37.94 Miles; 3,596 Feet of Gain; Near Williams Valley/Three Forks, AZ to Arizona Divide Campground
I slept terribly due to the fact that our dispersed campsite had a large pile of pine needles shoved into a pile nearby. The reason this bothered me was due to the fact that mountain lions will make those piles to cache kills. I unburied the pile after stumbling upon it when our camp was set up. There was nothing in it. But some primitive, annoying part of my brain leaked doubt and fear throughout the utterly silent night to the point where sleep barely came on when adrenaline was rushing my veins. Sometime in the night, a series of long-drawn howls, so unlike coyotes, rose from the Williams Valley below. The howls were so unlike a coyote, I really shot up to the realization that they were probably wolves. At 3:30 am, the birds started singing for the day. At 4 am, dawn was firmly upon us. I managed to catch a couple of hours of rest and stirred at the early hour to another day of potential rain. But now it was already hot with daylight hitting us. We ate slowly and packed up, pushing out and ascending the dirt road leading to camp.
The dirt road became a bit more rugged - not awful but definitely rockier than other portions of the route thus far. The road sat on a contour line to wind in and out of nooks of the South Mountain range that was carrying us towards the town of Alpine, AZ. Vast views of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest opened to our rights. Lush, green ferns dotted the woodland floors around us. Suddenly we exited the thick trees into another burn scar from the Wallow Fire. Row upon row of young, fire-loving aspen grew in groves thick upon the mountain flanks. The newly growing vegetation was slow, so we stared off far onto the snow-patched top of Mount Baldy. Massive canine paw prints and thick furry scat lay frequently scattered throughout the road - I wondered it it was Mexican gray wolf poop. Unburned thickets of pines rose up to meet the sides of the road again. Then, it was back into burn secondary growth. This pattern repeated again and again. The road suddenly left the contour and began steeply a decline.
I angled into a downhill position and let the bike fly. The road wove and wrapped quickly through burn scar and mature canopies. Multiple sections of washboard chattered my body before being back on smooth gravel. And then we were at the bottom where an intersection with the paved highway lay. Turning left, we climbed a shallow hill along the small shoulder that afforded a gaping view at the extent of the Wallow Fire's impact on the entire mountain range. Even over a decade ago, the forest hear, though low-cloaked in neon aspen, was still coming back from the fire. Janna and I dipped off the highway to our rights onto a dirt road that wound through ponderosa before banking onto pavement just outside the school grounds of Alpine. We passed by the middle and elementary buildings before they were replaced by sprawling cattle ranch lands tucked into the verdant valley of green. The road carried us to the main highway bisecting Alpine where we took a left and came to downtown.
The first thing we did was beeline it over to a local café for food a mid-morning breakfast. We parked our bikes and walked in to a place we had been to several times over the years. However, the interior décor had changed since last we had visited; it had shifted very intensely to a polar-end of the political spectrum. Signs everywhere banned cell phones, and it was obvious that my floral shirt and recently painted nails stood out intensely in the restaurant's political-scape. I felt keenly aware of every locals' eyes watching me. I'll straight-up inform riders: the food here is absolutely fantastic - but be prepared for a far-leaning, intense political expression - and don't use a cell phone indoors unless you want service refused. We made sure our phones stayed away and were directed to a seat. We ate gobs of hot food. Afterwards, we made our way over to the Alpine Country Store. They had ice cream to serve, so I absolutely grabbed some to eat. Janna and I also made sure to grab some food and eye what we wanted when we came back through in another day or so for a rest.
We walked outside, I downed the rest of my ice cream, and we stared up at the backside of Escudilla Mountain - its flanks running down to the green valley Alpine sits in. Above, a mess of cloud and rain swirled in the atmosphere. We pushed off, took a right on the highway, and joined a generous shoulder for a climb up to the Alpine Divide. Right before the divide-proper, the Alpine Divide Campground sits. We turned off and claimed one of the four sites available to camp it. A large water storage tank prominently offered drinkable water. Janna and I had decided that we would set up camp here, leave a ton of weight/supplies (lighten the bikes), and then we would proceed up the climb to the top of Escudilla before coming back down here. We took our time to unload gear, fill our bottles, take the bare minimum, and head towards the side-loop up on top. I knew the coming climb was going to be steep. I also knew that anytime a route has a side-attraction, that riders get mighty tempted to skip the extra distance (especially when thousands of feet of elevation gain are required on an out-and-back). But I also knew this mountain was gorgeous, I'd hiked to the top before, that wolves were definitely present, and that we'd hit the high point of the route at 10,000 feet - these were all reasons I'd included the loop on the route, and why I'd encourage every bikepacker to take the opportunity to see this section.
After a descent down the other side of the divide, Janna and I turned onto the dirt road that ascended Escudilla. No sooner had we turned than it started raining. A mountain this big, this prominent in the landscape, absolutely makes its own weather. Luckily the road substrate was descent in the rain. We climbed up past Hulsey Lake; every spot at the fishing lake was packed with trucks and cars. As soon as got past that area, the number of vehicles began to dwindle, especially as the route got steeper. Escudilla means "bowl" in Spanish - an apt description for a old volcanic relic of a mountain. And with our climb, we entered the inner "bowl" of the range with its scooped-out basic surrounded by walls of tree-cloaked peaks. The Wallow Fire had really burned this mountain from nearly bottom to top. Aspen had returned with a relish to much of it and Escudilla becomes absolutely gorgeous when their leaves turn in the fall. The bottom of the mountain's forest were still well-matured forest. But we soon entered the burn scar. The views opened up and the rain turned from a pour to a spitter to nothing. Both Janna and I were really sweating with the steep elevation gain. We shed our jackets and started alternating between riding and hike-a-biking. A mile or so later, we were almost exclusively walking/pushing our bikes up the crazy steep road. Every time I'd ride, my heart rate would explode, so I'd get off to walk and save my knees. Up and up, crazy slow, the going took until we rounded a contour in the mountain where the road became more bearable to ride. Soon, we were riding past thickening mature stands of aspen and spruce unblemished from the burn.
We hit the lollipop stem of the Terry Flat Loop. I had the route do the loop ride by heading left in order to provide a more gentle climb and better views along this ride at 10,000 feet in elevation. Grassy meadows swept down the mountain and merged with aspen. I was blown away by how gorgeous, green, and full of life this plateau on the mountain was. Plus, we had miles and miles of this mountain road to ourselves. A sign to our lefts indicated the Escudilla Lookout Trail that climbs to near the high point of the mountain at 10,916 feet. However, this trail enters the Escudilla Wilderness, so it's off-limits to bikes. Instead, we'd take Terry Flat for a spin through the subalpine meadows. Signs were posted everywhere about the Mexican gray wolves present. The road was filled with feces from a predator and large canine tracks were everywhere. I kept swiveling my head left and right just to catch a glimpse of a wolf running across the meadows while my ears listened intently for any howls. The air held the very present and strong odor of musk and urine. But no glimpses were made.
The clouds swirled maddening whites and greys across the skies, but no rain fell. The woods were thick and unburned here. Everything seemed absolutely still. To our rights, a vast plain of subalpine meadows sprawled across the high-elevation plateau. Terry Flat carried us on a giant circumference of the plains. We pulled off on a spur road that led back into a thicket of aspen and a stunning distant overlook out to New Mexico. Janna and I ate snacks here before riding on past snow-melt ponds and lakes gathered in the depressions of the meadows. The charred toothpicks of trees from the Wallow Fire rose dramatically from the landscape, standing out against the chaotic-swirl of rain clouds above. The road continued to slowly climb until we crested near 10,000 feet and turned for a full sun-backlit view of Escudilla's Peak. I marveled at the wildness, the expanse, the colors, the remoteness of it all. Below our small ridge, a large herd of elk came walking out of a thicket of aspen to stride across the subalpine meadows before heading down a drainage leading to a lake. It all looked so unlike something to be seen in Arizona. My eyes were drawn to yellow grasses of the meadows that quickly greened on approach to the gushing creeks and cold pools up here.
We started descending, crossed over a creek gurgling across the road, and reentered the groves of aspen. Our luck of having no rain while on the highest portions ran out as a soft patter of raindrops began to fall. We put on rain gear and prepared for a crazy steep descent down the road. I rode my brakes so hard I know the rotors heated up. Lighting and thundering unleashed overhead. We were still in the exposed burn scar so I had a huge impetus to move downwards and into the mature treeline. As soon as we the road slacked in steepness we reached the floor of the "bowl" and reentered pine woodlands. Now, the rain really began falling in cold, hard sheets. The road was quickly deteriorating into mud. I pressed on eager to get even lower in the lightning and back to pavement. My fingers numbed painfully in the biting wind and cold raindrops. And then, we were back on the highway. Janna and I both crossed and started the climb back up the Alpine Divide to our campground at the top. The climb up was gradual, the shoulder on the highway large, and the rain began steadily decreasing. By the time we reached the Alpine Divide Campground, the sun was starting to materialize from the storm, and I was sweating.
We pulled into our site. I felt uncompromisingly that the climb up Escudilla on Terry Flat was the definite highlight of the entire route so far. We shed our rain gear to dry as a the storm quickened away under a swirl of clouds gushing with the colors of sunset. We had some time before night came so we ate dinner, took a small walk, and then climbed into our shelter. After the massive climb, and last night's lack of sleep, I fell right into a deep slumber.