After our third night together, we’d all gotten comfortable enough with each other to give each other grief for things that we deserved to get grief over. I incessantly gave Glenn and Lucas a hard time about their eating abilities, and they looked at me skeptically every time I said that something ‘trended downwards’, or that ‘the road is just down there’, or ‘it’s only xx miles, as the crow flies.’ All valid reasons for being heckled.
Luckily for me, sitting at nearly 7,000 feet at our campsite, I could say confidently that we were going to trend downwards towards the Verde River at 3,800 feet. As was standard, we had to ride in the upward direction on a sub-lovely little piece of rocky singletrack to the point where we’d start trending downwards. But once we did start going down, life got better. Smooth trail, wide switchbacks, minimal rocks, beautiful views, and most importantly, no uphill.
After dropping 800+ feet, we went through the magic gate and started along a series of residential roads, turning to gas line roads, turning into jeep roads. I’d looked ahead on the GPS and standing at the top of a classic AZ gas line hill, made the bold statement: We’ll be on roads the entire way to the Verde.
Glenn’s a quick learner: So what you’re saying is we’ll be riding roads like this (pretty rough), unless Scott found something harder to take us on.
Yeah, pretty much.
We maintained our elevation as we hit the Great Western Trail with huge overlooks into the Verde Valley. It it wasn’t for the rocks making the road chunkier than it really needed to be, it would have been high desert cruising.
Eventually, the road did trend downwards for real, losing nearly 2,000 feet over the course of seven miles. Spirits – through the roof!
What I hadn’t told them was that Williams, our next mini-goal and resupply point, was back at 7,000 feet and that all Scott had told me about the section between the Verde and Williams is that ‘you climb’. I figured we should all be joyful while we could be, so I didn’t say anything about what was to come. We hung out by the river, dipped our feet in, filled our bladders, and ate salty snacks. Lucas went for full immersion, I went for a soaked shirt to start the climb with.
Holy moly was it a hot climb. At nearly 20 miles long, it never let up. The sun never gave us a break. Lucas declared that after spending four months off the bike due to a broken wrist, he was in no shape to be doing this route. But the cool thing was – he was doing it. With enough breaks in the shade, we slowly made our way up the road that started out smooth and slowly (and then rapidly) deteriorated.
We’d left Cottonwood the afternoon before with the intention of trying to make it to Williams with only one night out, but had packed enough food to stay out the second night if we didn’t make it. Leaving the Verde, I was ready to admit that our chances of making Williams, even with skipping Bill Williams mountain, were slim to none. At least we were able to temper our expectations of a big dinner.
After entirely too much up-up-and-away, we finally reached the aptly named Pine Flats at 6,500 feet. We still had 500 feet to climb to the paved road that would take us to Williams, but we finally felt like we were within striking distance. The next time the road kicked up, we decided we were done and ready to find a camp spot. Unfortunately, while I was scanning the side of the the road for a suitably flat place to camp, I came upon a set of tracks.
“What are you looking at?” Glenn asked.
“Do those look like really big bear tracks to you?”
We stood there looking at the imprints in the soft shoulder of the dirt road.
“I think we should keep riding for a little bit,” I announced.
“Yeah. That’s a good idea,” the others agreed.
We made it another mile before we felt sufficiently far away enough from the tracks to settle down in wide open meadow for the night. We figured that as long as we put our food away from us, even if the giant bear found us, he’d dine on our trail food instead of us.
With vision clouded by the giant burger consumed in Cottonwood, Glenn made some inadequate food purchasing decisions and had only bars left for dinner and breakfast. He’d refused my Oreos earlier in the trip, claiming he tried to eat healthy while on tour, but it didn’t take much arm twisting to convince him that one would taste pretty darn good. Apparently, even better with some almond butter on it. I’d call that a well-rounded, nutritious dinner.
We settled down to sleep early again, bedtimes were around 7:45 this trip. I slept soundly until something that was a cross between a bark and a roar woke me up. Deep, primitive, loud, I had no clue what sort of animal could have been making the noise. My first thought was a huge dog, but we were in the middle of nowhere. Next I reasoned a wolf since we’d heard that wolves had been reintroduced near Sycamore Canyon, which wasn’t that far from where we were camped, as the crow flies, of course. I laid still, hoping that whatever it was would go away.
The creature came back as dawn was breaking. The same deep bark. I sat up, curious as to what it was, hoping that it wasn’t a wolf staring at us across the meadow. Instead, a huge elk was looking at us from across the road. There was the bark again. He looked less than pleased, probably wanting to cross the very meadow that we were camped in. He eventually decided that we weren’t going to be moving any time soon and wandered off. Glenn and I laughed in relief as we’d both had our imaginations run wild the first time we’d heard the barking.
It was a relatively quick and easy drop into Williams. A local directed us to the Grand Canyon Cafe for breakfast where we gorged ourselves on breakfast burritos. The boys were finally learning how to eat!
With a resupply at Safeway, we were on our way out of town with the intention of bypassing Sycamore Rim. While we’d heard it was beautiful, I’d heard that the trail was questionable and after getting beat down two days in a row, we were ready for some easier miles. Scott directed us towards some forest roads that would cut off some miles, and the rim, while keeping us off pavement.
The roads were pretty glorious. Smooth, fast, we hooked back up with the route just south of I-40 where we stopped to eat our sandwiches in the shade. It had been a morning of easy and fast miles and the San Francisco Peaks outside of Flagstaff were finally starting to look closer. We felt pretty good about our mileage for the day, content with staying out for an extra night, and thus being able to take our time for the rest of the afternoon.
We made our way to the Texaco, our last water stop for the trip, and with spirits high, Lucas bought us all ice cream sandwiches. This was definitely bike touring at its finest! After spending some time digesting, charging up phones, and people watching, we hit the road again, taking more beautiful dirt roads paralleling I-40. We knew that we could have taken I-40 straight into Flagstaff, but we were enjoying being out still. Riding bikes. Taking in the views.
Plus, I really wanted them to get to ride the last section of the AZT trail into Flagstaff.
We headed off towards Wing Mountain. Scott had mentioned that we could bypass some of the trail by staying on the road. I saw the bypass on the GPS and promptly ignored it – I wanted to check out the trail. While there may have been some tired legs in the group, I figured that what they didn’t know couldn’t hurt them (i.e. there was a much easier way around) and we started up the trail which pretty immediately turned into an extended hike-a-bike to the top of the hill. I thought it was sort of funny. I don’t think Glenn and Lucas did.
But here’s the beauty of the Coconino loop: Every time you want to hate it, want to quit, want to find something better to do with your life, it throws a glorious piece of singletrack your way. The descent off of Wing Mountain was no exception. Some glorious moto trail with an exquisitely bermed final mile. Smiles were back!
We made our way up to a beautiful little camp spot just a mile short of Hwy 180. We’d brought all sorts of good food up from Williams. Tacos with cheese and avocado made my night.
I was a little sad to wake up that final morning, knowing that all we had left was a three mile climb and then a long drop back into Flagstaff. Bikepacking trips are always like that…happy to have done a big loop and looking forward to creature comforts of civilization, yet wanting to stay out longer. Five nights out is long enough to really get into the swing of things, to get into the life pace of travel by bike, but it’s also not long enough to forget what a comfortable bed feels like.
We climbed up from the pine trees into the Aspens, nearing 9,000 feet high on the San Francisco Peaks. Clouds overhead threatened rain as we finally reached the AZ trail for our final descent.
“More people need to get out on this,” Glenn declared. “I know epic is overused, but this loop really is epic.”
I had to agree. It was epic, it was hard, and I can’t put into words how impressed I was at how Glenn and Lucas handled it. Neither had any idea what they were getting into. As far as I could tell, Glenn had looked at Curiak’s photos from his trip on it and decided that he had to go see it. I don’t blame him. I’m pretty sure Lucas came under the trip description of: Riding bikes in Arizona.
I think the trip opened up their eyes to a whole new type of bikepacking. Obviously, road touring is big. Dirt road touring is starting to take off. But technical singletrack-heavy loops, there’s not that many people doing them. And most of the people doing them are racing instead of leisure touring. That needs to change.
I sort of feel like it’s my job to open up people’s eyes to this type of touring – bikepacking, I guess, if you want to go back to the original definition Scott wanted the word to have when he started up bikepacking.net. That if you’re careful about what you pack, and bring bikes with squishy parts, you can ride at a high level on trails in beautiful places. And if you’re not racing – the trails can actually be a lot of fun rather than a slog!
I promised them mostly downhill and a grand total of 5 rocks for the entire descent. Of course, I was wrong on both counts, but the riding was relatively easy, at least compared to what we’d been doing, and the final fast descent down to town put smiles on all of our faces.
We headed straight to Flagstaff Brewery for lunch to celebrate. Six days, five nights. A job well done.
A toast to new friends. To having eyes opened about new ways of doing things (those nifty alcohol stoves sure are neat, and I sort of want a fancy camera now). To living the simple life and to seeing the world from a bike seat.
It was a glorious time. Thanks for the adventure!