The 800 mile-long Arizona Trail spans the state, from Mexico north to Utah. It was conceived in the 1970s, by Dale Shewalter who, in 1985, walked it to check out the possibilities. Over the next 30 years, his concept became a reality and has gained National Scenic Trail status. The many people and entities who worked so hard to create this premier long distance trail want nothing more than to share their labor of love. To that end, AZT Expeditions, a new branch of Hermosa Tours, and the Arizona Trail Association (ATA) partnered to develop self-guided trips catering to mountain bikers, hikers and trail runners. My photographer husband, Scott, and I recently joined the four-day, 100-mile Oracle to Picketpost AZT Expeditions trip in the Sonoran Desert.
At 7am on a November morning, a group of nine mountain bikers gathered in Apache Junction, AZ to load bikes and gear on the shuttle to the ride start. Glen Shoemaker, of AZT Expeditions, worked his packing magic and got all the duffel bags, bins, and coolers squeezed into the trailer. Those coolers, full of beer and food, are a key component of the logistical assistance provided. We were on the road by 7:30am and at the Oracle trailhead by 9am.
Bikes unloaded, tire pressures checked, helmets and hydration packs donned, we met for a pre-ride briefing. All riders had a GPS with route tracks from Topofusion.com loaded, but we were given some “heads up” information, tricky turns, etc…. That was the last time anyone had unscathed skin.
For all of you mountain bikers who are dismayed at the “dumbing down” and “sanitizing” of trails, the ride from Oracle is for you. Your full attention is required as you navigate the very narrow, rocky trail.
In less than an hour, you will have given blood to the ever present encroachment of Catclaw, known as “probably the most heavily disliked plant in [Arizona], the sharp, strong prickles tear the clothes and lacerate the flesh.” (Kearney & Peebles) My usual caution while riding was elevated by the many, many pokey plants just inches from my skin at all times. The very thought of crashing on the likes of Teddy Bear Cholla, Prickly Pear, or any of the numerous spined flora kept me highly attentive. That means that I dabbed or dismounted on more risky spots than I usually do.
But, let’s be honest here… Scott and I are at the very lowest mountain bike skill level that should even consider this particular AZT Expeditions trip. In northern Wisconsin, on the wonderful CAMBA trails where we became mountain bikers, we considered ourselves advanced riders. When we moved to Buena Vista, CO three years ago, we quickly learned that by Colorado standards we were merely rank beginners. The consequences of failure in the mountains are not to be trifled with. We are, however, strong endurance athletes not averse to hard work, so were assured that the Oracle to Picketpost trip would be doable.
Indeed it was, but by 1pm, only 10.5 miles into the first 28-mile day, as thunder started cracking above us, we seriously wondered. After eating lunch we rode on and found miles 15-20 to be pretty sweet singletrack. At mile 20, the skies opened up as the tread narrowed again. We rode the constant ups and downs through several bouts of torrential rain and hail, rolling into camp just at dark. The good news is that the rain/hail washed all the blood off my arms and legs. The first real indication that we were out of our league was seeing the Santa Fe contingent already eating their steaks. Their tents were up and they were in clean, dry clothes. We were soaking wet, tent yet to erect, and dinner to be made after eight and a quarter hours out on the trail.
Dave, Myles, Bill, John, and Lee, all from Santa Fe, and Tom, from Boulder, agreed to share their mountain bike skill levels and trip impressions for a well-rounded account of the trip. Most of the six men are advanced to expert-level riders, comfortable on black trails in places like Moab, Fruita, Crested Butte, and Santa Fe. Two of them place themselves more in the high-intermediate to advanced level.
Tom’s opinion, regarding the technical rating of this four-day trip is that most of the trails are borderline blue/black. Dave, who rides mostly singletrack in high desert arroyo terrain, as well as the higher elevation ponderosa forest around Santa Fe, said that this segment of the Arizona Trail required more walking over gnarly obstacles than the trails he normally rides. As we compared notes on the first day’s ride, we all, regardless of skill level, agreed that it was one tough day on the bike.
Much to our relief, Matt McFee, founder and director of AZT Expeditions, assured us that day one is, by far, the toughest of the trip. He was joining the trip along with his buddy, Kevin, as a participant, not as a guide. He told us, “If you made it through today, you can make all the rest. The trail tread and scenery gets better every day!” After eating dinner, cleaning up, and dashing back and forth to the campfire between rain showers, we all cashed it in.
It stormed on and off all night and nearly up to the day’s rollout.
One benefit of desert riding is that the wet shoes, helmets, and clothes dry as you ride. As promised, the second day began with 15 miles of swooping singletrack.
The scenery was great and the riding was as easy as it gets on this 100-mile segment.
The climb up that Matt-dubbed “Prickly Nipple” was more hike-a-bike for Scott and I, but it was definitely decent bench cut trail. The climb was followed by a beautiful ridge ride that kept us smiling.
Despite being mostly downhill to camp, the descent was no cake-walk for me. The numerous tight, rocky, steep switchbacks had me dismounting frequently. Day two was 27 miles, taking Scott and I over seven hours. We did manage to arrive at camp in daylight and had time to erect and dry our tent, change our clothes, and relax with a much anticipated Eddyline Crank Yanker IPA. The weather was perfect to sit around the campfire and share the bottle of Buena Vista craft distilled Deerhammer Single Malt Whiskey as Tom broke out the gooey, yummy bars his wife sent with him.
Day three dawned with thick rising fog to start our shortest ride of the trip, at 18 miles.
The fog quickly dissipated and the sun immediately started heating up the Sonoran Desert. Day three is the first day that we got a true feel of the hottest of the North American Deserts. The Sonoran Desert covers over 100,000 square miles and is an amazingly big, diverse home to 530 species of fauna and over 2,000 native species of flora. The ride began with ever-improving bench cut singletrack that wound its way above and along the Gila River. The Saguaro forests are gorgeous and give a real sense of the unique environment we were riding through.
The Saguaro that tower over with outstretched arms are ancient trees. The arms do not even begin to grow until the plant is over 75 years old, and many are over 150 years old! Despite the brevity of miles, the intense Sonoran sun and heat made for a tough ride. Scott ran out of his nearly 130oz of water before arriving at camp.
To compensate for the effort, camp three is the gem of the trip. The views are stunning and made our 2:30pm finish even better as we lounged for hours, drinking beer and socializing. Dinner and campfire were all wrapped up by 8:30pm as everyone headed to early bedtime. The last day’s 2,000 foot climb over 12 miles and 27-mile ride total had everyone just a bit nervous.
Day four began with a flurry of packing, eating and preparing to get rolling by 7:30am. Good thing we started early… this would be one tough, though stunningly-beautiful, ride.
Scott and I finally arrived at the Picketpost trailhead nine hours later. The day involved lots of riding, lots of hike-a-bike, lots of climbing, lots of sweating, and just enough water. Comparing notes on the shuttle, I found that the 12-mile climb required as much as 40% hike-a-bike to as little as 10%. Bottom line, you WILL walk, so heed Lee’s advice to wear bike shoes that hike well! He joins Scott and I in also recommending that you bring “as many water bottles and bladders as you can reasonably carry… that water management for long days and staying hydrated out in the sun with no water along the way” is a real challenge.
Reflections from the group clearly state that the beauty of the Sonoran Desert and the canyons of day four most definitely compensate for the blood-letting and overall strenuousness of the trip. This is a no-holds-barred, difficult 100-mile trip. In fact, one response to “what was the most challenging part of the trip?” was “days 1, 2, 3 and 4!”
Some advice from the guys:
- Prepare with long mountain rides if possible… the terrain isn’t overly technical, but it becomes harder as you fatigue. “Eat your Wheaties!”
- Be prepared to be self-sufficient, including keeping a strong, positive mental attitude. Being out in very remote country can be nerve-wracking at times.
- Consider pants for the first day. “Without reservation, the most challenging component of the trip was the sharp Catclaw that took a toll on my shins on day one!”
- “Bring more beer than you think you will need; you get thirsty at the end of each day!”
Matt confirmed our collective impressions of the trip’s difficulty. He said that of the company’s top three most difficult trips, the others being Hermosa’s Colorado Trail (Silverton to Durango) and the Kokopelli Trail, he would rank the Oracle to Picketpost as THE most difficult. I concur with his reasons for the high level challenge, being “…the lack of easy miles. The downs are tough, the ups are tough, and even the flat sections are tough. You’re rewarded with an amazing trip in the Sonoran Desert backcounty, but you definitely earn it for sure.”
That certainly makes this 58-year-old rider feel good about completing the trip. If you’re looking for a test of your skill and fitness, AZT Expedition’s Oracle to Picketpost trip is for you. However, if you’d like a more mellow Arizona Trail experience, check out the new Flagstaff to Grand Canyon Tour. Matt pegs this offering as the easiest due to reasonable climbing, a non-technical surface, and even some doubletrack across grasslands. He added that this trip, or possibly the Grand Canyon to Utah trip, would be ideal for a healthy, reasonably-fit family with a sense of adventure. Looks like AZT Expeditions has a way for anyone who loves mountain biking to experience the Arizona Trail.
Oh yeah… my biggest piece of advice? Pack a peck of pickles!
Thanks to AZT Expeditions for making this trip possible!