El Lobo Lupus - Day 11 - Riding the Apache Railroad Trail Across Subalpine Fields to Greens Peak and Finish!
78.03 Miles; 3,610 Feet of Gain; Big Lake to Show Low, AZ
Janna and slept intermittently. The campsite next to us arrived near midnight and spent an hour or so loudly debating how to setup their tents. Once it quieted down, I slept well. But Janna and I had discussed, and after looking over the next two days, we decided that we could easily finish in one long day given that the majority of the route was downhill. Early summer dawn hit us, and we quickly got up and packed up our camp in the near-frost chill of morning's light. The water of Big Lake was a sapphire blue, and the distant summit of Mount Baldy was now mostly snow-free save for a few spots.
The gravel roads were stellar in the area. Wide, smooth, and well-maintained, we easily covered miles through the rolling hills of the subalpine meadows that make up the high-elevation area. Blue skies afforded far looks into the scenery of peaks punctuating grassland horizons at 9000 feet. I kept stopping over and over again to swivel my head and take in all the beauty. Pronghorn rushed across the elevated grasslands. Small streams gushed and coursed along and across the road.
We turned and started up another smooth dirt road that entered a grove of trees and traced a neon green-riparian creek. Before we reached the highway, we decided to swing a left on the Apache Railroad Trail once more. As before, the Apache Railroad Trail was overgrown with vegetation and chock full of loss cinder balls as its substrate. But I wanted to see if this was a scenic alternative to the highway shoulder; we pushed ahead. The primitive singletrack had a few dead trees across its path - but all were easy to navigate around. It then crossed the shoulder of an expansive meadow with deep-set greens of summer growth. I found the scenery electrifying in beauty here along the flanks of Mount Baldy. The trail frequently disappeared under the growth of meadow grass. But we picked a rough line and followed it until the trail appeared again near the other side. It spilled us out near the highway where a quick trip under a culvert brought us back to the paved shoulder. I decided to add this section of the Apache Railroad Trail to the route for its shear beauty with alternatives taking the highway shoulder instead.
We spun along the highway shoulder for several miles. It took us back by some areas we had ridden earlier in the trip. We turned up the road towards Greer that previously whereby we had exited. This time, we aimed to jump on the Apache Railroad Trail near here that took us across a trestle bridge and continued on across the subalpine grasslands. The singletrack became primitive doubletrack as it entered a far glen of mature aspen and pine, providing momentary shade from the rising sun of summer. The substrate of the old trail was red dirt and cinder, way more stable than what we had ridden earlier this morning. The path cut across meadows and deposited us on FR 112 - this was a stellar dirt road that skirted White Mountain Reservoir and distant Sunrise Lake before curving the base of Pole Knoll. We took a right and just enjoyed every pedal stroke across the broad plains. A massive herd of elk distantly gathered in the grasses. Embankments of snow sat still-encrusted along the leeward slopes of small hills. As we approached the highway, large wind-breaks reared up. They are installed to help mitigate drifting snow on the highway in winter and terrible crosswinds at other times. But today, there seemed to be no wind and only perfect conditions for riding.
The route joined the shoulder of the paved highway for a short bit. There was definitely a bit of traffic, but the shoulder was wide and this section short. From here, we swung a right onto a dirt road that took us on a gradual climb to one of the high points of the route at 9600 feet near Greens Peak. Even in June, portions of the surrounding hills had small snowfields leftover from winter. Aspen stands climbed over and around all peaks in a thick forest of evergreen-coating. More signs indicated the presence of El Lobo in the area. From this high point, we began the long and meandering descent that would take us all day to Show Low. First, down the back red-dirt roads and coniferous forests highlands of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.
The spruce and aspen started thick. But they slowly melted away to grasslands tussocks set among ponderosas. The heat was on and the day dry. So much dust was getting kicked up by riding that my chain kept drying out and needing re-lubed. We entered a large burn zone that afforded views of the distant Springerville Volcanic Fields once more. The burn scar was short lived as we reentered thick forest and the shade therein. The roads were in great condition and lined with multiple meadows of neon-green grass and ephemeral wetlands. Just outside of Pinetop, we stopped so I could lube my chain once more. A USFS firefighter pulled up and talked to us at length about our ride, the area, and teaching. He continued on, and we hit pavement that wove us through the neighborhoods of Pinetop before spilling us out on the main highway bisecting town. We immediately beelined it for the local ice cream place near the movie theater.
With cold cream in our stomachs, Janna and I took a right on Porter Mountain Road. The road was moderately heavy with traffic and the shoulder scant, so we made sure our safety vests and lights were on. At the intersection with Penrod, we kept right and started up the way-less-trafficked base of Porter Mountain. Early summer evening was getting on and the Sun started that slant of light in the sky. We joined dirt at the Panorama Trail to retrace our original route that carried us out of Show Low. The route carried us around the base of Porter Mountain once again where dry grasslands and juniper-pinyons became common. From here, we crossed onto the wide shoulder of paved Highway 60 back into downtown Show Low before retracing our steps back to Mike's house right as evening proper was getting on. We were absolutely stoked to have done the whole ride, and I kept reveling in the full and utter beauty of the areas we had traveled through the White Mountains. Absolutely a route I plan to ride again in the fall sometime and a stellar example of what the southwest's subalpine forests and grasslands can offer.