AZT: Grand Canyon to Flagstaff

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The Arizona Trail is one of the newest additions to the scene of long-distance hiking and bikepacking routes.  Originally conceived by Flagstaff resident Dale Shewalter in 1985, it was officially completed in 2011 with many volunteer hours and the assistance of federal National Scenic Trails funding.  Dedicated signage is now present from the northern terminus at the Utah border, to the southern terminus at the Mexican frontier.  Counting nearly 800 miles of trail along the way, the trail will continue to change as trail designers and trail crews sculpt better routes across the rugged Arizonan backcountry, including more durable singletrack trail with greater natural and scenic value for all user groups, including hikers, cyclists, and horseback riders.  The trail is technically done, although it will continue to change and improve.

For cyclists, the Arizona Trail is not as straightforward as if hiking the route.  Aside from some tough climbs and technical trail, several logistical challenges affect cyclists.  Wilderness sections of trail must be circumnavigated, as bicycles are prohibited; the Grand Canyon stands in the way as either a long hike-a-bike or a multi-day paved detour from the North Rim to the South Rim; and several challenging sections of trail promise additional hiking and pushing.  Add the challenges that all trail users face, such as sourcing food and water along the way, and the AZT becomes an epic undertaking.  Section riding lessens the challenge, and is a good way to enjoy a slice of Arizona and the AZT.

There is no single, definitive resource when planning to bikepack the AZT.  First published in 2002, Andrea Lankford’s book Biking the Arizona Trail suggests one possible route, which favors rideable dirt roads in place of the actual AZT at times.  To experience the state of Arizona on rideable off-pavement routes, this would be a great place to start.  More cavalier cyclists, with ultralight loads and racer’s legs, often choose to stick to the actual AZT as much as possible.  Back in 2005, Scott Morris and Lee Blackwell set off to ride, hike, and push through as much of the route as possible, bringing home valuable perspectives and GPS data for the rest of us to ponder.  Scott had previously ridden Andrea’s route in 7 days, while this effort consumed 25 days.  As a part-time Arizona resident with a handle on conditions of the changing trail, including newly-built sections, Scott says:

No one AZT trip has been the same. New sections are built, old ones rerouted, and the biggest question an AZT thru-rider should ask themselves is, “how much do I want to stick to the trail?”

There are two extremes of this route choice. Staying with the trail can lead to some long hike-a-bikes (but also amazing terrain). The other extreme is the route described by Andrea Lankford’s book, which is often comprised of dirt roads.

The current recommendation is to go with a route that is somewhere between the Lankford route and the “trail-no-matter-what”. There are several key sections of beautiful trail that simply weren’t built when Lankford wrote her book. There’s no need to spend so much time on dirt roads.

As such, we set out from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon last week to take a look for ourselves.  Along the way, we’ll follow some of the actual AZT, the best recommendation for cycling routes around wilderness, and on occasion, we’ll choose the easier of several options, especially to avoid prolonged hike-a-bike.  Our intention is to experience the state of Arizona by bike, for the first time.  As always, our intention is to live well and have fun.  In the coming weeks, we hope to bring more transparency to cycling the AZT.

The best resource for history, inspiration, and routeplanning a tour of the Arizona Trail is Scott Morris’ website Bikepacking.net, with a page dedicated to riding the AZT.

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At the Grand Canyon, we pick up a package shipped to us General Delivery by Big Agnes.  Our first night in the Fly Creek UL2 proves our new shelter to be a cozy place to spend a 19 degree night.

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In the morning, Lael looks for a way to keep her fingers warm.  She slides some spare sil-nylon stuff sacks over her wool mitts.

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Setting off for good from the town of Tusayan, south of the Grand Canyon Village, we enjoy an afternoon ride along meandering singledoubletrack along the Coconino Plateau.  The trail is well signed, and makes for a pleasant afternoon on the bike.  Carpets of pine needles and dappled sunlight are most of the reason we came to ride in AZ.  Riding amongst Arizona pines has been alluring for a long time.

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Signage on this section of trail indicates distances to trailheads and major road crossings, as well as stock tanks along the trail, which are potential water sources in season.  Lots of tanks are dry by this time of year in the high country.

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From atop the firetower, overlooking the Grand Canyon to the north, at sunset.

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The next morning, we rise to more rideable singletrack.  There are a few short pushes, especially as we acclimate to loose, rocky Arizona riding.  As a matter of habit, I will not mention these short periods off the bike, as they are a natural part of bikepacking.  Longer, more memorable pushes, however, will receive attention.  All nice riding here.

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The GPS track downloaded from Bikepacking.net indicates a waypoint, with text: “Sign says walk bicycles, but rideable”.  These little nuggets of information are invaluable when staring at a 2 1/2 inch LCD screen, chasing a pink line across the state.

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These high county forests are cattle country, with numerous cattle gates of various designs.  This one gives me a photographic perch as Lael rides beneath.

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Fire also plays an important role in these seasonally dry pine forests.  While mature ponderosa pines typically survive the fires, the understory remains open and airy as a result.

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Not here, but almost anywhere else.  Camping on the AZT is a dream.

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Only a day away from a proper grocery store, with generally cool weather, we enjoy fresh vegetables along the trail.  A bag of washed kale makes for a hearty salad trailside.

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Stock tanks come in many shapes and sizes, containing water from nearby surface water collection ponds.  When the ponds flood, gravity forces water through underground piping to fill the tanks with water.  Many tanks are fully-contained to limit evaporation to the atmosphere.

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The large tanks can then be used to fill water troughs for cattle.  Almost no water is present at this tank, called the Russell Tank, except for some lightly-frozen water in the smaller covered reservoir.  It smells alright, and we treat several liters with our UV pen.

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The central section of the route from the Grand Canyon to Flagstaff includes a series of dirt roads, some of which trace an old wagon route to the Canyon.  Just before 1900, the ride cost $20 and took about 12 hours.

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Out of the forests and into more open country.

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Crossing a large private land tract.  Gaining passage across such properties is essential to the success of long-distance routes such as the AZT, or hiking routes such as the PCT.

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Federal funding is also essential, in addition to countless volunteer hours.  Join the Arizona Trail Association to support the trail and to gain access to guides and trail resources.

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Open country en route to the San Francisco peaks above Flagstaff.  The route south of the Grand Canyon makes its first major climb up to 9000ft along the flanks of the Snowbowl ski area north of town.  The highest point, Humphrey’s Peak, reaches to 12,633 ft, the highest point in Arizona.

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Fast dirt road riding comprises about 30 miles of the AZT across the Babbit Ranch.  A nice place for a sunset ride.

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Shooting for some cover from the wind, we ride back onto USFS property.  Trail signage commemorates the official completion of the trail in 2011.

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Arizona promises memorable sunsets, clear nights, and warm days, even into November.

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And crisp mornings.

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Clear skies all around, save for some lenticular clouds looming over the San Francisco peaks.

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Back into the pines, we find some cover from strong winds this morning.  At singletrack speeds, winds are not a huge issue.  Still, a calm day makes for better picnics.

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Up into aspens above 8,000ft, better cover from the wind and some meandering sections of trail marked “new AZT” on the GPS are worth writing home about.  This is one of the nicest, most durable sections of trail anywhere.  With such high standards of trail building, the AZT is soon to be a premiere long-distance bikepacking route.

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We’ve just missed the golden hues of fall, as these trees now await frosty mornings and snow.  Looks a little like Anchorage in the winter.  We’ll be there soon enough, just in time for Christmas and the fatbiking season.

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Out of the aspen and back into the pines, we top out near 9000ft before beginning a nearly 15 mile descent into town– all on singletrack.

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Mexico, only 611 miles away.  Gone are the days of touring a hundred miles a day on pavement.  Bikepacking on singletrack is a whole other world.

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A bit of snow up high reminds us to keep moving south.

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Down, down, down…

Not a bad place for big tires, or suspension.  For those contemplating the new 29+ (29×3.0″) tire platform available on several new Surly models, Andy (aka Big Dummy Daddy) has written a thoughtful ‘reckoning’ of the E.C.R. from a recent ride aboard one of these bike camping beasts at a Surly-sponsored bike camping event in Colorado.  However, trails like this lead me more to the higher bottom bracket and descent-oriented geometry of the Krampus.

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Lael lands hard on the sharp edge of a rock– on her rear tire, that is– pinching a hole in the thick rubber of her 2.25″ On-One Smorgasbord tire.  A few minutes and some Stan’s sealant do the trick.

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Singletrack all the way into Flagstaff.  This is a great introduction to any town.

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We find a home for the night with Cosmic Ray, a local cycling legend and Warmshowers.org host.  Ray publishes a series of mountain biking and hiking guides throughout Arizona.  He has been riding and touring for decades, recently making passage along the EuroVelo6 Route across Europe.  Note, the TA 50.4BCD chainring in the mobile.

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Details from drafts of the 24th edition of his mountain biking guide.

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An airstream trailer houses the two of us for the night, plus a particular tattooed Pugsley rider from Santa Fe.

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Ray has been at it for a minute, having co-owned a bike shop in town back in the 80′s.  These days he rides, and edits his guides, which are updated annually.

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A nice collection of bikes mark various points in his cycling life.  This repainted Ritchey is a gem.

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Although he also spent a lot of time on an early Stumpjumper, back in his bike shop days.  He claims to have modified balloon-tire cruisers with gears and brakes prior to mass-produced models.  Marin, Crested Butte, Flagstaff…

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Now, his tourer and daily rider is a custom Coconino Cycles frame.  Macy’s coffee shop in Downtown Flagstaff is his usual morning hang, and a great place to enjoy an espresso in the morning.  It is a great place to get a feel for Flagstaff as well.  Thanks Ray for the hospitality, and the intel on Arizona Trails.  Check out the legendary “Cosmic Ray” guides at bike shops all over Arizona, or online at Amazon.

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Leaving Flagstaff towards Sedona, Jeremy joins us from Santa Fe for a few days of riding.  Step number one when leaving town on a fatbike, let some air out.  We plan to ride some AZT, and some of the Coconino Loop route towards Sedona for a few days in the sun down near 4000ft, before returning to Flagstaff.  Be back soon!

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News and updates:

The computer:  Moving on from the financial heartbreak of a waterlogged computer, I replaced the old machine with a new one.  Apple quoted $800 for repairs, and was unclear about whether data recovery would be possible.  There are a few days of photos that weren’t backed up anywhere else, although most of my files are safe.  Best Buy was offering the computer for $50 off the full retail price, although the price listed in the store (from last week’s sale I presume), was a full $100 off the full price.  I jumped at the chance, they honored the price– I insisted– and then put some of the money saved towards a full warranty against drops and spills for the next year.  I am handy with used bikes, free camping, and cooking healthy food on the road for cheap.  Computers, unfortunately, have been an expensive habit.  I’m learning; I promise to do better.  Time to move on.

Bunyan Velo: Bunyan Velo is offering a stack of stickers for $5.00.  Issue No. 4 is due out in January.  A printed anthology has been discussed, in addition to more affordable printed goods in various formats.  Support the future of Bunyan Velo with a few stickers.  Other BV paraphernalia coming soon.

Zippers, zippers, zippers!:  Zippers are dying everywhere, mostly from extended use and now, from gritty southwest sand and clay.  Framebag zippers are joining the fate of windbreakers, layers, tents, and rain jackets.  There is an inexpensive repair shop in Flagstaff that repairs zippers.  The result isn’t pretty, but it is cheap– a six-pack of beer and “at least five bucks” was the charge.  I offered $23 for two new sliders, one new zipper with slider, and some basic stitching on Lael’s torn sleeping bag.  Look for the small shop on San Francisco St.

This winter:  We plan to return to Anchorage for the winter.  As soon as we get back, we’ll be looking for work, fatbikes, and friends.  Any help is appreciated.  Due back mid-December, most likely.  Wanna ride fatbikes?

This color dirt only found in Sedona…

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Awake to Cochiti

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1:46 PM, Railrunner train in Albuquerque.  2:45, Kewa/Santo Domingo station.  3:15, Peña Blanca; 3:45 Cochiti Pueblo and grocery.  4:15, FR 289 or St. Peter’s Dome Road, gated dirt.  Rain.  5:30, dark.  Climb.  6:15, camp.  Wind and rain and wet clothes.  7:30 AM, awake.  Cochiti Canyon.

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The Denali Park Road: Riley Creek to Toklat River

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In a search of exceptional bike rides in this country, several results turn up.  The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route is the longest dirt route anywhere; the GAP/C&O trail and the KATY trail are some of the longest rail-trails around and offer pure traffic-free riding.  The paved TransAmerica Trail (TransAm) is historic, winding along America’s backroads, while the Pacific Coast route is ever popular.  Every state has it’s hallmark routes, and the western states feature an incredible network of public roads on USFS and BLM lands.  Even, other National Park roads such as Shenandoah’s Skyline Drive and Glacier’s Going-to-the Sun Road are conversation pieces of places people like to ride.  However, nothing compares to the 92-mile Denali Park Road.

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Climbing from the Nenana River at the park entrance, the road travels westward along the northern side of the Alaska Range over a series of low passes, crossing several major rivers to achieve banner views of Denali and the range.  Riding high above the braided rivers– the Savage, Sanctuary, Teklanika, Toklat– several passes are carved from mountainsides to avoid the ever-changing floodplains below.  The effect is otherworldly; at least, roads like this are known only from snapshots of Himalayan and Andean roads.  In this part of Alaska spruce forests give way to sub-alpine shrubbery at about 2200 ft, and to a mossy alpine tundra further up.  The main section of the road from the Savage River entrance at mile 14 to Wonder Lake at mile 85, is mostly above treeline except when at river level.  Aside from the scenery and the wildlife, the lofty peaks and the wildflowers, it is the “atmos” of Denali that is the most engaging.

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Incoming air masses are regurgitated by the highest peaks.  The result is a witches brew of weather, with blue skies and thunderclouds competing for space.  The feeling is electric, and as Denali comes into view, shocking.  Clear blue skies are not unknown here, but are uncommon for any length of time and many visitors to the park never actually glimpse the Denali, “The Great One”.  The occasional views to the north or south of the range, toward Fairbanks and Anchorage, often show uniformly calm skies.  But these are big mountains rising from a broad flat landscape– they make their own weather.

Day 1: RIley Creek to Toklat River

I rode the full length of the road from the park entrance at Riley Creek to the gold-mining district of Kantishna at mile 92, and back.  Wishing to spend less time riding, many visitors combine a green shuttle bus with some riding and camping.  The green “camper buses” can drop off or pick up anywhere along the road, space permitting– simply wait for the next bus and flag it down.  A BRC (bear resistant container) is provided for storage of all food and scented items to hikers and cyclists.  I wasn’t sure how to pack it at first, but the Carradice Camper swallowed it up, thanks to the “longflap” feature.  I’ve been abusing this bag for almost two years, and it’s due to receive a little TLC.  Repairs are simple, and a durable needle and upholstery thread do more than solve the problem.  When I’m through, the bag will be better than new.  That’s the beauty of a durable canvas bag– it wears in.  An plastic Ortlieb-style dry bag wears out.

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Above, the Park Road is shown by the dashed yellow line as it passes the Muldrow Glacier near the Eielson Visitor’s Center at mile 66.  The Muldrow Glacier (the blue lights are at the foot) was the first route used by climbers to ascend Denali.  The impetus for Mt. McKinley National Park (renamed Denali NP in 1980) was not only to encase North America’s highest peak, but to preserve the Dall sheep and their habitat that were in danger of decimation by market hunters.  Charles Sheldon championed the Dall sheep as a unique species worth preserving, and assisted in the formation of a national park in 1917, several decades before statehood.  These days most visitors come to see the brutish bears, but it is the Dall sheep that are the most regal and unique.  From craggy perches they survey the land around them, enjoying the respite of the summer season.  Their snow white coats are camouflage in winter but make them highly visible this time of year; thankfully, few of their predators can approach their rocky dwelling.

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From atop Polychrome Pass, look a little closer:

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Descending down to the Toklat River, I made my camp on a gravel river bar.  A glacial bath washes away the dust and sweat; clean wool long underwear and a down jacket are a rare treat after a cold swim.  At 8 PM, it’s as bright as day.  Over twenty hours of sunlight right now, and we’re still gaining.  Looking south from my camp, the freestanding interior netting of the Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2 keeps mosquitos at bay, while letting in some midnight sun:

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Looking north, about 3:30 AM.

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