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The final stop on our almost two-month western mountain biking tour was Flagstaff, Arizona. On the way from Big Bear, California to Flagstaff, we made sure to detour up to Grand Canyon National Park, as neither my wife nor I had been there before.

The Grand Canyon

While there is no singletrack riding in the park, I highly recommend this as an off-day if you’re mountain biking in the Flagstaff area. The grandeur of the Canyon is truly awe inspiring… no photo can do it justice!

One of the things that I love about living and riding in places with massive mountains is how it impresses upon me my smallness in the universe. When I look up at the rocky peaks towering thousands of feet above me or sit on the summit looking down after having spent hours climbing to the top, I realize just how insignificant I am in the grand scheme of things–and that keeps me humble.

The Grand Canyon is one of those places that makes me feel small, but in a way that is directly opposite from the tall mountain peaks. As you approach the park from miles away the ground is pancake flat but when you reach the rim, suddenly there is this massive rift in the earth that is so deep you can’t see the bottom of it and so long you can’t see the ends of it. Truly marvelous!

Flagstaff, Arizona

I only had one day to ride in Flagstaff, so I tried to make it count. I started my ride at the rocking Fort Valley Trail System which, unbeknownst to me, connects to several other major Flagstaff trails. My route ended up taking me from Fort Valley Trail System to Schultz Creek Trail to the Arizona Trail and back the to Fort Valley Trail System.

The Jamis Dakar 650b Pro handled the Fort Valley gnar with ease.

Since Fort Valley is shared with motos, it features some of the standard negative effects you’d expect, such as accelerated erosion and the occasional singletrack braiding… but it features some of the benefits of moto traffic too, such as tons of banked turns and plenty of rocks to shred! My entire experience riding here was just awesome–the rocks were fun and the dirt was tacky and my bike drifted predictably when things got loose. The climbs were all very gradual and the descents, while not steep, were wide-open and fast! It was so much fun… I highly recommend it!

Some of the fast, flowy track at Fort Valley.

According to a local bike mechanic at Absolute Bikes, the trail conditions were currently horrible by Flagstaff standards: “totally blown out” due to a serious lack of rain. If these trails were in horrible condition, I’d love to ride them in their prime! Compared to the crazy-dry, loose SoCal trails I had just spent over a month riding, the dirt here in Arizona was firm and very grippy.

Much of my climbing took place on the Schultz Creek Trail. Schultz Creek seems to be a pretty popular access point to the area’s trails, and it’s easy to see why. The singletrack climbs up along a creek drainage and is mostly smooth with a few rocks thrown in. Despite being pretty chunky in places, the technical sections are very rideable thanks to the moderate grade.

Beautiful Schultz Creek trail.

Some chunks on Schultz Creek.

I popped out onto a gravel road part way up Schultz Creek and wanted to hang a left back toward Fort Valley. After consulting the Open Cycle maps via my Runtastic Mountain Bike Pro app, I ended up connecting to the Arizona Trail. The AZT, as it is called, is a long-distance trail running over 800 miles from Mexico to Utah… and almost all of it is open to mountain bikes!

Look at that beautiful singletrack disappearing in the distance!

As soon as my knobbies started rolling on the AZT’s divine surface, I thought I had died and gone to cross-country singletrack heaven. As cliche as that sounds, the AZT singletrack was some of the narrowest, best-designed, tackiest, flowiest dirt I had put tire to since I left Georgia seven weeks earlier. It was simply stunning! Sure, it wasn’t the most technical trail I had ridden during my trip nor the steepest or fastest, but the all-around perfection was something to behold. Perhaps my judgement was clouded by the less-than-stellar singletrack I had ridden in SoCal, but I had ridden some amazing trails in Big Bear too.

I ended up riding about 10 miles of the AZT, but it wasn’t nearly enough! I can’t wait to return, load up a full backpack of gear, and just start riding and see where the trail takes me.

Jamis Dakar 650b Pro on the AZT.

Ponderosa Pine Forest

One of the many things that make this ride so magical is the unique ecosystem these trails are located in: the largest ponderosa pine forest on the continent.

Ponderosa Pines

The ponderosas are tall, stately trees that are straight as telephone poles. Riding below them is a surreal experience as the large trees are spaced pretty far apart and there is little to no undergrowth, aside from the grasses you can see pictured above.

These trees have adapated to live in an ecosystem that is swept by low-intensity fires every 2-12 years. However, in the early 1900s, the USFS introduced a policy of fire suppression, which led to a build-up of undergrowth and debris beneath the pine trees. Then, when a fire would break out, it would no-longer be a low-level blaze, but would instead build to a fire of catastrophic proportions, wiping out complete stands of these trees.

In recent years, the Forest Service has reintroduced these low-level burns, which is absolutely necessary for the health of the ponderosa pine forests. The result can be seen in the pictures above: a tall pine canopy of widely-spaced trees and little to no undergrowth, creating a land that feels enchanted as you ride through it.

So Much More to Offer

By the time I wrapped up my ride I had ridden 22.4 miles… but only climbed 1,980 feet, according to Strava. Later that day we swung by Absolute Bikes in town and chatted with one of the mechanics, and in passing I asked how many miles of trail they had in Flagstaff. “Right here around the town of Flagstaff?” he asked. “We have over 300 miles of trails here in Flagstaff, but there’s at least another 400 in Sedona (about 30 miles away).”

I realized that my 22 mile ride had only scratched the surface of what was available in Flagstaff! I also realized that I had only ridden some of the lower trails: the singletrack keeps climbing up the sides of the mountains that tower above town, the peaks of which soar to 12,637 feet (Humphrey’s Peak, the highest point in Arizona). For comparison, the high points on my ride were only a little over 8,000 feet.

View of Flagstaff, my ride, and Humphrey's Peak.

Eats

Flagstaff is a bustling college town and there’s a great assortment of restaurants to choose from. We visited Altitudes Bar and Grill, a skiing-themed restaurant with excellent food and a good selection of craft beer. It was the perfect finish to a long day of driving and hiking at the Grand Canyon!

Photo courtesy of AlititudesBarAndGrill.com

Final Thoughts

We barely scratched the surface of all the mountain biking and other outdoor pursuits that Flagstaff has to offer. Flagstaff has been on my to-do list for a long time, but I still cannot honestly say that I’ve checked it off: I most definitely plan to return!

Have you ever mountain biked in Flagstaff? What were your impressions?

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# Comments

  • RoadWarrior

    Flagstaff is one of my favorite summer time stops. Park my truck at the Little America Truck Stop, ride my bike out the Little America’s Motel exercise trail, and onto the Arizona Trail. For a short ride I go out to Fishers Point, and back. If have the time just keep riding. Area is full of singletrack, double track, and dirt roads, some signed some not. GPS recommended

  • gar29

    Wow, I never realized how many miles of trails that area has. The pictures are amazing, and like you said, by the looks of the trails, if they are in bad shape, I’d love to see them in good shape!

    I also found the comment about the low intensity burns interesting. I’ve seen the same here in California. We seem to have so many more (bad) fires than necessary, because the policy is suppression instead of letting nature take its course.

    One final comment. Two month mountain bike tour…. Must be nice! 😛

    • mtbgreg1

      Yeah it was a blast! It was tiring towards the end, but it was a truly incredible experience. I’m working on a recap blog post for the entire trip… stay tuned! 🙂

      • gar29

        Can’t wait to hear about your experiences in California!

  • skibum

    Every time I pass through Flag, it’s a little early in the year and Elden is still snowed in. Not that I’m complaining as Sedona’s a pretty sweet destination in the spring. But I still gotta’ find a way to get to Flag in the summer/fall!

  • orphanchips

    Nice to see Flagstaff get some love. The trails/mountains are the reason I moved here from So.Cal. several years ago. Including Flag and Sedona there are still trails I have not explored yet. You picked some good trails to sample the area. Dumping snow right now BTW.

    • mtbgreg1

      Cool, glad I hit some good ones!

      Wish I could be there to ski that fresh snow! Question for you: does Snowbowl get super crowded with people from all over Arizona, and if so, can the lifts keep up to keep the lines down?

      • orphanchips

        Snowbowl is really crowded on the weekends, not worth dealing with the long lift lines. But the week days are usually wide open and no lines. The snow has been great.

      • mtbgreg1

        Right on. That’s kind of what I was afraid of… but if you can ski during the week, I guess it’s all good!

  • abegold

    The top of the San Francisco Peaks is wilderness so off limits but there are so many great trails below the wilderness no one cares. These are the prettiest and tallest mountains in the state, a dormant volcano. If you get back there try Supermoto, my favorite in the system. Better tech riders will prefer Jedi and more.
    No MTB in Grand Canyon NP but just a few inches away is the Rainbow Rim Trail on the even more scenc North Rim of the canyon. The national park begins where the canyon starts dropping but just above it is the Rainbow Rim Trail with it’s amazing views in it’s 18 mile length. Plans are to add another 8 miles of trail, I think this summer. It’s a shared trail and I’ve gotten stuck behind 40+ horse group. The temps are rarely much above 80 in summer and don’t get cold at night as the cold air drains away. I’d suggest camping at Locust Point at the trails middle.

  • bravesdave

    I too am glad to see “Flagtown” get some love on here. I lived in Northern Arizona for years. It is such a beautiful forested region — from the beautiful mixed conifer forest around “The Peaks”, to the expanse of the ponderosa pines across the Colorado Plateau (yes the Flagstaff region is actually geologically part of the Colorado Plateau Formation), to the exceptional rock formations and forests of the Mogollon Rim that stretches across a good portion of the north central AZ. Throw in Sedona below the Rim, and wow, what a beautiful area. Much of it is truly amazing country for XC riding.

    Greg, it sounds like you did your homework and reading while at Fort Valley. The fire ecology is quite fascinating, and it applies in different ways to much of the forest ecosystems of the southwestern US.

    To get a great feel for the stately pine forests of northern AZ, the remoteness and all its beauty, I suggest taking the AZT from Flag, SE to the Happy Jack region, then on to the Blue Ridge region and head south towards the Mogollon Rim, and finally ride off the Rim down into Payson. Do this as a one way bike pack trip, and you will enjoy a predominantly elevation loss ride (with a couple of big canyons thrown in … … beautiful and remote.

    Camping is not limited to campgrounds, so you are allowed to disperse camp pretty much anywhere within the National Forests of the area. So you can just stop anywhere you please along the trail and bed down for the night under the exceptional night skies.

    There is no shuttle service that I know of, so you’ll probably have to set this up with a buddy, but neither of you will regret the extra miles of driving back and forth across beautiful Lake Mary Road and Hwy 87 between Flag and Payson. Watch out for the abundant elk and deer that line the road especially from dusk to day break.

    • bravesdave

      Actually the AZT does cross near enough to Payson. It’s better to exit this shuttle where the trail crosses HWY 87 at the south end of the little community of Pine, north of Payson.

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