Multiday race reports, Trip Reports » Racing the Arizona Trail in 7 days




route map from TopoFusion software

Racing the Arizona Trail

The Arizona Trail has always been an obsession of mine. Whether riding, hiking, building or planning it, it seems to often be on my mind. In Spring 2005 I rode the length of the Arizona Trail (from Mexico to Utah) with my friend Lee Blackwell. We followed the trail as closely as possible and the amount of hike-a-bike we endured was unreal. It took us 25 days.

This fall the trail called me again, so I set off to ride the mountain bike version of the trail (a much easier route). I would ride solo, self-supported and as fast as possible. Below is my journal from the trip.

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I had to ride a bit just to get to the start line. My girlfriend Paula and her mother dropped me off at the top of Montezuma Pass. The actual start of the Arizona Trail is 2 miles south of the pass. But the trail is off-limits to bikes, so instead the biking route begins in the valley below.



The uninspiring Mexican border.
So I bumped down a forgotten 4×4 road that dead-ends at a barb wire fence on the Mexican border. “Every pedal stroke gets me one closer to Utah,” I told myself. I turned my bike around and headed north at 10:30am, Wednesday, October 19th.



Bumpy 4×4 road at the border
As I skirted the southern edge of the Huachuca Mountains I tried to temper my pace. I’m as hot-headed as the next short course racer, so this was a challenge. A major goal for this trip was to keep overuse injuries at bay, and I knew that pacing has a lot to do with this. It was hard to stay very calm. I rode with heightened senses being so close to the border and riding alone. After a couple hours I realized the real danger was not illegal immigrants, drug smugglers or vigilantes — I was much more likely to die on the hood of a Border Control SUV. I don’t understand why they have to drive so fast.

The weather was perfect: no wind, 65 degrees and clear skies. I pedaled softly by Parker Canyon lake, up and over Canelo Pass and into the expansive views of the San Rafael Valley. Before I knew it I was coasting into Patagonia with 50 miles behind me. It had been a fairy tale start, compared to the nightmare that was the start of Great Divide Race ’05.



The San Rafael Valley
The AZT goes into wilderness in the Santa Rita mountains, so my route takes highway 83 to Sonoita. It was now late afternoon, so the wind had turned into a cold, pointed headwind. I wished that I was off hiking through the wilderness instead of fighting wind on pavement.

I was grateful to turn west on Gardner Canyon RD to hit my first section of actual Arizona Trail. It starts with the so-called “ascent of death,” a short, steep, switchback climb. I’ve cleaned it on a loaded bike before, but I kept my passion in check and walked it. I thought of Kent Peterson, the mountain turtle, walking his singlespeed up anything steep on the Divide. Pacing, pacing.



Sun lowering on the AZT in the Santa Rita mountains
After some fun but highly eroded and grassed in singletrack, I pedaled up a meadow to the historic Kentucky Camp. I asked the camp host if the faucets in back of the house were operational. “No hablo ingles” was the response I got. I looked a little closer at the man and his two buddies. They didn’t look like camp host material, and the fact that they couldn’t speak English made me wonder if I was talking to illegals who had raided the camp host’s trailer.

I asked him for water which he gladly directed me to. As I filled up I started a conversation in broken Spanish with the guys. I told them about rides I had done in Mexico, seeing if I could hit any familiar ground. When I mentioned a ride I did in the Sierra Madre Occidental, through towns like Huasabas, Bacadehuachi and Nacori Chico, their faces lit up. I think they were blown away that I even knew the area. It turns out they were from Bacadehuachi and were hired to work on the windows at Kentucky Camp. They started asking all kinds of questions about my bike and trip. I told them I would ride another 20-30 km that night on the trail before camping. They said what about “gatos” and “oso” (cats and bears). “No, no gatos, no oso aqui, verdad?”

I continued on the trail. Though I have ridden this trail several times, I found it very hard to navigate at night. Fortunately AZT carsonites are reflective and can be spotted with a headlamp, but the trail was so grassed over that I spent some time searching. The technical spots were sketchy since many of the rocks were obscured. I only freaked once. I descended into a meadow and was met with 20 pairs of glowing eyes. Neither cats nor bears run in packs, so they must be cows, dummy. Of course they were blocking the trail, so I had to work my way around them.

I reached the end of the AZT at Oak Tree canyon and ran into a very real barrier: highway 83. I listened to truck after truck zoom by, knowing that there is no shoulder and that I was starting the longest paved stretch of the route. Thoughts of all the cyclists getting creamed by cars recently were weighing heavily on my mind as I decided to back away from the road and pull out my bivy gear. Fearless I am not.

I slept OK until a pack of Coyotes passed through the canyon and found me interesting. They were noisy as coyotes are, but what bothered me was that I heard them moving close to me. I thought maybe they were after my block of parmesan cheese. Whatever they were up to, they kept yelping well into the night. I got up around 4am to hit the now deserted highway heading for Tucson.

After highway 83 I pedaled through rush hour construction traffic in Vail (not an experience I recommend), then sighed as I turned off into Colossal Cave Mountain Park for some auto-free riding on park roads. In southeast Tucson I restocked food and water before calling Paula to tell her where I was. She had planned to ride up part of Mt. Lemmon with me.

I headed for the base of the Catalina Highway to face the longest climb of the route. Starting at 2500′ the road climbs to 8200′. It’s all paved at a reasonable grade, but it’s relentless. I really struggled. I know it was mental, not physical, but it was hard to fight. Having Paula climb with me for a couple miles provided a needed boost, but it also reminded me that I was close to home and could drop out easily at any time. I train often on this hill, unloaded, so it was frustrating to be moving so much slower than I was used to.



The Catalina Highway
I pedaled from saguaro lined ridges, through mid-elevation grasslands and finally into ponderosa pine forests. I’ll never grow old of the changing scenery of the Catalina Mountains.

The descent off Mt. Lemmon is on the bumpy, eroded mess known as the Control Road. It seemed worse than I’ve ever seen it. The descent really put the hurt to my feet and toes. On the (many) hills coming in to Oracle I felt strong, but my feet reminded me that everything was not OK. I rolled into Oracle and phoned up my friends, Bryan Barr and Anne Taylor. I had only planned to stop in, take a shower maybe, and say Hi. But when I took my shoes off I found my right big toe had gone numb, and that the rest of my feet were very sore. I was 200 miles in, and had the energy (and time) to ride another 3-4 hours, but I decided to call it a day. I really did not want any long-term damage from this ride, and was willing to sacrifice a little time.

I rolled out of Oracle an hour before the sun touched the horizon and immediately noticed my inflamed achilles tendon. The next stretch of the route is the longest without water. Not surprisingly it’s also the lowest in elevation and the hottest. With the exception of the silty Gila River, there’s no water for about 90 miles. It’s very remote and has a certain subtle beauty to it.

I crested some rollers and crossed the powerline that the 24 hours of the old pueblo course follows. 24 hour races have their place, but at the moment I was happy to be heading north, to new country, and to be out in the wilderness by myself. (Rather than riding in circles and passing people left and right).



Electric sunrise in the Tortalita Mtns
I was treated to an electric sunrise, then further gifted a southeast tailwind. For the next 30 miles the desert spoke silence as I floated through it. I can remember few miles so effortless in all my life. I watched the desert slowly change from chaparral to pure Sonoran with saguaro, prickly pear and cholla cactus.



Sonoran Desert on the descent to The Gila River
At the Gila River I crossed most of the water flow on a graffiti’ed out diversion dam. It was a contrast to run into old, dilapidated buildings after so many miles of bare desert. The rest of the river had only a small flow, so I just walked across.



Diverson Dam on the Gila River
Sand! The entrance to Box Canyon is full of it. As I swerved aimlessly through a deep stretch a group of jeepers passed me (like I was standing still). I’d get them back, because the canyon was narrowing (to barely wide enough for a jeep). A few ledges provided technical challenge, but I was more enthralled by the canyon walls and deep orange rhyolite cliffs.



Heading into ‘the Box’
Around a corner I heard running engines. Sure enough it was the jeepers, literally standing still. I made my way through them, said hello, and cleaned the ledge they were setting up rocks for. The look on their faces was too good. “Uhmn, no fair” was what one of their looks said.

The box continued winding around until it finally accelerated to a full on granny gear climb. I rode the first hill before resorting to pushing to the top of the pass. But it was a false summit! And at the real summit was a large group of onlookers, so I had no choice but to ride (or so I told myself).



Climbing out of the box
I pedaled up to comments of “you look like you have a motor on that thing” which was exactly what I was thinking at the time. The friendly folks from the valley (Phoenix) wanted to hear more about my trip, but the sun was getting to the ‘bake’ phase, as it so often does in Arizona.

After another steep, loose climb to a pass I descended towards US 60. About 1 mile before the highway I remembered that the guidebook had said this area was used for artillery testing. If the red flag is up they are firing. The flag was at my exit of the range, so I had no way of knowing. But at 1 mile out I thought “guess they aren’t firing” since I hadn’t heard anything. Not 2 minutes later I heard a huge BOOM! So much for my assumptions.

The shoulder on US 60 is wide, but cracks in the pavement are well placed at 10 foot intervals making for some very unpleasant shocks. The trucks were many and the temperature was in the 90′s but I was not fazed. The riding had been so good, so remote and so scenic that I was riding a huge high. I was rolling into mile 90 for the day and knew I’d be able to push it much higher today.

Here I was, having the time of my life on a bumpy, trash riddled shoulder of a nasty US highway. It was at the point that I caught myself headbanging to Dream Theater that I realized something was wrong with me. How could I be enjoying this? But I was.

The gas station/Mickey D’s provided junk food for the next day and a giant vanilla shake. When they brought it out I almost asked them to take it back because there was no way I could drink it all. It vanished and I was tempted to order more (besides, I got the Broadway Blvd Monopoly piece and knew I was one shake away from a million dollars).

After some confusion on powerline trails and suburban roads I turned off the paved Apache Trail to Lost Dutchman State Park. Now I started the difficult task of following Andrea’s route directions in reverse. Fortunately the trails in the park were well signed. And the scenery was a knockout. ‘Ship rock’, I gathered, was the name of the huge rock formation in front of me. My eyes were mostly on the semi-technical trail lined with sharp cactus.



Ship rock in Lost Dutchman state park
I thought the singletrack in the park was a cool addition to the route, even if it isn’t official AZT. That was until I dropped back out on the paved road and saw a sign that said “Lost Dutchman State Park – 1/4th mile.” The immediate (and foolish thought) was “an hour for 1/4 mile!?” Ok, it was still cool.

“Get a Mule!” — Yelled at me by an old codger, playing the part of an old codger at a mining tourist trap.

My expectations for the Apache Trail were not high. Lee and I went to great lengths to find a workable route through the Superstition Mountains so that we didn’t have to ride the Apache Trail (or US 60). But what I found on Apache Trail that evening was an incredibly beautiful, quiet dirt road. I was surprised that this area was not better known as a scenic wonder. I couldn’t stop spinning my head around and wondered what was going to be over the next rise.



Apache Trail Scenery


Apache Trail Scenery
The rises were many, steep and too short to get into a rhythm. There is some impressive road work on this beast of a dirt road–sometimes it feels like a trail. As the sun set the colors came even more alive and my pedal strokes seemed to blend in with the landscape. The stars came out (no moon yet) and I began to think how small and insignificant I am, on my little bike, traveling ever so slowly in this huge landscape and even larger universe. I am nothing.

After ~3 hours of night riding I grew tired of the disorientation inherent in night riding. The road was getting narrower and exposed, and though the edge was often marked with reflectors, I didn’t want to end up in Apache Lake. So I called it a night on the side of the road. I bedded down expecting a nice night of warm desert camping. I got too hot and humid in my sleeping bag after about 5 minutes. I never really got comfortable again. Something kept making noise in the bush beside me and the coyotes made their showing as well. At one point they had a real chorus going. It seemed every coyote in a 20 mile radius joined in. I wished I had a recorder, because it was an interesting sound.

I got up when I couldn’t stand being wet anymore and packed my soaked gear. More dark miles and exposure almost made me wonder why I got up, but the sun cracked over earlier than I expected. I could see the outline of the Roosevelt Dam by the time I reached it.



Sunrise over Roosevelt Lake
Riding along Roosevelt Lake in the early morning has always been a pleasant experience for me. This was my third time along its shores and it did not disappoint. Roosevelt was one of the last places I expected to see cyclists, but I was joined by two roadies, including one wearing my exact University of Arizona jersey. Jon and Susan (I think) provided some great company before dropping me on a climb. I turned off onto dirt to begin climbing to the town of Rye.

More dirt climbing ensued through Cypress Thicket and over Snowstorm Mountain into Payson. I was pretty groggy from the night on the Apache Trail and had some business and regrouping to attend to in town. My cassette lockring had come loose during the night, my camelbak valve had started leaking, and I badly needed to dry my gear. So I hit the bike shop and grocery store on my way through town before stopping at my friend Wayne’s house. While drying my gear I thought about the timing of the rest of the trip and though I could put in a few more hours, it would mean camping and not sleeping again, so I opted to stay in town.



The mighty Matazal Mountains
A true purist wouldn’t stay at friend’s house on a ride like this. Basically what I got from my friends was a shower, a meal and a couch to sleep on (Thanks Wayne!). All these services are readily available to any cyclist since I was in town. I stayed with my friends to 1) save money and 2) visit my friends. If someone were to match my total time without staying with my friends (they take in other AZT cyclists, too), I’d gladly recognize their record. Unfortunately it sets a precedent that might be ‘bent’ into real forms of support, so in hindsight, I shouldn’t have stayed with them if I wanted to keep the ride completely pure. I was also following what I thought were Great Divide Style rules — where a ‘neutral drop’ support system is allowed. Turns out that wasn’t (and shouldn’t be) the intent of a neutral drop.

Wayne and I left early from his house to climb Houston Mesa. He wanted to see the hike-a-bike up to the Mogollon Rim for himself, since he had heard claims of people riding down it. I said, “I don’t think so” and when he got there he convinced himself of it too. It was nice to have Wayne along for an hour or two in the cold morning.



The author, heading towards Washington Park
He turned around when it turned to 100% hike-a-bike. You’ve got to get on the rim somehow, and the Arizona Trail follows an extremely steep powerline trail. It’s a half hour of tough hike-a-bike, but compared to what Lee and I did on the Highline trail, it was just a drop in the hat. It seemed easy. I must say that it is frustrating to take a step onto loose rock only to have your foot slip and fall back to a spot lower than where it stood before.



Hike-a-bike to attain the Mogollon Rim
Once on the rim I enjoyed a brief view and climb to 7800 feet before diving north on quiet forest roads. Dropping into canyons woke me up with frozen air. The climbs provided the warmth I needed.

After crossing paved Forest Road 3, I began a stretch of Arizona Trail I approached with grave apprehension. The bumpy, rock strewn roads here took a serious toll on Lee and I during our trip. One day we only traveled some 40 miles before stopping at Mormon Lake. I started further back today and hoped to make it much, much further than Lee and I did that day. I had no idea if I could actually accomplish this.

I turned off the smooth graded surfaced of FR 82 onto a four wheel drive road. It’s hard for me to describe this road. I used to think I ride some gnarly, rocky roads being that I live in Southern Arizona. This sucker takes the cake, though. It’s essentially flat but it somehow manages to be completely unrideable. When rideable, top speed is about 4 mph, with serious effort.



The impossibly rocky road
It was over none too soon. Then it was on to a confusing jumble of little used forest roads, trails, meadows and cow tanks. Here I benefited from the route finding Lee and I had done this spring. I made no route errors and stopped only to open and close gates. My triceps and kidneys didn’t appreciate the lack of route finding stops. I was getting pounded.



Mogollon Rim meadows


Hawkeye, AZT thru-hiker
On one twisty section of two track I came upon a walker. The AZT thru-hiker identified himself only as Hawkeye. He had a huge booming voice and laugh that’ll knock your socks off. I really enjoyed talking to him and he seemed to be enjoying his time alone on the trail. I have deep respect for anyone that hikes the Arizona Trail. It is one of the more difficult long distance trails. I still don’t quite understand how they are able to carry enough water on some sections of the trail.

South of Mormon Lake I found AZT signs and singletrack where I didn’t expect them. A rule I set forth at the beginning of this ride was that it was always OK to follow official AZT over Andrea’s route since the trail is never faster. [I wanted to leave the option of more singletrack open to future riders, too]. So rather than deal with the route finding on Andrea’s route, I simply hopped on the AZT. It crossed the highway and started winding through trees on a faint path. The trail disappeared altogether, obscured by tank treads and fallen trees. Someone had made a real mess that had obliterated the trail. I hopped over logs and searched for any sign of trail. I rode on bumpy tread tracks for a bit before deciding it was pointless. Just when I was going to turn around to go back to Andrea’s route I found the trail and continued on it until near Bear Park where I took dirt roads into Mormon Lake, back on the route.

Daylight was burning, so I chugged chocolate milk and filled up on water before heading out. Fall was in full effect at Mormon Lake making for some pleasant riding. The sun was setting, but I only had ~25 miles of AZT to Flagstaff. It seemed like the perfect amount of time to allow me to stay a night in town, in a bed. The trail went well to Horse Lake, where it turns into yet another brutally rocky dirt road. Lankford comments on many of the climbs, “The hill isn’t particularly steep or long, but you’ll be glad when it’s over.” I was glad when every hill was over because it was taking a ridiculous amount of effort just to keep rolling.



Singletrack on Anderson Mesa
Road segued into singletrack. Rocks were replaced by cow potholes. It was not a good trade. And it went on for miles. I kept riding, but every second on that trail stretched out into minutes and hours. Looking back at the timing I can’t believe how little time I actually spent on the trail (a little more than an hour). It seemed more like three to me at the time.

Let’s just say I lost my good humor. The target of my rage was readily available. Any time I saw glowing eyes I yelled at them. “STAY OFF THE TRAIL! YOU’RE KILLING ME!” My kidneys couldn’t take much more of this. I tried riding slow, but momentum was my friend. So I pedaled hard to keep my tires from dropping into the holes. Thank goodness for 29″ wheels, but even they were not big enough.

Since I was within 15 miles of Flagstaff I incorrectly assumed this stretch of AZT was heavily ridden and would be easy to follow. Hah. I followed AZT signs around Marshall Lake then after a half mile I ran into a dead-end. I stopped to wonder what went wrong and the panic of not being able to find the trail set in. Under daylight it probably wouldn’t be a problem, but if the AZT was marked with wood posts, not reflective carsonites, I’d have little chance of following it.

I stopped to reload my lights with fresh batteries, hopeful that a bit more ‘throw’ would help me find the trail. I rode cautiously, slowly, backwards to the last AZT sign I saw and didn’t see any trails branching off. So I started exploring side roads and pull outs until I finally saw something reflecting in the distance. There was a gate and an AZT sign.

The gate kept the cows off the trail, but a smooth surfaces was not too be. It was a technical and steep descent. I tried to enjoy it but I was just too tired and every rock hurt. At least it was a good trail. Steep descents alternated with steep climbs until I started the drop into Walnut Canyon. I found myself pivoting around tight switchbacks and cracking small grins.

I had monitored some dark clouds through most of that afternoon. They never approached me, but I now found that they had dropped some rain on Flagstaff and Walnut Canyon. I was too busy making sure I was sticking to the trail to notice the trail surface had turned soft. That is, until my tires starting throwing rocks, sticks and mud at me. Not good.

Route finding was sketchy, at best, into Flagstaff. I had guessed completely wrong on my GPS as to where the trail goes. I rode for a mile without an AZT sign, but it turned out that I was still on it. I crossed under the I-40 bridge then took a right to go through a tunnel under the other side of I-40. I found myself in the middle of a construction zone. The other end of the tunnel was gated and covered with construction signs. There was also a steep drop to get into the tunnel. Well, this was Andrea’s route, so I got off my bike and as I stepped onto the slope thought, “This could be bad.” Though I fully expected to slide, my foot slipped on first contact (mud) and I fell back, grasping my bike for support. I landed on my feet, but it could have been ugly.

I walked through the tunnel, around the gate and onto pavement. 2 minutes later a Taco Bell was in front of me–open 24 hours. Although I don’t often eat beef, I ordered up a steak taco in addition to my usual fare (veggie burritos). I figured I ought to benefit from the destruction that is cattle ranching and I knew I could benefit from the protein, too. A rationalization, at best.

As I ate my steak taco (which was not very good), I saw a Motel 6 sign. I got on my bike and shivered uncontrollably down Route 66. I poured myself a hot bath and fought to stay awake while getting my core temperature back up.

After ~4 hours of solid sleep the alarm on my GPS went off. Timing from here on was critical, and it was imperative that I make it to the south rim of the Grand Canyon if I had any chance of crossing the canyon in a day (I had no permit to camp in the Canyon and doubted that I could get one, either).

So I suited up for sub-freezing temperatures and headed through sleeping Flagstaff towards Buffalo Park. I had real GPS data for the first part of the AZT, so I knew I could navigate it in the dark. The slopes of Elden and the Peaks are home to some of the best mountain biking in Arizona. It was odd to be riding on such heavily used trails. It was also nice to put my technical skills into service. Line selection, line selection. It was all about efficiency and minimal effort; and with that came speed.



Singletrack on the San Francisco Peaks


Fall colors on Snowbowl RD climb
The riding was insanely fun, but my thoughts were clouded in doubt. I had a long ride in front of me, and in my mind the ride didn’t begin until I got off the mountain to start heading north. I’m glad the riding was so good and the fall colors so vibrant, because it took my mind off the doubt. I did a crapload of climbing, up to the frozen ground of Freidline Praire road (8600 ft) before blowing it only to climb back up Snowbowl RD to 9000 ft once again losing it down to Hart Praire Rd. Finally, after 3.5 hours of hard mountain biking, I pointed my tires north and began rolling around the San Franscisco Peaks. I’m going to make you disappear today, little peaks!

The AZT follows the old stagecoach route to the Grand Canyon and it is quite a ride. Long and sinuous, but fast enough dirt that you can make relatively good time. I didn’t make good time,

I flew.

There’s no other way to put it. I got into a rhythm that I’ve never had before. I rolled over ridges, through valleys; watched cows run and clouds whirl. I felt the landscape change with each descent and ascent. It made sense to me.

Every time I looked back the San Francisco Peaks were smaller.

After 70 miles, it’s time to ride singletrack again. The Russell Wash segment features some faint paths, forgotten 2 tracks and a return to pine forests. The real singletrack begins on the Coconino Rim, where I caught my first glimpses of the Grand Canyon. My rhythm continued, broken only by frequent stops for ranch gates (that often are difficult to close).



First glimpse of the Grand Canyon from the Coconino Rim
It was a slow but highly enjoyable 10 miles on the twisty Coconino Rim Trail. At the Grandview lookout tower I crossed the road to begin the Tusayan Bike trail. Lee and I found this to be a frustrating 16 miles of trails and roads that seem to wander aimlessly.

For whatever reason, this time I loved it. The first 4 miles were a rip-roaring descent. I saw my first herds of elk thunder through the forest. No one was out there. I felt the strength in my legs on every climb. I knew I had to savor each and every one of these moments, because this was one of those days when everything comes together and you fly.

In the morning I had my doubts about even reaching Tusayan by late night, but here I was past Tusayan, with the sun still above the horizon. Andrea doesn’t specify a route from Tusayan to the South Rim Village, and of course the Park is designed by cars, for cars, so it’s hard to find your way around. After checking the back-country office (closed) I hightailed it over to the general store in the dark. It’s a full on grocery store, so I was overwhelmed with all the choices. It’s also an outdoors shop, so I took the opportunity to purchase some lightweight hiking shoes and extra straps to secure my bike to my back. I finally got a new nozzle for my leaky camelbak, too. I was the second to last person to check out before the store closed.

I headed over to the Yavapai lodge to get a room and pig out while listening to a chorus of foreign languages. I felt uncomfortable surrounded by so many people after all the solo riding.

The park was empty at 5am. I pedaled slowly along the park bikeways. On the side of the path I shined my headlamp into the eyes of a buck with a big rack. He stood so still that I thought he was fake. Further down I almost crapped my pants when a trash can fell over next to me. A sheepish raccoon jumped out and ran away.

In the shadow of a street lamp I disassembled my bike and attached it to my pack. I’m sure my full pack weighed over 50 pounds, with bike, tools, camping gear, clothes, food and water. How much more than 50 I am not sure. It was difficult to get on and off, to say the least.

Disaster! In the dark I couldn’t find the start of the trail. I looked off the edge in several logical places, but found nothing. The trail was a short walk around the corner by the Mule pens.

I began the descent with my headlamp and felt like I was stepping off into the void. I couldn’t see the bottom of the canyon, let alone the other side. But here went the trail, down, down, down, off into nowhere. The trail is wide, but there was something I did not like about it. A missed step spells disaster, and it happens more often than I wanted to think. I just didn’t feel comfortable in the darkness and with the awkward load of my bike on my back. I was not 100% sure the bike was securely fastened, having just attached it, and I worried about what would happen if a wheel slipped or something.

So I slowed down to allow the earth to rotate into the sun. Fortunately it was not long before I had a tiny bit of light. I started hiking in earnest, taking bigger steps.



Descending the spine of the South Kaibab Trail
I hate water bars. As trail building guru Mark Flint says, “a water bar is an admission of [trail design] failure.” Each one forces you to support your weight fully on one leg, and bend your calf to step down. Halfway down my legs were already tired.

The views and epic trail construction were more than enough to keep me moving. The canyon is just such a unique place. I stepped within two feet of a condor who must have missed his morning coffee. He seemed groggy and completely unwilling to fly away. He just skittered two rocks over as I passed. It’s hard to imagine what a huge bird is like until you get close to one. It was a little freaky, actually. Big talons and huge beak.



California Condor, #41 evidently


Bike on back.
I took my pack off for the first time at Phantom Ranch, after crossing the Colorado River on a foot suspension bridge. I badly wanted a lemonade, but realized I would probably have to take my bike off to get my money out. Before I could even contemplate that, I heard an exclamation of, “No Way!” One of the employees of the ranch was just a little excited to see a bike in the canyon. His energy and enthusiasm was most appreciated. His second or third question was, “dude, do you want a free lemonade?” A cute girl brought out a lemonade that I downed quickly.



The author at Phantom Ranch
I saddled up to begin hiking out of the canyon. For 8 miles the North Kaibab trail wanders along side Bright Angel creek, gaining only a small amount of elevation. The box can be brutally hot, so I made haste to get through it before things heated up. I started running into backpackers with burning questions about why I was carrying a bike across the canyon. I chatted a bit but tried to keep moving.

At cottonwood camp the trail begins the 7 mile monster climb to the North Rim. I stopped for my second five minute break of the day. It was time for lunch. I discovered that the sore spots on my heels were not just sore and rough, they were big blisters. I was shocked, actually, because I don’t blister easily and had duct-taped my heels to avoid them. I built makeshift moleskins out of layers of duct tape.

A backpacker I had just passed came up to me at cottonwood camp and asked, “Are you staying here or going to the rim?” “Up, up, up,” I replied. He said, “you’re crazy” as though he didn’t think I could make it.



Roaring Springs seen from the North Kaibab trail
He might have been right, but the climb started well. The North Rim was technically closed, so the trail was empty. I quickly found that neither of my legs could support my weight on their own, let alone step up high water bars. Using my arms helped, but I tried to walk around the steps as best I could.

I settled into a steady pace, marveling at the amazing place I was immersed in. I kept checking the top of the rim, knowing that it always looks deceptively close. I knew it was a long way off, but I allowed its closeness to motivate me. I thought everything was going to be OK. Just a few more hours of marching and I’d be standing on flat ground.



North Kaibab trail along a cliff. Don’t fall!
I enjoyed this wave of positivity for a few minutes before I felt my biggest blister give way. Warm fluid soaked into my sock. I tried taking two more steps but stumbled to the ground at the unbearable pain. I looked up at the rim and watched the cliffs grow 2000 feet higher in my mind.

I pulled my shoe off and unloaded antibiotic ointment onto my foot. Then I switched to my loose-fitting cycling shoes, though I knew they would further damage my forefoot and numb big toes with their hard soles. They didn’t rub the blisters in the same way the hiking shoes did, so I was able to continue, gingerly.

I made the mistake of pulling my GPS out to check my elevation. 6000 feet was not the number I was looking for. 7000 would have been much better. The rim stands at 8200. I began to despair. I let doubt and negativity seep in. But I kept walking just the same.

It wasn’t long before my legs weakened further. My steps were getting smaller and smaller and there was nothing I could do about it. I wasn’t bonked, dehydrated, sleepy or unmotivated, my muscles and body simply did not have the capacity to do what I was asking of them. I was reduced to baby steps. All I wanted to do was take off my pack and sit down. But my mind was focused on a singular goal: the top.

It was suffering of quality. I reached and pushed through my pre-conceived limit. I knew this when I started thinking, “I’m in over my head” and “this is more than I can take.” But my feet still moved, and occasionally my arms would catch and support me as I faltered. Again, there was that goal, firmly planted in my mind.

Everything else disappeared as I became entombed in my private sanctuary of suffering. The only thing that mattered was the aim, the goal. Who I was, who I knew, what I owned, the state of world–it all became irrelevant. What I experienced was a pure, raw and simple silence. Once I recognized it, the suffering became pleasurable.

“Enjoy the silence.”



Suffering, but almost there
I eventually met my friend Lee Blackwell and attained the rim. When I first took off my pack my shoulders felt so bad that I was worried I had done permanent damage. My legs were so sore that I could only gimp around, so putting my bike back together was a challenge. I didn’t want to think about how sore I’d be later on.

Across the parking lot from the North Kaibab trailhead is an AZT carsonite. All right! One of the few singletrack trails in a National Park that is open to bikes. I was excited to take advantage of this opportunity and see what Lee and I had missed last spring. It was fun for a few miles, but it soon dumped out onto an underground utility road that was littered with deadfall. Smoldering trees from small prescribed burns provided an interesting contrast to the sub-freezing air we were riding through.I was not happy. Each dismount and remount of my bike hurt badly. That is, I could barely do it. Fighting my way through some of the monster trees was a challenge, too. Sometimes I had to go far off the trail to find a passable route. I have no love for the NPS. You’d think with all their resources they could at least keep the AZT clear of trees, or better, build us a nice trail! After all, volunteers (myself included) are busting their butts around the state to build real trail for the AZT.

After 30 or so trees I was losing my patience and realizing that at this pace I wouldn’t even finish the ride today. I made the mistake of underestimating these last ~75 miles to the Utah border.

There was no AZT signage as we approached the park entrance. But I had official GPS data from the trail. Only problem was that after climbing a few hundred feet on a dirt road there was no trail where there was supposed to be. I decided to keep going to the end of the road and sure enough there was a tiny trail through fallen trees. But we were on the National Forest now, and someone had done some major work with the chainsaw.

The Kaibab 101 trail rocks, plain and simple. Unfortunately I wasn’t really in a state to enjoy it. My legs were so drained that I couldn’t climb anything steep. So I walked and each step aggravated my blisters. I was still in baby step mode.



View from East Rim
I reached East Rim view and waited for Lee to catch up while I stared out at the Colorado River and Marble Canyon. His fork wasn’t holding air and his bike was having derailer problems. There was some tension between us becaue I was anxious to get going (and hurting badly) and he was just trying to enjoy his ride. So eventually he let me go and promised to meet me at the Stateline trailhead later in the day. What a great friend. We had hoped to ride out the trail together since it was under 7 feet of snow the last time we were here. But we were in two incompatible modes, so we had to split.

I continued on the trail, loathing almost every climb or rough section. I made calculations based on average speed and mileage remaining and didn’t like what I came up with. But as I rode my legs limbered up and I started to feel less like a cripple.



Typical shot on the Kaibab Trail
I knew some big downhill was coming, but I had to traverse the length of the Kaibab Plateau first, and it’s anything but flat. More trees were down on the trail. Finally I began descending towards Highway 89A. I had been out of water and food for the past 2 hours. The store at Jacob Lake was 2 excruciating miles off route. I had 24 miles, mostly downhill, to the finish, but 95% singletrack–so not fast. While I could have finished without refueling, I realized that if Lee finished the trail and rode back to the North Rim he likely would not reach the Stateline until late in the night or early next morning. I needed food and water to make it through the night.

I grabbed as many candy bars and drinks as I could carry in my arms, much to the amusement of the cashier. I called Paula to tell her I was alive and finishing soon.

The race was on. I had about 2 hours of useable light and 24 miles of singletrack to cover. I pulled energy out of my reserve tank (I didn’t know I had one) since I knew this was the end. Once again, I had an unbelievable rhythm, riding the high of completing an arduous journey. It didn’t hurt that the trail was an absolute blast, either. After so many days of riding I had grown accustomed to how my bike handled, loaded. I can think of few rides I have done where I was more comfortable with the bike. Through the whole Kaibab Plateau I had really let go on some of the downhills. I was becoming adept at letting my rear wheel slide on the pine needles around corners, just enough to stay on the trail and lose as little momentum as possible.

Apparently I was a little too adept, because I rode so fast that I launched my handlebar mount light off my bike. I thought I noticed soon enough to search it out, but I could not find it. Now the race was really on. My headlamp’s battery was not fully charged, while my handlebar light had brand new batteries in it.



Brace for impact, here comes the meadow
As the Kaibab 101 trail descends out of the trees it emerges into a scrub-oak lined meadow. I knew that this was going to be my last ordeal to endure. “Brace for impact.” This spring we found it to be one of the bumpiest, cow destroyed trails I have ever ridden. But this time the cow holes were largely gone. It was still bumpy (shut my GPS off a few times), but with firm pedal strokes I managed to keep my speed above 10 mph. Yee-haw.

The meadow behind me, I settled in for the final 11 miles of singletrack. I desperately wanted to make it to the final switchback descent before the sun disappeared because of the jaw-dropping views of the Vermillion Cliffs that the trail affords.

I rode my best, enjoying an adrenaline rush like no other. It’s a first class trail and I knew this was some of the best riding of my life. Uphill ledges? Technical challenges? No problem, I’m taking no prisoners. Nothing left out there. What a perfect finish to the Arizona Trail.



Rallying the last stretch of singletrack
I missed the views by twenty minutes, so I had to coast down the final switchbacks by headlamp. I crossed the Utah Border at 6:46 pm, 7 days, 8 hours and 16 minutes after I left the barb wire fence at the Mexican border.
I crawled into my sleeping bag and nodded off until Lee pulled up some three hours later.

Stats:

735 miles, including off route miles
~80,000 feet of climbing
Highest day – 140 miles (Oracle to Apache Lake)
Lowest – 23 miles (Grand Canyon)
Highest Elevation – 9,145 ft (Kaibab Plateau)
Lowest Elevation – 1,588 ft (Gila River)

Route:

Biking the Arizona Trail by Andrea Lankford. It should be noted that the route is often not on the actual Arizona Trail. According to the book it is on the trail 40% of the time and on reroutes around wilderness, hike-a-bikes and incomplete sections the rest of the time.

Profile:




Note that I could not collect full resolution GPS data (not enough points in the unit) so the distance on the profile is sorely underestimated).

Map (color corresponds to elevation as above):



(Maps and Profile from TopoFusion software)



Bike, locked and loaded
Mechanical issues:

No flat tires!
Lockring on cassette came loose on the Apache Trail
Fork lost pressure 3-4 times during the trip
Otherwise my bike worked flawlessly.

Sponsors:

None

Thanks:

Paula – unbelievable support and energy. It wouldn’t have been possible without you.
Sher – ride to the start line, whenever I decided I needed it!
BBar & Ann – hospitality & friendship in Oracle.
Wayne & family – hospitality and wonderful Payson living.
Lee – long ride home and being the bigger man to let me go.
Mike C – inspiration and wisdom.
Everyone on the route – the conversations and encouragement, even if it was just a thumbs up from a passing car.
Andrea Lankford – creating an amazing Arizona Trail bike route and publishing it
Arizona Trail Association & Dale Shewalter – vision of the trail

Comments (4)

JeanieMay 10th, 2007 at 2:20 pm

AWESOME STORY! I found this while searching for stories about hiking in the Grand Canyon. I almost didn’t read it but it was far too interesting to quit. I could feel your excitement and your pain. My husband and I are leaving for the Grand Canyon (3rd trip) and planning a hike from the south Kaibab down to the river and back up the Bright Angel. Leaving June 1st and we are PUMPED!

scottMarch 20th, 2008 at 1:15 pm

This story was originally published on the MTBR Passion forum. To see all the comments and discussion there, head to:

http://forums.mtbr.com/showthread.php?t=141838

drewJuly 5th, 2008 at 11:20 am

Thanks for sharing the adventure. I only have one comment: YOU ROCK!

DeathgripDecember 31st, 2013 at 5:25 am

What an incredible trip report. It’s been several years, but I’m happy to have read this. Arizona is NO JOKE! Awesome stuff, thanks for this.

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