it turned out Richard is the race director for the Tour de Tucson, Tour de Phoenix, and many other bike events. He also held a world record for bike touring the entire perimeter of the US in the 1970s. Richard invited me to his estate in Tucson where I stayed for four days, camped next to the pool, of course. Dan joined up with me there and as luck would have it, Matt Nelson from the Arizona Trail Assn was giving a talk that night on biking the AZT, so we checked it out and chatted with Matt for a while. Matt’s best word of wisdom on exploring the AZT was “never pass up a water source”. There are only a small handful of flowing water sources on the 800 mile length of trail, and each drop you see could save your life. I had just experienced a little scare one afternoon in the Santa Rita Mtns, south of Tucson, where I spent about six hours out of water in the heat of the day, and knew to take his advice seriously.  The next day, we set out north into the blooming Sonoran Desert together again. I loved the Tucson area. Nothing beats climbing your heart out all day on Mt Lemmon to see snow patches and bundle up at 9,000 ft, then dropping back into the desert in a single day’s ride.

I’d been on the trail about three weeks at this point, and though I felt stronger every day prior to the climb up Mt Lemmon, in the days after it I started to feel tired. I started thinking about people hiking the Appalachian Trail who are out for six months at a time, and I was getting tired on week three, which felt pretty lame, so I just popped some ibuprofen and tried to ignore my legs. We continued north toward the Gila River on the Andrea Lankford route after enjoying the fun the Arizona Trail singletrack in Oracle State Park. We found the Gila too deep to cross and had to detour to the town of Florence, but had a blast the next day navigating the Gila Box Canyons area north of the river and landed in Apache Junction for the night at a tiny house with showers and laundry courtesy of another WarmShowers host.

North of Highway 60, the Arizona Trail enters the Superstition Wilderness and the Mazatzal Wilderness, areas closed to bikes. The workaround is to take a pavement route that runs between the Wilderness areas, but it’s a beautiful route called the Apache Trail and I highly recommend it. Despite some places with little or no shoulder, and plenty of traffic leading up to touristy Tortilla Flat, the sections between there and Roosevelt Lake are unpaved and a little wilder, with dramatic dropoffs and views down into the salt river. It was some really hilly and beautiful riding. It would be a great ride on a regular touring bike (you wouldn’t need mountain bikes/bikepacking gear) and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

From Roosevelt Lake we veered off the AZT route a bit to explore the Desert to Tall Pines (aka tall CLIMBS) Scenic Byway toward Young and Pleasant Valley, with plans to gain the Mogollon Rim north of there. This dirt and pavement riding is beautiful and tough. I had a panic attack from the climbing at more than one point. But the views into the Sierra Ancha wilderness and dropping back down into Pleasant Valley are pretty nice. We tried our best to dodge storms but when we got to Young, we could clearly see that it was snowing up on the Rim. We ducked into the Antlers Bar and pored over maps but after an hour and a half we still didn’t really have a good plan of escape. There aren’t too many ways to get up on the 1,500 foot escarpment and there’s no getting around a storm once you’re up there. The Antlers owner brought out his maps and set us up with a route out toward Payson on a rough Forest Rd route that was comically extreme in grades and surfaces. On the map, the Pleasant Valley area seems like a bikepacking mecca, with endless dirt roads in every direction but with our regular mountain bike tires they were too rocky. Fat tires might be a lot more fun in this area. Anyways, just as we rolled into Payson the skies opened up and simultaneously we ran into the only person either of us knew there, and we hopped in the bus!

Cruising from the Mogollon Rim to Flagstaff on the AZT singletrack was pretty smooth sailing (except for all those rocks) until my seat post bolt snapped and my saddle came crashing off! I rode about 12 mi standing up before we were able to hitchhike the last 50 miles into town. After we got it fixed at Absolute Bikes, and Dan had to head home after a few nights. I was enjoying Flagstaff so much that I stayed a few more days with Dan’s friend Jesse, and got to visit Nick from Rogue Panda Designs, the maker of my awesome red Framebag. Since I knew I needed to return in about a week, I concocted a Coconino County Cruise down through Mormon Lake and Sedona before hopping on the train to Albuquerque to pick up Olive. During my last few days I met a great couple from California named Sandor and Helene, who along with their dog Daisy, were on a mountain biking road trip in their Rad Van. They invited me to camp with them and we had two great nights of camping and relaxing in Oak Creek Canyon.

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