25.21 Miles; 2,149 Feet of Gain; Diamond Rock Campground along the Black River to Hannagan Meadow
I slept soundly in that deep peace that comes from the sound of rushing water nearby. The morning was cold as sunk air densely packed down in the gorge next to the Black River. We knew we had a short day today (purposely planned after yesterday's big day), so we languidly arose only after the Sun nearly crested the walls of canyon. I exited the tent and immediately deposited myself in a seat in a patch of Sun working its way to warm the area. Satiated with light, I immediately went back down to walk along the banks of the Black River. Great blue herons stalked for fish or flew overhead. I walked the banks for 40 minutes taking in the curves and riffles of the water before heading back to camp to make some breakfast. After, I walked down to the Camp Host to confirm our payment. Once he realized we biked here and that we didn't have a campfire, he immediately rejected our payment and said we earned our campsite. He also told me to go find Upper Diamond Spring located in our campground within a fence. I moseyed my way back, searched the area, and easily found it. I made a note to grab water from here next time we biked through.
By midmorning, Janna and I finally packed up to get going on the route. When I designed the route, I wanted bikepackers (and myself!) to ride as full the length of the Black River as was possible by road. I wanted the route to recross the Black River (both East and West Forks) at as many locations as possible for both the opportunity for water and the sheer beauty. I was not disappointed by my plans. The Black River was stunning - an absolute highlight of the route to ride along.
The road was smooth, wonderful dirt on a slight decline under canopies of trees set in the belly of the gorge. The water was cool, bright, and clear in the morning sun. We slowly pedaled along the East Fork's shores, stopping frequently to take photos or just absorb it all. It was evident in places that the Wallow Fire had crept to the edge of the top of the river's canyon, or even climbed down in, but for the most part, there was ample mature growth unscathed. The number of campsites we passed were plenty, with many of them full. It would be good for a rider to either grab a site early or on a non-holiday weekday to ensure a spot (no dispersed camping is allowed in the area).
Bridges dotted the route as the road went over the Black River. Adjoining flood plains were vibrant green with neon growth that comes with moisture and early summer sun. Now on our lefts, the river flowed on. After passing a forest service campground, we turned a bend and found a large group of big horn sheep climbing down the adjoining walls of the canyon across the river. The groups of females and kids made their way to a lush meadow and grazed while approaching the water. We stopped to watch for about 10 minutes in the dappled shade of pines. Then, we were back on riding. Janna turned another few corners and came upon an area where the Wallow Fire had crept down from the ridge and burned all the trees on the adjoining bank. The waters of the Black River are clear now but I could imagine the ashy, silty runoff immediately after the inferno.
Trout fishers became more common standing amongst the banks or in the river itself. Large rock chokes forming ideal fishing holes and gushing whitewater also spanned the river. We passed by several more forest service campgrounds before the canyon began widening up, the floodplains growing, and the Black River calming with its meanders. We made one last bridge crossing and bid the water adieu as a big day of climbing lay ahead of us. The route took us down some smooth dirt through pines, across a gorge, and straight to a large grassland situated at the base of the mountains we were to ascend to Hannagan. The telltail signs of the Wallow Fire burn scar was apparent on the peaks, even from down below, due to fresh aspen growth and large splintered trees. We crossed the field as pronghorn ran by and started the climb.
The climb began with descent track, albeit exposed to the summer sun/heat, as it wove up the knolls. I kept looking back to take in the expansive views afforded by the lack of trees into the heart of the Apache-Sitgreaves. I could even see the gouge of the canyon where the Black River flowed and where we had come from. As we ascended, the quality of the road began to deteriorate as we traveled further and further into the burn scar. But even here, life abounded. Massive bear paw prints littered the mud and dust. Deer ran in the aspen thickets. Bird song was loud and pervasive. As the road curved up the contours, we spied a large unburned ponderosa to take a break for lunch under. Fed, we continued on the road became ever steeper, the sun ever hotter, and the views of the burn scar more prevalent. The road surface became littered with rock and erosion.
We turned off on the spur to Hannagan through further eroded road before cresting 9000 feet in elevation and reentering mature, unburned woodlands. Suddenly, the trees were thick around us and the road smooth as we careened down to the highway and Hannagan Meadow. The Meadow was a fantastic green that immediately caught our eyes. After looking at it, we sped over to Hannagan Lodge to grab a seat for lunch before they closed up. After lunch, we went over to the Hannagan Meadow Campground to grab a spot for the night. However, the campground was completely full. We debated heading on or not. Instead, we opted to refill our water at the campground and disperse camp in the woods near the Lodge so we could grab some dinner and give ourselves a proper shorter day after yesterday's ride from Blue.
After setting up our shelter, Nick (an employee at Hannagan Lodge) came walking out to the woods. Turns out he camps up here all summer and works at the Lodge. We talked for him for a bit and then joined him inside to grab some dinner. Now, super full, we sat on the deck and watched hummingbirds flit about as the meadow lay before us. Evening came on, along with a heavy dose of cold temperatures at this altitude. We climbed into our tents as Nick yelled goodnight and walked back into the woods himself.