51.4 Miles; 2,602 Feet of Gain; Santa Maria River to Alamo Lake State Park
Last night was the cold call of winter desert. The wash, rich with atmospheric moisture along the Santa Maria River, saturated our shelters with condensation that iced a quarter thick both interiorly and exteriorly. I wake up to pee in the night and feel my the top of my head scrape crystals from the inner walls. With dawn's cusp, we stagger into the diffuse light. Janna and I's bikes are caked in a quarter inch layer of soup frost - probably the thickest I've ever seen outside the Sierra Nevada. The frost is copious. It's probably somewhere in the mid-teens temperature-wise so we're all moving around slowly trying to keep fingers warm while simultaneously performing camp tasks. No one is too excited for the prospect of morning water crossings down the wash in these conditions.
Janna heads off to do her morning business far from the water and scampers up the cactus-crusted hillside that banks into the streambed. I head over to the Santa Maria River where a steady unfrozen flow bends near camp; I want to get my day's water purified so I can use water for breakfast. The water is warm compared to the air, so it doesn't feel too unpleasant to get my hydration bags filled. Janna comes back and announces to the group that she found an old mining road rising from the river wash literally directly adjacent to our camp. Dan goes up to do his business and to check it out. Kate and I pull out RWPGS and Gaia GPS to zoom in and figure out if this road could possibly be our route, or whether we need to bushwhack further downstream. The contour lines are tight and the road so close to the river that it's hard to say. I've got water done and start dismantling the ice-shelter with Janna. We shake as much frost and ice off of it as possible but it's going into the saddlebag wet. Same with our sleeping bags that have a solid sheen of frozen water coating them. I make a mental note to pull them out later today when it warms up around lunch to dry while we eat.
Dan comes back and confirms the road. By this point I've eaten and packed up, so it's my turn to go do my business. I tell everyone I'm going to head up the road for a bit to see if the GPX track overlays well with it. As soon as I'm up above the wash on the road, the morning sun hits me and brings strong warmth. After trekking for a bit I stop and find a nice wide plain to do my business. I also confirm this is definitely the route so no more riverbed hike-a-biking for us. I also make a note that there is a huge plain of desert up here that would have been awesome to camp in above the low wash below. Feeling assured, I make my back to camp where everyone is finishing up water-filling and packing up. We all agree that hill is the way. The luck that we camped near its base has us laughing.
And then it's up and into the morning sun now warmer than yesterday and striking frost from the face of everything. The road continues along the edge of the Santa Maria River, carving a path through the desert canyon below and absolutely stunning in the daytime. Our route takes a turn away from the river to head south. The Santa Maria continues its flow west into the heart of the Arrastra Mountain Wilderness which rise large, crumpled, and desert-awesome before us.
It is only a few miles later that large saguaros dotting the route become accompanied by a thickening number of large Joshua trees. Sonoran crashing with Mojave. Just absolutely everything that I love about living in Arizona. I keep stopping along the two-track to take photo after photo of saguaros growing in the foreground of the Arrastras or jumbles of J-trees crooked and casting shadows in the winter slanted light. The two track continues before merging with a sand-filled wash where speeds slow. But it is short-lived as the road climbs up into a density of Joshua trees that stretch out in every direction. We continue through the Joshua tree forest before slowly merging with a lower powerline road that crosscut across the landscape, parallel to Highway 93. Our speed feels slow for the day, all of us feeling winter-fatigued with the push from yesterday.
By 2 pm, we have covered only 15-something miles with our party-pace, frequent snacks, and stopping for photos. At a nice hill climb along the powerline towers, we stop to prop our bikes and sit out in the sun for a late lunch. I take the opportunity to hang our shelter and my quilt from the side of one of the towers to catch that mid-day sun and warmth (wanting them dry). To our rights, the Tres Alamos Wilderness and corresponding peak rise up across the Joshua tree plains. Gear dried and stomachs full, we push on only to stop a mile later to talk to a guy in an ATV with a flat tire. He is absolutely blown away we were out here and asks us a ton of a questions about how we could possibly be coming from the direction we are coming. It turns out he winters every year out here and loves it. He wishes us well, says he was good with his tire, and we continue along the powerline road.
A mile or two later brings intersection with the official start of the route with a righthand turn onto Alamo Road. And what a road! It is wide, smooth hero dirt - the stuff of gravel riding dreams. Alamo Road also cuts a westward track across the desert almost completely gradually downhill making our progress quicken both for terrain and for elevation loss. Our pace improves and shoots us straight getting miles accumulated quickly. We laugh and take pictures of our group as Joshua trees frame the adjoining peaks to our rights. The road keeps sliding downward and we with it as caravans of ATVs began passing us - making their way to the lake or public lands for boondocking and weekend escapes. Everyone is polite and amused to see cyclists out there. The miles came easy and by just before 5, we've already covered 45 total. We roll up to Wayside Bar and Grill, sitting dusty in the desert, and the group choice is unanimous: time for some hot food now that the cold is descending again. We prop our bikes and go inside to grab some tater tots, chicken strips, and chips/salsa. The locals come to talk to us, one guy saying we were amazing and hardcore to be riding out here. The vibe is welcoming and the food hits that salty-hot spot for the palate.
But we know evening is coming on fast, and we are planning to go over six miles off-route to stay at Alamo Lake State Park that night. We head back out to our bikes and put on warm clothing. Overhead, a sunset is ripping beauty and colors across the sky. The four of us head down Park Road under gathering twilight. The colors are everything I love about living in the Southwest - blurred blues and wispy grays sauntering with oranges and streaked reds while stars twinkle above. That portion of the day's ride is amazing under desert-glow skies.
As night takes over, we join pavement and ride into Alamo Lake State Park under darkness. Luckily, as compared to the night before, the conditions here are relatively warm (above freezing) and absolutely dry. We setup camp and get to work eating dinner. I feel so relaxed. There's a calm of appreciation that comes from ideal camp conditions and this is it. On top of that, we have much of the campground to ourselves. The bathrooms have showers and ample hot water (plus they are clean). Water is a little more difficult to find. Heads up to cyclists: there's a spigot on the side of the Camp Store building if you're looking for water. Once we get camp settled and stomachs fed, we all go to bed knowing tomorrow might involve some bushwhacking once more to get around Alamo Lake. All night long, wild burros wander near/around the campground screeching. I love it.