Four days of chilly April showers aligned with five days off and we were scrambling for something more pleasant. A bit of brainstorming and Googling found us facing the sunny south, leaving the rain and gray at our backs. Southern Arizona’s promise of warm temperatures, sunny skies, a long-unsatisfied thirst to see saguaro cactus, and the Arizona National Scenic Trail won us over.
Spanning 800 uninterrupted miles of dirt from Mexico to Utah, the Arizona National Scenic Trail (AZT) was designed for hikers, runners, equestrians, and most importantly, mountain bikes. Whether looking to do a thru-ride of the full trail, point to point rides, or using it to create a loop, options for trips are as abundant as the environments the trail traverses. We chose a two and a half day bikepack loop showcasing the best of the AZT’s desert trail. Singletrack flowed with the Gila River’s current before turning north towards the Superstition Mountains. From an intersection in the mountains, we’d turn southwest dropping towards Florence, AZ and crossing over a dry, sandy bed of the now dammed Gila River. Choosing a route to close our loop was up to us. We could follow jeep roads and a few more miles of AZT singletrack or pedal the 30 mile historic Florence-Kelvin Highway.
Sandwiches and Mexican beers filled our bellies as the sky lit up in golds, pinks, oranges, and finally violet fading to blue. Desert sunsets have their own radiance that surrounds you with a softer, gentler light that simultaneously begs for your attention and lulls you to sleep. Morning brought with it the fevered activity of packing, loading, double-checking, and stuffing a few last minute items.
We saw more spikes and spines in the first 20 minutes than we’d seen our entire lives and I was thankful for the advent of tubeless tires. One hour into our ride and we had only traveled 2 miles, enraptured by the alien beauty of the Sonoran desert.
When we were riding, the trail was brilliantly fun. Technical, but not so much that it couldn’t be ridden on a loaded bike. As we turned north, the trail’s character changed and became more rugged. We were pushing as much as riding. Up and up, deeper and deeper into an unforgiving place. Juxtaposed flowers and thorns of our surrounding environment mirrored our riding induced pain and pleasure.
Pedaling and pushing until our legs and minds were unable to absorb more fatigue, we stopped to rest. Golden light enshrouded us. 30 foot tall Saguaros seemed to be cheering and taunting in a cartoonish fashion, their grotesque appendages waving. Would they still be in the same position come morning?
No cacti attacked us that night.
Cool morning temperatures beckoned us onto the trail and we pushed out of camp. The day was again full of punishing beauty, though made easier knowing we’d eventually have miles of descent back to river level. A bit of trail magic provided a much needed boost and resupply.
Unable to find water at mapped springs, we happened upon a metal box tucked into a shrub’s shade. Left by AZT volunteers, 50 gallons of drinking water revealed itself from behind the door. Trail magic.
Loaded with water, we continued on until reaching an intersection. Here we turned and joined a jeep road, the AZT receding to memory with each rotation of the pedals. Cresting the ridge in mid-day heat, still hours away and thousands of feet below, we could see the river. Steep descending gave way to a gorgeous path through narrow canyons and once again we were enamored by this place. Too soon we emerged from the canyon’s mouth and turned into headwind. It felt like we were riding through the wasteland set of Mad Max. We’d ride miles into the desert’s hot breath, skirting too much private property, until we could cross the depressed, sorrowful bed of the dry Gila River.
Enervated from afternoon sun and miles ridden, doubt rose in the mind. We’d crossed terrain that had been more demanding than anticipated, dictating a slower pace than budgeted. Looking at maps of the remaining route, it became obvious that closing the loop by jeep roads and another small section of the AZT wasn’t feasible before we needed a computer and reliable Internet. A single exam, scheduled for the next day, was all that remained before Keri completed grad school. We wouldn’t risk missing it.
A solitary rattlesnake gliding around the decaying cow pies dotting our intended campsite reinforces the decision to ride into Florence and get a hotel. Removing this stress, our legs felt renewed and the final paved seven miles into Florence vanished like the rubber from our knobby tires.
I’d leave with the rising sun and ride the Florence-Kelvin Highway against the wind back to the car the next morning, closing the loop. Unexpected paving provided an extra four miles of respite for my tired legs before turning to dirt and slowly climbing away from the river. Miles later after a final descent, the car appeared around a bend sooner than expected and my lips curled in a smile.
Showering off the sweat, grit, and sunscreen an excited “I’m all done and I’m never going back to school!! Oh, I got an A!” echoes through the door.
As we drove home to the first rain-free day since we’d decided to turn south, glancing back to where we’d been couldn’t be helped. The Arizona Trail and Gila River Ramble delivered a lingering question; what experiences wait on the full Arizona Trail? Maybe we’ll find out.