November 1, 2014

NoPho-king Around

This past weekend was the AES Kentucky Camp ride. I was all set to go for the 46 mile course and my 5th time doing this wonderful event, but I ejected at the last minute. Why? Jason lobbed a softball my way, a huge North Phoenix, NoPho, loop from his house connecting a series of local riding areas and green belts. This route would be about 80% new-to-me terrain over 76 or so miles. How could I pass that up?

He had most of the route dialed in, except for one northern stretch across the 7 Springs Recreation Area towards Cave Creek. Most reports over the years haven't been favorable, phrases like 'Never again', 'Total suckfest', 'HAB for miles on end' were thrown around rather liberally. But, most of those reports tended to refer to the Cave Creek Trail #4. We would be taking a southern route through the area from the Bronco trailhead onto Trails #245 & #247 (Bronco & Cottonwood trails). Our intel consisted of 'The trails aren't too bad'. So, we went with it. The expectation being it would be slow going, but doable. More on that later.

I met up with Jason & Gordon while it was still dark. We were rolling as soon as we didn't need lights, sometime around 6:30a.
Gordon & Jason, part of the blue pack crew. (My pack is blue as well!)
First rays on Pinnacle Peak.
The first few miles are really cool, a hodgepodge of mini dirt singletrack connectors, neighborhood streets and dirt corridors. We eventually met up with a trail that skirts the western slopes of the McDowell Mtns. A short downhill HAB into a mostly rideable wash got us close to the Brown's Ranch area.
Cool! Flowing desert wash. I asked what spring this was and was told 'It's the sewer, don't drink it!!' Uh, ok.
We entered the Brown's Ranch trail network via 118th St. and cut across on the Vaquero trail to a fast 2-track over to the powerlines.
It was shaping up to be a wonderful day.
At the powerlines we found an old trail from the Pima/Dynamite days, West Express, and took it north paralleling the lines. These old P/D trails were built by motos and have an endless supply of whoop de doos. They can be fun, but in doses. By the time we crossed under the powerlines again, we were done with the constant up/down/up/down. The dirt road under the din of electrical current dropped us out on Bartlett Dam rd a stone's throw in either direction to the Cave Creek Ranger station - water, and our route to the north on Cave Creek rd.
West Express whoop de doos!!
Water refill.
Perhaps if the ranger station was open we could have been warned about what lie ahead.
Not really, we were almost 20 miles in already.
Cave Creek rd. started off fast & then turned into 7 Springs Rd on graded dirt. Civilization was soon left behind in exchange for winding dirt roads and mountain vistas. The ride up to the Bronco trailhead was really nice, some uphills, some screaming downhills, but nothing too taxing. My elapsed time on the GPX read 4:00 hrs on the dot when I arrived at the Bronco trailhead, 28 miles down. We were making great time and had a nice snack break before embarking on the big unknown for the day.
7 Springs rd.
A short paved section with a couple homes all by their lonesome.
The adventure starts here.
Nice metal work honoring a couple of Forest Service employees.
Nice signage here.
Notice the difficulty rating scale.
Good thing I snapped this pic as we would reference it on more than a few occasions.
'More difficult', 11.6 miles from the Bronco TH to the Spur Cross TH.
Bronco Creek Trail #245 was first up. Primitive to start, it was rideable until a short loose HAB up to a ridgeline. Once gained, the views to the south were amazing and so was the trail!! Steady climbing on good tread with some short techy grunt climbs mixed in. I was diggin' it!!
The first of many HAB's on the day.
Masterful ridgeline trail lured us in.
Huge views to the south.
Reminiscent of southern Arizona.
The first 1 1/2 miles got us hooked.
I stopped dead in my tracks for the previous photos, not because the setting was right, more-so because I ran into goathead soup!!! I'd venture to guess between my two tires I had picked up about 50 goatheads, which are little barbs from an ever present weed, aka Puncturevine - how fitting.
A portion of my rear tire with over 10 counted. Thank goodness for fresh sealant!!
Hooray for tire sealant!! I didn't mess with the goatheads and didn't have an issue all day. Gordon, on the other hand was running tubes and flatted 3 times, d'oh!

The next 10 miles tested our mental stamina and route finding skills. At first the trail simply became more technical, ride some, dismount for a rough spot, ride some more. Soon enough the HAB started to outweigh the riding. Fist-size to cantaloupe size rocks started to become the norm, both on uphills and downhills. Loose rock is also quite tricky to walk on!!
Lots of this.
Led to lots of THIS.
Find the trail, it's there!! Hint: it leads up to the saddle in the upper left, seriously.
Hidden boulders in the tall pointy grass.
The views kept your attention. I did ride this flat part!!
The other two just figured we'd be walking soon enough.
Sketchy descent down to the stock tank.
Yay! Downhill HAB.
We finally made it to the end of #245 to start the next leg on the Cottonwood Trail #247. It has to get better, right? Our friends said the trail wasn't too bad, so far 1 1/2 miles out of 4 was good. We pressed on actually pedaling our bikes for the beginning of #247. Here's proof:
Pedal power!!
This could almost pass for a BCT photo, rode pretty good too. Things are looking up.
The trail then dumped us into Cottonwood Creek, a mostly dry wash except for a few spots where the minimal flow was above ground. I still find it a bit strange how some creeks in AZ flow above & below the surface, the ground isn't always as dry as you think!

The trail ended up crisscrossing the wash a multitude of times marked by cairns. At first we tried to stay true to the trail, but it was becoming increasingly overgrown thrashing our legs & arms. We finally surrendered and stuck with the wash. At least we were riding and making forward progress. The wash was actually pretty good riding as it wasn't the typical sand trap often found in AZ, it was more rocky and firm.
Free of catclaw here.
After a while we stopped looking for the cairns.
  The walls surrounding the wash grew taller and we were now in a small canyon of sorts. We arrived at a pinch point where the wash dropped down over a 20' vertical cliff. It was dicey at best if we could even get down, plus we couldn't see around the corner downstream. Not wanting to take any unnecessary risks we backtracked up the wash.

The GPS indicated the trail was on a ridge high above us. We were fairly certain it was accurate, but I had drawn the track by hand via satellite imagery so it wasn't precise. We found what looked like the safest bet to ascent the mountainside in search of the trail. Now it's getting serious, pro-style bushwacking through cactus & catclaw on a steep hillside.
Picture doesn't do the vertical drop justice.
Retreating up the wash.
We will go this way, onward!!
It was a good 15 minute scramble to the top.
We found the trail!! Only a little more walking.
At the top the trail was waiting. We found a good spot to hop on our bikes and a few minutes later we dropped back down into the same wash we climbed out of below the throat of the canyon.
Highlight of the day: Gila Monster!!
We stuck with the wash but things turned more and more chunky, i.e. more HAB. This also included a couple more tight sections where we had to hand our bikes down to each other. We were beginning to wonder if following the wash was the best option.
This must have been a sight during our recent rains.
Perhaps we should look for the trail again.
Another large drop along the wash.
This one took a bit of searching for a good line down.
A cairn greeted us not too far from our last climb-down so we took the trail. We knew we were back on #247, just not exactly where. We almost turned around at one point thinking the trail was a deadend, but hidden up in the brush was a carsonite sign blazed with 247. We kept pushing on, literally, not much riding was going on. We were hoping, looking for, scouring the hills for any indication of where we were on the map. Eventually we saw a couple of signs ahead, still 2 1/2 miles to go!!
Skull Mesa.
Good to know where we were, but still a ways to go.
We did have the good fortune of cloud cover most of the afternoon.
Our eyes told us it should be mostly downhill to Spur Cross, the trail had other ideas, It constantly dropped steeply into drainages often on extremely rutted / gouged out trail. This was the worst HAB, narrow & downhill. It was very tough to walk next to the bike, instead I opted to lift the front end and guide the rear wheel in front of me, this provided me a chance at semi-solid footing.
Yes, it was this bad for extended sections.
Thank goodness for the erosion controls. /s
What's that? Good ridgeline riding after the HAB??
Yes!! Even if it was short lived.
More HAB ensued, but after a few more up & downs we finally spotted Cave Creek signaling the end!! We just had to get to it. By now all the downhill rugged HAB was beginning to take a toll on my left knee similar to our Highline hike a few months ago. I neared the bottom of what appeared to be the last drainage to find what sort of looked like a split in the trail, but the left had some debris lying across the trail and there were no signs indicating a second trail.

The trail wound around another hill and began to climb once more, huh? Cave Creek is the other way!! I kept climbing almost doubling back to where we were 30 minutes earlier. Jason & Gordon were a bit farther down the trail and had did I. We retreated to the spot in question and took the other route. It immediately dropped us out of the mess and two minutes later over to Cave Creek!! Oy. Yet another 15-20 minutes wasted pushing my bike uphill only to walk back down. Nice.
Cave Creek, yes we had to walk across this. Yes, it was flowing with real water!
See? Water.
We knew the trail out to Spur Cross was on the other side of Cave Creek, but we still couldn't see it through the thicket. By this point we were all scratched up and had no desire to bushwhack through that mess. A quick consultation of the GPS indicated our route was slightly upstream. It was!! We found smooth 2-track waiting for us, but not before 3 more Cave Creek crossings would we arrive at Spur Cross.
Ahhhh, smooth trail.
From the Bronco trailhead: 14 miles including backtracking, etc it took us nearly 7 hours!! Oof. I've been on some brutal trails, but every one that comes to mind isn't as rugged as the 245/247 combo we experienced. Mile-for-mile the most wicked trail I've tried to ride. It's a real shame too because most of the trail routing is fine, good contours and not a whole bunch of steep fall line stuff. It's just littered with loose rock and some huge channels.

The other main E->W corridor is Trail #4 and by all accounts very similar. Someday, hopefully soon, one of these routes will be worthy of bringing a bike along. They will tie so much together without the need for riding on pavement.
At long last the Spur Cross trailhead.
By the time we reached Spur Cross the sun was already setting. We readied ourselves for night riding and made our way down to the Circle K for an assortment of beverages. There was a lively influx of customers at the K and an overly chatty clerk.

Gordon made the call for a pickup while Jason and I finished up the loop. We still had 25 miles to go!! We had decided to skip a few sections of trail since it was getting late and opted for the fast roll down Cave Creek rd to the Reach11 Recreation Area.

While I loaded up on chocolate milk, water and Gatorade, Jason made a wiser choice: 6 pack. 5 of which went into the bladder of his hydration pack!! Brilliant. He held off until we exited the busy Cave Creek rd, but after that - chug-a-lug!

It was a fun way to end the ride, fast flat wide dirt path free of autos. I just had to be careful to dodge the random potholes from the storms. Tough to see at night!!

We finished up around 8:30p. It ended up being a really good ride in spite of the rough trails at 7 Springs. We did see a Gila Monster afterall and the views / remoteness were remarkable. Good ride fellas, let's do another one soon.

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1 comment:

  1. 2 mph is pretty solid HAB + BS pace! Good work finding all these gems, John. I love it how amid all the HAB there are some sweet little nuggets.

    You might find a slower pace for 14+ miles from Tonto Bridge to the Mogollon Rim come April... :)

    Looks way more adventurous/fun than KC.