52.76 Miles; 6,936 Feet of Gain; Alamo Lake State Park to Signal Road
In the early hours of morning I hear Kate's alarm on her phone go off. I know it went off, but all I want to do in the morning cold/darkness of winter is curl up in my quilt and keep on sleeping. But, I know we need to move because today could involve some route-finding that might eat up some hours. So, it is time to move. Winter means dark mornings and today was no exception. I roll around in my quilt before I find the onus to get up and get moving in the dark. It certainly isn't as cold as yesterday morning. The desert morning brings soft, diffuse light that brightens pinkly on the craggy hillsides around us. Alamo Lake appears in the distance. All the bikes are packed and we pedal over to the side of the little general store to fill our waters from the outside hose spigot.
As light crept over the land bringing some slight warmth, the four us start cycling along the pavement out of Alamo Lake State Park and back towards Wayside. We regroup at the restaurant intersection back along the massive dirt highway of Wickenburg Road. It's north from here on a slightly gaining downhill as Alamo Lake looms large set along the foreground of the Arrastra Mountain peaks. I'm excited, yet nervous given the previous days' route-finding, about what navigating a crossing of the Bill Williams River might look like. Bushwhacking? Lots of water? Lots of sand? The route notes indicate the area is usually a trickle. But with the recent snowstorm and water in the Santa Maria, I'm feeling sure that we'll have some significant water to come. Wickenburg Road turns off onto Brown's Crossing Road (a good indicator of what's to come). The road transitions from wide dirt to brittle doubletrack traipsing across desert volcanic gravel.
We enter a thicket of tamarisk while a row of fall-foliage cottonwood thickly rise out of the northern banks of the reservoir. I'm absolutely loving the red-rust rock and crumbly orange hues of dirt that skip to white powder back and forth. The Arrastra Mountains are stellar looking ahead. It's one more switchback down a cliff and into a riparian thicket that turns out onto a sandbar. The confluence of the Big Sandy, Santa Maria, and Bill Williams Rivers means the water is no trickle today. There's a steady and big stream - probably 50 feet across with little sandbar islands for us to pass. We leave our bikes and begin walking up and down the embankment looking for the most viable/dry crossing. There's some big holes in that stream - dark and blue with bottoms not to be seen. We can see an obvious ATV route that crosses the river while working around the truly deep parts.
I start laughing and just embrace the moment. I hoist my bikepacking rig on my shoulder and just plunge into the stream to get to cross to the other side. The water is warmer than I think. I love it. I head back to help Janna take her bike across (given her back).. The four of us make it across, and I'm stoked on the ride to come today. I bike ahead down DEEP sand in the heart of the river wash while the stream flows to my left. Janna, Kate, and Dan eventually come riding up after getting their socks/shoes back on, and we're off heading down more packed sand along the literal edge of the Arrastra Mountain Wilderness before a quick turn on a road takes us up onto reliable firmament. We climb out of the reed-lands of the riparian onto colorful and crumbly mountain rock. An abandoned bus top sits rusting in the sun. The desert winter day is quickly warming. I'm just full of energy and excitement at this adventure.
The ATV road is really a rolling-lolling track that goes up and down washes and punchy climbs through desert rock along the northern perimeter of Alamo Lake. We do quite a bit of hike-a-bike, but I'm soaking it all in just absorbing the warmth and views. Lunch arrives with midday Sun embracing the land. We stop and eat amongst the landscape gravel while groups of ATVs out for the weekend pass us along the doubletrack. We've covered miles, but all of our GPS watches indicate we've done serious up-and-down climbing along that ATV road several thousand feet more than either Strava or RWPGS have indicated. I'm optimistic that the day's elevation majority is behind us; Kate looks ahead at the elevation profile and says the lion's share is to come. I accept it, just absorbing all the desert has to offer in this area.
We pack up lunch and continue along the ATV road that turns north and away from Alamo Lake. Now called Alamo Road, the climb becomes that classic Arizona-chunk: an old mining road crumbling with babyheads, granite spates, and thick gravel that sinks and slips. We reach the top of a pass after some granny gears and bike-pushing. I'm alive and energized, but the four of us most certainly are sweaty and hot, all cold-acclimatized from our northern homes. I eat some snacks and drink a ton of water. We round a corner in the pass and suddenly Artillery Peak is gorgeously rising as a volcanic heart out of the desert folds. It looks contrasting and unreal. I jaw-drop to snap photos. Maybe it's just me, but standing on that dirt pass looking over arid plains with the mountain rising up made me feel like I was in the arid upper-stories of the South American Andes. The ride towards and around Artillery Peak was a highlight of the route and of the day.
Alamo Road meanders up and down the tumbling base of Artillery before it sinks into a wash. The wash becomes a sand basin. It is a sizable climb, uphill, with fine grit-sand that wheels sink deeply in. Dan and I continue in our smallest gears to climb up the wash. Janna and Kate, more strategically (and at equal speeds to us), disembark and simply walk their bikes for the several miles of sand-uphill. Saguaros and Joshua trees intermingle once more - Mojave and Sonoran. I punch my way finally up and out of the sand to the saddle between Madrill Peak on my right and Eagle Point on my left. Before us spreads wide-basinlands punctuated by desert ranges. It is stunning in the later-afternoon sun as the four of us stare at a rewarding downhill.
Dan and I let loose. Exhilarating descent takes us into a dense jungle of spikey Joshua trees covering every foot of desert floor. And just like that we are off of Alamo Road and onto Signal Road. Signal is a true dirt highway wide and smooth. I'm absolutely alive descending it with ease amid the day's waning light that winter bends to golden. Joshua trees give way to creosote. We're tired at this point - the day's ride longer and the elevation gain so much more than predicted by our cycling apps. Mile markers tick past. For some reason, I have it in my head that the cars are parked at mile marker 12. That is, until we pass 12. I decide it is 14.
Absolutely has to be 16. Until we pass that too under gathering dark. Our track elevation suggests a big climb to come and we certainly haven't hit it. I start just laughing at how exhausted and endless these last miles feel. Laughing is always a respite from circumstance; that always energizes me. I fill with motivation and an abiding sense of appreciation for the beautiful desert we're crossing. The four of take a rest at the crossing of Big Sandy River (truly sandy) before deciding to muster the energy to continue forth to the end. Darkness and desert glow give way to black of night. Janna and I push forward keeping our go-all-day-don't-stop pace as the last climb gathers under our tread and we slow to a crawl. The crawl becomes a hike-a-bike upwards. I look back out into the night and see Dan and Kate's lights below us shining at the foot of the climb - sole illumination across the vast desert dark.
It's a couple of miles and hundred of feet later that I see the distant moving headlights of the highway. I know our cars are close. I'm thankful for the relatively warm temperatures as we finally pull off into the side-area where our cars are parked on BLM land. Instantly, Janna and I rip out food wherein, shortly thereafter, Dan and Kate join us. The four of us dump snacks and food into a circle in the dirt. We sit, laughing at how much harder that was than we anticipated (7000 ft. of gain today). But also super grateful to be out here seeing a beautiful and different part of Arizona than any of us had been to before. There's some talk of maybe camping here, but Janna and I have work for school we need to get done for tomorrow, so the four us head back to the Canyon, not getting back until well after midnight after stopping at a gas station for more snacks along the way.