40.61 Miles; 2,966 Feet of Gain; Show Low, AZ to near Brady Park in the Apache-Sitgreaves NF
It's been on my goal list for sometime now to link together all my favorite places in the White Mountains of eastern Arizona. Cool, elevated, gushing with streams and aspens, home to the Mexican Gray Wolf (El Lobo), and often overlooked, these "Alps of Arizona" have served as a biking and hiking location for me for years. Janna and I would head up to Big Lake with mountain bikes in tow nearly every Labor Day with Darren. I'd spend summer weeks camped at Hannagan Meadow Campground each night in order to spend my days wander-cycling around all the dirt roads and pockets of spur doubletrack I could find. And I'd dream of hearing or seeing a wolf.
A couple of years ago, I began to think of taking my favorite spots and a few new-to-me areas in the heart of El Lobo territory and connecting them in a bikepacking route. I poured over Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest maps, analyzed some Ride with GPS + Strava heatmaps, talked to some friends and acquaintances in Show Low/Pinetop, and combined that with my riding to design a preliminary route that highlighted the White Mountains and sprawled about El Lobo habitat (to maximize chances of wildlife viewing). I was all set to ride in fall of 2022 when I contracted COVID-19 for the first time. That effectively nixed that trip. Winter came and the White Mountains snowed-up. I shelved plans for the immediate future and set myself to other projects.
Janna and I had planned to ride the North Rim Capes this summer (her first ride on the entire thing) as soon as we got back from visiting my parents in Colorado. But Winter 2022/2023 brought tremendous amounts of snow throughout the southwest. The North Rim ended up getting nearly 300 inches of snow. Roads were eroded, snowed-in, or impassable with fallen trees. The NPS announced that all roads in the area wouldn't be cleared until July 1. Our North Rim Capes ride was cancelled. We scrambled to plan out another route when the El Lobo Lupus jumped to my mind. Although I had originally wanted to ride the route in autumn to maximize the aspen fall colors (I freaking love the White Mountains around Baldy and Escudilla in autumn), an early summer ride the end of May/beginning of June seemed the perfect time to see the new vegetative growth and maximize opportunities for wildflowers. We pivoted plans, and I pulled open the route again. I had originally planned El Lobo Lupus to be a one-way ride that actually went down the Coronado Highway all the way to Clifton. However, I stopped planning that approach once I couldn't find a single tenable option for getting back to our vehicle in a timely/affordable way from that area.
I set about keeping the core of the route through the areas I wanted to see but looping it back to a start in Show Low. I reached out to Mike Enfield (a local in Show Low) for his insights on my attempts to loop the route. He gave awesome feedback and insight into the return route which ended up being perfect for keeping mostly to improved dirt roads. Not only that, but his help extended to hospitality to provide us a place to park at his home and a place to shower when finished. Mike and his wife Annette ended up being amazing hosts and fantastic connections who loved to talk about biking and education/schools. At the end of the trip, I asked Mike to become a co-steward of the route which he graciously accepted.
The Full Route Guide to El Lobo Lupus is found below - completely tweaked/finalized by Janna and I's full ride.
El Lobo Lupus Route Guide
But before I jump to the end, I'll head back to the beginning.
After the trip to visit my parents in Estes Park, CO, Janna and I drove directly to Show Low. We grabbed some cheaper mid-week lodging in Pinetop before waking up and grabbing a big breakfast at Darby's. Post-consumption, we headed back to our room to organize/pack gear, change clothes, and contact Mike about heading over to his place. With that, we were off and pulling up to Mike's house. He and Annette kindly greeted us; the four of us chatted while Janna and I packed up our bikepacking rigs. The morning sun was direct and hot - Janna and I both exchanged nervous glances about how hot the day would get. But thirty minutes later, we were ready to go.
We first headed off towards the Show Low Elks building to check-in on the parking since they had so kindly given permission for cyclists to stay there. From there, we rolled downhill and downtown before staying in the sidewalks to ride to the quickening edge of juniper grasslands as the cityscape faded back. Janna and I rode along the shoulder of the highway (great shoulder for bikes) for a couple of miles. Eventually, our turn onto an OHV trail around Porter Mountain arrived. I undid the cowboy fence and we were officially off-pavement. The OHV path was in great shape, not too tutted at all. All around us white flowers pushed up in the red-brown soil, interspersed between luscious jumbles of verdant grass with tassel-heads whipping in the breeze. The grasslands became populated with junipers, pinyons, and ponderosas before long. I couldn't get over how green the vegetation was around Porter Mountain.
The heat of the day continued, so we took a midday lunch in the shade of the forest. After the reprieve of shadow, we dashed down the OHV doubletrack and arrived out on fairly quiet pavement. My original plan was to only stay on the pavement for a short bit before turning towards Greer. However, Mike had advised us to stay on the pavement longer to get a great water resupply (the only surely reliable one on this west-east portion between Show Low and Greer) in the town of Vernon. Taking his advice, we climbed up the highway and down towards Vernon. We stopped for a bit while highway crews applied paint to the lines on the road; they let us pass them so we sped down towards elevation 6,000 feet and the heat of juniper-grasslands in the summer. Vernon turned out to be a cool and beautiful little town with a community park replete with a sheltered ramada, picnic tables, a water pump, and charging stations. Everyone we passed in a car waved. It buoyed us to have friendly drivers.
It was a great place to take a break, charge our electronics, and fill out water on this hot day. At 4 PM, we headed south out of town and began ascending up into the thick heart of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. A battalion of hot shot vehicles came from the opposite direction where a lightning-caused burn was slowly creeping through the pines. Luckily, we turned east and away from the burn.
The dirt road that started quickly became a gorgeous red cinder. It was absolutely beautiful and was a complimentary contrast to the evergreens overhead. As the slanted light of late afternoon came, the sun's rays just lit up the forest and the red-cinder road with bursts of color.
We passed by some large fenced marshes that invigorated me with their presence of water and bursting biodiversity. The sun continued to head towards the horizon when we pulled off near at a large flat expanse in the ponderosa pines. We setup the Eolus on a bed of pine needles and took our slow time eating dinner and talking about life. It had been barely a week since summer break started and the feeling of unlimited opportunities lay on our lips. We watched the sun's rays blink out as twilight came craftily around us. We crawled into the shelter as the air crisped up for a solid night's sleep.