Island hopping – Whetstone and Chiricahua
Last week we had a meeting about the proposed Land of Legends wilderness area(s) covering the Dragoon, Whetstone and Chiricahua mountain ranges.
Info from Sky Island Alliance’s site: http://www.skyislandalliance.org/legends.htm
There was a lot of common ground in the meeting. We all agreed that these ranges need to be protected. Of course the difficulty is when we start talking about losing MTB access, but the good thing is that we are in early on the process, and hopefully we can come up with boundaries and ideas that everyone can support. We pulled out maps during the meeting, and after learning which specific areas are under consideration, Lee and I decided to revisit a couple spots. May is a good month for sky island hopping!
First up were the Whetstone mountains. Zach MacDonald joined us, except that when he aired up his tire in the parking lot, it had a giant bend in it, rendering it completely unrideable. He whisked himself off to Sun ‘n Spoke in Sierra Vista to get a new tire. Meanwhile Lee and I rode the Foothills Loop, which is a loop fully contained in Kartchner Caverns State Park.
We found awesome trail filled with jagged rock reminiscent of the AZT heading towards Colossal Cave.
“Do you have a tour reservation?”
“Actually, we’re here to ride bikes.”
“Ooohh, I don’t know about that, I mean, there are stairs and crap out there!”
(Direct quote — “stairs and crap” from the ranger at the entrance). There were 4 or 5 staircases that we walked, and a couple we rode. No big deal overall.
A short and very difficult switchbacking climb leads to a commanding view of the Dragoons and the whole of the San Pedro basin.
We rode under the tramway’s bridge, spied a Gila Monster, then pedaled back to the trailhead where Zach was ready to ride.
Guindani Trail Bike Route!
Here we go… up the canyon!
The terrain reminded me of the “Techy Taco” climbs — rocky, awkward, but overall quite rideable, esp. with more attempts most of the trail would ‘go’. Just the kind of stuff I love.
Yeah, I said “most” of it would go.
After we turned onto the Cottonwood Saddle Trail conditions got a little more primitive. Prime sections of 1-track alternated with catclaw infested rubble. A good mix, really.
Zach tops out on 6,150′ Cottonwood Saddle, astride his bike.
Going down! No catclaw on the descent, just steep forested trail and big views of the Rincon Mountains as we exited the Whetstones.
photo by Lee Blackwell
The trail drops to a bathtub spring which is dry, but sits in a heavily wooded area.
Eventually we ended up on 2-tracks, with the wind at our backs 95% of the time.
We ripped through surprisingly beautiful grasslands. The foothills of the Whetstones did not disappoint, and the versatility of the mountain bike shone through. Not only were we able to close our singletrack loop using connecting roads, it was an absolute hoot to do so.
You may know that nuclear tail winds and 2-tracks with erosion control are a jumper’s dream. Speed is easy to come by, and so is effortless airtime. And what do you do when the roller is too short for your desired air time? Go diagonal, crossing from one side to the other, thereby lengthening your stride and (hopefully) landing with a bit of a transition. Too much fun.
Eventually the fun ended and we rode a few cross wind miles on Highway 90 (with a giant shoulder). A small price to pay.
Overall Guindani and Cottonwood Saddle trails are great (adventurous) riding. With a little TLC (catclaw pruning) Cottonwood would be ready for prime time. We also really like the potential for a bikepacking thru route using the singletrack half of our loop, and allowing resupply at the state park.
Day 2 – Chiricahuas
We hopped over to the Chiricahuas, finding a quiet car camp spot in Pinery Canyon. We left camp early the next morning.
Nothing like a nice stiff climb to wake up to. Hands Pass is no joke!
The goal was to explore the Indian Creek trail and the Cochise Head area in general.
Indian Creek started out wonderfully.
photo by Lee Blackwell
And it got even better.
Lee ponders the narrows, as Cochise Head watches from above
And it got worse. Especially as the canyon narrowed and became nothing but limestone, there was nowhere a trail tread could exist, so the trail is simply the drainage itself, making it a bit difficult to negotiate with a bike.
There were signs that someone occasionally does some maintenance, but also signs that few travel this way. We broke branches and moved trees off the trail as we went.
We questioned the wisdom of taking a bike on this trail for a while, especially as the trail got steep and eroded, climbing to the pass below Cochise Head.
But the top did come, as it always does, and we set out on foot to see how accessible the rock formations of Cochise Head are.
We found a good view, but didn’t much like our chances on the rock with bike shoes. We also spied the plume from the Horseshoe 2 fire, which was burning not that far from where we camped (it started just three days before) but luckily the 40 mph winds were blowing the smoke away from us.
Back at the saddle we debated our options. We had a couple of ambitious plans — the most satisfying being a humungous loop through Fort Bowie, Apache Pass and 25+ miles of pavement to get back to camp. Those miles of road are so wind/dust exposed that neither of us liked that plan, and there were still many unknown and slow miles of trail to go. We almost convinced ourselves to split up, but the difficulty in meeting back up (one person with the car) seemed too risky.
In the end I dropped down Wood Canyon for a short out and back recon.
I found some interesting stuff, and the trail was a great ride, for a while…
It got a little brushy before I decided to turn around. An adventure I’ll look forward to on another day…
As these things go, while going up Indian Creek was a little discouraging (and I think we were feeling the previous day’s ride) going back down gave the trail a whole new character. Instead of extended hiking sessions, the off bike time was limited to short dismounts, sometimes due only to rider error.
This is prime adventure riding trail! And it would make an amazing bikepack thru-route.
photo by Lee Blackwell
There are some really cool sections on the trail, and the area is so remote and infrequently traveled that it harkens to times of old, when routes like these probably looked much the same as they do now. Some of the old homestead and mine structures in the area had us thinking about years past as well.
I settled into a nice groove climbing the north side of Hands Pass, quietly turning the pedals and eying the next challenging section. Just as I committed to the rubble I saw and heard the trees moving next to the road. I knew it had to be something large, so I sped up and made my way to the side of the road. I was just in time to see a giant black ball sprinting through the forest, climbing the hillside next to the road. A black bear! It’s been a while since I’ve seen a bear in AZ.
We crested Hands Pass, and rolled the very long downhill back to Pinery. Naps and chocolate milk ensued,
then the drive back into Tucson’s sunset. I couldn’t believe how cold it was when we stepped out of the car in Vail (where we met to carpool). It was almost chilly.
Also, as we drove back on the pavement route we would have used had we committed to the big loop, we were ever so thankful of our cowardice — the Wilcox playa was a giant dustbowl, and Lee’s car was being shoved around on the road. It would have been a very long ride back.
We have more riding we would like to do in the Land of Legends, and it may be very hard to let some of these trails go. Especially when I start thinking about the impediment to bikepacking thru-routes that wilderness areas often are, I can’t help but wonder if there aren’t alternate ways we can protect the land, but still allow quiet non-motorized access. Wilderness B! (Wilderness with Bikes). National conservation areas? Hopefully we can at least work together to draw boundaries that protect the land but keep bike access to the trails most important to the MTB community.