Flagstaff to Picketpost on the Arizona Trail

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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.

Get GPS data for the AZT750 at Topofusion.com.  Current water resources along the AZT managed by Fred Gaudet.

Resupply notes, bold is on route:

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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.

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Riding out of Flagstaff. 

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Regaining some elevation, looking back at the San Francisco Peaks.

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Above Lake Mary.

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Keep gates closed.  Jumping fences often saves time over opening and closing gates, and you’ll grow a massive pair of guns like Lael.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Pines, volcanics, sunshine, and sweet, sweet singletrack.

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General Springs.

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General Springs Cabin.

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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”.

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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.

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Tarantula.

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Some chunk, but lots of great trail.  There are large sections which require hiking, but the overall experience in positive.

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The trail crosses many drainages which means lots of fresh water, and lots of short climbs and descents.  This is some fine technical riding.

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Burn.

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Juniper.

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Shred.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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Descending from Payson, adjacent to the Beeline Hwy.

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Jake’s Corner.

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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.

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Rural America is beautiful.

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Theodore Roosevelt Lake, collected from the upper Salt River drainage.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Our campsite is on the beach in the foreground.

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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.”  

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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.

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Tortilla Flat.

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As near as you’ll get to Phoenix on the AZT750.

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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.

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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…

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Rejoin the AZT, duck under Hwy 60.

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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.

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Rogue Panda Designs and Flagstaff, AZ

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Nick Smolinske is Rogue Panda Designs, in Flagstaff, AZ.  Check out the Rogue Panda website for product and ordering information, or the Rogue Panda Facebook page for news and monthly deals.  Don’t forget, I keep a fairly accurate list of all known bikepacking bag makers from around the world.  Please send corrections and submissions!

I once wrote that I thought every town should have a baker, a brewer, a framebuilder, and a bag maker.  Flagstaff has all of these, in addition to a nice slice of the Arizona Trail and some of the most pleasant fall weather in the country.

Nick Smolinske is Rogue Panda Designs.  Nick has been designing and making bikepacking equipment for years, and blends his passion for lightweight backpacking and bicycling at the helm of his sewing machine.  His business recently outgrew his bedroom, his spare room, and his Etsy retail space.  Earlier this year, Nick quit his job to invest in full-time bag manufacturing and design.  He moved his equipment into a rented garage across town, a building which once acted as a horse stable with a few dusty corners to prove it.  Rogue Panda Designs debuted a full-featured website at the same time with an active retail portal featuring in-stock products and a custom ordering process.

Rogue Panda offers most of the now-standard bikepacking designs, but a few products stand out from the rest.  The Picketpost seatbag is designed to maximize the space behind the seatpost on a hardtail bike, preferring a more vertical orientation that also serves to stabilize the bag on technical trails.  Several companies are working to improve the stability of the modern seatbag, with varied approaches to solving the problem.  

The Oracle downtube bag is a small zippered pouch meant to hold tools, tube, or other dense items which don’t need to be in a framebag.  It attaches to the downtube or any other part of the bicycle via non-slip straps, with an integrated compression strap.  

Lastly, Rogue Panda’s custom framebags stand out for the detailed and bold designs which are offered.  Nick is most proud of the radiant Arizona state flag designs, yet regularly offers bags with the New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming state flag logos.  If you live in a state or country with a simple and preferably geometric flag, you could wave it proudly on you bike.  I’m thinking Israel, South Africa, Sweden, and Macedonia would be great candidates for a country flag.  Texans, you know you need Texas themed bikepacking kit.  Check out the time-lapse video of an Arizona flag framebag in production.

Most Rogue Panda products are named after sections of the Arizona Trail.

The name Rogue Panda originates from a local prank in which an electronic traffic sign was hacked, and the banner was modified to warn motorists of a “ROGUE PANDA ON RAMPAGE”.  Nick is not responsible for the prank, I don’t think.

Every town should have a friendly bike shop like Flag Bike Revolution.  The bike shop shares an old industrial building with an artisan Neopolitan-style pizzeria with a subtle bike theme called Pizzicleta, and the Mother Road Brewery, named for the famous Route 66.

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Our friend James manages Pizzicleta and bakes the best bread in Flagstaff, as a way to use remnant heat from the previous night’s fire. The bread bakes each morning while James preps for the day.  In the evening, the tiny eatery is packed with guests who share a single large table.  We gave Lael’s blue Raleigh XXIX to James while in Flagstaff.  We also gave Lael’s old green Surly Long Haul Trucker to his girlfriend Deja several years ago.  Since, Deja has traveled to Italy with the LHT.  

James reports that the rusty blue hardtail has been repaired– he discovered a hole in the frame while preparing for paint– and the frame now wears a new coat of white paint with metal flake.  A brand new RockShox Reba fork rounds out the build, along with a new framebag and seatbag.

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Building and customizing Lael’s Specialized Era at Flag Bike Rev.  She will be moving to a new hardtail in the coming months.  Anyone looking for a great full-suspension cross-country and bikepacking rig?

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A visit to Rogue Panda headquarters reveals a colorful array of bikepacking gear, and a few innovative designs.

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The Picketpost seatbag, mocked up on my Meriwether hardtail.  The two lower plastic loops are used to connect the bag to the seatstays for added stability.  This design also maximizes the total volume of the bag, without forcing a load beyond the rear axle.

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Nick has prepared a drawer full of Arizona flag panels, awaiting fabrication into complete framebags.  All framebags are custom and pricing starts at $125 for state flag bags, or $95 for single color and single compartment bags.

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This custom two-compatment bag is headed on tour in New Zealand on Brian’s Surly Cross Check.  Logos represent local businesses who have helped him prepare for his trip, and the text at the bottom is in memory of his parents.  James gave this bike to Brian, we gave a bike to James, the world is a better place.  Nick prefers a photograph of the bicycle with a measuring tape or meter stick in the image, rather than a hand-drawn pattern.

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Once the bag has been ordered and a pattern provided, the star is located on the drive-side panel.

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Handlebar bags are mostly standard designs, including sealed seams and a multi-purpose daisy chain which enables secure attachment to Jones Loop bars.

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Later, Nick joins us for a ride on the Flagstaff Loop Trail and a brief section of the AZT.  Our friends Lucas and Monica, once of Anchorage, Alaska, also roll through town while we are in Flagstaff.

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This mural by Cosmic Ray, now on display at Cosmic Cycles, depicts the local trail system.  The text in the bottom right reads “Copycats will ride Huffys in Hell… (Full Wald Gruppo!).

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Lael on her first dirt ride on the Specialized Era, also her first ride with a backpack.  She successfully used this Osprey Raptor 14 pack to haul her bike through the Grand Canyon. 

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Nick is proud of his dirt cheap custom bikepacking rig.  The frame is a Bikes Direct freebie from around town, a simple coil suspension fork, custom luggage, Thudbuster seatpost, with platform pedals.

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An early prototype of the Oracle downtube bag.

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Fresh bread!  Thanks Deja.

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Route 66 lives in Flagstaff.

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Pizzicleta is highly regarded for thin crust pizza, although I just like knowing that the pizza man rides a bike.  James treated us to an exceptional meal at “Pizzi”, as he calls it.  

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To come: A series of posts about the rest of the Arizona Trail, and some more insight into Lael’s AZT ITT and her future with ultra-endurance racing.  Lastly, in the next few weeks I plan to roll out a series of posts from our time in the Middle East this spring, including time spent in Jordan, Israel, and Palestine riding with Julian, Christina, and Klaus.  Lots of fresh stories coming soon.  

We will be in the Phoenix area over the next few days, then back to New York State to visit my family.  We will be in Northern and Central New York, NYC, and even the Washington D.C. area in the next few weeks if anyone wants to meet for a beer or a ride.

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