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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!