Day three of our trip would start out with what would be our most adventurous ride yet, which is surprising given that the destination was inside a major metropolitan area almost adjacent to the intersection of two major freeways. While not necessarily remote, Phoenix’s South Mountain will test all who attempt to ascend—and descend—it. At more than 16,000 acres, South Mountain Park is the largest municipal park in the United States and contains over 50 miles of trails. The “Desert Classic” route that rolls gently along the southern flank of the mountain holds no horrors for most bikers, but that’s about it for easy routes. Most of the many trails that climb the urban behemoth will put the hurt on the uninitiated or the unprepared.
We parked at the 24th street trailhead and began our ascent up the Mormon Trail. For much of the route, it wasn’t so much a trail as it was a rocky groove cut into the contours of this rugged feature rising sharply out of the heavily developed desert flats below. Right from the parking lot, we were immediately greeted by an extreme grade loaded with plenty of technical challenge. Fatigue set in quickly as we rode/pushed our bikes up the rugged landscape. How much of our depleted state was attributable to the mountain and how much was the result of the two previous days of hard riding, we didn’t know. What we did know was that this was tough.
Well, tough for me anyway—Miniskibum seemed relatively fresh and proceeded to ride sections I chose to push, and did so with a smile on his face. At this point I saw the beginning of a familiar pattern. While my daughters (older than Miniskibum) didn’t take to biking, they did take to skiing. I found that the “just right” period between when I didn’t enjoy skiing with them because they couldn’t keep up—and the time when I didn’t enjoy skiing with them because I couldn’t keep up—was way too brief. Now Miniskibum was doing the same thing to me with the bike. Exciting, yes, but in a bittersweet way.
To make things tougher, there were a couple false summits on the way up. Just as you think you’re reaching the top, you clear a knoll and, bam!—there’s yet another climb ahead, looking even tougher than the previous one. We did, of course, reach the top and boy, was it worth it! The upper reaches of South Mountain are as special a place as I’ve ever seen. From a distance, the mountain looks like a single, long ridgeline.
However, once in the upper reaches, you see all the many contours of the mountain and we joined the famed National trail as it passed through a sort of high valley between parallel ridges. It was as if this previously vicious-seeming mountain was now cradling us as a reward for the hard work we’d put in. What’s more, in this high valley, there is absolutely zero indication that you are in the middle of one of our nation’s largest urban areas.
Of course, by the time I reached the top of Mormon, I had yet another flat! While the physical factor had dropped tremendously, and the surrounding hills seemed much more welcoming, the trail remained tough, as it does throughout its entire length. By this time, it was also getting hot: even in March, Phoenix is hot. Make that very hot to a high altitude, cold weather loving Yeti like me. You don’t get much time to relax between climbs and technical obstacles, but at this point, it seemed easy, and downright fun, compared to what we’d been through on the climb. But that heat—ouch! We enjoyed the length of National that would connect us with Geronimo, our downhill route, very much—with one exception:
While traversing one particularly challenging rock garden, I came up behind Miniskibum way too fast and had to hit the brakes. I went to put my foot down, but for some reason, the cleat didn’t come out of the pedal and I had a very awkward fall to the side, taking the brunt of my weight entirely on my left index finger, which promptly dislocated at both joints. It was clear I wouldn’t be wrapping that finger around a grip or using it to press a brake lever any time soon. There wasn’t much I could do but pop it back into place and press on—good thing I’ve still got three more good ones on the same hand! Upon inspection, I found one bolt had come out of the cleat, allowing it to rotate freely and not disengage from the pedal. Fortunately, I had a spare and could continue sorely, but safely. Miniskibum is now convinced he will never go clipless!
Bum finger aside, the descent down Geronimo was fantastic. This route provides a full 2.5 miles of narrow, rocky, technical, relentlessly steep downhilling and is a favorite with the local dual-crown fork and full-face helmet crowd (if you approach South Mountain from the other side, there is a road that leads to a parking lot right at the upper trailhead—there’s even a couple commercial shuttle services in the area). Miniskibum managed to descend the whole thing with but a single dab on a tight switchback while I stopped on a couple occasions to regain my composure and rest my finger. Since then, Miniskibum has repeatedly enjoyed reminding me that he bested me on that trail both going up and down.
At the bottom, we had a mile of pavement to complete the loop and get back to the van—even slogging through the subdivision on blacktop couldn’t wipe the grin off Miniskibum’s face. I’m not sure whether it was the trail itself or the fact that Junior showed up his Old Man, but this would prove to be his favorite ride of the whole trip and, despite my discomfort, I also put this route into the upper echelon of my riding resume as well.
Physical difficulty of our route: 4/5
Technical difficulty of our route: 5/5
Skibum’s grade: 4.5/5
Miniskibum’s grade: 5/5
For our second ride that afternoon, I had planned to do the challenging Pass Mountain route in Usury State Park. However, between how taxed we were from the morning ride, my finger, and our desire to do another two trails the next day, we decided to throttle back and hit one of Phoenix’s less challenging venues.
Like South Mountain, Dreamy Draw Park sits within the city and has a variety of trails in a large preserve that will make you forget where you are. The main parking area is bisected by the Piestewa freeway with the trail passing through an underpass. In other places the trail passes through culverts under urban arterials. Other than the culvert itself, though, you’d have no idea you’re in the middle of the city, unless you climb one of the mountains and look down on the urban sprawl. If you want to access the more interesting trails, head east from the parking area—go west only if you have done the east and want to add more miles as it’s less interesting, both in terms of the scenery and the trail itself.
These trails are far easier than South Mountain in terms of both grade and technical difficulty—in fact most of them are downright buff. This is a nice, convenient place to pull off the freeway and just spin until you’ve had enough. The main route that runs the length of the preserve is Trail 100, but there are a number of trails that provide additional loop opportunities within the park boundaries. Trail 100 is technically and aerobically easy, so if you want to get the heart rate up, you’ll have to ascend one of the loop routes that climbs the steep mountains in the park.
I wouldn’t call this one a top-tier ride and I’m sure it was nowhere as interesting as Pass Mountain would have been, but it was perfect given our condition at the time and our desire to hit another two trails the next day. Quite possibly the most entertaining part of the ride was the unloading and reloading. While we were gearing up for the ride, there was a group of bongo players seated in the brush on the edge of the parking lot, bongoing away, giving us a cool vibe to start our ride. Since we were out scarcely an hour on this ride, they were still there upon our return and we got to listen to them again as we loaded the bikes and wound down from the day’s riding.
Physical difficulty of our route: 2/5
Technical difficulty of our route: 2/5
Skibum’s grade: 2.5/5
Miniskibum’s grade: 2/5
Sleep would not come quite as easily this night with the throbbing finger, but we were very much looking forward to the next day when we would proceed to Tucson and be reunited with the wonderful wife and mother who so graciously allows our fat tire indulgences. Oh yeah, and we’d be hitting a couple more great trails as well!
In the next installment: Sweetwater found and Fantasy fulfilled in Tucson!
Now I want to hear Miniskibum’s side of the story to understand how tough this ride really was. 🙂
South Mountain really does sound like a great place to ride. Fun fact: the SECOND largest city park in the US is Carvin’s Cove in Roanoke, VA. #3–McDowell in Scottsdale. All 3 allow mountain biking!
Turns out I’ve ridden 5 of those top 100 including three right here in Colorado Springs and two on this spring Break Trip (McDowall Sonoran Preserve, covered in the second installment, was the other–it sits in the slot right below Carvin’s).
Still regret not driving the extra hour and a half to Richmond to check out check out Carvin’s when I lived in Fairfax.
This was a ride I did not expect to do better than Skibum on after seeing the first hill. I expected him to be carrying my bike as well as his for most of the climb. Boy was I wrong, whether it was his lack of energy or my somehow boosted energy I rode many sections of the trail that even I thought that I would not be able to. The climb is definitely challenging and very technical, and I doubt anybody could make it up in one run, but it was fun challenging myself to see how far I could make it in one try. Several times I had to stop so the old man could get ahead. After a very seemingly impossible climb we had reached the top. The fact that he made me wear armor is absurd because I will not ride anything that I am not comfortable. My dad says that I am a medium-advanced rider and I was able to ride the entire thing besides a few very tight steep switchbacks. The only other times I stopped was so Skibum could take a picture of my sheer awesomeness. Overall this was a very taxing ride that was both very technical and very physical.
Love the after action report!
Had no chance to ride National Trail yet but now, after reading your report want to go there even more. There’s a Black Canyon Trail near Phoenix that I’d like to ride again. You folks did a great trip! Waiting for next part to read
Black Canyon’s definitely on my wish list! Just another excuse to go back!
Same as National on my list. Kicking myself hard for not riding it when I was there. As you said, got an excuse to go back 🙂
I was out in Tucson in Febuary and had a blast. This comment may hit you too late to be useful but here goes..I rode Sweetwater and it was alot of fun and very well marked. I did hear from a few locals that while Fantasy Island was fun, it may be a bit too tame for you guys, I also passed on it. I would recommend the 50 year trail looped with middlegate and of course the chutes very highly. I also think that you would enjoy the 24 hour course as well as the AZT. Check out the local mtb group, http://www.sdmb.org/
Alot of good trail info. Have a blast, try not to admire the scenery while riding, could be painful.
Already been to Tucson–reports on Sweetwater, Fantasy adn 50 Year all forthcoming!
I really want to travel to AZ now! And ouch, the finger! I broke a finger riding Alafia in 2010 and it took about 8 weeks to heal, but I drove 4 hours to get to that trail and I kept ridig for another 2 hours after it snapped…darnit!! 🙂
Ooooooh, National Trail. The one glorious ride I had there 20 years ago on a fully rigid bike (no suspension fork) ended with a broken arm requiring surgery.
No doubt though, the Sonoran Desert is a great place to ride.