Spring Break Singletrack Trek, Part II: Phoenix Phun, Phase One

Day two of the ultimate Spring break mountain bike road trip would prove to be just as successful as the first. There’s a whole lotta’ nothing in much of New Mexico and Arizona, but we chose a route into Phoenix we’d never taken before, and were glad we did. Departing the interstate at Holbrook, AZ and heading southwest, the Mogollon Plateau shoots you up over 7,500 feet into a wonderfully scenic and cool ponderosa forest. If you head out on the rim road to the Mogollon Rim, you can see the whole world fall away thousands of feet below you. However, there wasn’t much time to tarry as we had another two-ride day planned and had to scoot on into Phoenix.

As you enter the Phoenix metro area on Highway 87, the first suburb you will hit is Fountain Hills, which was home to the now defunct Cactus Cup race in the McDowell Mountain Park. While the race is no more, the beautiful singletrack cut for the original race is now a well-maintained part of the preserve and well worth a stop for any singletrack junkie, especially cross-country fiends.

Sweet Sonoran Singletrack

This race course turned weekend warrior stomping ground makes excellent use of limited terrain. While surrounded by mountain ranges, most of the area is relatively flat, punctuated with sandy, desert washes. Somehow, the trail designers built great flow into the main eight-mile route and even made the wash entries and exits interesting.

All this great singletrack sits in the middle of prime Sonoran desert. What is most striking to the non-native riding Phoenix for the first time is the fantastic array of flora. How many species of cactus are there? There are more here than I ever knew existed—and all of them fully capable of inflicting serious pain!

Possible injury aside, the Sonoran desert isn’t like the Sahara, or even Northern New Mexico; it’s teeming with life and its beauty can be overwhelming. We were fortunate enough to hit it during the “wet” season and things were greener than usual and the cactus flowers were blooming like mad. The dominant feature is, of course, the saguaro, just like you used to see in the Road Runner cartoons, but all the other, smaller varieties should command your attention as well.

How can something in the desert grow this big? Even the ponderosa pines where we live don't get this tall!

Disaster Strikes!

But fortunately it doesn’t strike us. About a mile into the ride on this wonderfully flowy one-way ribbon, we came across another rider pushing his bike the opposite direction. I asked what he’d broken, thinking maybe I had the goods in my pack to fix it. He held up his free hand and it was apparent, even through his full-fingered glove, that one finger was bent in a very unnatural way. Broken or dislocated he did not know, but we knew he would have an unpleasant walk ahead of him. We wished him well and proceeded to hammer the singletrack, maybe a little more cautiously than necessary, but this was only day two of ten and we wanted to live to ride another day.

The one tough spot on this trail has an easy alternative

I don’t recall hitting or running over any cacti, but I sure did get a flat. This would be the first of many on this trip. Not being able to find the leak, I swapped tubes and we pressed on. Most of the trail is actually novice-friendly and you could take just about anybody here and they’d have a good time. There are a few wash exits that may prompt a new rider to dismount briefly, but it shouldn’t spoil anyone’s day.

Despite the novice-friendly nature of the trail, Miniskibum and I found it to be well worth the stop and I will add it to my list of easy trails that an advanced rider can enjoy. If you want more mileage, the same trailhead serves an additional easy loop and a technical loop, each a few miles on their own. A little deeper into the preserve at the next trailhead is the popular 12-mile Pemberton trail if you’re still aching for more.

Physical difficulty of our route: 2.5/5
Technical difficulty of our route: 2.5/5
Skibum’s grade: 3/5 stars
Miniskibum’s grade: 2.5/5 stars

After a wonderful first ride, we headed to our campground. Decent hotels in Phoenix are pricey and we thought we’d save a few clams and stay at the KOA Kampground in Apache Junction, a few miles from our next ride. This campground was, by KOA standards, a bit stark and the surrounding area was less than desirable, but it was geographically convenient and did have a hot tub where we could soak our aching legs at the end of the day.

Sweet singletrack and spectacular scenery: this bodes well for a great ride!

I’d heard from a number of folks about an excellent new ride in the area between the town of Gold Canyon and the Superstition Mountain Wilderness. Some call it the Gold Canyon Trail System, some call it Cloudview, after the name of the main trailhead that serves it; still others call it by the name of any of the individual trails within the system (K Trails, Lost Goldmine, etc). I don’t care what you call it—just get out there and ride it!

I’m not kidding–we were wholly unprepared for what an excellent ride this would be. That beautiful desert scenery I mentioned earlier? Nothing compared to what we saw here. Green, rich, full, and with the gorgeous Superstition Mountains as a magnificent backdrop. And the singletrack was pretty darn good, too!

This looked a lot like the log piles I used to ride across back east, but I thought better of it this time--still managed to get two flats on this ride!

However, this ride wasn’t without its difficulties. Just finding the parking area took some doing. It turned out my trail map was out of date as a number of new trails had been added to the area. My map also failed to show the many doubletrack trails running through the trail system. Oh yeah, and two more flats! I’m sure there was a thorn in the tire itself, but darned if I could find it.  I was always swapping tubes and my arm was so tired from jamming on my minipump, I thought it would fall off.

One trail not on my map was called “Holy Hill.” By the time I completed the climb, I was sure there was a four letter word missing from between the “Holy” and the “Hill!” This wasn’t the longest or the steepest trail I’d ever climbed, but the combination of length, grade, and tread made it a lungbuster for my midwinter conditioning. But once on top, the views of the Superstition Mountains were superb and the following descent, climb on to “Vortex,” and techy traverse across “Gila Monster” all added up to great fun.

Gorgeous Superstition Mountain Wilderness in the background

Disaster strikes!

Somewhere far from the trailhead, while fixing my second flat, I must have lost my map! We now had to find our way back to the van through all this serpentine singletrack, not knowing the area or the trails, with darkness approaching. As we wandered, we ended up in what I later learned was the “Tech Loop.” Well named—and loads of fun. For 15 minutes we forgot our predicament and enjoyed a well-designed series of natural technical obstacles, even going over a few more than once because they were so entertaining. Besides, we couldn’t be hopelessly lost with those mountains always due north. All we had to do was look at the mountains and turn left to get back to the parking area.

Even the rapidly lengthening shadows couldn't keep us from playing a little longer on this wonderful trail!

Easier said than done. Every time we’d turn left, the trail would snake back to the right and we kept getting further from the trailhead. I was concerned about how fast it was getting dark, especially since I had Miniskibum with me—then I realized I was still wearing my darkest shades. By simply taking off my sunglasses, I bought another 45 minutes of daylight!

In the end, we made it to the parking lot just as the last ray of daylight disappeared—and then promptly got lost trying to find our way out of the subdivision between the trail and the highway. A most appropriate finish to the day. Despite the difficulties, I wouldn’t change one thing about that ride—it’s a very fine trail network.

Physical difficulty of our route: 3.5/5
Technical difficulty of our route: 3.5/5
Skibum’s grade: 4.5/5 stars
Miniskibum’s grade: 4/5 stars

Day two turned out to be the perfect companion to day one: 2 rides, one merely excellent and one downright spectacular. With bikes and bodies still intact, we would sleep well in our tent and dream of the next day’s rides.

Next installment: Phase 2 in Phoenix, including Pain and Pleasure on South Mountain!

13 thoughts on “Spring Break Singletrack Trek, Part II: Phoenix Phun, Phase One

  1. By far the biggest rattlesnake I’ve ever seen was laying across the trail at McDowell Mountain Park. Acted like he owned the place, (wasn’t about to argue the point) just raised his head looked at me, and waited till I went around.

    • Only big rattler I’ve seen was close to home as I started out at the bottom of Cheyenne Mountain State Park. The bottom of the park is prairie with loads of prairie dogs, so I’m sure that’s why he lives there. He coiled right in the middle of the trail and shook his rattle non-stop until I chose another route.

      Whatever happened to “multi-use” trails? Sheesh!

  2. I rode McDowell last spring and had a blast! I was hammering around the far side of the Long Loop when I passed a big bush and heard a rattler very close to me. Let’s just say that I got a natural NO2 boost and flew out of there faster than I’ve ever ridden before! Gotta love the fact that hikers aren’t allowed there and the trails are all one way – built for speed! I use Slime-Lite tubes (poor man’s tubeless!) and have only had 2 flats in the last two years, both pinch flats. As you know here in Colorado we don’t have nearly the variety of cacti, but I certainly hit my fair share of the abundant couple of species we do have! Can’t wait for the next installment of your adventures!

  3. Sounds like an amazing time riding in the desert! I’ve only ridden in Arizona once, and that was in Flagstaff last summer, so I definitely want to get back to AZ and experience what the desert riding has to offer! Sounds like you’ve had amazing weather… might have to do my own “spring break” trip next year!

  4. “…I was concerned about how fast it was getting dark…
    …In the end, we made it to the parking lot just as the last ray of daylight disappeared…”

    I have been caught up so many times at sunset on a new trail, taking the wrong turn and rushing to get back to the parking lot before it gets too dark. Many times I ended up walking for miles because it was just too dark to ride the rest of the way.

    For this exact reason I always pack my fully charged up NiteRider Lumina 650 light with me for every ride. Now I never have to worry about that any more.

  5. Love Gold Canyon!!! Be nice to the great trail builders there. They’ve built a fantasy wonderland for mountain bikers. I’ve seen more rattlers than people out there. It is the best of the Valley of the Sun. Oh, and Slime-tubes work for me. I only get flats when my slime dries out, and that usually takes 6 months or more.

  6. I will reiterate what is stated above…run tubeless on your bike in pretty much any Western state. I ride the front range here in CO, and although I rarely see a cactus, I come back with wet spots on my tire from punctures all the time. I’ve never had to change one….

    • Yeah, I’ve got tubeless on my cc bike and never had an issue. There’s plenty of Prickly Pear cactus on the south-facing hills here in Colorado Springs, so the need is real.

      To get a AM rig and keep the cc bike, I had to cut some corners, so I kept the stock build.

      Will upgrade someday . . .

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