Sky Islands Odyssey (East Loop) - Day 3 - Re-owning Bikepacking: Down Box Canyon back to Green Valley
After a perfect night’s sleep in the Audubon casita in great temperatures, Janna and I awoke early for a big-mile day. Once again, I felt great both physically and mentally, proving that my two mantras/mindsets/approaches to bikepacking were paying off. Compared to last year, the temperature was MUCH more mild and well above freezing as compared to before.
The morning held high cirrus clouds to mark our starts. Before we knew it, we were speeding down gravel towards the “button” mountain and swinging into Babacomari Ranch property. We spilled out onto the biggest paved section, passing through the heart of Elgin and cycling about 10 miles of road through vineyards and ranches. Beautiful high bunch prairie grass spilled like an ocean to the gentle curves of the Earth’s horizon.
We crossed the Sonoita-Patagonia Highway and crossed over into Las Cienegas National Conservation Area. One of my favorite areas to gravel ride, we rode through miles and miles of grasslands punctuated by yucca stalks and acacia stands. The Santa Ritas rose up as we swept down towards the road to Kentucky Camp. By now, the day had heated up so we sat under a large Arizona Oak with orange leaves, but providing good shade. We began the long climb up and up until we got to Kentucky camp. We stocked up on water and sat on Adirondack chairs under the wraparound awning porch of the historic mining building. The local caretaker invited me out back to see a rattlesnake curled up next to the back door on the wood floorboards. A few AZT southbound thru-hikers straggled in where we exchanged trail stories and conditions of our spring trip vs. their fall push. We snacked and drank water for a good solid hour and half before we pushed off into the Coronado National Forest. We biked up the flanks of Santa Ritas before spilling down sharp, steep, and curving switchbacks past mining claims before we reached the entrance descent of Box Canyon.
Janna and I were both surprised by how quickly we passed through this area as the year prior it had taken us all day with tremendous effort. This time we felt strong, confident, experienced, and playful. We started to head down Box Canyon where the wash overspilled with the golden spread of fall leaves. We flew. The descent was fast and fun providing the same expansive views out of the mountains into the basin zones below. Exiting the canyon, we caught a right onto rough doubletrack that became hewn singletrack and then dissolved into miles of deep-sanded wash. We remembered this sandy section from last year. We picked up speed, set our lines straight, and cranked it hard to float over the fishtailing sand. What had felt last year like punishing terrain this year felt like a hilarious game to win or laugh when you simply sank in the sand and fell over in it. Exiting the sand felt again surprising for the speed of finishing that section.
We skimmed along the pavement that upwards took drivers to Madera Canyon, but downwards led us to Green Valley. Houses began appearing along the periphery of the national forest boundary until we crossed under the I-10 and were back in the heart of the city. A few urban blocks of riding brought us to the hotel with our car parked safely in the back of the lot. We were there by 4 pm with PLENTY of time to spare. I felt strong, happy, and definitely like the joy of bikepacking has been re-won or re-birthed; it made me hungry to head back out on the Great Divide to explore some more wilderness. Bikes loaded up, we caught some food at the local Mexican restaurant before heading back north to Phoenix.
Sky Islands Odyssey (East Loop) - Day 2 - The Best Part: Up Harshaw Canyon to the Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch of the National Audubon Society
Feeling that morning stretch after realizing the hardest part was behind us, Janna and I slept in knowing we only had ~30 miles ahead of us today. By the time we climbed out of the Triplex, the start of the Spirit World 100 was rolling down Harshaw Road passing us in the RV park. We ran out to the road and cheered the slow start front and got to see Lael Wilcox. With that, we packed up and rode into town to get the best veggie breakfast burritos ever from The Gathering Place cafe. Breakfast done, we headed to the local organic market and general store to grab some food for the next two days.
Exiting the general store, we ran into two guys who just rolled into town bikepacking the same route as us. They sported full squish mountain bikes and they told us how they had raced the AZT 750. When they went in to grab supplies, we went ahead and pushed off and up Harshaw Road ourselves, following the dusty tracks of the racer-riders.
The late morning was beautiful and glorious with all the colors and touches of fall in southern Arizona. Oaks and sycamores lining the riparian zones sported flashes of orange, red, yellow, and brown autumnal hues. The sky was that gorgeous blue deeply crisp of November. Janna and I both felt great and my spirits were high with how well I felt. We spun through the canyons and tumbled out onto the high grasslands where, unbeknownst to us, a fully-serviced bar stand called “Boomshakalaka Bar” was stationed with an elderly gentleman dressed like a bartender from the good old days of the west. We stopped immediately and he gave us each a shot of locally-made tequila. His name was Thomas. This bar was actually a SAG stop on the Spirit World 100, so-named because it was the first thing one of the co-founders of the event said when they crested this rise and saw the spread of grasslands before them. Thomas was awesome and we took the time to converse about the race, the area, and local history. He also was taking high-end photos of the racers and added photos of us (the three immediately below) to the mix. We would later run into Thomas months later at the grand opening of Campfire Cycling in Tucson with the movie premier of “I Just Want to Ride.” We immediately recognized each other and got his contact information which resulted in us acquiring these photos. Thomas, you freaking rock.
After a few lead riders began returning, stopping the bar along the way, Janna and I decided to push on. The beautiful bunch-grass prairie spilled for miles over plains and smooth hills around us. We rode up into the Canelo Hills at Canelo Pass and swooped down past a crossing of the Arizona Trail (which I immediately recognized the location of!). We eventually hit pavement and turned right, climbing up past Lochiel. With a turn left, the Santa Rita Experimental Range spread out before us where we jumped on the rugged dirt doubletrack leading to the Audubon property. Both Janna and I were amazed how much more comfortable and fast we were moving. In fact, we got through the gate and were at the casita we rented for the night (at the Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch of the National Audubon Society) by around 3 pm. The last time we did this section, it took us nearly all-day. I felt strong, comfortable, and eager for more riding.
No one was around as they were up at the main station setting up for the monthly local dinner and presentation. Janna and I sat back, ate a bunch of snacks, and kicked it on the front porch chairs. As it got closer to 5, we made our way to the potluck dinner where good conversations and an interesting presentation followed. My belly was full, the darkness complete, but the temperature was so nice that we decided to enjoy a walk in the dark before turning in for the night.
All my bikepacking trips up to this point have been filled with equal parts gnawing hunger to see more of the backcountry and complete and utter physical exhaustion (wearing into the mental realm). Last year, we tackled the Sky Island Odyssey eastern loop over Veteran’s Day (our first unpaved bikepacking trip), and Janna and I were returning this year because we loved the time of year in this area. But, I felt strong nerves because of how butt-kicked I have been in body, mind, and confidence by every bikepacking outing. Bikepacking combines the best of road touring and backpacking. Yet, I still felt unconfident I could crack that flow state of performance that leads itself so well to mastery and growth.
I decided on two mantras for this trip:
I’ve used mantras many times over the years to carry me through tough or uncertain outdoor moments. These two seemed primed to help me where I most struggled: (1) embracing the beauty of where I’m at when the going gets tough and (2) pushing too hard and not slowing down to the point of utter exhaustion.
To further help our plans along, we decided we would start this year in Green Valley. We found a hotel that would let us keep our car in the back of their parking lot for the length of our trip in exchange for getting a room the night before. We wanted to start here as, no doubt, the ride up the Santa Ritas over the western shoulder of the Santa Ritas was the toughest length of the route, and we only discovered that on our last day the previous year.
School done, we headed down Thursday evening, each of us having used a personal day to call Friday off.
The next morning, we used Komoot to get on the Juan de Bautista Anza Trail (something we skipped for the paved route the previous year). It was actually gorgeous singletrack and city trail, making me glad we opted for it this time. It soon led into the deep-sanded San Pedro River bed. We skipped that 1-2 mile portion, joined the pave frontage road, and then jumped back onto the trail. Soon, we were by Elephant’s Head, heading up the road to the observatory. We felt strong, the clouds were keeping the temperatures low, and knowing the route ahead gave us stamina to get the ride in. Plus, it was gorgeous.
We eased into the rocky and rutted jeep road that wound up and down washes and foothills. The route led past several mines and then suddenly we were at the bottom of the big climb. A truck was sandwiched perfectly across the entire road, side-to-side, having bottomed out on a large boulder in an attempt to turn around. A man was underneath trying to dig the large boulder out with a shovel. We asked if he needed help; he said he was good. We could get around with our bikes but ATVs and trucks could not get around this point. We started the climb, staying on the pedals, impressively not doing any hike-a-bikes. And like that, we crested the saddle and I zoomed down the steep incline where I caught some gravel and jumped off my bike as it flipped over itself. Shaken, I got back on and we cruised up and down the cow-studded hills until we were at the bottom of the other side.
From there, Janna and I quickly rode the now-nice dirt road through ranchlands for miles until the Patagonia Mountains sprang into view. The ride cruised down next to the Sonoita Preserve with the deciduous riparian zone in awesome autumnal hues. We arrived in Patagonia around 4 pm, so we biked to the RV park on the other side of town and secured camping for the night. Once changed, and showered, we walked back into town where we learned that the Spirit World 100 Race/Gravel Ride was happening tomorrow. Gravel riders from all over the US were here along with Lael Wilcox joining in. We talked to several, gathered up some food, and went back to crawl into the Triplex well into the evening. Soon after getting in, a large family of javelina started rooted around the tent for several hours. Janna and I reminisced about how were here only half a year ago on the Arizona Trail before we both passed out.
At first light, I was like, "Let’s get the fuck out of here." Janna slept very well. Me not so much after having a gun and potential threat waved at us. We packed up and starting climbing up the paved road. Immediately, the beauty of the day brought me back to the enjoyment of the moment.
We turned off onto a dirt road and the route just decomposed into rock babyheads and rubble. This would prove to a repeat terrain theme of the day. We wound in and out of foothills filled with yuccas and mesquite for several hours until we went up towards the Santa Ritas more directly and passed by an abandoned mine. The route crossed a beautiful stream with a full side view of Mount Wrightson and the observatory. At this point, we began hike-a-biking more steadily. For the next two hours we seemed to alternate between grandma gear pedaling and pushing the bike up steep climbs. I passed two deer hunters scoping the valley below. Eventually, we hit a beautiful saddle. Here, I let loose and flew down into the valleys below.
There were more hunters out in camps, everyone surprised to see us out here on bikes and not ATVs (literally, one guy on an ATV passed us and said we were “crazy”). Up and down repeat valleys and passes along with repeat hike-a-bikes until we came to the top of the last big climb. It provided amazing views of Madera Canyon and a whole side-view of the Santa Ritas.
From here, we swept down miles and miles of rocky mountain side road while passing by loads of cattle. Eventually, we crossed a cattle-guard and the road really improved. Ranches appeared along the way as did the presence of Border Patrol vehicles. The dirt road entered a ranch property and traced along the bottom of a gorgeous flowing wash before summiting one last pass with a view of the Patagonia Mountains. A UPS truck came rumbling up the dirt road - it blew my mind that they were willing to drive out here.
With that, we plunged down and eventually were riding under gorgeous soaring deciduous autumn-colored trees from The Nature Conservancy’s Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve. It felt like true autumn now in the desert (by November), and it put me in the mood for Thanksgiving and the holiday season ahead. Janna and I turned into downtown Patagonia and made up our way back up Harshaw Road to our car at the AZT Trailhead. We were utterly exhausted by this hardest day of the three, but I was very excited to dream ahead for future bikepacking trips.
We knew today was going to be our longest day and incorrectly assumed it would also be the hardest. We woke up and were on route by 6 am, which temperatures about 31 degrees F. The first dawn lighting up the grasslands was truly magical. After several miles of pedaling, we made our way through the small town of Elgin and rode the paved road for miles. I kept checking my phone every little bit to make sure we weren’t off route after our many turn-arounds yesterday. Eventually, the route left the paved surface as a dirt cross-road led off to our right into the Las Cienegas Conservation Area.
This proved to be one of those moments when my mind was blown again by the beauty and size of the grasslands in southern AZ. After miles of wandering in and out of hills of yucca and stem, we crossed the highway and started up the road to Kentucky Camp. We hadn’t been back to Kentucky Camp since we came with Darren and Dennis. Plus, notably, it’s a famous spot on the AZT so I was anxious to take another look at it. After miles of uphill climbing, we road down to the historic mining buildings now turned into rentable cabins. No one was around except for one AZT thru-hiker. We were feeling exhausted and the day’s warmth had given way to cool temperatures with headwind. We ate, refilled our water, and continued on across the flanks of the Santa Ritas. Janna and I found ourselves increasingly doing hike-a-bikes up hills until we descended down to intersect with Boxy Canyon.
Here, the road turned left. We passed signs warning of illegal immigration and smuggling before the gentile descent turned into a steeper glorious one. We rounded a curve and the whole of Box Canyon opened before us. It was filled with yellow and red cottonwood trees in full fall foliage. The route curved near a dry waterfall and was built into the side of a cliff and rock wall that was exhilarating to go down. The route joined a rutted and old dirt road that quickly became decayed and sandy. Like REALLY sandy. So sandy that we couldn’t pedal and our bikes with bodies toppled over. We had to walk for a quite a bit (like a few miles) through this section before we found solid dirt again. Janna sped ahead. However, I turned a curve and fell into a cholla and prickly pear cactus. 20 minutes later I freed myself, painstakingly, and made my way to meet her. The route rejoined pavement and we made it to Green Valley. It was now about 4 pm. We stopped at McDonalds to fill our water (the only reliable water for the next two days). A couple walking by were bike tourists and invited us to stay with them. I felt determined to camp out tonight and so declined. Likewise, with the afternoon getting on and the evening approaching, Janna and I skipped the official route in the sandy bed of the San Pedro River for the paved surface of the frontage road. The last of the sun slipped below the horizon; we kept pedaling into the gathering night up the road towards the Santa Ritas.
About 70 miles in for the day, Janna began bonking hard. We pulled over in the twilight to rest, eat, and make a plan for evening. I pedaled ahead to see where the Coronado National Forest began so we could do some dispersed camping. Every pullout was occupied by a motorist but I managed to find a good flat grassy spot across the road from an RV. We setup camp and walked down a side road to eat. It was now fully pitch dark.
At some point when we were eating in the dark, the people in the RV returned from their daily travel. Janna and I were talking, laughing, eating, our headlamps on when we heard the approach of footsteps.
Suddenly, a high-beam flashlight was on us along with a man shouting, “What are you doing here!?” I held my hands up to block my eyes from the light.
“We’re just eating,” I responded, annoyed by this person who thought the public land system was theirs.
“Speak up!” he shouted back aggressively.
“We are two cyclists and we are just camping over there on the other side of the road!” I yelled back.
“You need to make yourself known next time. I was about to light you up!” said the guy as he then moves the light away and obviously lowers a gun.
HOLY SHIT! Janna and I quickly finish eating and cautiously walk back to our tarp. I was super angry and offended. You are camping, along with everyone else, on public land. And someone camps nearby and your response is to come over and threaten to shoot them if they don’t come and “make themselves known.” It probably doesn’t need to be said, but I barely slept a wink that night as I stayed alert for our possible neighbors to come over and “defend” themselves across the street from two cyclists camping.
“Classic, like all my trips,” I thought to myself. The night before our first time bikepacking was also the first time I put my bike together with all the foreign bikepacking gear. Janna and i stayed up late, wedging, crushing, and strapping gear all over our bikes. Up until 11 pm, after a full quarter and a half of teaching, we both stood back to look at our bikes completely packed out of volume with gear still needing to be added. If ultralight backpacking makes you aware of gear weight, then ultralight bikepacking made you aware of gear volume. Taking a razor to the remaining gear, we removed anything that was absolutely essential before going to bed exhausted.
The next morning, we found ourselves parked outside Patagonia, AZ at the Arizona Trailhead up Harshaw Road. We built up the bikes. The whole time I kept thinking, “How is this all going to fit?…What is this going to ride like?…” The moment I stepped on the bike and pedaled, I realized that the front handlebar bag completely eclipsed any opportunity to see my wheel. I freaked out. Also, the bikes were SO HEAVY. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach I was doing this all wrong, that I was completely unexperienced, and that I would most likely wipeout not being able to see the rolling presence of my front wheel on ground. At this point, some day riders showed up at the trailhead and told us how much they loved bikepacking. On some subconscious level I reasoned that I like like an utter inexperienced toolbag to them. But Janna was ready. There was nothing else to do but push off.
We pedaled the heavy bikes up the road. We split onto Harshaw Road only after going the wrong way. I had paper maps of the route, but no formal GPS device. Luckily, I had uploaded the route on the Gaia app just as a backup; a prescient move as after a few wrong turns we realized the paper map were useless. We relied on checking my phone for the remainder of the route, precipitating a Garmin eTrex20 purchase when we got back. We wound up Harshaw Canyon road before taking a “lunch break” under the shade of some oak and pine. We both seemed exhausted after only a few non-technical miles. Food in the stomachs, we continued on by winding through the forested canyon.
The dirt road began an ascent until we popped out on the most gorgeous spread of grassland that took both of us by complete surprise. I’ve explored a lot of southern AZ with its grasslands, but this seemed next level. A massive sprawl of golden bunch-grass prairie spread out in all directions. The grass grew evenly over rounded hills and buttes. In the distance, the Huachucas and Canelo Hills split the horizon. We biked slowly, and I couldn’t stop uttering how beautiful it all was. By the time we topped Canelo Pass, it was moving into late afternoon. We sped down the other side and passed by a number of ranches. The road merged with a split paved section. We took the left and enjoyed cottonwoods in yellow dress, that is, until we realized we had gone the wrong way. We retraced our pedalstrokes and took the right, climbing up a hill next to a historically preserved schoolhouse. I was getting anxious with the afternoon turning to evening to get to the Audubon Center. Again, we missed a turn and had to go back up a huge climb. Finally, we found the faint doubletrack that led away from the paved road up onto a ridge. From there, the Whetstone Mountains gorgeously rose behind a curved mesa of grassland cover punctuated by the gentle curves of the doubletrack (see the photo above).
I couldn’t get over how beautiful it all was. And despite approaching evening, I stopped to take photo after photo; there was nowhere else I would have rather been.
We put the code into the padlock (the Audubon Center provided us) and passed through the fence before descending down to the cluster of buildings that make up the research ranch. We quickly found the casita and were let in. It was a really nice place to stay with a bed, small kitchen, and bathroom. Once changed and showered, we walked up the road for a ¼ mile to the main building. Inside, a massive community potluck was going on. Everyone greeted us warmly, encouraged us to eat heapings of food, and then sit back to enjoy a presentation put on by the Audubon Ranch and the citizens of Elgin. It was so interesting to hear the history of the research ranch, especially the environmental aspects. After dinner, we walked in the frigid night back to the casita.
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