44.98 Miles; 4,315 Feet of Gain; Green Valley to Patagonia, AZ
The Sky Islands Odyssey was our first off-pavement bikepacking route we ever did, way back in 2018. It has remained one of our favorites; as tradition, we bike it once a year during Veteran's Day weekend which always feels like the perfect temperature for the route along with the best fall colors touching the desert. But ever since COVID and its subsequent surges, we haven't had the opportunity to return. The Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch of the National Audubon Society to that point had remained impermanently closed to visitors. We tried to come fall of 2021 for a ride, but a surge in COVID forced us to cancel our plans as the Audubon Center confirmed the same.
With President's Day weekend approaching, Janna and I were feeling the itch to get down to the desert off the cold and wintery Colorado Plateau. We wanted to stay relatively close for the weekend, so within Arizona. We looked at the temps around Patagonia and it seemed good. In addition, the Audubon Center gave us permission to camp on their property, along with usage of the kitchen/restrooms in their rental casita as long as we didn't eat or sleep in there (as a COVID precaution per their policies). We quickly put together an itinerary since this would be our fourth time riding the route and pointed the car south.
The atmosphere warmed as passed through Phoenix and made our way down to Green Valley. We pulled up the Best Western late, checked in, and passed out. We rolled out of the bed after sleeping in to find the morning was COLD. Like upper 30s. We counted on the day warming up so we rode our bikes downtown and picked up the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail and started riding down the adobe dirt parallel to the Santa Cruz River. It warmed up ever so little and ever so slowly as mid-morning came on our climb up towards up the pavement towards the Santa Ritas. We turned to cruise down the dirt along the range's base and were AMAZED at the quality and smoothness of the dirt. For the last several years that we've ridden this section, it has proved to be typically rutted, washed out with severe erosion, and SUPER rocky. What we rode on now was evidence of recent road grading by the USFS. Elated, we spun easy miles on the unsullied dirt surfaces. Climbs that were once difficult by way of rock to the point of hike-a-bike became sufficient for remaining on the saddle.
In that way, we crossed over the pass and descended into the foothills around the Patagonia Mountains. Janna and I both remarked how dry and brown the scenery was. We were used to the November rides where cottonwood and deciduous plant put on autumnal color. Now February, the land had yet to grow from winter's sun. We eventually came to the top of another pass when I looked up and saw a sedan parked with a door open and an arm hanging out. Panicked someone was injured, I cried out shouts seeking their response. No response. I pedaled hard and yelled again. As I neared the pass with the vehicle I clearly saw bullet holes torn into the side of the vehicle. I slammed my brakes on in alarm. Something was not right. I called out again to a return of silence. I got off my bike, and approached the car. I took in more of the vehicle and realized it was absolutely beat up and the "arm" was a piece of fabric at an angle. The car was beat to shit, shot up, smashed in, and bizarrely abandoned here.
I took a circumference walk around it. It was so atypical that someone would drive a sedan (2WD for sure) up and out here. I speculated this car must have been driven up here in an attempt to avoid the border patrol checkpoints that sat equidistant on the two highways flanking either side of the mountain range below. The car must have broken down and been abandoned by whoever was avoiding the feds. It was long enough go for others to shoot up the vehicle, but recent enough that the coat of the car was still in great condition. Wary of drug smugglers (the car's potential use) out here near the border, Janna and I agreed to get a move on from the area.
We biked down the back of the Santa Ritas under beautiful mid-60s temps and gushing blue skies serving contrast to the tan brittle grasses of the landscape. We arrived in late afternoon to the town of Patagonia. For years we had camped at the RV park just outside of town (for both the Sky Islands Odyssey and when we thru-hiked the Arizona Trail in 2019). We learned quickly that the RV park was no longer allowing tent campers to stay. Luckily, someone pointed us in the way of TerraSol - a literally just-opened/new spot for bikepackers, backpackers, and van lifers. We rolled into TerraSol and met Mary. She had bought the purple house we rode/hiked past for years just outside of town and was in the process of converting into laudable camping for travelers like us. Her hospitality was fantastic and we were some of her first guests. I told her I was sure she was going to get a TON of AZTers in the spring and to be prepared for it. She had just cleared a space out back suitable for a tent where we could camp for the night. After setting up, we walked to downtown Patagonia to grab some pizza from the classic Velvet Elvis restaurant. As night came on, the cold came smashing down. We layered up and snuggled into our winter bags as temps dipped well-below freezing.