I woke up at first light to a temperature reading of 17 degrees F. It truly had plummeted temperatures all night long. A cold wind blew from the east making the temperature feel like 12. There was no way I was going to start biking until more sun hit me and warmed the air. By 7:30-8 am, I finally dragged myself out into the ridiculous cold, packed up my gear, and got going. I was feeling the urgency of covering miles as I had finished yesterday about 15 miles short of my desired camping. Plus, today I was going to have the largest elevation gain of the whole ride.
The cattle tank beckoned so I filled up all my water needs for the day because nothing would be sure from here to the end. I took a swig of the algae water tasted the plant-life in it….mmhmm. From the cattle tank, the route fled down from high elevation to low, traversing rocky double jeep double track from pines to junipers down to the high grasslands desert-plains of Babbitt Ranches. A cold wind blew forcefully the whole time.
Out on the Babbitt Ranch, I rode for several miles against the headwind before I reached a junction and realized, with surprise, that this was where the Arizona Trail was! The AZT marker stood next to the cached Hiker Box. We had camped just near here back in the last week or so of the AZT from the spring. I immediately recognized the route heading north to the Grand Canyon, and the southeast towards Humphreys Peak. Measuring how far behind I was, the amount of day left, and climbing ahead, I realized my goal of going around SP Crater and Sunset Crater just wouldn’t be in the cards timewise. I decided to hybridize the route with the AZT bikepacking route and the Western Wildlands Route to turn and immediately ascend the San Francisco Peaks (and their crater field) to get back to Flagstaff. I promised myself to return and do the missed route on a future ride.
With that, I turned south and started the long climb up the AZT/WWR towards Humphreys. All afternoon, I pedaled up the rocky dirt road through the San Francisco Volcanic Field. The views north were spectacular to the plains as were the ones south to the mountains. I eventually merged with the AZT on singletrack and rode about 10 miles of it upwards, transitioning back into the pines. By mid-afternoon, I hit the saddle on the forest road forming the circumference of the peaks and stood amidst a massive mature aspen grove. I turned left on the road. The flanks of Humphreys were awash with bright hold aspen in full splendid color. Once I cleared a second saddle, I rushed down the east side of the mountains towards the route up to Lockett Meadow.
By 4 pm, I stood at the junction for the road all the way back up the mountain to Lockett. Raked with indecision, and low on water, I knew I could ride the highway in for a long approach to Flagstaff or ride back up the mountain, cross Lockett Meadow, and take the fire road down the other side. I opted for the ladder and began riding upwards. Even at 4, the temperature was crashing back down to bitter cold with the waning afternoon sun. But the upwards push made me sweat, meaning I was in that awkward place with a jacket on but completely unzipped. Scores of cars flooded up and down next to me on the narrow, nearly single-lane road; everyone was trying to secure camping for the weekend. By the time I hit Lockett Meadow, it was now evening. The WWR took the Inner Basin Trail up through the woods, but I knew this was long and winding singletrack. A year before, I had found an old abandoned, CRAZY STEEP, but short eroded gravel track that was fenced to cars, but could be navigated by food or bike that led out a side road from Lockett. I chose this and kept my climbing up.
I walked around the gate and began a punishing steep climb up the side of the mountain to the fire road. I was also racing the remaining sunlight beginning to wane. My Surly Karate Monkey is already a heavy beast without bags, let alone without gear strapped to it. The route was so steep that I would push the bike up with all my strength (literally heaving out of breath), then grip the brakes. Finally, I would shuffle my feet up. On repeat, over and over. Within 45 physically demanding minutes, I hit the fire road and gave a victor’s roar, for real. I began quickly putting on cold gear as I was at 9,000 feet and the temperature was even colder. No sooner had I donned my insulation, then a guy gravel grinding came by. He lived in Flagstaff, was doing prep ride to race the Coconino 250, and he was incredulous that I pushed my bike up that gravel route.
“Dude, I rode down that once and decided I would never ride it again. I can’t imagine that you PUSHED your bike and gear up that….that’s fucking insane!”
Yes, it was.
He asked if I was going to check out the aspen up the road a bit. To be honest, I was tired and had decided mid-climb to skip the aspen and just head down to Flagstaff.
“You can’t have done such a badass thing and miss the beauty at the end!” he said to me.
He was right. I was invigorated and biked up the fire road in fast ended daylight. Even in evening shades, it was absolutely, unquestionably worth it. Aspen stood in thick mature groves with a canopy of goldfinch yellow and sunset orange. Most of the road in front of me me was carpeted in a blanket of fallen leaves. Worth it indeed.
With the fully below the horizon, I turned on my lights and prepared for a chilling descent down the mountain for like 20 miles from 9,000 feet. I flew.
I crested a corner and an old burn provided expansive glimpses of the horizon where the umbra of the mountain spilled long and full onto the atmospheric haze in the distance. Purples and pinks faded to pitch black night and now the temperature was going back below freezing. I pedaled as fast as good, chilling me further, but getting me down faster. I was speeding down past Weatherford Trailhead into the ink dark with elk calling out around me. I was so cold I could no longer feel my fingers. Long out of liquid to drink, I was equally dehydrated. I knew my first stop at the bottom and with speed I raced to a Shell gas station once back at the periphery of civilization. The clerk said I looked cold as shit and made fun of me for it. I ignored him and bought the tallest cup of boiling hot chocolate I could and a bunch of cheese. I asked if I could drink inside to warm up and was obliged. For 45 minutes, I drank probably a total liter of hot chocolate and several chunks of gas station cheese. My fingers had feeling returned, my dehydration (and subsequent nausea decreased), and I knew it was only 8 miles of pedaling across the city to Esther and Mike’s house.
I easily covered the urban riding, the temperatures in town more mild. I pulled up to their house past 8 pm. They congratulated me with pizza and good/meaningful late-night conversation, plus a convincing argument to stay the night.
I knew yesterday was the long day (~60 miles), so I planned on today being only 50 miles or so. I was shocked by the temperature in the upper 20s as I left in the morning, starting with a great breakfast place in Williams. Afterwards, I headed down a side frontage road paralleling the highway to the Grand Canyon where I eventually swung onto beautiful ochre/red gravel and passed through open grassland interspersed with junipers. By mid-morning, the Sun had warmed the temperatures enough to remove my multiple jackets and begin a good sweat. The gravel routes passed by several tanks and reservoirs before t-boning into the highway leading to the Grand Canyon. I turned north and rode the shoulder of the highway while loads of tourists passed in RVs and buses on their way to the canyon.
I stopped at the Shell gas station near Star Valley and the KOA to grab some AA batteries (I forgot to replace the dying ones in my GPS). I crossed the highway and entered Star Valley. This was actually a gorgeous, I think unincorporated community, with beautiful homes set in the junipers, pines, and grasslands. After a tarmac climb, the road became excellent gravel that swooped down off a saddle into a wide prairie below. I entered the Kaibab National Forest and my route suddenly took a left off the perfect gravel onto one of the most gnarly, rocky, and little-used double track jeep road I had ever ridden. Honestly, I had to do a double-take at my GPS this route seemed so primitive; I feel like a single rancher might drive this route once a year.
I opened and closed the most janky barbed-wire fences. One took 15 minutes for me to get open (without slicing myself apart) and closed; I became convinced at one point that the rancher who put this here was so paranoid about sagging fence that he took too much slack out for me to actually get it back on. For real, I actually pulled my shoulder muscling it back on.
The route continued to be strewn with baby-heads and volcanic pumice that shook my body until my wrists and hands screamed. The further I went, the more remote the area seemed to get. But for all the primitive the route was, it made the views that much more beautiful. After traversing along a canyon, the views opened up in high desert grassland on my left and the high peaks of volcanic rims on my right. I passed through a basin of sagebrush before I saw smoke in the distance, joined a well-traveled dirt road, and passed a crew of hotshots watching the prescribed burn. I climbed up into the pines of some volcanic peaks where a pickup passed me full of hunters out looking for pronghorn; they complimented my badassery with cycling in this remote area. After climbing into the remote peaks, a significant downhill ensued that swept me towards Kendrick Peak in the distance.
I seemed to be riding straight up the north side of the peak, and by now, it began dawning on me that the large amount of elevation gain today was equating to me in no-way getting to my desired camping spot on the flanks of SP Crater tonight. I had to adjust my expectations for where I was planning to camp and get water with the quickly approaching evening. After the road I was only circumscribed Kendrick, I flew down (again, a part of the Barn Burner route) the north side and passed several dry tanks labeled as potential water sources. The temperatures began plummeting. I was preparing for a cold night ahead as a cold front was predicting a massively low temperature. I stopped to put on gloves, hat, jackets, tights, wind layers, etc. so I could keep pedaling into the cold evening.
By 5 pm, I found myself crossing a highway, opening and closing a barbed wire fence, and making my way towards what I hoped would be a good water source. And it was a GREAT water source - the only one around. It was a cattle tank filled to the top with algae water. I filled up and backtracked my route to some beautiful pine trees to serve as good wind breaks for the cold night ahead. I setup my tarp in storm mode to help block the arctic wind. I placed my bivy and quilt underneath. In the dark, I found a log several hundred feet away to eat with the shine of starlight dark skies overhead. Food eaten and stored, I was in a full shiver before I climbed into my quilt where temperatures continued to drop straight through the night until first dawn. It was a full moon night and many times when I woke, silver light made the woods as bright as day.
It was finally Fall Break after a tumultuous first quarter of teaching at a new school. I was burnt out and in need of some desperate outside time. I had been wanting to do the Craters and Cinder Cones Loop for some time now and the weather up north looked absolutely perfect for taking it on. Plus, it would serve as a chance to escape the late-season desert heat and seem some fall foliage.
I packed up the bike as soon as school was done Friday and drove north to Flagstaff where I crashed at my friends’ house (Esther and Mike). They graciously allowed me to use their house as a base for me to leave my car and store some gear while I spent a few days out riding (even when I lost their garage remote!). We stayed up late eating pizza, talking about teaching, and reflecting on life.
The next morning, I got up to a frigid blast of fall air, packed up the bike, and jumped on route. I rode from their place on the east side of the city downtown along the ACA Route 66 Bicycle Route. From downtown Flagstaff, I jumped on the Urban Trails System and sped eastward to a park that led up Observatory Mesa (past the Lowell Observatory of Pluto-discovery fame). It felt beautiful to be racing through the pines with crisp fall air set against a backdrop of deep blue skies. The route wove through miles of forest service roads, past cattle roaming the woods, and ranchlands amongst the pines.
The woods suddenly opened up into a spread of prairie with gorgeous views of the San Francisco Peaks accompanied by a solid wind. I picked my way down a descent and swung left onto a pine-needle covered double track that looked rarely used. I passed through several burn zones as I swung towards Kendrick Peak and its small range. I soon realized I was cycling on the south side of Kendrick and was on the Barn Burner Race route (the race that had killed me) along with its crazy chunky volcanic rock. Eventually I swung past a series of rentable Forest Service cabins along a beautiful lake. Shortly after, my first views of golden aspen came into view.
I climbed further north towards the peak before swing in a wide arc south where I passed over Route 66 proper and faced a killer headwind on tarmac. I was in a several mile prairie that flanks the highway and the unbridled wind slowed me to a crawl. The day was getting on late as I entered the National Forest south of Williams, swung by White Horse Lake, and then did the long hard ascent up Forest Road 180.
Evening was in full presence at 5 pm, so I stopped to put on warm layers, my front and rear lights, and continued pedaling into the dark along route I had done gravel rides on with Darren and Janna just weeks before. Bill Williams Mountain rose to my left in civil twilight. With that, I hit pavement and began a fast downhill towards the city of Williams, passing by the reservoir and entering the crisp night air right in the middle of the city. All the campgrounds were RIDICULOUSLY expensive (the same price as a hotel room - I can only imagine they were hyped up glamping facilities) so I got a room at the Red Roof Inn. I walked downtown, got some food from the Grand Canyon Brewery before stopping by Safeway to pick up groceries for tomorrow.
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