Kofa National Wildlife Refuge Bikepacking Tour - Day 2 - Lightning and Thunder Amid the Peaks and Plains of Kofa National Wildlife Refuge
46.17 Miles; King Road to near Engesser Junction
The pattered of rain ceased as dawn descended. No sooner had we exited the tent than the morning rain halted long enough for us to pack up our gear. It was VERY humid out and everything rippled with moisture. We packed the bags quickly lest everything get more wet and then hit the road towards Castle Dome mountain. All morning the clouds hung heavy in the sky as a gray blanket settled overhead. Intermittent rain dashes would sprinkle down on us before dissipating. Ocotillos and cholla sat vibrant green in the gloom.
With the threat of rain strong, we decided to forgo a climb of Castle Dome and do it this winter. However, we both decided to ride our bikes out to the turnoff for the hike. We rode east of the Castle Dome Mountains and made our way up the gradual McPherson Pass. In this area, the clouds began to break, the sky blue to push through, and cloud drifts just melted. It suddenly was sunny amid high humidity and the sweat started earnestly. I absolutely loved riding the the out-and-back up McPherson Wash. Again and again I stopped to swivel my head and take into the jagged upthrusts of ancient volcanic hearts; I could only say it felt like I was bikepacking through the Superstition Wilderness (if bikes were allowed). At the turn-around, we stopped and took a long snack in a wash framed by blossoming brittlebush all yellow in contrast to the clouds in the distance.
We rode back out to the main road and swung east once more on Junction 76 Road. The sun was out in full force and the humidity and heat slowed my pace as my body was lacking acclimatization after a winter of deep snow. Janna and I swung a south for a spur ride out to the Little White Tanks - a series of very deep and reliably filled water pocks in the crumpled clefts of rock. The pools were full, clear, and absolutely gorgeous in the midday sun. We filled our reservoirs, drank deeply, and rode our heavy bikes back out to join King Road. Signal Peak, only just visited yesterday, sat in a deep umbra of rain cloud above it.
We sped along King Road as more and more cumulus tufts gathered overhead. King Road turned north past a Sonoran Pronghorn breeding facility (alas, no pronghorn seen on the route). The road softened up and sank beneath the side-banks of gravel. Above, a noticeable atmospheric gathering of blackened-gray clouds loomed and concentrated evermore over the Kofa Mountains. I suddenly stopped and stared at a large anvil of cumulonimbus shooting thousands of feet into the air - almost like an epic thunderhead of late summer monsoons. I shook my head thinking a thunderstorm would be out of place this time of year and pushed on. Janna and I rode up past King of Arizona (KOFA) Mine and then swung east once more.
The route swung around a bend of massive pillared peaks red and orange in the angle of light - more-so backlit by gathering cloud. And then I looked behind us to the west. There, gathering darkly on the horizon, was a massive thunderhead roaring out its noise and shooting lightning. To our southwest by Castle Dome Peak, a second storm was energizing, spreading its draperies of dark rain in sheets over the now-distant peaks. We hit the gas and started pedaling hard. The sudden boomerang-shape of roll cloud racing across the plains directly towards us caught us off guard. Thunder boomed again and again. We could see cloud-to-cloud and cloud-to-ground lightning strikes on repeat on the further peaks. And this was stunningly contrasted with a sharp demarcation of blue sky. The storm was bringing its own shape to the sunny skies directly ahead of us.
And just like that, the two storms collided. Seeing a wall of impending rain approaching rapidly with high winds and copious lightning, we went into "seek shelter" mode. However, the section we were in was exposed Sonoran rockscape with only creosote and saguaro in abundance - we absolutely were some of the tallest items out there. I saw a potential campsite next to a lone palo verde off the route so we beelined over to it. The winds were whipping and thunder bellowing. I yelled out to Janna asking her how many minutes we had until the now combined storm system was directly over us. "Minutes!" was all she yelled back. I quickly grappled with the stakes and poles of the shelter to get it erected. Then, the lightning flared overhead. We sprang towards a shallow wash nearby that looked unlikely to flood and would make us minimally lower than the surrounding plain (plus put some distance between us and the metal bikes).
Janna and I separated out as a constant clang of spark and echo hung overhead. The storms had perfectly collided over us and became one of the most exposed electrical storms I had every weathered. The lightning flashed pink, red, blue, green, white, and yellow on repeat over us. Thunder rang out loud and hard. The rain fell in sheets as we took squatted lightning positions away from each other in the wash. The air was alive with humidity and static. Within minutes we were soaked through with cool rain. I was warm with adrenaline and freshly pedaled legs. We hunkered down and nervously waited as the storm ripped overhead, dropped rain, and then sped north and east.
And the storm was over. We turned around and gaped at a gorgeous gray sky pierced with orange sunlight that now spilled from a cleared west. One of the best double rainbows of my life lit up over the desert plain, perfectly framing the Kofa peaks. Everything was so soaked, alive, and mottled with light. Color and rain pitted each other in a blend of shocking landscape that I just stood back to take it all in. It was amazing. The color of the setting sun lit up the plains behind us. We setup the rest of camp, ate a hearty dinner in the gathered dark. As night fell entirely, an aerial of resonant booms rang out for hours and hours as the storm sat miles just to our north over the desert and rained down thumb-sized hail (we later learned), intense gusts, and flash flooding rains. The light show felt like War of the Worlds with lightning bursting every few seconds for hours and hours on end. But it was past us, drenching a different world of the Kofa.