This is the tale of how two bikepackers found themselves staring into the Grand Canyon. Except that they couldn’t see the Grand Canyon. They couldn’t see further than a hundred feet, through the blizzard and through the fog.
They had pedaled and pushed their bikes some 650 miles to get there, over mountain ranges, through desert and forest. It was a beautiful day, right until they rolled up to the Bright Angel trailhead, to disassemble bikes and transform from biker to hiker. Then the snow fell and the wind snarled.
And they realized they didn’t have any rain gear. Or a tent. But they did have yellow vinyl ponchos, purchased minutes earlier. What could go wrong?
Montezuma Pass, where most AZT journeys begin
You see, it had been an extremely dry winter. Arizona had hardly seen a drop of moisture for months. The bikepackers were more concerned with heat than cold and moisture. The long term forecast held zero chance of rain. They could always pick up rain gear along the way, they reasoned. Even the overly cautious and conservative Grand Canyon ranger, who made them sign a form stating that what they were attempting was “not recommended”, was skeptical they’d even see a drop, despite the forecast.
But how did they get there? Well, one of them has been organizing an informal race on the Arizona Trail for some years. He had planned to race this year, but as the winter went on the idea of touring started to look more attractive. He really wanted to put fresh tracks on the northern portion of the route, and he really wanted to show “the trail” to the other bikepacker. The other bikepacker, his love, was in full-on touring and “see the world” mode. What better way to see Arizona? She was easily convinced to join, even with short notice.
And so, we aired up our Panaracer Rampage tires, added a few pieces of ‘long trip’ gear to our kits, and posted to Facebook looking for a ride to the border. A kind and complete stranger volunteered to come fetch us from a Mi Ranchito breakfast (thanks Tony Clemente!). I love the mountain bike community and how people are always willing to give back and help others.
a better place to start an AZT thru-ride?
I had ridden the traditional start to the 750 twice last spring. It always feels so unnecessarily rushed to me. Parker Lake is where the action begins, and where I’m used to starting the adventure.
Instead I cooked up a GPS track I called “border boogie.gpx” that eliminated the out/back to the border, and maybe saved a little bit of climbing. I was hoping we’d find a border obelisk (as above) to officially call the start of our journey, since the official AZT (closed to bikes) starts at one. The border road was beautiful, and held a few stinger climbs.
We were soon into the fray, sparring with the Canelo Hills.
I’ve always wanted to stop at the first creek — Parker Creek. No chance it’ll happen on a race effort, but then we aren’t racing!
I also knowingly made the rookie mistake of bringing brand new custom insoles along, and they were already hurting my feet. Perfect excuse to dip the tootsies in the creek and enjoy the beautiful setting.
Yes, the Canelos have their own special brand of rugged beauty. I rather enjoy riding them, as long as it’s on no more than a yearly basis. I especially loved them in tour mode and with only minimal tire paranoia. Slice a tire? Big deal. Fix and move on, maybe seek a new one in Tucson. Steep climb? Big deal. Dig into the pedals and crank it out. Pacing is for suckers. Get hot? Take a break in the shade. Need water? Go search it out from one of many sources. Or, bonus – find half a gallon with your names on it, mysteriously left for us! Trail magic.
We weren’t racing, but we were on a bit of schedule since I needed to be back in time for the AZT race. Neither of us could completely remove ourselves from expectations of what ‘good time’ means, and from comparisons to racing. We told ourselves we would try to move quickly and skip sections of the 300 if needed, and stick with the trail up north.
So even with a late start, it was a little unnerving to our race-brains when the sun set before Patagonia. I was happy with the idea of camping in the Canelos. But I was also tiring out, not yet 100% over my cold and lacking quality sleep going into it.
The clincher on our decision to push on was, of course, the great Velvet Elvis Pizza. I have insulted the pizza gods far too many times, riding right by it, despite the Canelo sized hole in my stomach. It was time to right that wrong. It’s such a unique restaurant, and the “Poncho Villa” Pizza with root beer float was divine.
Had there been trail out of town we could ride out to camp on, I think we would have. But neither of us fancied a dark highway. So we grabbed a room and stayed up too late watching bad TV. It was a nice parallel to last year when I also got a room in Patagonia, spent a sleepless night with a revolting stomach, and strongly considered continuing on in tour mode. One thing was missing, though — Ez! Now, here I was, back in tour mode, and with the best tour partner I could imagine!
As I laid in bed I was pretty sure I’d made a big mistake with the insoles. A detour back home for my old and blown out ones seemed likely. Oh well.
stellar views of Mt. Wrightson from Hog Canyon
I love waking up in a trail town, wandering out in the early morning to find a big breakfast, then hitting the trail. Gathering Grounds is one of the best stops on the whole AZT. We scored a bunch of hot calories, and homemade pastries to go.
We exercised our touring privilege to take a small shortcut on the race route. Hog Canyon is a wonderful climb, and a much more logical connection back to the AZT. Too bad the signs at the mouth of the canyon are vaguely prohibitive. I *think* it’s fine to pass through there, but can’t feel good about directing dozens to do so without explicit permission. I would love to change the AZTR route.
As soon as we merged back onto the AZT we kept our eyes peeled for Sirena. She’s out on her AZT Trek thru-hike, hiking and promoting the trail in gateway communities all along the way. Everyone we saw out on the trail was talking about Sirena and asking if we had seen her. It was great to see how many people she was getting out on the trail! Check out the AZT Trek link for more events and the chance to hike with her. There are still plenty of opportunities to join in on the AZT party with her, and they all seem to feature lots of good food and tons of AZT stoke.
We sat down at the creek to dip my achy feet and sample tasty delights from Gathering Grounds, hoping we’d give Sirena a little more time to finish the Wilderness portion of the Santa Ritas. But eventually we decided the AZT wasn’t going to ride itself, so we better get to it.
Much of the trail near Kentucky Camp practically does ride itself.
Though somebody has to stop and open all the gates! We kept a daily gate total, just for kicks, one that Eszter reported on ‘the facebook.’ We haven’t yet gone back through to come up with a Grand Total yet, but it’s a big number. It was fun to exclaim the current number any time we caught sight of one. “Seven!!!”
Spring has so many phases in southern Arizona that it’s hard to keep track.
This was an early start for an AZT thru-trip, and we got to see some unique plants and flowers.
John Paul hiked here from Mexico. He said his legs were “no good” today, so he was resting up. It’s always fun to see thru-hikers.
On to Las Colinas! There’s good riding to be found out there.
I always think it’s going quickly, then the last mile comes and reminds you the Colinas reputation is well deserved.
Trail name: Hasnohorse. He seemed perfectly at peace on the trail, and seemed to really know what he was doing. He was also jealous of our bikes, currently sitting in a wide corner and on very smooth trail.
Yeah! Trail like that! The Cienega corridor! 30 miles of singletrack, all built by volunteers starting in massive project in 2004. Many mountain bikers contributed to this section of trail, and I have so many memories tied up in it. Lots of early Wednesday mornings meeting Bernie and the Flintman to lay out the next piece. On weekends we had volunteer groups 80 strong show up — more people than we could manage at times. I remember the pieces of trail I hastily laid out when the crews built more than we expected. I remember all the bureaucratic push and shove that ended up scrapping pieces we had built already.
And now, there is a continuous line of singletrack where before there was none. When I toured the AZT in 2005 with Lee Blackwell, we had to ride the highway through here.
Stopping for a shade and carrot cake break in the culvert under Hwy 83. There’s a fun techy move that is no longer on the trail, once ADOT forced us to use the culvert rather than an “at grade” crossing at Sahuarita.
Golden hour was taken in from the seat of our bicycles, winding in and around Colossal Cave.
No better place to be, as far as we were concerned. We hoped to camp at La Sevilla, but found it pretty jammed with people, including two fellow bikepackers, Dave and Yuri. Through ‘the facebook’ we had pieced together whose tracks we had been following, and who had left us the water at Canelo Pass, finally catching up to them at the campground. They had a similar idea to us — ride the pieces they wanted to, skip what they didn’t, though they only had time for the 300.
We rolled up ‘my’ section of trail to the pass overlooking the Rincon Valley, then called it a night.
The morning was cold, as they always seem to be in the Rincon Valley. But the singletrack is sweet. Rincon Market called us for breakfast!
It was a pleasant morning for a bike ride, as we waved to many a roadie riding predictably early. Then we took some neighborhood trails en route to Redington.
While cruising along, we broached the subject of Oracle Ridge. Eszter had no interest in riding it. I enjoy it in a sick and twisted way, but have done it enough in recent years, so I didn’t have my heart set on it. When it was clear we weren’t going to do it, I started thinking “why climb Lemmon at all?” Why climb up just to descend a dirt road? I offered the idea of taking the San Pedro valley around to Oracle, thinking myself clever. Eszter had already thought of it, even though she’d never been back there, but wasn’t brave enough to suggest it.
Seemed like a good idea to me!
We stuck on the route through the 4×4 extravaganza. I love the challenge of having to choose your line. I also love catching air off rock ledges.
Instead of continuing with the extravaganza, we took the singletrack to the giant disco-ball tree, continuing up the drainage towards the AZT. This is another connection I would love to add to the route, as it is much more in character with the AZT.
At the end of the drainage we found the tank rapidly filling itself, and spraying water out the bullet holes. Shower time! It was a much needed opportunity to cool off.
Life is good when you have a red velvet cupcake on board.
We joined the AZT for a few short miles before jumping on Redington Rd for less familiar country.
We talked a lot about the perceptions of touring and racing, of tracking and not being tracking. I asked myself, what kind of example am I setting by skipping sections of the trail, of the race route? After all, I am putting forth the implied expectation that people in the race ride sections like Oracle Ridge. When you’re racing you can’t just skip stuff because you come up with a better idea.
I quickly realized that, if anything, I was setting a very good example. More people should get out and tour the Arizona Trail, and do whatever they want! The race is just an arbitrary route that some nutcase dreamed up. It’s awesome that the race gets so many people out on the trail, and out pushing limits. But more people should tour than do now. More people should eat pizza at Velvet Elvis, and stop to dip their feet in the creeks, stop to chat with thru-hikers.
And unexpected route changes can lead you to places like this! After descending endlessly from Redington to Ez’s exclamations of “it’s so BIG out here!”, we dropped down big saguaro hill, which is just above river level. We then turned north to push into the wind. It was hot and dry, but San Manuel wasn’t all that far, where cold drinks awaited.
I still find it odd that they paved Webb Road. Made for a pleasant climb for us.
We had enough time to jump back on the trail in Oracle State Park. I rarely get to ride out here, so it was a real treat. We rode trail because we wanted to, and because it was fun. And that is pretty much the whole point of the trip.
We also ate huge plates of Mexican food at Casa Rivera because we wanted to. Oh, the taco tour is living up to its name! The A-frame Chalet in Oracle is one of the cheapest and best motels on the trail (ask for the thru-rider discount!).
We were through the first few days of the trip, making good time (almost too good?) and hitting our stride. The Black Hills and Ripsey are next! Thanks for reading along.
March is Gila season, for so many reasons.
All winter is good out there, but in March the days are long, the nights warm, and the desert alive.
Cat was in town, and though we had just done a ~24 hour Gila bikepack with Alexis, it was time to head back out!
This time I threw a little twist into it, turning off the AZT to climb up a sandy wash.
Why ride up a sandy wash? So we can push bikes up a steep and rutted road, of course!
When roads take you places like this, who cares what shape they are in.
Down into Walnut Canyon we go.
So we can carry our bikes up the (flowing!) canyon, of course! Why else?
It was funny to see how Cat really lit up when we started going ‘off piste’ to bushwhack up the creekbed.
The goal, of course, was the fountain of youth for the Gila. The artesian well, the bubbly spring. Some have doubted its existence!
Nobody doubts that the Gila is all about climbing. Whether trail or road, you better have some legs.
The evening was upon us, and it was exactly where we wanted to be.
We climbed a few hills into the setting sun, ending up just above the seep. A wet camp, in Gila country. How fortunate.
What did I say about not doubting the climbs? Time to climb away!
There’s so much to distract you, sometimes it doesn’t feel like climbing at all.
Cathedrals of rock.
Wending our way into the inner canyon.
Cat had the quote of the trip, “when I die, I want to go here.” This led to me realizing the Gila really is bikepacker’s heaven. There’s so much here.
We blasted down to Picketpost, narrowly avoiding our first rattlesnake of the year. It was a big one that slithered back into its hole after I passed by.
We had the brilliant idea to make an ice cream run in Superior, completely enabled by the fact that Eszter had brought her wallet, while neither Cat or I had any money. Dairy Queen is long closed, but we heard rumors of an actual ice cream shop in the old downtown area.
So we bailed on plans to return on Orphan Boy / AZT, instead riding the LOST trail into town. We pedaled slowly through town, as it always is, climbing into Superior with thirsty lips and tired legs. Our fingers were crossed, hoping the ice cream rumors were true. We asked about and were directed to continue climbing.
Sweet! It exists. But the local said the hours were funny, she didn’t think it would be open.
More crossing of fingers, we climbed still more, spying every burnt out and boarded up building, searching for signs of frozen dairy delight. Finally the small shop came into view, and it was lit up. It’s open! There was much rejoicing, much hollering. Then Eszter saw something as we parked our bikes. “Cash only??? OH NO!”
I didn’t get it at first. No biggie, just go get cash. Oh, she only has a credit card! No cash back. But, but… we give them card, they give us yum yum. That’s how it’s supposed to work!
The people outside the ice cream shop witnessed quite the scene, as three bikepackers were nearly brought to tears. The anticipation, the build up, the suspense, the elation when we found it open. Our salivary glands had already activated in anticipation. And then to have it so cruelly whisked away!
Oh, it was heart breaking.
I mean, we almost died rolling 2 blocks down the street, picking up ice cream sandwiches from the market, where Eszter’s money was good. Yum yum.
Now there was just the small detail of a few 10% hills to climb before bombing down to Kelvin, where a Sportsvan was waiting to take us to La Casita, for good grub. We corrected the imbalance in the bikepacking universe caused by the ‘cash only’ sign by getting more ice cream at the Casita. Balance restored.
Camp Cat, as we affectionately called Cat’s visit, had other rides on it, too. Some I skipped for computer time.
It’s a good thing I didn’t skip this one.
Camp Cat transitioned to Camp Tucson, where some friends from all over got together for a little desert riding and AZT prep.
Our house was packed, and it was great to see friends, great to show them our corner of the world. But I came down with a cold just as camp was getting going. I got dropped straight away on Redington, spending the rest of the time dribbling through it. I had to skip the next two days rides, and spend a few awkward nights sick with a full house. I loved hearing all the stories from the rides, especially over tacos at the Ranchito.
Luckily it was just a small cold, so I was back at it for the Techy Taco ride. We ended up at the Lunch Rock early (instead of our usual time — right at sunset).
We wandered around the CP/Deer Camp area looking for new lines. Lots of promise, few actual fun and rideable lines. Such as the above sequence scouted and ridden by Tim.
Lower down, some more new fun.
Domes and bikes, a winning combo.
Tim had to boogie, Chad and I decided to climb CP to go ride Baby J.
At the top, we decided we had enough daylight to try Buddha. I had the GPX on my handlebars, waiting for such an occasion. I also had a surprisingly good memory of many of the features on it.
We kept the fumbling around to a minimum, and were quickly down and to the goods.
Buddha was shown to me by Louis Gomez some years ago. A brilliant find and combo of open rock, game and cow trails.
This area is the highlight. A huge swath of rock visible throughout the 50.
Complete with halfpipe, set to a Samaniego backdrop.
There’s a drop at the bottom I came oh-so-close to riding on my old bike, some years ago. With the “Lunchbox” I nailed it. Measurable progress, yeah!
We had just enough daylight to rejoin Buddha’s counterpart, Baby Jesus, and rip down it, on out to burritos.
Four new Rampage tires arrived by mail. It was time to switch into full AZT prep mode. Just a couple days to wrap everything up on the computer, air up tires, pack up the kits, and go ride singletrack across the state! Excitement level high! AZT trip report is up next!!!
More choice moments frozen in time, a midst a busy time.
Mental health hour at Starr Pass. Just about every other hour was on the computer the weekend of Iditarod and the San Felipe 250. Endurance programming, complete with sleep deprivation. Running events is, in many ways, more exhausting than participating in them!
I went for a run on a whim, for this day’s half hour of mental health.
I had a feeling the sky painters were scheming, and I took the camera, just for kicks.
Running up the hill to the trails I knew it was going to be good. Never had such a good reason to run fast — get up high where I can see it all!
Just ridiculous. Best run ever. Laughing and spinning around, spattered by rain, tripping over rocks, what a world we live in.
Periods of busy are OK as long as you course correct the other direction. Straighten out the boat, get your bearings.
Straighten it out by finding ways to un-straighten your bike, relative to the earth.
“Dunk, dunk, dunk, through the chunk!” says Chad.
That ‘up’ is right at the limit of what we can do, esp. with the steep and limited run in.
Don’t look off the edge.
One of the coolest rock formations I’ve seen at the 50. A giant plate that somehow elevated and cracked.
The sun signals it’s time to head back east, past the lunch rock and on out.
Oh, yes. Course corrected.
Even better for course correction – a night out on the bikes. Picketpost AZT!
Flowers can be found!
Springtime is *the* time on the AZT.
It was the first bikepack for Alexis. Always cool to see more people getting into it.
So why not take her on Orphan Boy! Actually going down it’s a piece of cake.
That still remains just above the Box.
We ate Chipotle burritos as the sun set, in a saddle between Martinez and Box Canyons. One of the best places to wake up in, period.
Solid rock roads for breakfast.
Gila Canyons for lunch.
Greens for salad.
I thought this guy was dead, he was so brown and frail looking. He was perfectly still while I took this macro shot, camera ~2cm from him. Then I brushed him with a stick and he moved!
Alexis wins for team photo points in her matching red kit. We win for getting to ride the inner canyon on a perfect day.
The girls made fun of me for running down the trail to snap photos in the best flower spot we saw, overlooking Picketpost. I’m OK with that.
The greek food in Florence is top notch. Overshadowed only by the riding, weather and trip at large. More please!
We’ve got a plan for the next few weeks. It’s one of the best plans possible: Ride the Arizona Trail!
While I knew that I needed to get out on ‘the trail’ this spring, things were not quite right for a full bore race attempt. A growing tracking business stole much of my focus, and riding was turning more to touring and maximizing enjoyment vs. going ZOOM! Getting a cold and having to sit out Camp Tucson was the final straw. “Hey Eszter, why don’t we tour the AZT?” “Sure, let’s do it!”
So that’s what we’re going to do. We’ll be tracking on the AZTR tracker:
We have the deadline of being back in Tucson just before the AZTR starts (April 11), so I can organize SPOTs, answer frantic emails, give people floor space to crash on and a ride to Parker Lake. That gives us not quite 3 weeks. A solid vacation, ah. Feels like I’ve earned it.
The last couple months have been a blur. I’m generally not a fan of feeling busy, but work does that sometimes. And I’ve been riding a lot, too. I guess if I cut riding out, I’d have plenty of time to relax. But that’s not going to happen while I’m still the boss.
Here are some moments when the blur came in focus, however briefly.
AZT reroute layout, day 2. I had about 24 hours after getting off ‘the Camino’ to catch up on the computer, go on an ice cream date with Ez, and then get packed for most of a week in Kearny, AZ.
It was a project that I did not have time for, but absolutely could not say “no” to, either. And so I got to fumble around on steep slopes, look good for drainage crossings, look for good turning platforms.
More than anything, I got to be outside all day and on Ripsey Ridges’s northern flank. That was the best part.
I’m quite happy with how the trail turned out. I think it’s going to have a ‘Gila Canyons’ type feel, with Ripsey scenery. I do quite enjoy the old ‘switchback attack’ descent off Ripsey, but this one will be even better. As to when it actually will get built, I don’t know. But I’ll look forward to it, even if it does mean the old trail gets buried by mine tailings. All I really know is there isn’t an immediate plan to start that process, and it could still be 10 years off.
I always enjoy work that isn’t at the computer, since sometimes the computer can feel like you’re just reorganizing bits. It was fun to get up early, hit the trail early, and come back to Kearny tired from a good day’s work. We checked in at the General Inn, where the hotel registration is at the bar, at the same time as a number of other 3-4 person ‘crews’, all likely doing something related to the mine. We were all ready for dinner, and ready to kick off the boots in the motel room.
It didn’t really pan out that way for me, though. I got a big dinner, and even got to talk some AZT with the pizza owner. But at the hotel it was frantic email and tracker negotiation every evening. I don’t recommend trying to do two jobs at the same time.
Unless your other job is riding your bike. This worker can’t take an entire wakeful day on the computer, no matter how much chaos exists on the computer and how much I might care about it. That’s what the local trails for. The rockier and rowdier the better.
Yep, that’ll do.
Once Iron Dog settled down enough, I was able to join the rest of Southwest Trails for a final day on the Ripsey Reroute. It was great to have Mark Flint out for this one.
We had to scrap a few ideas on the final drop to the Gila River, but it all worked out beautifully in the end.
Eszter grew impatient with my endless time on the computer, or on the trail. I did too. I tried to advertise well in advance that it was to be a busy time, but even I didn’t realize just how busy it would get. I tried to satiate with some local adventures, like these new northside Tortolita roads to explore.
Just because someone rode something and posted it to Strava doesn’t mean it ‘goes.’ Ooops.
The back track resulted in us ripping down Primo as the sun chased us to Rancho Vistoso. With some tail wind, we were able to win that most excellent race.
Even if you find intriguing dead saguaros on your local loops,
and even if you find gorgeous evening light, it’s just not enough. The heart yearns for more.
How about a big day on the bike, mostly new to Ez? Time to loop around the Santa Ritas, a yearly tradition and always a good beatdown.
Up Box Canyon.
And to the wide open views of the Arizona Trail.
These little guys were everywhere. People were not. We ran into one thru-hiker, and that’s it.
I never in a million years would have expected Arizona to be like this.
The flume is a good way to travel. A rare piece of contour AZT.
We decided to try Hog Canyon, which proved a great connection, despite the stench of dead cow. There was a friendly rancher at the key spot where the ranch has the gates unlocked but marked “no trespassing”. He came over and opened the gate for us! That was the best possible outcome of encountering a rancher with dog, right at a no trespass sign. It was also the one I least expected.
It was smooth sailing to Patagonia, but not as smooth in town. Gathering Grounds was closed due to emergency plumbing issues. The fudge at “Ovens of Patagonia” was a nice consolation, but the slow mexican food at the cafe down the street got a little tiresome. I was aching to get back on the trail, even though there really was no hurry. The food was delicious, too. Taco tour!
I love the western side of the Santa Ritas. It’s the old route of the AZT 300. One of the most quiet and peaceful places I know of. Except that after you hit the forest boundary and turn onto Bull Springs road, it may be quiet, but the gazillion baby head rocks make it anything but peaceful.
Much to my delight, Bull Springs was graded and upgraded. The spot in the above photo is right where Kurt Refsnider sliced a tire in an early edition of the 300. You’d have to really try to slice a tire out there now.
Instead of baby head brutality, there are dozens and dozens of table top jumps (erosion control bars). Drop the saddle and try to keep it on the road on the landings, OH YEAH!
I knew there would be nothing smooth about the rest of the route. Elephant Head is not the remover of obstacles, but the bringer.
It’s a gorgeous route, put even better with falling light and the headspace only a big day on the bike can bring you to.
“Wow, is this for real?”
It is, just barely. Seeing Elephant Head under crimson red meant we would ride around it, on the final miles of singletrack, in the dark. Perhaps the best moment, when the blur truly froze and became real, was when we sat down and gazed up at it in the moonlight, fudge in the belly, before continuing on into the night.
A brief program note / reminder first. Camp Tucson is this weekend. Come on out and ride.
Back in 2006, somehow Lee Blackwell and I convinced ourselves that riding the Camino Diablo was a good idea. I think the Pugsley fatbike was in its infancy, and of course Mike Curiak and other AK superheroes had their own fatbikes, but we did not. I spoke to a Game and Fish officer who told me that the roads are so sandy out on the Camino that sometimes he feels like getting out of his truck and setting it on fire. Arranging shuttle logistics with a friend led to us doing the ride supported, which was probably a good call at the time. With regular tires and no bikepacking gear, we walked some, but squeaked on by.
I always wanted to return and ride unsupported. More than anything I wanted to return, because it’s a place that captures the imagination like no other.
Now 2014, Eszter and I had fatbikes collecting dust. I saw a small window in an otherwise hectic event schedule, and we went for it. It was time to get some fresh dust — no, sand — on these bikes!
twisted arms in the growler mnts
An early start was not to be after a slow cut of my tether to the computer, driving to Ajo and obtaining permits from the Game and Fish office. The nice lady at the counter asked us if our mothers knew what we were doing. Mine didn’t — mostly because I hadn’t had time to check in or even mention our somewhat last minute trip. It was clear that they only ever issue permits to people touring the road by motorized transport, so they weren’t quite sure what to make of us.
border patrol outpost
The Camino runs right along the Mexican border, which means smuggling and trafficking “may” be encountered — in the same way that other illegal acts “may” be encountered anywhere else in the world. The border patrol would be the only other people we would encounter out on the Camino.
Which is to say, it was delightfully empty.
We rode straight into the deep orange of the falling sun.
Through curious groves of thick vegetation, in an otherwise desolate land.
A place where very little evidence of man can be found. There are no cattle guards, no powerlines, no radio towers, no fences. Just a sandy ‘trail’ that had been there for centuries. Oh, and some temporary airstrip pieces used to shore up the road in the sand!
And the occasional panic button. I’ll wager that the agents that arrive will be pointing something other than a gallon jug at weary crossers, though.
We rode on into the night, enjoying what seemed to be an endless twilight. The road had been bladed flat by the border patrol, meaning the surface was super consistent. We could ride without lights, even in the sand.
Diving into micro-washes, we’d be overwhelmed by the fragrance of desert flowers. It was unmistakable.
A border patrol agent came by as we were about to nod off to sleep. I asked him if we were at a good spot to camp. He thought so, and seemed to be more concerned about the real danger of the borderlands: agents driving like idiots (his words). He told us there was a shift change in the AM, but if we could get 10 miles down the road, we’d avoid it. That was good advice, though every agent we encountered was driving quite slow. In fact, we overtook them sometimes.
Sleep was not deep, but it never is on the first night of a bikepack, and with minimal gear. A nice night out, no doubt.
We hit the playa in the morning. In 2006 I had encountered silt beds and very fine dust here — the kind of dust that permeates everything. It is no place to be when it rains, but rain had been kind to it for us — no dust and easy sailing.
It finally started to get a little sandy as we crossed the Tule desert. I was getting anxious for some real sand to put my huge tires to the test.
The northern extent of the Pinacate lava flow makes for some bumpy riding on a rigid fat bike, and one of few places you can travel without leaving obvious tracks.
Flowers were blooming in full force, explaining part of the wonderful fragrance we were hitting in the washes the previous night. Quite surprising given how dry winter had been. All thanks to December rains.
Alrighty, here comes some real sand, approaching the Cabeza Prieta Mountains. No challenge at all on Lou and Bud tires.
Eszter’s smaller tires seemed just as up to the task. Mine were overkill. I’d accelerate away from her in the deepest pits, but she was running a speed or so faster than me on the “climbs.” I blamed it on the giant tires, but she’s also just so strong!
I was more than ready for lunch when we reached Tule Well. It had been a nearly undetectable but very long climb, and I was still getting used to the Spiderflex saddle (more on that later).
I shouted in joy as I found the tortillas that I thought had fallen out of my handlebar bag early on day 1. Salmon tacos are a go!
Beautiful scenery is a go, too! The Cabeza Prieta mountains are mostly solid rock, enough to make a rock monkey drool. It’s wilderness on 50′ of either side of the road, so drool is about all it can come to.
One could ride through such mountains for days and not be bored, but it was on to the next valley.
It was the one that I remembered being the sandiest. Lee and I walked here. The Lechuguilla Desert.
Again, no match for the fatties. Solid riding, smooth sailing.
Beautiful spot in a hidden canyon that looks like it might be the Tinajas Altas, but it isn’t. I followed our 2006 GPX track to the same deadend that we took back then. Sometimes the GPX treasure chest comes back to bite you!
I had forgotten that the actual Tinajas Altas (high tanks) are just off the route, a very short spur. The high tanks are very deep natural pools that hold water even in the hottest and driest of conditions. Supposedly many travelers of old died at the base of the Tinajas, having made it here, but lacking the strength to climb up to retrieve water.
The Camino has a deadly and storied history, beyond the scope of this blog. Well worth digging into if you want to travel the Camino.
And, you should, because it’s just simply incredible out there. I never thought I could enjoy riding a ~flat dirt road so much.
The night bled orange. The road grew wide. Our smiles grew wider. We approached the town of Wellton.
We debated our options, opting not to risk an unmapped powerline shortcut into town (that does pan out, turns out), and opting to head into town for dinner and a motel room. Both were good choices. The carne asada at the newly opened mexican place next to the gas station was first rate.
Probably the first fat bikes to stay at this motel-for-the-local-golf-course. The saddle I was trying out is a noseless spiderflex, which I heard about through the inimitable Dirt dot Kurt. It took some experimenting to get it set up right, but I think it’s a dead-on no-brainer for dirt road touring. It was dirt dot kurt style touring, though as I said, he’s impossible to imitate, and in a class all his own.
We scored hotel breakfast waffles and breakfast burritos to go, hitting the road early enough that kids were out waiting for school buses. My butt has never been so happy to sit on a bike seat after 100+ miles of dirt roads, some wash-boardy. I could get used to this.
We paralleled I-8 for a while to Tacna, looking towards a different return to the Camino, another route I had not been on. We were in full tour mode, which means you never pass up a source of calories you aren’t carrying. Chocolate milk, a fruit pie, some iced tea. Oh yeah, touring.
An interesting variant on the panic button, this one apparently for extra-terrestrial beings making undocumented crossings of the cosmos and somehow landing in the Mohawk Valley.
Once we left the freeway we didn’t see a single vehicle, not even Border Patrol, all day. We did see a dust cloud from a border agent, though, that went to check out the panic button above just after we left. We may have triggered a sensor of some kind.
The road quickly deteriorated at the boundary for the wildlife refuge. The road runs perpendicular to the border, so there is no reason for the border patrol to drag it with tires. The result is a bumpy and deep sandy road. I reckon we would have walked for many miles here on regular bikes. On fat bikes, it was only a little slow, and progress was hard to measure. But it was never demoralizing.
Traveling by fatbike on the Camino started to remind me of touring the Iditarod Trail to McGrath in so many ways. Of course I was riding the same bike, and had a lot of the same gear. It was on variable surfaces. It was in a very remote area, with little traffic and almost no structures. The grades were mellow — almost undetectable as to whether you are going up or down. Yet that distinction makes a huge difference in the effort and speed with which you travel. Slight uphill = slow. Slight downhill = fast and effortless. The sand showed so much of the history of what had happened recently, just like snow does. We could see tracks and speculate over what had happened or who had been by. The condition of ‘the trail’ was highly dependent on who and what had traveled before us. Just like Iditarod depends on snow machines, when the border patrol drags the road, you’ve got good trail. Otherwise, not so good. The valleys are flat, but the mountains big and dramatic. They seem ever so far away, and like you’re never going to reach them. Then all of the sudden, they are right in your face.
It made me miss riding in Alaska, strangely enough. And made me wonder why more people don’t, and haven’t, ridden fat bikes down here.
After a bit of a slog, we reached the northern edge of the Cabeza Prieta mountains, where the trail firmed up. Actually, it turned briefly technical!
But mostly just gloriously firm 2-track, through beautifully tilted mountains. We rolled through Christmas Pass, but wouldn’t have noticed it was a pass at all, but for the sign telling us it was so.
I spied this interesting multi-barrel cactus, and then spent the rest of the trip looking for another. I didn’t see a single other one.
But this was perhaps a stranger sighting. A carefully rolled and seemingly brand new blanket, in the middle of the road, with no foot prints anywhere around it. We were on the out-and-back portion of our lollipop route, and there were no blankets 24 hours ago. Did it fall off someone’s truck? Dropped by crossers whose tracks were somehow erased? Set up by the border patrol as a trap? The nights would be quite cold out there without a sleeping bag. It was so curiously placed right in the middle of the road, and exactly perpendicular to it.
We decided not to linger too long, trying not to let our imaginations run wild. We started paying more attention to the patterns in the sand. We found several washes full of foot prints that either weren’t there 24 hours ago, or we hadn’t noticed. But didn’t actually see anyone, not even the border patrol.
What are those crazy tracks we see in the sand? Oh, it’s a Lou track! There are fat bikers out here!
There’s also incredible country out here. Instead of a long slog up a sandy sunken road that feels like a wash, but isn’t, we had a blissful and silent cruise across the Tule valley.
The sun was at our backs, lighting up the strange and unknown mountains all around us. If so few people ever even travel the Camino, how untouched and remote are the tops of these mountains?
To think of all the untold epics that have taken place out here.
And then the sky blew up behind us. Forward progress was stalled into 200′ increments. Team photo style, expressions and exclamations of gratitude.
There was a part of me that was wondering, as the sun neared the horizon, if we hadn’t pressed our luck in trying to cross the Camino twice. Was it really wise to head right back out here, with only the water we could carry and with the likelihood of needing to spend another night right near the border? When my tire started flatting just before sunset, it was hard not to feel a little helpless.
All doubts were silenced in the magic evening air, the sky afire. Nowhere I’d rather be.
We pedaled up and over the lava flows, still pausing to look back at the ever reddening sky. Through the deeps ruts of the Pinta Sands my headlamp started dying. I followed Eszter’s rear tire as she navigated us through the maze of ruts, one of us getting stuffed off-line only occasionally.
Once we were back in the sand we felt the chance of traffic lower, spying a flat area to call home for the night. We eventually realized that the lights we were seeing in the distance was highway 2 in Mexico. I hadn’t realized that it was so close, or that it had so much traffic. The thought of the road being so close, and that we hadn’t seen anyone all day, including the border patrol, was a little unnerving. Part of me was hoping an agent would come by, not because I’d feel safer with one around so much as that I’d feel that things were more ‘normal’ since it sure seems like they patrol the Camino regularly. It seemed strange that we hadn’t seen anyone. Just a mysterious blanket in the middle of the road.
Sure enough, after a couple hours of semi-sleep, a well lit truck approached. The agent was so confused, at first just shining his lights at us. We spoke first. “Hello there!” “What, what, are you guys doing out here?” “Just spending the night, riding bikes.” “Oh, sorry, we just don’t see that much out here!” He went on to say, “You do know that there are people just a few miles that way that don’t like us very much, right?” We nodded, while thinking, “maybe they don’t like *you* very much, but I doubt they have any issue with us.” He was friendly and told us if we needed anything there was a border station just a few more miles down the road. We thanked him and wished him a good night.
The night was otherwise uneventful, and the morning beautiful. We reheated waffles from the hotel breakfast, among other goodies. Then were on our way, back up the Camino. We passed our first campsite and got to see the rest of the Agua Dolce mountains that we had only seen by moonlight.
With the aid of daylight, I could see that the spigot on Papago Well appeared to be leaking. I had tried in vain to get water out of Tule Well on our first pass, but hadn’t investigated Papago. Sure enough, water came rushing out. I guess we hadn’t quite needed to carry 240 oz each. Though I certainly wouldn’t count on it for future trips.
some of the few organ pipe cacti on the route
As it was, we had plenty of water, and even a Dr. Pepper to share at the ruins of the Bates ranch house. But we were running a little light on food. Luckily it’s a pretty quick ride once you get the bulk of the climbing through Growler Pass and into Organ Pipe National Monument. That portion of road is pretty washboarded out, but felt quite a bit more smooth climbing compared to descending.
Before we knew it, we were pedaling up the highway back into Ajo. A Game and Fish officer saw us riding through town and tracked us down, wanting to hear how it went for the fat bikers. “It was awesome!” was the summary of what we told him.
And it really was. I’m so happy to have returned to the Camino, ridden it self-supported, and enjoyed lots of high quality bike touring with Ez. There really is something to this whole sand fat-touring thing.
I plan to update bikepacking.net’s route page with more info, and a suggestion for a great overnighter that I think many, many people should take their fat bikes out on.