Spring Break Singletrack Trek Part V: Livin’ on Tucson Time, Take 2

Day 5 of the ultimate spring break mountain bike trip marked the end of our streak of two-a-day trail days. While the rest of our Tucson experience would be less successful in terms of riding, the next two days would prove interesting in other ways.

You mean I’ve been doing it wrong all these years?

On previous Tucson trips, I had hit a total of three local trails, one of which commanded my return—the 50 Year Trail. After a hearty breakfast, we headed out to the trail with a stop at the nearest bike shop to get a couple slime tubes to combat the ubiquitous Sonoran cactus.

Hitting the closest bike shop to the trail, I was surprised to find they didn’t carry tubes of any variety larger than a 2.25”. The shop attendant told me nobody in the area runs anything larger than that. Really? With all those rocks, sand, loose gravel, and miscellaneous forms of fat tire fun, nobody runs larger than a 2 1/4? In fact, the shop attendant raised my awareness by informing me that the only proper application for anything larger than a 2.25 is competitive downhill racing! Silly me—running unnecessarily fat tires on my long-travel, all-mountain rig. Well, it’s off to the trail hoping our non-slimed, needlessly obese tubes would hold for the day.

Saguaros and the Santa Catalina Mountains are just a couple of the many delights on the 50 Year Trail

Disaster strikes!

But once again, not us. As we were gearing up at the trailhead, a trail runner emerged into the parking area in a bit of a panic. Through his French accent (he was from Quebec), we learned he had become separated from his significant other on the trail, hadn’t seen her in over two hours, and was very concerned about her safety. He desperately wanted to place a 911 call, but his phone was locked in his car and his missing wife had the key! I gave him my phone and subsequently gave the 911 dispatcher directions to our remote trailhead since our panicking friend was even less familiar with the area than us. We then waited with him until we confirmed assistance was on the way.

Pick your poison--Miniskibum will take his "on the rocks."

Heading out on the singletrack, I found it to be even more interesting than I remembered from my last ride seven years ago. The singletrack bobs and weaves through a delightful variety of cacti, and the magnificent Santa Catalina Mountains were always on our right side, keeping us company.

After a wrong turn and a couple extra miles of exploring, we got back on track and busted for the Chutes (a fun and flowy extension loop off the east side of the trail), stopping only once in a vain attempt to get a picture of a road runner. I raised the camera, he moved. I then had to relocate him–they’re fairly well camouflaged, not brightly colored like in the cartoon. I raised the camera again, he moved again. After about a half dozen iterations of this, I gave up. I couldn’t even get a picture of one, let alone dream of catching one. Now I can see how that little twerp frustrated Wile E. Coyote so badly!

Despite the frustrating bird, the rest of the trip to the Chutes was fantastic. This is a great trail for riders of mixed abilities as there are oodles of technical stunts along the way, most of them with legit cheater lines around them.

Another great example of an alternate line on the 50 Year Trail

Disaster Strikes!

I let Miniskibum lead the way down the roller coaster that is The Chutes. As I approached a rise, I heard something disturbing from the other side; the unmistakable sound of skidding and then a human body slamming into the ground. As I crested the rise, I could see Miniskibum lying awkwardly and grimacing in pain. One knee was bleeding, but that was the only visible damage. Fortunately, that was the extent of the damage to his body; unfortunately, the damage to his bike wasn’t so easily shrugged off.

The spring that keeps tension on his mechanical disc brake had failed and, no matter how I adjusted things, there was no way to keep the bike running safely. We pushed our way back to the top of The Chutes and then rode carefully back to the trailhead. This was disappointing as I had been told there were some real technical goodies on the extension of the 50 Year Trail beyond The Chutes and we were looking forward to riding them. That just got put on the list for a future trip.

However long Miniskibum was bikeless would also affect our riding agenda. It was clear we would not be riding Naranja Park that afternoon as planned. This may have been just as well also as the temperature had reached uncomfortable levels for us Colorado boys.  It was also not a great loss because we only chose this trail due to its very close proximity to my Father-in-law’s place, rather than its inherent desirabiltiy.

Dropping further into The Chutes--unfortunately, we wouldn't get much further before Miniskibum's catastrophic brake failure.

Physical difficulty of our route: 3/5
Technical difficulty of our route: 3/5 (crank this up to a 4+ if you hit the optional tech lines)
Skibum’s grade: 4/5 stars
Miniskibum’s grade: 4/5 stars

A Tale of Two Bike Shops

I had neither the parts nor the tools to make repairs to the brake, so it was off to the nearest reputable bike shop we could find—and I already knew of one to avoid! Next shop down the road was a Trek store—Miniskibum’s bike is a Trek, so why not give it a whirl? By this time, it was late afternoon, so getting the bike fixed before closing was not going to happen, but they said they could get a replacement brake ordered and installed by noon the next day, a promise they fulfilled. Thanks to John at the Trek Store in Oro Valley, we only missed one afternoon ride and the following morning ride and were back in action by lunch the following day. Oh yeah, they also had slime tubes for my 2.4 tire!

Typical Starr Pass singletrack

Having lost our morning, we had to abandon our plans to ride the tough La Milagrosa shuttle, which was another disappointment but just gives us an excuse to make another Tucson trip. For that afternoon we headed out to an old Tucson favorite, the Starr Pass route in Tucson Mountain Park. The Tucson Mountain Park in huge, with over 20,000 acres of land and 62 miles of official non-motorized trails. When combined with the adjacent Saguaro National Park, you’ve got a monstrous preserve.

Rock formations at Starr Pass

To say the scenery and terrain here are rugged would be an understatement. It’s such a stark contrast as you approach the trailhead, driving through the immaculately groomed golf village and then, suddenly, it all comes to an abrupt end. Green gives way to grey, brown, and black and smooth becomes anything but. The trails were sometimes entertaining, but often just a bunch of loose rock and gravel covering a dry wash. This is not a place to come if you’re looking for any kind of pampering. Like the rest of the area, it’s all exposed and our ride ended up being quite hot yet again. The notch that is Star Pass is imposing to look at, but far from the toughest ride in the area, so proceed with confidence, so long as you know where you are.

They don't sign often, but when they do, they make sure you can't miss it!

Disaster strikes!

In addition to the miles of singletrack, there are a number of old dirt roads and doubletracks crisscrossing the area, none of which were on my map. Not that it would matter if they were; for the second time this trip (and the last time in my life if I have anything to say about it), I lost my map somewhere on the trail. So, once again, we were on a vast, complex, largely unmarked trail network, without a map.

What’s worse is I somehow got it stuck in my mind that we were doing a counterclockwise loop, when in fact we should have been doing a clockwise loop. Many cairns led us to trails that would peter out or dead end. We ran into an old shooting range, what appeared to be an abandoned camp or cabin sites for some sort of defunct dude ranch, and one clearing with a whole lot of recently empty containers of industrial solvent (remnants of a portable meth lab?).

After about four miles of needless bushwhacking and backtracking (and looking over our shoulders), I decided it was time to just get the heck out of the park. We dropped down to the nearest bit of pavement and finished this less than successful outing with 10 miles of blacktop circumnavigating the big park back to the heinous final climb to the parking area. I would like to return and do the ride properly someday, but the less interesting singletrack puts it much further down the wish list than Milagrosa or the upper reaches of the 50 Year Trail.

This trail, like many others, would disappear, leaving us to backtrack yet again . . .

Physical difficulty of our route: 3/5
Technical difficulty of our route: 3/5
Skibum’s grade: 3/5 stars (I didn’t allow our difficulties to downgrade my assessment—this was my impression of the good parts we rode)
Miniskibum’s grade: 2.5/5 stars

After a couple frustrating rides, we were looking forward to a change of venue, new scenery and cooler temps, all of which we would find on day seven, a little further north and a little higher in altitude. In the next installment: Passing through Prescott and Sliding into Sedona!

More information