In a summer full of planes, trains, and bikepacking routes of all kinds across Europe, our melange of southwest adventures thickens the summer’s stew. Forced down from the mountains onto a circuitous paved route, we shoot straightaway to the south rim of the Grand Canyon. From here, we hope to connect to the Arizona Trail (AZT), and the bevy of bikepacking routes between the Canyon and the Mexican border. From initial routefinding missions online, I am coming to realize that the state of Arizona may be the single greatest resource for documented bikepacking routes in the country. Paired with spectacular scenery and four-season riding, this place is a veritable bikepacking mecca. We’re excited, and the GPS is brimming with route options.
As we ride around the southern portion of the Manti-LaSal National Forest, storms are still brewing up high.
From one hardworking town to another, Utah is a unique slice of America. Sailing on a reservoir at 6000ft in Utah in late October is one of many local curiosities. Also home to the Great Salt Lake, unusual canyons and rock formations, and a national park called Zion, Utah is more than just a mecca for hikers, bikers, and Jeep enthusiasts. More than any other state, this is Mormon country.
The town of Blanding was established by Mormons escaping a threatened existence in northern Mexico, around 1910.
No bars in town, but a one-room theater and a bowling alley stay busy as a result. As Mormons don;t drink caffeine or alcohol, Utah is famous for beer with a maximum limit of 3.2% ABV, which may be part of the reason that Hayduke can safely operate a motor vehicle while knocking back brews.
The local bank makes you want to don a bandana and ask for a bag of cash, politely waving a pistol.
And ride into the night.
Road touring in Utah is a pleasure. As almost anywhere in America, there are scenic rural highways to discover, with little traffic. Finding these routes isn’t hard: don’t choose the shortest route, be willing to climb a bit, and always choose the road that cuts through the green shaded region on the map. Around here, BLM land is more common than US Forest Service property– the former characterized by arid spaces, the latter, by shady woodlands. Forest Service property is officially called ‘the land of many uses”, including timber harvest and hunting; BLM property is unofficially referred to as ‘the land of every use”, from oil, gas and mineral exploration, to hunting, off-road vehicle recreation, and camping.
Through Comb Ridge on paved Highway 95.
Down to Comb Wash Road, below.
For a convenient 18 mile detour from pavement, along a sandy road just below the comb-shaped ridge.
Fatbiking trick #1: When in doubt, let air out. Washing through soft sandy sections, we let our pressures down to about 15psi to float over the sand. Incidentally, we find that the corrugations are more comfortable as well, and we’re actually traveling faster, with greater ease, at lower pressures. My 2.35″ Schwalbe Hans Dampf is especially wide at low pressures, as the broad side knobs find a footing. It might eb a good candidate for a 50mm Surly Rabbi Hole rim, or the new 45mm doublewall Velocity Dually.
Back onto pavement, through a town called Mexican Hat, across the San Juan River, and onto the Navajo Reservation. This is the landscape of Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner; properly, the land of the Navajo; and seasonally, lots of tourists.
Life has changed rapidly for the Navajo over the past 200 years. Currently, employment rates are low, jobs are scarce, and people are getting by. Some Navajo still practice traditional ways– sheep herding is a traditional lifestyle. Not much else grows out here.
Monument Valley, on the reservation, is best known as the film location for some early Hollywood westerns. Visitors flock to the region. The government shutdown that recently closed the area’s national parks was kind to this region, increasing tourism dramatically.
Handmade goods, such as jewelry, are frequently offered on the roadside, in season. We’ve missed the season by a few weeks.
The stillness of such a wide open space can be frighteningly beautiful.
But the potential for windstorms across such open land is great. Headwinds are the bane of the road touring cyclist. This is something we had almost forgotten entirely, as much of our time is spent off-pavement these days. On dirt tracks: routes are infrequently drawn in a straight line, there is often cover from vegetation, and one travels much more slowly. Headwinds are like a never-ending hill, without a descent on the other side.
Lael’s solution in such a moment, as tourists blast past in rented RV’s, is to stick out a thumb. We know YOU are going to the Grand Canyon. So are we! Great, let’s carpool. In a series of three rides– with a Navajo leader, a Bostonian cowboy and wet-plate photographer, and a Baptist preacher from a town called Tuba City– we arrive inside the gates of Grand Canyon National Park, avoiding several days of riding into intense winds. The experience would have been valuable, but tiring. We’d rather spend the last weeks of the season amidst ponderosa pine on the Arizona Trail, if possible.
En route to the Canyon, we stock up in a grocery store on the reservation. Spam is offered at Navajo eateries, of which there are few.
Corn flour, and more recently, wheat flour, are used in both tortillas and breads.
Rendered porkfat, or lard, is also common. I suspect tortillas and lard mark an influence from Mexico. Spam, of course, is all American.
The area was once home to numerous Uranium mines. Kayenta is currently booming thanks to a coal mine. I’ve seen a similar sign in Grants, NM, along the Great Divide Route.
Riding some of the final miles toward the Kaibab National Forest, still on the reservation, we seek shelter form the wind for the night above the canyon of the Little Colorado River, upstream of the Grand Canyon. An unused shepherd’s cabin will suffice as a primary windblock.
With no signs of recent use– no trash, no lock on the door, no beer cans or bottles– we set up our tent inside. Even still, it is a windy night.
Inside the park, we spot our first signs of the Arizona Trail. The trail runs over 700 miles from the Utah border south to the Mexican border, and is in the final stages of completion and refinement. It traverses the Grand Canyon. On foot, this would be a prized section. To the dedicated thru–biker or racer, it is possible to carry the bike through the canyon. The bike must be disassembled, and the wheels must not touch the ground. Dedicated purists have done it, such as Arizona locals and bikepacking superheroes Scott Morris and Kurt Refsnider, but it is not in the cards for us. While there looks to be some nice riding north of the Canyon, it makes more sense for us to start our Arizonan adventures from the south rim. Yes, there is a road detour around the canyon if you’d like, along mostly paved roads. It is well over a hundred and fifty miles, to account for about 25 miles of walking trail between the north and south rim.
On our first night at the Canyon, we run into our friend Wyatt from Albuquerque, who is working on a trail crew. Another guy chases us down on a Surly LHT, with wide eyes and lots of questions. Is your name James, by chance? How is it that I know people I’ve never met, in a place I’ve never been, by the bicycles they ride. James and Cass have traveled some of the trails that we wish to ride in the next few weeks.
On our first night at the canyon, we camp in the backcountry with the Americorps trail crew. We awake to snow. Thanks to Wyatt and Kerri for inviting us to camp with them. The campfire and company was essential on a cold night.
A propane stove in the morning is a treat. Lael’s spindly fingers get cold easily.
Pack up, and roll out to meet with James for coffee and routeplanning in the morning. Of course, we bisect a herd of elk on a dirt road, on our way to a car-free paved road…
…along the rim of the Grand Canyon! Good morning Arizona.
Over the next few days we’ll be riding the AZT from the Grand Canyon to Flagstaff, where we plan to meet Jeremy for a few days of riding. You may remember Jeremy as the rider on the vintage mountain bike with a Wald basket, flying through the air at White Mesa, NM last fall. More recently, he’s been touring and shredding trail on a Surly Necromancer Pugsley, which he picked up from Two Wheel Drive in ABQ while I was working there last winter.