After becoming a human pincushion on day seven of the ultimate spring break mountain bike road trip, Miniskibum’s status for day eight seemed somewhat questionable. Despite being bloodied and spending a fitful night with a leg still containing all the cactus spines too fine to find, he woke up and decided he wanted to go riding. So we set out to hit the first of two potential rides and started with a doozy—a combination of the relatively new Highline trail to the Templeton/Baldwin route and a few little extras thrown in at the end for good measure. On a previous trip, I had ridden the traditional Templeton/Baldwin loop and found it to be one of my all time favorites, so returning to it on any Sedona trip is a must. I’d heard the addition of the Highline trail made the route even better, so that’s where we started.
Starting out on Slim Shady from the north end of the Village of Oak Creek provides a nice, semi-technical warmup for the greater challenges to come. The trail bobs and weaves across ledges, through junipers, and in and out of sandy washes until the intersection with the Highline trail—then the real fun starts! The trail climbs to a bench on the mountain, high above the surrounding countryside. This stretch is moderately technical but very steep, requiring some hiking for most riders.
Upon reaching the bench, the climb gives way to exposure—lots of exposure. Here, a fall to the wrong side could end badly—you’ll either fall a loooong way, or your fall will be broken by unforgiving rock and uninviting cacti. This traverse also serves up some of the very best Sedona scenery… if you dare take your eyes off the trail! This trail is the essence of Sedona riding and I quickly agreed it was an improvement on the already excellent Templeton/Baldwin route.
After about a mile of this exposure, the trail begins a wonderful descent to a saddle between the ridge you’re on and the Sedona scenery centerpiece, Cathedral Rock. The white-knuckle ride turns into a flowy, fast, intermediate cruise in what I can only describe as one of the truly magical spots I’ve ridden. The perfect combination of singletrack, gorgeous red slickrock, scenery, terrain, and topography is unmatched anywhere I’ve ridden.
As the saddle nears Cathedral Rock, it’s time to get your tech back on, but the fun meter remains pegged. The trail drops you from one bench down to the next with a series of steep grooves. Each of these drops is easier than it looks, making for great opportunities to impress yourself. Then all this comes to an abrupt end at a narrow slot between the rocks; this thing is very steep, with ledges and narrow, twisty passages, all covered with a very fine layer of red dust to ensure any less-than-perfectly modulated brake usage will result in an uncontrolled skid on treacherous tread.
As you emerge from this difficult stretch, you’re faced with huge ledges and rock faces with big-time exposure. There’s about a mile of intimidating technical challenge before dropping into the sandy wash that emerges at the Baldwin trail.
A brief but entertaining stretch of Baldwin then delivers you to the Templeton Trail, which first follows Oak Creek through alternating buff singletrack and jagged rock gardens to the famous Buddah Beach, before hitting a serious, partly hike-a-bike climb, and then more superb singletrack to the base of Cathedral Rock. The area between Buddah Beach and Cathedral Rock is thick with hikers, so it’s a good time to throttle back and enjoy a leisurely spin, even in the non-technical sections.
After marveling at Cathedral rock, the Templeton Trail continues back to Slim Shady or, as we did, diverts onto a number of other trails leading under the highway. We took HT trail to Easy Breezy to the novice Bell Rock Pathway, and finished up with an extra few miles on the oft-overlooked but delightfully fun Big Park Loop, which is marked as a green circle on most maps but has some blue square moments.
What was a top 10 ride for me is now a top 5 with the addition of Highline and will be on my Sedona itinerary any time I go there. The total was only about 12 miles, but it was a truly epic 12 miles. After suffering some rear hub issues and being fully satisfied with the ride, Miniskibum and I decided to forgo the day’s second ride and spent the afternoon on bike maintenance and relaxation.
Physical difficulty of our route: 4/5
Technical difficulty of our route: 4.5/5
Skibum’s grade: 5/5
Miniskibum’s grade: 4/5
Travel Tip: Good quality but reasonably-priced food can be hard to find in Sedona. When I found my favorite Korean restaurant had closed, it was back to the drawing board. Then we found Simon’s Hot Dogs. Yep, hot dogs. These are all beef, high quality dogs given gourmet treatments, and at a very good price. Don’t want all that beef? Never fear, they have vegetarian and full vegan dogs as well, all given the same gourmet touch. The dogs are served in a local brew pub, so if you’re looking for an appropriate after ride refreshment, they’ve got that as well. Sitting inside next to the vats is okay, but the patio is very nice. It’s off the main drag and kind of a trick to get to, but well worth it.
Since we skipped a ride on day eight we had to cut one ride from our itinerary: either the new but already infamous Hangover or the also new, but much less treacherous, Chuck Wagon trail. Having just experienced two consecutive days of intense exposure, we opted for the Chuck Wagon trail and Hangover joined Pass Mountain in Phoenix and Milagrosa in Tucson on our “must do” list for the next trip.
Although it’s been around a while, the Chuck Wagon trail is newly recognized by the USFS as a legitimate trail. Kudos to the powers that be for formally bringing this wonderful trail into the official trail system. This six mile, mostly intermediate lollipop loop serves up all the usual Sedona staples (combination of slickrock, singletrack and scenery), but is unique unto itself. For one thing, the vegetation here is more dense and you’ll spend a good deal of time playing chicken with the junipers and ducking your head under low branches. Flowy sections are punctuated with significant step ups and small to moderate, ledgy drops. Most of the drops have rock ramps added, keeping the route securely doable by a solid intermediate rider. Chuck Wagon ended up being even better than we expected and we were very pleased to have ridden it. Miniskibum even declared it his #2 ride of the trip after Phoenix’s South Mountain.
At the end of the lollipop, rather than taking the stem back to the parking lot, we diverted onto the Mescal Trail for more Sedona goodness. This was another high rock bench traverse with exposure, though less intimidating than the likes of Highline or the Airport Loop. Again, kudos to both the trail builders and the USFS for providing an avenue for this full-on Sedona experience to less than expert riders.
The whole area around Chuck Wagon is a huge trail maze so a good map and a little knowledge obtained from one of the local bike shops will allow any rider, even a novice, to customize a ride to their liking. After Mescal, we continued on the excellent Aerie trail and then worked our way back to the van via the somewhat less exciting Cockscomb, Rupp, and Girdner trails for a very diverse and completely satisfying 15-miler.
Physical difficulty of our route: 3.5/5
Technical difficulty of our route: 3/5
Skibum’s grade: 4/5
Miniskibum’s grade: 4.5/5
After the ride, it was time to grab a quick lunch back at Simon’s and begin the journey home. Having ridden 15 miles rather than the basic 6 took enough time that we didn’t pull into Cortez, CO until after dark and we lost the opportunity for a second ride that day. Not that we were disappointed, having had the perfect three hour spin that morning.