Throughout 2020, I became a lot more interested in bikepacking. During the pandemic, it allowed me to get out and have adventures locally. Arizona has some a lot of great public land, and living in Flagstaff allowed me to access endless biking terrain from home. But a lot of the state is unreasonably hot for much of the year. Even for much of the time when temperatures are comfortable, not a lot of water is available for linking long trips. I got down to the Sonoran for a few rides in December and January, and that built my enthusiasm for a long bikepacking trip. The best time to be in much of Arizona is February/March. By the time a few winter storms have come through, water is available, weather is still nice, days are getting longer, and flora is already greening. I was conveniently unemployed for much of this time. I had quit REI at the end of January and wouldn't be starting my guide job until the end of March. The 16-day Grand Canyon hike kicked off that time, but afterwards I was really looking to get on my bike and skis as much as possible. Part of that was finally doing a big desert ride, so on March 8-10th I took off for a modified version of The Fool's Loop. The Loop is a bikepacking.com route that tours some of the best dirt roads and singletrack accessible from Phoenix, visiting some diverse ecosystems over 250 miles. I wanted 3 days, and wanted to just do the core of the loop, so my route was only 170 miles. I still rode through north Phoenix, but I cut off the southern tail that provides access from the airport. I also cut off the small northern loop, which I plan to come back and ride in a day later.
Day 1 - BCT Glory
I parked my car at the Bloody Basin Road turnoff on I-17 to start the trip. Bloody Basin road extends to the east mostly, and that's where I would end my Loop, but for now I was headed west. I pedaled pleasant gravel road for 5 miles, turned left onto Antelope Creek road, climbed, and then dropped into the Antelope Creek section of the Black Canyon Trail.
The BCT makes up the western wall of the Fool's Loop, and is almost purely singletrack for 80+ miles. It trends downhill towards Phoenix, losing over 2000 feet of elevation. I cutoff the northern sections and jumped in around mile 20. The trail was blissfully smooth and endlessly winding as I dropped into the true Sonoran desert ecosystem, gradually seeing more saguaros. I quickly reached Bumble Bee Creek, and stopped for a quick water fill. Beyond there the trail becomes more arduous and rocky, but is still fun as it heads towards The Agua Fria River. I skipped the turnoff for Rock Springs Cafe and kept southward, heading up the Skyline segment which begins with the largest climb of the trail, out of the river canyon. From the summit of the Skyline, I cruised down towards the Little Pan Loop, by the time I reached the top junction of the loop, it was basically dark, so I took the east trail which reaches the river again sooner. Down at the Agua Fria again, I set up my bed, made dinner, and even enjoyed a very small campfire. A great night under the stars. I believe this was a 54 mile day.
Enjoying lunch under the shade of a canyon wall
Dropping down into the Agua Fria river canyon
Day 2 - Valley of the Sun
I woke up and began pedaling south, out of the Agua Fria canyon once more. Passing Table Mesa road, I climbed over another pass and dropped into the small Boy Scout loop section of the BCT. I took the east side and it was a particularly nice mile, very cruiser, smooth, straight downhill. More pedaling got me to the Emery Henderson TH, which is the no longer the official southern end of the BCT, but is the final point before a relatively boring segment that connects the trail to Phoenix. I pedaled that, then joined the Maricopa trail in order to commute eastward towards the Phoenix Sonoran Preserve trail system. To link between the two, I had to pedal directly south through a suburban neighborhood on 7th ave for three miles. This was a long 3 miles, because of a fierce headwind and the seemingly endless monotony of the road.
Arriving at the Sonoran Preserve, I was pretty tired but made the short climb to the top easily. The cruiser downhill on the other side was welcome. The Sonoran Preserve trails are generally really flat and nontechnical. From the east end, I continued over to Safeway on Cave Creek road to grab some more food and ice cream. From there, I pedaled a boring and painful 7 miles east to Brown's Ranch.
Riding through the McDowell Preserve was easy and scenic. I was amazed at the amount of trails, and the ease of them. I could tell no difference between Trailforks greens and blues, and saw gravel bikes on both. I really like the decomposed granite terrain though. Made it to Bartlett Dam road, for another long pavement section. A descent first, then a big climb. Turned onto the road to Horseshoe for a short continuation of the climbing, then a monster descent. The gravel road down into the Verde valley below Horseshoe dam was a riot. Glad to have the full suspension to soak up the washboards and allow me to consistently do 30mph for maybe 10 minutes.
Upon reaching the valley floor I had a bit of pedaling remaining to get to a good campsite. I was feeling alright and wanted to maximize the daylight, but the beautiful sunset was already upon me. I rode up to the dam and thought about continuing past, but I couldn't find the passage in the dark so I headed down towards the river on a small trail. There, I found the passage, but I could see a car camping below in what looked like a nice area along the river right below the dam. Found a flat beach spot, laid out my bed, and made dinner. 73 miles.
Day 3 - River to Plains
I woke up to the sounds of an otter munching on a dead fish just a few feet away from me. That was pretty cool! After breakfast I packed my bike and hiked up the steep trail to the dam passageway. That was interesting, but would have been cooler if the spillway was flowing, which causes the tunnel to be behind a concrete waterfall. Once on the other side, I had about 12 miles to get to Sheep Bridge. This would be around the east side of Horseshoe Reservoir on a dirt road that climbs and descends into countless small drainages.
Arriving at Sheep Bridge was an awesome experience. The bridge crosses what is now the final free-flowing section of the Verde River, and the water and plants were beautiful. I crossed over to the other side and descended to the river to grab water before the desert climb ahead. The water was nice and cool and I dipped with my clothes on before the sunny climb ahead. I was already feeling tired and was not particularly ecstatic about the 3000 feet ahead.
The first leg of the climb pulled me out of the Verde Valley and into Bloody Basin. As soon as I ascended above Sheep Bridge, the views of the Valley were incredible. I felt this was the most scenic part of the trip. The low Sonoran valley with the Mazatzal Mountains towering up to 6000 feet above on the other side. The brilliant riparian corridor of the river snaking off endlessly into the distance. The Bridge is the remote takeout for a long wilderness river trip along this portion of the Verde, flowing through one of the most remote regions in Arizona. Seeing this view awakened a huge desire to do that float trip.
Climbing up, dropping into Tangle Creek, and then up some more brought me to the junction with Cave Creek road (24). I had found water in some sections of Tangle Creek, but didn't need it. I stopped at the junction and ate chips behind the shade and wind shelter of a large sign, a few trucks passing by. Finally it was time to begin the harder section of the climb. As I pedaled upward, I began to feel strain in both my Achilles tendons. eventually, I decided to walk for a while. I had just heard on an episode of the Bikes or Death podcast about how hike-a-bike can prevent injury. I ended up enjoying the change of pace and walked for about 5 miles total over the course of the climb up to the pass.
Atop the west rim of Bloody Basin, I was excited about the descent ahead. Once again I was glad to have my full suspension for the rough road cruising. I flew down the hills and the scenery changed from brushy juniper to grassland. This marked the shift into the Agua Fria National Monument, another region I had been excited to visit along the route. The Monument protects a high plains region in the center of Arizona, a rare and unique ecosystem. This is the watershed of the Agua Fria River, which I had dropped into many times along the Black Canyon Trail.
The grasslands of the monument were beautiful and I enjoyed finishing the trip through this area. The weather was incredible too. It was windy with the incoming storm, but often a tailwind for me. The sky was magnificent. It was mostly descending, but I was so exhausted that the small climbs out of drainages were brutal. At this point, both Achilles were still very painful and I had been dealing with saddle pain for a day and a half. Saddle pain is always the primary thing that makes me want to stop riding at any given moment. If that could be completely alleviated, I've always thought I could ride for twice as long and be twice as happy. But now the Achilles plagued me as well, and I didn't want to get injured. I finished off the trip listening to The Mend album by Jason Tyler Burton, which felt invigorating and emotional. I made it back to my car at the end of the last song. 43 miles.
Riding through much of the last day felt painful and hard. I hadn't felt that way in a while, and never that intensely before on a bike. But there was such an immense satisfaction in completing a massive (for me) loop. I'm always amazed how life can instantly change from being a world of pain and exhaustion to comfort and joy upon arriving at a vehicle after a hard trip.