Arizona Trail, Trip Reports » Rambling on the Gila


The clouds saved us, as we stood next to Lee Blackwell’s car, unloading bikes and making final bikepacking preparations. The temperature was pushing 100 degrees in Florence, AZ. This is usually the place to go bikepacking in December. A place where sunshine is abundant and winter can be ignored. On this April day, powerful high pressure had brought record heat to Arizona, but we threw our legs over our bikes anyway.

(After all my whining about the cold and rain in last weekend’s True GRIT race in St. George, I couldn’t hardly bail from a trip due to heat. What a complete reversal from shivering hypothermia to stifling heat. But, oh, the clouds.)

We crossed the Florence Casa Grande canal on a small catwalk, pedaling east to the diversion dam construction site. The construction meant no bicycle access, so one goal of the trip was to scout a possible route for the Arizona Trail Race, less than two weeks away. Two minutes in I was reaching for water, my mouth already dry. Not a good sign. It’s too early in the year for heat like this.

We found ourselves face to face with a barb wire fence. But so had ATV riders before us. They had blazed a path around the construction, one that sort of worked and sort of didn’t.

We wandered around the desert, pushed bikes up stupid steep hills, and finally punched through to familiar ground. Dark caverns of salt cedars and piney trees along the south bank of the Gila River further shielded us from the sun as we made our way toward the promised land: Area 52.

We are getting closer to ‘the place’ now, and excitement is building. The sun is scorching us, but I’m completely ignoring it.

My mind is instead focused on the rock, and transfixed by this strange world, so familiar and so foreign.

If anything, the unnatural heat adds to the otherworldly feel, the uniqueness of the place and especially the moment.

The pedaling is hard, the route and lines never certain, just the way mountain biking is meant to be.

Through the white marbles, to sherbet land, up the windswept ridgeline, around the anvil, the keyhole; it’s amazing there exists a route through all of it.

three amigos

Shadows are growing quickly, our core temperatures are rising even faster.

photo by Chad Brown

Can’t resist a few side lines.

photo by Chad Brown

Deep in the waterfall canyon, we finally reach shade, but the rock radiates heat in all directions. We exit the mesa via a small chute, feet and tires sliding, hopefully not simultaneously.

A route error, or at least lapse in judgment has us climbing the difficult-to-crack slopes of the east mesa. It’s beautiful, but we aren’t riding much.

While exploring a spurious shelf, above the wash we should have followed out to Area 52’s exit, I hear a girlish scream. The first one is real, the next twenty are classic Chad overstatement. A healthy rattlesnake is absorbing the last rays of ninety degree heat, perched on the edge of the cliff and right in Chad’s line.

Chad leads the east mesa descent and together we absolutely nail it, half regretting several of the moves we find ourselves committed to. Only the last layer requires a dismount and forceful drop against palo verde and creosote.

Even as the sun drops to the horizon, the clouds are a blessing. They are blocking the sun, and leading to…

It was as if someone exploded a nuke behind South Butte. The sky is afire.

I contemplate which is more brilliant, the sunset behind my shoulder, or the Area 52 riding and the whole experience, of being here, now. It’s not possible to know. I’m just happy to be alive, to be here, now.

We climb a broken two track, along sweeping ridgelines, with fading views of the gnarled terrain that is Martinez and Battle Axe, across the river. Progress is slow, having to turn and watch the sky’s fiery progression. It’s cooler, but the coming of night is deceptive. A relief, for certain, but occasionally my head still feels hot, like something is wrong. It’s 90 degrees out.

chad brown is no longer in show room condition, and lee is looking pretty wild eyed as well

“It’s so freaking hot,” says Chad, having already stripped off his helmet and jersey. Funny that the first time any of us uttered a complaint against the heat was a while after sunset. The darkness was signaling our winter minds that it should now be cool, even though it’s not. A little break was all we needed to drop the core temperature a few degrees.

Subway sandwiches are pulled out and devoured, treats passed around and laughter is increasing at a rate directly proportional to the increasing ribbing and insults. We flip on the lights and continue the ride.

Lee and Chad are now entities defined only by the halo of their lights, ducking and diving in and out of washes up ahead. When bikepacking you can truly ride into the night, with no known destination or duration. The temperatures are at last pleasant, and I’m pinching myself that I get to be out here, experiencing the video-game-like thrills of pedaling a bike in the dark, on a perfect night. I’m wondering why we don’t do this more often. I’m remembering that to get here, now, a lot had to come before. A lot in life, and some hot hours on the bike too. Humans are such fragile creatures when it comes to temperature that it’s either nice during the day or nice at night, but very rarely both. Suffer through the bad, enjoy the rest.

We’ve blown through a few gallons of water between the three of us, so our thoughts turn to resupply. They also turn to ways to cut our intended route short. We don’t much like our chances against 14 hours of sunlight the next day.

Lee and I listen patiently to Chad’s semi-heatstroke induced ravings about water sources he knows about ahead on the trail, but don’t ever really understand what he’s talking about. We pedal until we reach a dry cattle trough, but we can’t figure out how to get water out of it. We make the wise call to throw out the sleeping bags for the night. It’s 9pm.

The night is warm, and the breeze is welcome because it’s just a hair too warm to be inside a 1 pound sleeping bag. I never even zip up my bag all night, and sleep well. Chad is rousing around at some point in the night, saying a critter is moving around and pulling at his pack. I’m so out of it that I only mumble “critter? no, no critters” and drift back to sleep.

I’m wide awake at first light, watching the layered tapestry that I only need to open my eyes to see. Pre-sunrise color is gracing parts of the patchwork, and the clouds are moving fast. Or maybe my mind is moving slow. It’s hard not to smile periodically, waking up where I am, and knowing that good riding is in store just minutes away.

Daylight reveals a second cattle trough, full of water and practically right under our noses. After filtering a little, Chad hits the right combination of switches and water comes blasting out of the spigot.

Now, let’s go find some singletrack.

Dropping towards Ripsey’s ‘big hill’ I notice I’ve got rhythm and the feel of the bike that usually takes days to find.

I brought my “Behemoth”, which weighs 33 pounds unloaded. But the weight has disappeared and the ability to lean and carve the bike is most welcome. I love the way the bike handles loaded.

Chad demonstrates the proper technique for turning a loaded bike 180 degrees, on a dime.

He continues on, cleaning the south side switchback series, which I’ve never seen done before. The exclamations and giggles of disbelief only get louder with each turn he clears.

I’ve never ridden Ripsey with such speed before. Never really been here with fresh legs either.

For whatever reason, I’m bordering on the edge of hyper, super excited just to be out on the bike, and especially in a place like this.

photo by Lee Blackwell

Pedaling in earnest, deliberate and exaggerated movements, leaning hard, carrying momentum, swooping, careful and quick reading of the trail. Oh yeah!

Citrus refreshment — combined with Trader Joe’s dark chocolate courtesy of Chad, the perfect ridgeline treat and the best food I ate all trip.

The views are big on Ripsey’s ridge, but there are interesting things nearby too.

Gila Monster!

Ripsey’s descent is a megaton switchback attack,

full of many twists and surprises.

There’s new trail at the end of Ripsey. It’s always a treat to sample new Arizona Trail, and this section was very well done.

My legs are yelling at me, “GO!”, when we turn to climb Florence Kelvin Highway. I listen, and it feels good. 1400 feet of climbing disappear beneath my wheels.

The three of us snake along yet another ridgeline, with killer views and even better riding.

We rally each other, surge up hills, coast the flats, float off ledges. It sure doesn’t feel like we are bikepacking, this is just mountain biking, and really good mountain biking at that. I’m in awe that a two track can be this much fun.

Our tires roll from sand to rock, pedaling up the standard ramp to Area 52. This will be a short tour this time, with the day getting warm and the mesa blocking our cooling headwind.

The heat almost makes us regret trying to clean the “toilet tube” climb, especially when we fail at it. But there’s more rock above, and even a couple drops to try to stay upright on in the ripping wind. A most welcome return to 52, however brief it may be.

We pedal once again along the river’s bank, when Chad has a genius idea — cool off by soaking in the river. The stop took the sting out of the return ride through the ATV path and the canal’s banality.

I snapped my fork’s spring in two on one of the last ledgey descents off Area 52. Luckily Chad had a shock pump of sorts, so I was able to air up the other side such that more than 2 inches of stanchion was showing.

Unfortunately we could not find a proper connection on the north side of the canal, forcing even more out-of-the-way miles for a possible AZTR/AZT 300 route. The construction on the dam is quite extensive, and it seems access even after construction is seriously in doubt. We found a route, but it’s not the greatest. The race will instead feature Ripsey and head to the north side of the river, a route that is pretty exciting in itself.

We wrapped up the trip with Gyros/greek salad/fries and beers(Chad/Lee) in Florence. Couldn’t have asked for a better weekend, or a better crew to spend it with. Thanks guys.

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