Day three of our recent Arizona trip turned out to be one of the best days of the trip. The major Pacific storm was moving in the next morning, so we decided to go big despite tenderized legs. I've ridden a portion of the Arizona Trail (AZT) between Box Canyon and Rt 83 a few times now. It will never get old. The trail has also seen some refinements and enhancements over the last few years. Sections of doubletrack have been replaced with incredible flowy singletrack.
The last two times I've ridden the AZT here, we parked on Rt 83, rode south on the state highway almost to Box Canyon, then came back on about 20 miles of singletrack. Today, Dave and I decided to expand on this a bit, not quite the full AZT Jamboree, but close. We'd park at the Davidson trailhead north of I-10, take a sequence of doubletrack and paved roads all the way to Box Canyon, then come back on 30 miles of pure singletrack, losing upwards of 2000ft on the return.
My legs were fubar starting out. Dave popped me out of his draft on the first little rise we came to on pavement. He had a lot of pent up angst from the tire catastrophe the day before, and I think he was venting it here. Poor me, I rode a bunch extra the day before, including a 2000 foot climb/hike-a-bike. A heinous headwind was blowing, bringing in the storm. On the flats I was ok, anything over about 3% grade I struggled mightily. Thankfully, Dave didn't mind doing 98% of the work heading out to Box Canyon.
I was surprised there were no cars at the the trailhead. You'd think on a Saturday with first rain in like three months hitting the next day, a bunch of folks would be shuttling this amazing section of the AZT. We did encounter four backpackers shortly after heading down the trail. Other than this, we had the trail to ourselves. I had high expectations for fun-factor with a stiff wind to our backs, 2000ft to lose, and 30 miles of mostly buff singletrack.
Dave coming up the AZT with Mt Wrightson in background.
Just a hint of snow up there at 10,000ft. Photo take just above 5000ft.
Quite a bit of vertical is lost initially from the high-plains grasslands. High point elevation was over 5000ft, and it is noticeably cooler here than back in town. Then the hills section is hit. The terrain is something in between grassland and saguaro desert. The trail snakes through many deep washes, dropping down sets of uber steep switchbacks and climbing just as steeply back out. My fear of failure still holds me back on switchbacks, especially when you'll likely tumble 10's of feet down through jagged rocks and cacti if you fall to the outside of some switchbacks.
Heading north in the grasslands.
Our enthusiasm was pretty high. We were taking more risk than the previous two days. This caught up with Dave on a particularly nasty, off-camber switchback. I remember this switchback riding with Alex last year. I think Alex almost bit it on that one. Neither of us cleaned it that time. I've never even tried. Dave went into it hot, realized he was screwed, and basically just laid the bike down. The rocks were the sharp as glass embedded kind. There was blood and gaping cuts. After the tire debacle the previous day, we had more than enough tubes and patches and boots to fix any tire catastrophe between the two of us. But do you think we had a single repair item for our own bodies? Noooo! Dave's thinking crap, my shin hurts. I'm thinking dude, look at your elbow. Borderline needing stitches. We were still a good 20 miles out from the car. The gravel in Dave's elbow would have to get cleaned out later after we got back to town.
One of many steep grinds. We each tried this one three times
and could not clean it. We're total Fred's.
A very tough switchback that requires a hop in place
maneuver to clean. Nope, we didn't clean it.
We got rolling again. Any little thing that bushed Dave's bashed up shin cause yelps. We were soon out of the hills section. The next 15 miles are possibly the highest fun-factor 15 miles of trail I know anywhere. Where else can you cruise 15-20mph on singletrack, not working hard at all, barely avoiding skidding into prickly pear and cholla cacti? Dave must have forgotten his boo-boo earlier, as he was shredding. I had dropped my tire pressure to crazy low in order to coerce my Small Block 8's into providing some traction on the loose-on-hardpack surface. It made a substantial difference. I was scaring myself at least once a minute with close calls. Dave got a 10 second or so gap on me. I came around a corner to find him remounting his bike. He sheepishly said "you weren't suppose to see that!" Guess he had a little more than close call.
Miles and miles of high-speed cruising.
This was the first time I rode some of this section. I think it was already in place when Alex and I road this part of the AZT last year, but my out-dated GPX track steered us onto the original doubletrack route.
We reached Rt 83 where we parked in past years. I wondered how the next 8+ miles were going to ride. This would be new to both of us. Turns out there was more fabulous high-speed shredding. With a huge tailwind blowing and wide-open terrain, I looked down at the computer at times to see 20+ mph on singletrack. The surface was gravelly, and I was coming mighty close to losing traction as the trail weaved through the desert.
We reached I-10 in a different place from where we crossed over a few hours earlier. The AZT passes through a culvert, which runs under both directions of I-10. Thus it is a long culvert. You could see light at the other end, but we had no idea how pitch black it would be in the middle. Dave flew into it, then screamed something midway. Riding into the culvert starts out on concrete. You assume it stays that way. But midway, it turns to loose beach sand. Scares the hebe jeebies out of you. Dave made it through. I almost endo'd.
From I-10, it was just a few more miles back to the car. The high sierra clouds were building. You could almost sense the moisture that was coming. We finished that 52 mile ride in less than 5hrs riding time. I thought surely it would take over 6hrs with that heinous headwind to start. This made squeezing a little more riding in before calling it a day. Since a winter storm warning was already issued for above 3000ft with 100% chance of heavy rain in town, Dave already committed to not riding on Sunday. So we planned to bury ourselves by hitting Fantasy Island on the way back to the hotel. Wounds can be cleaned out later.
We had about 90 minutes of good daylight left when we reached the Fantasy Island trailhead. I was feeling mightily wrecked by this point, but something about Fantasy Island revives the most comatose legs. We weren't exactly riding stellar speed, but we did not hesitate to let our speed run out on sections that beg for speed. These sections abound at Fantasy Island. We rode everything except the Bunny Trail and the piece off of it. Thus, all the good stuff. That brought the day's total to nearly 70 miles and 6+ hours riding time. Fun times.
Dave at Fantasy Island late in day.
Hill Junkie @ FI
Interestingly, when I loaded our rides into Strava, I had the second fastest time on the fast, fun section of the AZT. I see Alex Combes in there too, further down, when he loaded his ride from last year. Both of the day's rides, AZT from Box Canyon and Fantasy Island, are must-do's every time visiting Tucson. Other than Dave's mishap, riding days like these make trips to the desert worth every penny.