June 13, 2020

Kaibab Bikepack: Smoke & Fire

The email came in from Nancy asking if I was interested in joining a small group of friends for a bikepacking ride up on the Kaibab Plateau. Duh. Of course. Route logistics and a schedule was tossed around, but a few days later, Nancy realized she had prior commitments. Chad and I took it from there. Joe and Mike would also be joining in the fun. We bounced around a few ideas and I knew Mike's van could haul all four of us including bikes, so why not drop it at Stateline CG on the Utah border, start by Jacob Lake and finish the entire loop with a full run down the Arizona Trail, AZT, from the N. Kaibab TH to Stateline?? Everyone was on board. Mike and I would meet at Stateline to drop off the van, then meet Chad & Joe at a designated camp location near Jacob Lake late on Thursday evening.

Then I got a call from Chad on Wednesday: 'Did you see there's a fire up on the Kaibab? I think it's on route.' No, I didn't. The blaze had started on Tuesday and was about 500 acres. I altered the route and we'd make the call when we arrived to see firsthand what was going on. I ended up using pieces of previous rides to steer well clear of the burn area along with a few new-to-me dirt sections.

The general gist of the route: Start near Jacob Lake, ride forest roads south to the Rainbow Rim trail, camp out near one of the springs east of Rainbow Rim. Ride out to Point Sublime the next morning, then over to the North Rim. We figured all services were still closed there, except water, then hop on the AZT and head north to Utah. We had the option to stop at the North Rim Country Store & Jacob Lake Inn for any needed resupply riding north along the AZT.

I knocked out some chores around the house on Thursday morning and as the mercury spiked towards 109º I was more than ready to hit the road north. It was a mostly traffic free drive north on a Thursday afternoon and as I neared Lee's Ferry the smoke from the Kaibab looked much worse than I had hoped. As I drove closer to the plateau, I could then see most of the smoke was being blown north and the actual burn area was quite small as the fire had only grown to 800 acres. The forecast was for clear skies and low winds as fire crews were trying to get the upper hand.
Lots of smoke coming from a small plume.

The smoke cast an almost eclipse like shadow.

You could look directly at the Sun, it was thick up high.

Smoke drifting north along House Rock Valley Rd.

Utah cast in a haze.

I snapped this pic on Sunday afternoon, but it shows the 8-10" deep ruts that lasted for over a mile into Stateline. I ended up bottoming out my car on a dip in the road. I think this led to an issue a few days later.

I began the washboarded drive on House Rock Valley Rd. for the 19 mile jaunt to Stateline. Mike had arrived almost 1 1/2 hours ahead of me. When I pulled in, ash was falling from the sky and Mike mentioned that it had been clear at Stateline up until 20 minutes prior. We packed up my car and headed out.

But first, I had to snap some AZT finish line photos as this was my first time seeing the new monument.
When you reach the gravel path, you can finally relax!!

Very cool to have a finish monument now.

Light veil of smoke over the area.

Same shot by Mike maybe an hour earlier.

We found Chad & Joe at the route start about 45 minutes later just before sunset. It was a clear, calm, cool night. Great for sleeping.

Friday morning we began stirring shortly after daybreak. We weren't in any rush to get rolling, this wasn't a race!! Yet, we all managed to eat breakfast, pack up and rolled out of camp by 7a. Our goal for the day was Quaking Aspen spring some 65 miles away.
Our campsite on Thursday, about a mile east of Jacob Lake.

Jacob Lake isn't really much of a lake as it's more pond-like.

Historic National Forest cabin.

Miles upon miles of cruising, slightly uphill, through the Kaibab National Forest.

One of the few times I was ahead of these guys!!

Beautiful 2-track that rode like singletrack.

Recovering Aspen grove.

Dropping into Moquitch Canyon.

It was a quick pass through the Canyon floor.

Our first real sign of the Mangum Fire sans a few brief glimpses of smoke off in the distance through the trees early on.

The only vehicle we'd see all day, at least driving, was a fire patrol. He simply passed on by, didn't stop to ask us about our plans, warn us or anything. We didn't think much of it.

This was where our fire detour joined into the original route.

The bike was riding great, the engine? Not so much, I felt sluggish all morning, not bonking, just a bit lacking in power.

More wide open Kaibab meadows.

Chad opting for the well carved out game trail singletrack. Not too shabby.
I caught up to the guys at the one bit of route I was wondering about. Joe asked how I found it!! It was a short, maybe 0.2 mile, bit of hand-drawn track through the woods linking two well traveled dirt roads. I could see a faint 2-track on satellite, how bad could it be?

We took a short snack break and Chad gave us a quick Spanish lesson, since he does teach the subject. Little did we know, Kaibab in Spanish means: Legit. El Kaibab!! Chad spent a few years living in Mexico and is quite fluent, don't question it, he's on a roll!! Seemed appropriate after all.

The hand-drawn track proved worthy and did the job.

It linked us to more wonderful roads including a mostly 8 mile downhill to the Rainbow Rim trail.

Our first glimpse into the Grand Canyon. The trailhead was empty.

The crew L-R: Mike, Chad, Joe & Myself.

The Rainbow Rim trail zigs and zags from the Canyon's edge into the forest and back again multiple times over 20 miles.

It was only fitting I was on the bike I rode during the Tour Divide last year as this day marked what would have been the 2020 Grand Depart. I thought about that ride often today.
Some of the Canyon features noted. PeakFinder app.


Buff singletrack.

The Rainbow Rim trail is the only bike legal singletrack that follows the Canyons edge for a bit. There are paved bikepaths on the South Rim, but nothing compares to this.

White Mariposa Lily.
Chad says: 'El Kaibab!!' Photo by Mike.

I bet Mike's face hurt after smiling all day long.

It doesn't get much better.

Back into the forest. Gradual climb, descend, wind around, repeat.
Mike's Transition. Photo by Mike.

Chad on his 10 year Kaibab reunion tour. Photo by Mike.

The steed in its glory.

Repping Binary Bicycles Havok. Notice how the jersey & this side of the framebag match, those folks at Binary are sneaky!!
Near Locust point I caught up to Mike & Chad who were stopped by some campers. Then I saw beers in their hands!! Yes, please. Ice cold beer handup time. So good. Two guys relatively new to mountain biking drove all the way up, camped out, did some riding and spread the beer cheer. Thanks fellas. That hit the spot since it had been getting a bit warm.

Relatively clear views into the Canyon.
Chad and Joe got ahead of Mike and I, but we came across another couple of guys camping out while riding. Guess what? Beer handup No. 2!! Yes!! We were diggin' it, but needed to catch up to the other guys as it was getting long in the afternoon and we still had miles to ride.

Mike on a newer section of Rainbow Rim.
We dumped off the new portion of trail (there's still a bit more we didn't ride, but we decided to make a beeline to water) and took the shortest route towards Quaking Aspen spring.

We rode past this and did a double take. Talk about a ultra steep hill climb!! That thing has to be over 50% grade. Ridiculously steep.

Love this time of day.

Plenty of chilled spring water to filter.
Originally, we were going to make camp here, but it was around 5:30 and we thought we could knock out another bunch of miles and maybe a few climbs. We all agreed to push on.

Leaving the spring.
We found a camp spot near the park border and called it a night. We'd be able to top off water first thing in the morning at Kanabownits spring before heading down to Pt. Sublime.
The best way to enter the Grand Canyon!! Less traffic too.

One of these rides, I'll make the side trip to Swamp Pt.

Most of this ride hovered between 7000' & 9000', Aspen country.

Mike topping off at Kanabownits Spring.

The thick forest reminded me of Montana.

Pt. Sublime detour!! 12 mile round trip.

Fields of Lupine filled the forest floor.

A sneak peak before the point. Yowza!! That's Humphrey's Peak on the horizon, the highest point in Arizona: 12,634'.

PeakFinder app.

Point Sublime. My favorite vista at the Grand Canyon. The next 6 shots, counting this one, are going from right to left.






The turquoise waters of the Colorado River can be seen here.
More from the PeakFinder app, pardon my finger!!


I've lost count of how many times I've visited the Canyon over the years and each time it leaves me wanting more.

Amateur hour in the self-timer arena. Haha!!

Mug shot time for the crew.



Peace out, Chad.

Mike



Joe

This side of the framebag matches the Canyon!!
We had the entire Point Sublime to ourselves and it wasn't even windy!! The 270º view is something else. It's hard to believe on a normal summer day there are thousands upon thousands of tourists gathered along the South Rim only a 'few miles' as the crow flies away. I like that we had to fumble around to get a timer shot selfie that turned out goofy.

We made the 6 mile return trip off the point and continued east towards the North Rim village. A camper the previous day had informed us the general store at the campground inside the park was open. That was our next goal, but first a series of steep, loose climbs on forest roads. Read: hike-a-bike.

But first, another overlook!! We thought we may be able to reach this location by night one, but none of us wanted to do any night riding and 70+ miles on day one was plenty. It does give food for thought on future rides.
Mike checking out some rock outcroppings.

Chad snapping away.

Overlooking Crystal Creek, Confucius Temple (abutment up on the right at the far end of the creek) & Hindu Amphitheater (distant formations to the left of the creek runout) 

Joe taking it all in.

'The Dragon' It would be cool to see those channels flowing with water during a storm.

Sure would make a nice camp spot.

We plodded along, up, down, on, off the bike, but when this open meadow appears, the AZT isn't far away.
I'm in trail sweeper mode. Photo by Mike.
Of course that doesn't mean you're done climbing or pushing your bike, it just means you're 'almost' done doing that before snacks can be had!! Chad & Joe got a ways ahead of Mike and I after we stopped for some calories. We were pushing up another hill when I saw an SUV coming towards Mike. It stopped and I could see a couple uniformed guys get out. I figured it was park rangers making sure we knew about the fire and to give an update.

National Park patrol.
They informed us that Jacob Lake had been evacuated and the North Rim was now closed. Hmmm. They asked where our vehicles were and we told them about 1 1/2 miles east of Jacob Lake. They thought it would be a good idea if we made our way there now. They also noted that the N. Kaibab trailhead did have water and if we needed some to go there before heading north.

We caught up to Chad & Joe a few minutes later and discussed our new plan. We'd go fill up on water, then jump on the park road (AZ67) for the 40 mile ride to Jacob Lake. We were all pretty bummed about cutting our ride a day short and missing out on the AZT, but bigger issues were now at hand. It was time to go.
We did get to ride a sliver of AZT, mostly gravel road, but this short bit of singletrack was great albeit uphill.
A bit of relief as we reach the N. Kaibab trailhead. Photo by Mike.

Only an AZT tease for Mike, this makes him sad.

This place brought back a flood of memories from my AZTR750 in 2016. It was my first time back here since that ride.

2020 keeps on giving. First the North Rim opening is delayed due to COVID-19, now it's closed again due to forest fire. Ugh. 
There were two girls at the trailhead when we arrived. They drove down from Salt Lake City to do a Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim run, but were turned around at the road closure. They ended up driving to the South Rim and did the first crossing without sleeping!! They said they were going on 36 hours of no sleep and didn't look a bit fazed. They gladly accepted some Bourbon too, then began their trek back to the South Rim. Oh, to be in your twenties again!!

We got on our way and Chad mentioned we should do a quick detour to the North Rim Fire Lookout tower. I thought that was a great idea and he took off to track down Mike & Joe so they wouldn't keep riding beyond the guard shack. I figured if we were going to do that, we might as well ride a few good miles of AZT to the East Rim Overlook then jump back down to the road near the Country Store.

Grinding up Lindbergh Hill to near 9000'.

Just over the top of Lindbergh Hill, the AZT crosses AZ67.

The sweeping grassy meadows are a trademark of the North Rim.
We regrouped at the guard shack and the ranger there painted a more dire scenario for Jacob Lake. He was getting word that the front edge of the fire perimeter was now within a mile of town and they thought the buildings may burn by nightfall. We instantly scrapped any side trips and picked up the pace along the road. There was only one climb left, shorter than Lindbergh Hill, and every once in a while we'd get a nice tailwind boost. The winds were now gusting between 30-40mph!! We needed to get off the plateau.

One last stationary pic, exiting the Grand Canyon.

I slowly dropped off the back of the brisk pace. Smoke plumes becoming more visible.

North Rim Country Store, closed again.

Quite the sobering sight. Even in daylight, the orange glow of the fire can be seen in the smoke.

Topping out on the second climb after I had to stop and jam in some calories.

Riding through an old burn area towards a new one. :(
Since the park was now closed, there were only a handful of vehicles on the road. Probably fire responders, park employees or the stray camper heading out. As I began the final 8 mile descent towards Jacob Lake a white pickup was coming towards me, it slowed to a halt and a Game & Fish employee, Todd Buck, hopped out. 'Your bike is going in the back, you're going to put on a mask and I'm going to drive you to your car to meet your buddies'. Okay. Todd gave me a hand tucking the bike in the truckbed with the others and just like that we sped off towards Jacob Lake.

No, we're not headed to jail, don't need bail money, no fines, just a quick, safe transport back to our vehicles.

We came to a road blockade and proceeded through. This is the fire brigade parked a couple miles north of Jacob Lake as we near the fire's edge.

Fire lookout tower about 1/2 mile from Jacob Lake.
We arrived at the cars to find the others and quickly loaded our gear and made our way out to US89A, which was now also closed, but we could evacuate safely.

The four of us can't thank the fire responders enough for everything they do to keep communities safe in times like this. I personally want to thank Todd Buck and Jacob Christensen for driving us out to safety and answering a bunch of questions I had while driving!!
Both cars that were left near Jacob Lake had these green ribbons. Indicators to fire personnel that they were looking for the owners. When Joe arrived at the road blockade on AZ67, the first thing they asked him was if he was the owner of either a white Volvo or Red Nissan!!

This was on my windshield and has been getting plenty of use this past week in Arizona between the Mangum, Bush and Bighorn fires.
The Mangum Fire had swelled to 15000 acres by Saturday afternoon from 800 on Friday morning. The fire is still burning as I write this, now at 61000+ acres.

For fire tracking here are two fantastic resources: Inciweb.nwcg.gov and a direct link to the Mangum Fire at MappingSupport.com

We still needed to grab Mike's van up at Stateline CG. It was now late afternoon and none of us wanted to drive all the way home after what went down. Chad & Joe would go off to find a camp location while Mike and I would head back up House Rock Valley Rd. to retrieve his van.
We stopped briefly at the scenic overlook for the Vermilion Cliffs. It was a stark contrast.

We'd end up making camp around the far edge of the Vermilion Cliffs.

Looking north towards Stateline CG up House Rock Valley.

Back west to the Kaibab Plateau.
This could almost be an album cover. Photo by Joe.

Down at Stateline CG, it was clear and sunny, but thick smoke hung to the south.

Heading south through the rut gauntlet, a couple of wild horses make a visit.

This would qualify as a poor air quality day.

Putting the Kaibab in the rear view mirror.

Interesting camp spot. Cool rock formations, doubling as wind protection!! Our proximity to US89A isn't ideal, but it was closed, so it worked out fine.

This pic and the next one are from almost identical locations. This one taken Saturday evening.

This one Sunday morning as smoke had drifted down to our location.

Time to pack up and get to clean air!! We all went our separate ways from here, but vowed to come back soon to finish the ride.

Looking across Marble Canyon from Echo Cliffs to where we had camped.

Looking north up Marble Canyon towards Lees Ferry.

Southern view along Echo Cliffs, crystal clear.

One final peek back to the Kaibab as smoke had now dissipated in Marble Canyon.

Humphreys Peak is always a welcome sign. I was making good time and glad to be ahead of the typical I-17 logjam during summer Sundays. It was barely after 9a when I arrived in Flagstaff.
I was a good 20 miles or so south of Flagstaff when out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw something illuminate on my dash. I kept glancing at it and finally realized my temp gauge had ticked up one block. Then it backed off. Then up, and up one more. Ruh-roh. I pulled off at the scenic overlook and removed all my bikepacking gear from the bike as I didn't want any extra resistance. Back on the road I was about to begin an 18 mile downhill to Camp Verde, but there's a huge climb coming out of the valley that I was now concerned about. Sure enough, as I went down the hill the temp gauge was sitting slightly above normal range any uphill caused a spike, but never quite in the overheating zone.

Drat. Pulled over to let things cool down, added some water and tried again.
Same result. I pulled over again and while sitting there I noticed I was only 1/4 mile from a rest area. I can easily make it there, so I did. Meanwhile, I could tell traffic had already picked up, it was only a matter of time before the gridlock started. I debated what to do, but with traffic getting crazy, I took Joe up on his offer to turn around from home and come get me. K would meet us at Joe's place and I'd deal with the car the next day.

*Monday came, I was able to nurse it down to Camp Verde where a leaking radiator was discovered. It's all repaired and back home now. Ready for more adventures.

While Joe and I sat in gridlock another roadside brush fire was extinguished. Jeez. This state of ours is literally burning to the ground. I had seen a smaller roadside fire being stomped out by passersby earlier in the day.
I finally made it home sometime after 4p. So much for the early, stress-free arrival. In the end it was a great day and a half of riding with good friends. A bit more than we bargained for at the end and we're all glad we took the advice to leave when we did. Hopefully, these fires will be contained soon and the recovery can begin.

Abbreviated Kaibab 200 via Strava.
This was the intended route via RidewithGPS: