48.1 Miles; 2,696 Feet of Gain; Red Butte to Grandview
The bugling elk persisted into the early hours of the morning, whereby I got some sleep when I finally put earplugs in. Usually, October mornings have a bite of cold that gets chased by sun in the middle of the day. But as soon as the sun crested the horizon, it felt like a warm summer morning. I exited my shelter into dawn light calm and smooth. I packed up quickly knowing that today was forecast to have even more storms than yesterday. I wanted to make sure I didn't get caught in caliche substrate when the rain came. As I was eating breakfast, a bunch of USFS Hot Shot vehicles and fire trucks flew down the road I was camped next to. I noted that possibility of a fresh fire after last night's lightning show.
A mile or so into my ride, I took the side-road down to the Wildlife Tank where I filled up on enough water to get me through to the Wildlife Tanks up by Grandview. The day was really heating up, and the forecast indicated it would be 80 degrees or higher around the low parts of the route. I drank a bunch of water and pushed on up the slow, all-morning climb that carried me from pinyons and junipers into the heart of ponderosas and oaks. All the oaks lining the route were red and yellow in fire hues for fall, even as golden rabbitbrush bloomed at their feet. I turned and headed south on a decline down to Moqui Stage Station where I ran into three bikepackers with large backpacking backpacks on. They were riding the Stagecoach 100 to the Canyon and then planning on immediately hiking down to the Colorado River and back up. We all talked for a while before gathering clouds roiled nearby.
I kept biking easterly before a turn on smooth doubletrack took me across classic pinyon-juniper savannah in the heart of the Baaj Nwaavjo I'tah Kukveni National Monument. Suddenly, I rounded a curve and a large burn of smoke was shooting into the air from a wildfire either prescribed or monitored. Next to the rising smoke plume gathered dark cumulonimbus clouds that arced skyward before spreading anvil-shaped on top. The gloom of smoke and storm collided into a dark mass of atmospheric turmoil that equally swept down tendrils towards the Earth. I could smell the storm building. The sun was at such an angle that the sweep of sage-savannah next to me sat brightly in comparison to the skies of Mordor overhead.
I double-downed on the doubletrack trying to cross the large plain of grass when lightning cracked overhead. Bolt after bolt snapped and curdled to cloud on repeat. My legs pushed hard as cadence spun me across the exposed grassy basin to a heart of pinyon-junipers. I turned up a wash recently wet as clay-silt substrate began sticking to my tires. Lightning and thunder echoes went off squarely over me; the heart of the storm was bullseye above my head. I found some evenly spaced/sized trees, dropped my bike, and found a place under my rain jacket to wait out the passing thunderstorm. I ate some snacks as the storm rolled by and continued booming east of me. The pass ahead was wet but doable, so I pedaled on as the smear of black sky hung low amid distant blue. The scenery was harsh and gorgeous.
The South Rim Capes continued up a small climb and approached Peterson Flat where an abundance of rabbitbrush bloomed yellow across the sage-basin. But ahead, I noted large plumes and tendrils of the fire I had been watching all morning. I couldn't tell if the road I was on would go near it, so I pressed forward and hoped to bypass the burn. Some ten minutes later as I was leaving the sage behind and the smoke was gathering me, did I enter the woodlands only to find active burning trees and flame alight on fallen logs. It all looked rather tame, so I presumed it to be prescribed (and later confirmed by a sun warning of "Smoke Ahead." I rode into and past the smoldering burn line to exit into clear air. Able to breathe better, I stopped beneath the boughs of a ponderosa to eat a long snack.
The big climb of the day lay before me. I was at the bottom of the Coconino Rim, and I needed to bike up, gradually, but for some 20 miles to Grandview tower at an elevation of 7500 feet. I started the long ride and watched as pinyon-junipers began to be replaced by ponderosas and oak again. All around me, isolated cells of thunderstorms raged darkly in the sky. But somehow, I didn't get rained on anymore. The same couldn't be said for the road which quickly began thick peanut-butter mud and clumping alarmingly to my tires. Several vehicles must have gone through the road because deep muddy ruts lined the usually smooth Rim Road surface. My bike slid and choked on the mud as I pushed through. But my eyes kept being drawn upwards to the many oaks lining the route all dressed in fall plumage. Yellows, oranges, and bits of red made the landscape pop from the browning grasses and darker evergreens.
The temperatures continued to drop as elevations gained, storms blocked the sun, and the wind picked up. But then, the Rim Road widened out as I covered miles under ponderosa spreads. Grandview Tower and the Arizona Trail were suddenly upon me. I snapped a few pictures and began walking back into the trees which were mostly oak and changing colors rapidly. I spent some time enjoying the fall leaves before setting out to find a campsite. I biked down the singletrack of the AZT to get further into the woods and away from all the dispersed van/car campers for a little quiet and privacy. I found a solid grove of pine with a fresh bed of needles to camp under for protection from the swirling storms. I ate dinner as dusk rapidly gathered, bull elk began loudly bugling, and a cold night descended.