After a couple rough days in Tucson, it was time to move up, both on the map and in elevation. This would allow us to add a good deal of variety into our singletrack and get us out of the desert heat. Sedona was the destination, but I’d heard there was also outstanding singletrack near Prescott, which would only be an hour out of our way. So we made the detour and started our Northern Arizona leg with a ride on the superb Granite Basin trail system.
Travel Tip: while Prescott is small, it is also spread out and has lots of development on its periphery and plenty of drivers who are in no hurry. Be sure to leave more time than you think you will need to get through town.
We scouted out the maps of the area and settled on an eight mile outer loop that would incorporate most of the trails in the core Granite Basin network. There are also a number of trails that depart the area and head into Prescott or further into the national forest (although some lead into the Granite Basin Wilderness where your bike is not welcome). I would have loved to have had time to explore further, but I must say, we were quite satisfied with our route choice.
I was immediately at home on these trails for a number of reasons. First, being back at altitude, out of the heat, and into cooler mountain air was most welcome. Second, Granite Basin is appropriately named as there are large, dramatic granite outcroppings dispersed throughout the ponderosa forest. In fact, if you had teleported me here blindfolded, then removed the blindfold and asked me to guess where I was, I would have confidently replied that I was in some part of the Buffalo Creek area of my native Colorado.
As for the ride, I can’t imagine a better intermediate ride. Starting at the Metate trailhead, we crossed the road and found trail 349 to start our counterclockwise route. This section is a mostly narrow, gentle roller coaster ride on buff singletrack. However, trail 349 does throw one steep but short and nontechnical downhill at you prior to recrossing the access road.
After crossing the road, things get a little more interesting with some small air opportunities as you descend to the Cayuse equestrian staging area. For a shorter, easier way back, go on into the Cayuse area and grab trail 351. We took trail 346 to the top of the hill and the intersection with 347. Just after crossing a gate look for the left turn onto 328 (unmarked as of our visit). Missing this turn will lead you all the way back down into Prescott.
We were greeted by an extended descent with some more air opportunities, but also some blind corners; this is a multiuse trail and this area sees its fair share of equestrian use, so take it easy when you run short of line of sight.
At the bottom of the rollicking descent, it’s time to turn left onto trail 348 to continue the loop. Again, after about a mile of 348, there’s a short connector over to 351, through a gate, for those who’ve had enough. For a more adventurous ride, we took the fork onto 352, which provided another extended downhill, this one complete with rocky switchbacks and other technical goodies. Of course, you have to regain that vertical on the Mint Wash Trail (#345), so save some energy.
Trail 345 climbs sharply to Granite Lake with its excellent vistas and then it’s either an easy road ride back or a quick jaunt over on what’s left of 345 to a right turn on 351 (one final climb) and another right on the delightful trail 353 which will deposit you right back where you started. Upon completion of this excellent ride, we declared Day 7 a rousing success, and we still had one more great ride to go!
Physical difficulty of our route: 3/5
Technical difficulty of our route: 3/5 (3.5 – 4/5 on 352)
Skibum’s grade: 4/5 stars
Miniskibum’s grade: 3.5/5 stars
Travel Tip: The most direct route from Prescott to Sedona traverses a steep, slow, switchbacky mountain pass. Drop into low gear going down to save your brakes. Also be sure to set aside a little time to stop in the unique town of Jerome. The entire town sits on the side of this very steep, rugged mountain, not at the top or at the bottom, but right in the middle with those very steep switchbacks passing right through its heart. It has developed the typical old mining town turned tourist trap vibe, but you won’t forget its uniqueness.
For the second half of the day, we headed to one of Sedona’s shorter routes which I had not done before, the Airport Loop. This is yet another of Sedona’s quirky, unique, elements; the Sedona airport sits atop a mesa in the middle of town—you definitely don’t want to overshoot the runway here! Even though the main loop is under four miles, this is no quickie. First, parking can be a bear. There’s very limited parking at the loop entrance near the top of the mesa. There’s additional parking available for a trail system at the bottom of the mesa which may be used to access the mesa, or you can ride to this lower system from town. We were lucky to secure a spot in the pulloff at the top of the mesa and began our short but very intense journey there.
The rider is immediately greeted by a very tough, steep, ledgy start to the Airport Loop. This area is also swarming with hikers. However, most of the hikers are there to access an overlook close to the trailhead. Once you top out at the last ledge beyond the fork to the overlook, the trail becomes significantly less populated. What the trail retains, however, is relentless technical challenge, with near constant exposure, at least for the first half of the loop.
The views as you circumnavigate the south side of the mesa are also spectacular, even by Sedona’s high standards. It’s easy to get distracted from watching the trail, but watch the trail you must, lest you run the risk of a dangerous plummet down the unforgiving red rock. Be advised, part of this loop is on steep, large baby heads that will force most riders into a significant amount of walking.
Shortly after reaching the far side of the mesa, feeling good about having achieved the high point and looking forward to more down than up for the remainder of the ride, Miniskibum took a major tumble into a huge bed of prickly pear cactus. After hoisting him out of the inhospitable fauna, we surveyed the damage. The bloodied knee and elbow were nothing compared to the thousands of barbed spikes protruding from his flesh. Prickly Pear have widely spaced, large quills, that generate significant pain both going in and coming out; that’s the good news. The bad news is all the far more numerous, smaller quills that aren’t seen from a distance, but nonetheless are there and swarm into unprotected flesh, embedding themselves deep enough to make removal a real challenge. And each and every one seems to be touching a nerve! We pulled what we could and a very sore and irritated Miniskibum and I mounted up to complete our journey.
The return on the north side of the mesa was far less challenging and would have actually been a lot of fun had it not been for the hundreds of quills still embedded in Miniskibum’s left leg. We’d ride until he couldn’t take it any more, then I’d pull quills until he couldn’t take that any more, then we’d ride again. After about three such cycles, we were back to the van.
Physical difficulty of our route: 3.5/5
Technical difficulty of our route: 5/5
Skibum’s grade: 4/5 stars
Miniskibum’s grade: 3/5 stars
We quickly made our way to the hotel where I dropped Miniskibum off and headed to the nearest supermarket to get some pain killer, tweezers, and a pair of those magnifying reading glasses. We spent that evening doing minor surgery as I peered through the old man glasses trying to locate all those tiny, but painful quills. Compounding the difficulty was the fact that those quills were pretty much the same blond color as Minskibum’s leg hairs—not sure which I pulled more of! Tough day for the little guy and we approached a less than comfortable sleep not knowing how much riding, if any, we would be doing the next day.
In the next installment: A triumphant return to Sedona singletrack and slickrock on days 8 and 9!