The is Part II of a three part series about our tour of the Arizona Trail. In essence, this section is really two parts: the singletrack ride from Flagstaff to Pine, and the wilderness detour from Payson to the Picketpost Trailhead at Hwy 60. Check out Part I from the Utah border to Flagstaff, AZ.
There is more to Arizona than a few spare saguaro in an endless desert. Arizonan topography is more complex than I once thought, including broad plateau, deep cut canyons, and sky islands. Changing scenery is entwined with variable elevation, from golden aspens at 9000 ft to wide open pine forests at 7000ft, piñon and juniper and scrub oak at 5000ft and classic Sonoran scenery dominated by the towering saguaro cactus below 3000ft. And in a few places, such as in the Grand Canyon or on Mt. Lemmon, you’ll traverse multiple zones in less than half a day. The Arizona Trail crosses reliably flowing surface water, in the form of Arizona’s major rivers, in no more than a half dozen places. As expected, overall, Arizona is a dry state.
Leaving Flagstaff toward the south, the AZT wanders through spacious pine forests and open meadows, passing a series of shallow wetlands and lakes. A full day of riding is required to exit the pines, at which point the trail reaches the edge of the Mogollon Rim and drops toward the Highline Trail and the town of Pine. The quality of riding on the Mogollon Plateau is high, not full of thrills and big views, but mostly smooth with the exception of some rocky trail and tracks battered by cattle in wet weather. The first miles out of Flagstaff are especially memorable. There are minor resupply opportunities off-route in Mormon Lake and Happy Jack, although we packed food for the distance from Flagstaff to Pine, without a peanut to spare. Pine is a great trail town thanks to several local eatieries and a brewery called That Brewery, as well as a nice local grocery store.
The Highline Trail looms as one of the great challenges of the AZT by bike, a reputation bolstered by the number of times its name is uttered in simple reference to the major obstacles along the AZT, a menacing gang including the Canyon and Oracle Ridge. But not all challenges are created equal and the Highline Trail is remarkably ridable with high scenic value, an impression gained from our extremely low expectations. The Highline is a 50-plus mile trail along the Mogollon Rim escarpment, crossing every minor drainage which comes from the cliffs above, although the AZT only follows about 20 miles of that trail. Sections of the Highline are highly ridable, seemingly taken right out of the Sedona playbook, which sits at a similar elevation not far away. Southbound riders definitely benefit from some gravity fed assistance overall, although the trail climbs and descends in both directions.
South of Pine, riders continue along a brief sections of the actual AZT before beginning an extended detour around the Mazatzal and Superstition Wilderness areas ending at the Picketpost Trailhead where the route rejoins the AZT. The bikeable AZT750 continues on a series of chunky dirt roads to Payson where full resupply is possible 24/7, and on graded dirt roads and pavement to the south, including the scenic Apache Trail along the Salt River drainage. Between Payson and Picketpost, quality roads and frequent resupply make for a quick and easy ride.
The Apache Trail connects a a series of dammed lakes along the Salt River, each lake taking the place of what was once a great valley or canyon. The presence of crystal blue water in the desert is stunning, and a welcomed relief on hot days. The Apache Trail connects us to the furthest reaches of urban Phoenix, to a community called Apache Junction which provides convenient resupply in the form of a Basha’s supermarket on route, as well as other amenities.
Beyond Apache Junction the AZT traces a series of dirt roads, including a final water resupply in Queen Valley, before reconnecting with the Picketpost trailhead at Highway 60. From this point, the town of Superior is about 4 miles to the east. From this point toward the town of Oracle, the riding gets really, really, good.
Resupply notes, bold is on route:
Flagstaff, Mormon Lake, Happy Jack, Pine, Payson, Jake’s Corner, Punkin Center, Tonto Basin, Tortilla Flat, Apache Junction, Queen Valley, Superior
There are a number of easy water resupply point between Flagstaff and Pine in the form of USFS campgrounds, just off route. There are several near Mormon Lake and several at the intersection with AZ Rte 87. There is clear running water along eastern sections of the Highline Trail.
Riding out of Flagstaff.
Regaining some elevation, looking back at the San Francisco Peaks.
Above Lake Mary.
Keep gates closed. Jumping fences often saves time over opening and closing gates, and you’ll grow a massive pair of guns like Lael.
Without shelter, October nights leave us shivering in our damp sleeping bags until the sun is well above the horizon, at least up above 7000ft. Lael’s new Specialized Era transforms her riding, making her more confident over technical terrain. The full-suspension platform also tracks better over rough ascents, improving her ability to climb rocky trail. Fatigue is also reduced on long days. There are many challenging technical sections of the AZT which require intense focus, yet there are many mundane rocky sections which aren’t all that challenging, but slowly abuse the rider over the course of a day. A bike like this especially helps with the latter. Rear tire clearance is a little tight.
The proprietary Brain suspension is unique to Specialized bike and reacts to the terrain— firm on smooth trail yet opening to full stroke on bigger hits. It is a brilliant system and it works marvelously. I was a skeptic, until the first moment I rode it.
I remember a lot of mundane bumpy trail on the Mogollon Plateau, not that challenging, but taxing. There is also plenty of trail much like this between Utah and the edge of the Mogollon Rim. Lael and I call this “green circle trail”, and we like it.
Through old oak groves which feel like they once accompanied a ranch house, amidst a greater ponderosa pine forest. Northern Arizona is amazing, and most people have no idea.
Much of the state is fenced to keep cattle in and keep cattle out. Nick from Rogue Panda describes to me that Arizona is a “fence out” state, which means it is the responsibility of the landowner to prevent grazing cattle from entering their properly, not the other way around. Nick spent some years doing trail work on public lands in the west. In many states, it is the responsibility of the rancher to contain their cattle which becomes a financial burden considering the massive land tracts in the west, so the “fence out” principle is pro-ranching.
Here, a fence divides grazing lands on the right and non-grazing lands on the left.
Pines, volcanics, sunshine, and sweet, sweet singletrack.
General Springs Cabin.
At the edge of the Mogollon Rim is a brief section of trail called the Pipeline Trail, a several hundred foot scramble up, or down in our case. Our first impression was, “so, this must be the rim”.
Aside from the Colorado River we cross the first flowing water on the Arizona Trail just below the rim. Naturally, we splash in a knee-deep pool.
Some chunk, but lots of great trail. There are large sections which require hiking, but the overall experience in positive.
The trail crosses many drainages which means lots of fresh water, and lots of short climbs and descents. This is some fine technical riding.
Newer AZT signage on the right, older Highline signage on the left. The Highline Trail is a classic in Arizona. The descent down to the Geronimo Trailhead—southbound, remember— is awesome!
We finish the night by descending the final 800ft into Pine in near darkness, an exciting and frightening challenge at the end of a proper full day of riding. Lael still doesn’t have the guts for such stuff, but my new pink bike nails it. The geometry of the Meriwether, the Pike fork, a fresh pair of Ardent tires– they let me do things I shouldn’t.
The following day we ride through Payson, stopping to dip in the East Verde River. Surface water in Arizona is a precious resource. I am sure to swim in all of it.
Descending from Payson, adjacent to the Beeline Hwy.
Resupply in rural Arizona. Okocim beer was a staple from our time in Poland. This is the first time I have seen it in the US, at a small grocery in Tonto Basin, AZ. Reminds us of our time with Przemek in Poland and Ukraine.
Rural America is beautiful.
Theodore Roosevelt Lake, collected from the upper Salt River drainage.
This dam marks the point where the Salt River convenes into a narrower drainage, most of the way to Phoenix. Along the way the river is collected in a series of lakes which are partly responsible with providing water to the greater Phoenix area. The Colorado River picks up the slack. The unpaved Apache Trail, eventually a paved road nearer to Phoenix, is a great ride bounded by wilderness to the north and the south, highlighted by a brilliant strip of water.
Migrating retirees treat this area much like migrating birds, stopping for a few weeks in spring and fall while traveling between their summering grounds up on the Mogollon Plateau and wintering grounds to the south in places like Slab City.
Leaving pavement for a bit. This 150 mile road detour, both paved and unpaved, certainly shortens the time is takes to cover the 750 mile route.
We find ourselves camping on a sandy beach for the night, just a few steps away from clear freshwater. I would have never expected this in Arizona.
Our campsite is on the beach in the foreground.
The Apache Trail is an old stagecoach route from Tonto Basin to the Greater Phoenix area, which follows human trade and travel routes along the Salt River which have been in use for many centuries. Theodore Roosevelt, who was president at the time of the construction of both the dam and the road, says, “The Apache Trail combines the grandeur of the Alps, the glory of the Rockies, the magnificence of the Grand Canyon and then adds an indefinable something that none of the others have, to me, that is most awe-inspiring and most sublimely beautiful.”
The western portion of the road is now paved, the eastern portion alternating between wide graded sections and narrow pieces of dirt, clinging to rocky mountainsides.
As near as you’ll get to Phoenix on the AZT750.
The AZT750 passes a Basha’s grocery in Apache Junction, the last good resupply until Oracle. If touring northbound, the four mile detour to Superior might make sense. Picketpost (the trailhead at Hwy 60, near Superior), is about 90 miles from Oracle.
En route to the Picketpost Trailhead from Apache Junction along a powerline road, with a brief stop in the rural retirement community of Queen Valley. There is a diner and a very small store there.
Picketpost Mountain, a welcomed sight guarding the nicest section of the AZT. From here to the Gila River is a newer piece of trail worthy of Theodore Roosevelt’s description of the Apache Trail. If only TR rode a mountain bike…
Rejoin the AZT, duck under Hwy 60.
Picketpost marks the end of the annual AZT300 race, an event which predates the hefty AZT750. The AZT300 begins near the Mexican border (lopping 14 miles of dirt road riding from the actual border), and includes a high volume of singletrack, excepting some detours around wilderness in the Tucson/Mt. Lemmon area. The 300 miles route has been ridden in as little as 45 hours and 7 minutes by Kurt Refunder. We’ll certainly take much longer, enjoying the majesty of Arizona.