December 4, 2016

Gila Canyons Bikepack

I was itching to get out on a bikepacking ride and had been wanting to do some variation of the Gila River Ramble as an overnight ride. Jeff was eager to get out as well and we 'dialed' in a route that looked as good as could be via satellite. What could go wrong?

I had a last minute schedule change, so we had to move the ride up a couple of weekends. Unfortunately, this caused a few people to bail. In the end our group totaled 4, Jeff, Nancy, Joe & I. We met at the Picketpost trailhead for our 2-day outing.
Last minute gear check. Photo by Jeff.
It was a beautiful day for a ride, clear skies and cool temps. Joe & I had just done our IditaRidge ride the day before so our legs were properly warmed up!! I decided to leave the Ti bike at home for this one, gearing is too tall for me at the moment for this kind of ride, so the Voodoo got one more grand adventure before getting converted to singlespeed.
Jeff finding his groove.
We took notice of the recent trailwork being done out there, sans a deep rut near the hiking trail split. A mile or so later a rider had come up behind us asking if I was up ahead. Turns out it was the AZT steward for Passage 18, Craig's also the regional trail steward, We had never met in person, only via numerous emails over the past couple of years. It was cool to hear about the upcoming changes he's working on. He was out on this day checking on trailwork progress and a new gate install that we'd come by the following day. Joe was up ahead and probably was wondering what was taking so long!! Sorry, Joe!!
Trail side tire work, just a slow leak. Photo by Jeff.
Picketpost Mtn. dominates the landscape early on. Photo by Jeff.
Super gnar bike handling!! Photo by Jeff.
I cleaned the first 2 of 5, No. 2 here, but today wasn't my switchback day. Photo by Jeff.

Approaching Telegraph Canyon rd, aka: FR4.
Now off the AZT we climb FR4.
Ajax Mine far below.

We had been wanting to explore Ajax Mine since our first visit to the area a few years ago. Today was a good day to finally do that. Turns out, the mine is simply a hole in the ground and the structure was some kind of sorting facility for the mining operation.
Ajax Mine.
Still a cool sight to see.

We kept our mostly downhill trend going on our way to Box Canyon. The 4x4 crowd was out in force too. I think a bunch of them were quite surprised to see mountain bikers out in no man's land.
Jeff getting artsy on this one.
A maze of jeep roads connect this rugged terrain.

Starting our way down Box Canyon rd.
Can't imagine the fortitude it took to make a living out here.
Joe cruising through the narrows of Lower Box Canyon.

This was my first time riding through Lower Box Canyon. Wow!! What a treat. It's a bit tricky to add this section into day rides as it takes riders out of the way and adds a ton of mileage to an already tough route. Although we were hoping to find a shortcut across the Gila River to perhaps make this a possibility.
Box Canyon reminded me of Death Valley's Titus Canyon. Photo by Jeff.
More from Lower Box Canyon.
Eventually the canyon opens up as the route nears the Gila River.

As we approached the river crossing there was a bit of a discussion on how we were going to cross. Take the railroad tracks through a tunnel & over a bridge, find a more direct 'untested' route fording the river or go a few extra miles out of the way to cross by the dam. Joe & Nancy opted for the dam approach while Jeff & I took our chances on finding a direct crossing.
We followed a sandy 2-track all the way to the river bank, no problem getting to the Gila.
River level was low as we peered across to find an opening in the trees.

We noticed an ATV had crossed, giving us hope for a moment. We crossed the river barefoot, then realized the ATV turned around. The vegetation was thick, jungle thick. We found a small opening up on the bank, but getting to it meant our feet sunk into soft gooey mud. We spent the next 10 minutes or so cleaning off our feet!!

We paced the banks for a few moments looking for a gap in the trees. We thought we could 'sort of' see a way through, so we began breaking dead branches clearing a path of sorts for the bikes to get through. What followed next was pure hilarity. This was bushwhacking pro-style, grade-A, teammate required kinda of stuff. We'd start by making a bit of a path, ditch our backpacks, go back and hand the bikes to each other. Sometimes the bikes would roll, sometimes we had to lift them over large branches and other times we had to pull them underneath deadfall. Comical.
What a guy!! He picked up the loaded Voodoo!!
Yep, that's the 'clear' path!! Photo by Jeff.
Who knew 400' of desert bushwhacking could be so insane?!? Photo by Jeff.
We finally punched through and we knew we were very close to the jeep road we wanted. We went back into the brush and couldn't find our bikes for a few moments!! A couple turns here, couple turns there and we finally saw them, what a mess. I think with a good set of loppers and small handsaw a nice corridor could easily be made through here.

We linked up with our jeep road and soon spotted Joe & Nancy's tracks. About a mile later we caught up to them after their successful crossing near the dam.

I wasn't looking forward to the next few miles as it's mostly sand and slightly uphill. As our luck would have it, we were able to ride almost all of it before turning back onto a rocky jeep road leading over to Area52.
South Butte near Area52.
We set our sights on finding a good camping spot. The other times we've camped near here we've stayed down in the sandy wash area. This time I wanted a view. I spotted a small rocky hill just off the jeep road and we were able to get to it easily. We all had sleeping pads, so the rocky surface wasn't an issue and the views made up for it.
Golden hour over the Gila River Canyons.
Overlooking Area52.

We settled in early and I was tucked into my bivy by 7:30p. I fell asleep quickly and woke sometime during the night. I was almost afraid to look at the clock...9:30!! Thankfully I fell right back to sleep until some yahoos drove by in a 4x4 with music blaring around 3:40a!! Darn kids!

We were all stirring about around 7a enjoying the glow on the cliffs to the north.
It was chilly, but not nearly as cold as we had thought.
Craving the warmth of the Sun's rays to reach us.

Some downhill sand to get things going.
Picture perfect bluebird morning.
Our destination: Gila River Canyons. We'd be riding just to the right of Dale's Butte. (Pictured to the right of center)
This WAS a gate, it just wouldn't open completely.
The tunnel & bridge we would've popped out on had our crossing not worked out.
Closing in on the Gila River. Photo by Jeff.
Like the day before, reaching the river was easy. Photo by Jeff.
Filter water, then cross. Photo by Jeff.

No one else around for miles, at least it seemed that way.
The north side of the river got interesting.
Sometimes it's easier to lift & roll on the back wheel. Photo by Jeff.
It was a little tangled, but nothing like the day before. Photo by Jeff.
We negotiated ourselves over a small barbed wire fence and soon linked up with a nice jeep road leading to the coke ovens. I had only seen them from afar, a nice viewpoint on the other side of the river. They are much larger up close.

Very cool to finally get up close to these.
5 in all, looking like hillside beehives.
Assume the position!! Photo by Jeff.

We watched these two blast through the valley, then do a hover exercise before taking off.
Steep rubbly descent to the banks of the Gila once more.
Arizona's version of a Canopy rd. Photo by Jeff.
We were now back on the AZT and ready to climb away from the Gila. 7 miles & 2000' of gain later we'd be in Martinez Canyon. This has to be my favorite 10 miles of trail in AZ. Every bit of its splendor is hard earned and worth it.

The trail climbs and contours as best it can/
Life behind bars isn't so bad from a mountain biker's perspective.
Dales' Butte.
Jeff picking his way through the land of giants.
The AZT snaking its way through the shadowy hillside.
Much of the middle portion of the climb is easily rideable.
The grandeur of Martinez Canyon.
Nancy is on that trail!! Can you spot her?
The newest gate on the AZT. Thanks Rob!!
This is what the AZT will do to a can of Pringles when attached to the handlebars for a few rides. Still yummy!!
Weaver's Needle & the Supes guiding us in.
All done, back at Picketpost well before dark!! What a concept.

This was a superb ending to a 3-day ride weekend. Always a good time hanging with Jeff, Nancy & Joe. I need to do more of these relaxed pace exploring types of bikepack outings. The super long beatdown rides are great too, but it's always nice to chill at camp and watch the sun go down.

Here's Jeff's take on the ride.


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