47.91 Miles; 3,891 Feet of Gain; Hannagan Meadow to Big Lake
Night was utterly quiet. We awoke at the first tendrils of cold dawn. Summer light entered the shelter, but the temps were easily in the upper 30s. We had a big day of climbing ahead of us to cover the distance to Big Lake. Nick came out of his woodland camp while holding a large air rifle he carried for, per his description, the large predators in the area. Hannagan Meadow Lodge wouldn’t open for breakfast for a while, so we ate our own breakfast and joined the shoulder of the highway. Highway 666, aka the Coronado Highway, undulated along a series of gradually rising hills to nearly 9300 feet. Thick aspen, large spruce, and a mix of semi-burned woodlands made up the corridor. The shoulder was decent and the traffic almost non-existent along the paved stretch.
The route took a spur and short descent to Blue Vista. Here, a parking pull-off provided an expansive view right off the Mogollon Rim. We parked our bikes and walked out to the overlook for stunning views of pines tumbling down the Rim to a series of ranges that lowered themselves to the Sonoran Desert floor in the distance. The foot of Safford at the base of Mt. Graham punctuated the distant horizon as a prominent Sky Island. Another viewpoint to our left afforded distant views of ranges extending into the heart of the Gila in New Mexico. We ate some more snacks letting the slowly warming light work its way into our skins.
Janna and I retraced our small spur to get back to the side turn swinging north along the Bear Wallow Wilderness. Smooth wide dirt turned under our wheels as we snaked up and down a contour line along gaping views into mountains surrounding Bear Wallow Creek. The opportune views were the product of the Wallow Fire; only a few miles down the road and we hit the trailhead for the Bear Wallow Trail and its large interpretive sign outline this location as the origin of the destructive fire that raged the White Mountains years ago. We continued on along isolated stands of pine and aspen interspersed among large burn scars. I knew the large descent to Wildcat Crossing was coming from riding this section over the years, so I tucked in and let the bike fly down the massive decline while views of Mount Baldy opened up ahead of us. The descent turned aspen into spruce into ponderosa and oak as our elevation decreased and the air temperatures increased.
The canyon containing the Black River filled our vision as the road came to a slowing hairpin turn on a bridge centered over the beautiful waters below. We immediately parked our bikes along the bridge walls and stared at the coursing beauty of that river cutting through southwestern rock, amply draped in green, and gorgeous beneath the blue early summer sky. An osprey called from nearby as it flew to a nest on top of a massive ponderosa tree. Janna and I lingered for a while at the river making sure to fill our water. As the heat of the day was now growing, we got back on our bikes to start the large all-day climb now to Big Lake back at well over 9000 feet from this point at 6800 feet. As we climbed up the embankment of canyon wall on the other side, I kept turning around to stare back at the swath of water making its way through this epic landscape.
The climb was steep but rideable, and eventually the grade decreased as we climbed over the canyon wall. Large ponderosa stands filled the landscape, their forest floors covered with irises now drying in the quickening summer. We pedaled on up and down several well-flowing creeks, making our way through the expansive forest. Wild horses grazed in adjacent meadows and the USFS had up signs about trespass cattle removal on some side spur roads. On portions of the route, large green ferns unfurled in bunches across the pine-needle firmament. We turned our bikes and arrived as the West Fork Black River - a tributary of the main. The water was quick, cold, and capped with white as it tumbled over a litany of rocks. We refilled our water reservoirs again. The road climbed up through aspens before giving way to a multi-mile exposure in burn scar from the Wallow Fire. Luckily, it was cloudy. But on a sunny mid-summer day, this section would be hot and intense. Small ponds of water dotted the burnscape.
Eventually, aspen began growing in thicker bundles until we were back in a mature, subalpine forest relatively untouched by the burn. The road remained smooth and well-graded. The number of ATVs, trucks, and campers increased - we knew we were nearing Big Lake. We popped out on the edge of massive sprawling lake set in subalpine meadows. The temperature was perfect and the climbing done. I had secured reservations ahead of time at the many campsites located along its shore. We pulled into our campsite set back in the trees to disgorge our gear for one last night on the route. Janna and I then pedaled over to the General Store. I didn't know what to expect because phone calls, Google searches, and local's advice didn't really reveal much in the size of the resupply. It turned out to be a great place for good. Pricey, but well-stocked with sandwiches, chips, crackers, ice cream, and anything else a bikepacker would want (even a selection of fresh fruit). We bought a sizeable dinner for our first resupply in days and made our way back to camp. Our stomachs full, Janna and I walked down by the lake and sat upon the shore for a gorgeous sunset. The sun licked below the adjacent mountains as night came on and we went to bed before tomorrow's big ride to finish.