January 9, 2023

Mt. Lemmon Ski Valley

 At long last, a ski day was had!! I can't believe it had been over 3 1/2 years since my last outing. For years, while living in the desert southwest, I had consistently hit the slopes 10-14 times per season. I guess biking kinda took over, but I'm glad I made the day happen.

I had been wanting to ski down on Mt. Lemmon for decades, but I had always gone north to Arizona Snowbowl by Flagstaff or over to Sunrise in the White Mtns. Mt. Lemmon Ski Valley is a very small ski area and from what I can tell doesn't open each year as it depends solely on natural snow. There is one main chairlift, an old skool double, another smaller double lift for the beginner trail and that's it. The snow report is kinda tough to find as well as the website isn't super fancy. The area does have a cool distinction as it's the southernmost ski area in the lower 48.

One of my Tucson buddy's, Max, had posted a few snow pictures on Wednesday from Mt. Bigelow, which is another peak on Mt. Lemmon, near the ski resort. It looked fantastic as I found out the area had received 16-24" from the recent storm. I learned online that the Ski Valley would be opening for the season on Thursday and I was off work on Friday. Maybe this should be the time to go check it out.

A co-worker, Scott, and I had been talking for years about hitting the slopes. So we set a meetup point and made the drive south. Fun fact: According to Google the drive to Mt. Lemmon Ski Valley is within 10 minutes of my drive to Arizona Snowbowl in Flagstaff!! Hard to believe they are almost identical since I can see Mt. Lemmon from the end of my street!! Driving across Tucson and up Mt. Lemmon takes half the time.

It's mostly 7 trails from the top, but the connections add some variety.
We arrived right at 9a and were able to get a good parking spot. Unsure of how crowded it would get we walked over to get our lift tickets, not available online. There was a good sized line forming, but that was for rental equipment. We walked right up to the ticket window and bought our passes, $69 for a full day now. Since it's a very small operation, they essentially had a bouncer at the door only allowing skiers/snowboarders inside the area. It's a popular destination for city dwellers to see snow or look for a sledding opportunity.

We had stopped at Le Buzz at the bottom of the mountain for some breakfast burritos, time to eat!! We were finally ready to hit the hill around 9:30. Our goal was to try and hit each trail on the trail map depending on how crowded it became.
First chair of the day, snow coverage looks great!!

Beautiful day, hardly any wind at the top at over 9,000'.

Scott representing the snowboarders today.

We started on the easy cruiser, snow felt great as there wasn't any ice.

What a view!! Mica Mtn. with snow on the left, Huachuca Mtns. off center to the left, some distant peaks in Mexico & Mt. Wrightson.

Small base area, wide open trail and plenty of snow on the surrounding areas.
After a few runs, my morning coffee had kicked in and I needed a restroom stop. I took off one of my skis, the other has a missing piece on the back on my bindings making removal a little different. I simply used the boot heel to release the binding like normal, but then noticed some black pieces lying in the snow. WTH?? At first I thought my binding had broke, but nope. I then noticed the heel of my boot had some plastic missing. Scott checked out the underside of my boot and part of the heel was completely gone. Both boots were the same. Who knows when that happened. The tabs on the heel were fine, I just hoped they lasted the rest of the day without crumbling to pieces!! They are over 20 years old.

Now, about the restrooms...funny thing is, this place doesn't have any!! Only a series of port-o-potty's in the parking lot. I did mention this is a small, old skool kinda place, right? At least the walk wasn't far, but it did give me pause in my fragile boots and walking was killing my shins. I'm actually a very good ski boot walker if I do say so myself.

We had to do this next run... Photo by Scott.

Aha!! The Lemon Drop!! Not to be confused with the Lemmon Drop bike route.

The ungroomed trails were a bit heavy snow-wise at first, but softened up nicely as the hours went on.

Form came back after a few runs. Photo by Scott.
It was nearing 1p and we were ready for a break. We thought we could go across the street to the Iron Door restaurant for a quick bite & brew, but all the snow visitors had the wait time for tables at over an hour. We opted for something light at the ski hill. The line was slow, which didn't matter, because I think there was only one person working. It's quite the small operation.

Retro trail map in the lodge.

Snack break on the deck.
One of our trips up the hill we saw a snowboarding trudging uphill to retrieve something. Couldn't tell what it was until he turned around. Apparently he dropped a beer when he fell or something. He decided it was time to crack it open, but it slipped out of his hand, landing sideways in front of him. As he bent over to pick it up, it slid down the hill. He gave chase immediately and had a difficult time catching it!! Haha. All this unfolded in 30 seconds, it was hilarious and we cheered his successful retrieval. He laughed and yelled up at us as he cracked it open. Well done, sir.

Scott taking a short break on the soft afternoon snow.

It's that time of the day, last run down!! Photo by Scott.
By 3:30 or so, we both were about done. My shins had enough. I really need to replace my now 23 year old boots!! Overall, I felt pretty good all day. Took a few runs to feel really comfortable on the turns. The early morning heavier snow on the ungroomed trails were uncomfortable because my form was so off, but as the snow settled in, those runs felt much better later in the day.

Really glad we made this happen, check another resort off the list.
Right after the above photo was snapped we were preparing to exit to the parking lot when Ski Patrol starting yelling for folks to WATCH OUT!! A renegade snowboard was heading our way from somewhere up on the hill!! Whoever's it was didn't attach the retaining strap around their ankle. Thankfully, it veered into a snow bank and didn't hit anyone, but Ski Patrol wasn't happy. 

I had something similar happen to me when I was 12 or 13 back in PA. My skis came off after a fall, and one of my ski brakes popped off and sent my ski rocketing down the hill. I sat there watching it disappear from view as it went into the woods. Ski Patrol found me and started scolding me about having brakes on my skis, but when I showed him my now unattached brake, his tone changed and he gave me a ride down to retrieve my ski. Ahh, the good 'ol days.

Vintage snow cat, merely for display purposes only.

Not sure how Strava calculated 19 runs, we had 16, maybe 18 if you count the two quick trips on the beginner lift.
Hopefully, it won't be another 3 1/2 years before my next outing. Let it snow!!

December 26, 2022

Picketpost: Half-Hearted Loop

 I've love scouring topographic maps for potential biking routes. I've been trying on & off over the years to find a suitable shortcut out near Superior to add more miles of the Arizona Trail, AZT, to some bikepacking routes. During a recent map scour of the area I spotted something, a piece of singletrack connecting two otherwise deadend jeep roads. Would this go? Rideable? One way to find out.

This was the planned route, a heart-shaped clockwise loop. The top of the heart would all be new-to-me terrain with the right side of the route being the AZT through Whitford Canyon.
I had a couple of questions I needed to answer about this route: Is the new stuff rideable? Can the singletrack actually be linked together? Is it any good? How steep is the grade beginning at the dip in the heart? Rideable? I was about to find out. How exciting!!
Satellite view of the first section of jeep road that deadends at a ravine and what appears to be a clear singletrack trail continuing south.

The end of the singletrack bit ends at this cattle tank in the trees. Looks easy enough to find a way through to the next 2-track and more visible jeep road. This is the dip in the heart.

Leaving the north end of Picketpost trailhead.

Two miles of AZT: 4 gates, 1 culvert under US60 and crossing Queen Creek.

Saguaro forest.

FS172, time to head north.

The road cuts through Hewitt Canyon, Roblas Butte on the right.

Saguaro covered landscape back here.

Satellite view of the area off FS172, looks like the 2-track follows a wash for a bit...

...the reality on the ground. It was easier to walk through.

The 2-track became more what I hoped for after leaving the wash area.
However, each subsequent uphill was littered with loose rubble and just steep enough to be a hassle. Lots of on/off hike-a-bike. So far this route wasn't winning me over, wasn't totally off limits...yet.

I was now in the thick of nowhere. I rounded a corner and was totally caught off guard by a lady out hiking with her dog!! I startled her too and we simultaneously asked each other where we came from. She was camped somewhere along FS172 and had mentioned one of the dirt roads deadended up ahead. I knew this based on my satellite scanning, see the earlier pic above. Before reaching the deadend, the road dropped down to an old windmill.

Preston Well.
The jeep road continued around the hill then came to an end at a steep embankment above a gulch. I started down the slope, made it about 2-3 steps before my feet slid out from under me on the pea gravel. Thankfully, I held on to the bike as we both slid down about 20 feet. No harm done. I was now looking for that white line of singletrack I saw on my computer. It didn't take long as it was plenty wide at first. It seemed like it could have been an old moto trail at some point?? It was now reduced to a narrow gulley filled with loose rock and somewhat overgrown, not that this surprised me.

Looking back along the singletrack. This was probably the 100' of trail I could actually ride.

Picketpost Mtn. comes into view. Neat. The trail wasn't any more rideable, pretty much all hike-a-bike.

I pushed through the vegetation at the end of the trail, crossed a dry cattle tank and found the 2-track on the opposite hillside. Overall, getting to this point of the route was much more work and hike-a-bike than I had hoped for. I was now at the base of the main climb and one look up the hillside told me I wasn't going to be riding much of it. The grade was rather stout. It was about 2 1/2 miles up to the top, fairly sustained pitch. I knew at this point the route would link to the AZT, but I really didn't feel the need to push my bike there just to prove a point on a route I wouldn't be using. So, I bailed, halfway through the heart and road mostly downhill back to Hewitt Station Rd.

I bumped into a couple of guys in a SXS on their way up. They were surprised to see a mountain biker out in this area. They asked where I came from and got some puzzled looks when I pointed towards the canyon I came through via singletrack. I think they wanted to try to go that way, but it's impassable in a vehicle. I watched as they began to climb the ridgeline, stopping for a couple of minutes at the road I popped out on. I'm sure they were considering it, but eventually they moved on up the climb.

That's the intended route going sharply up the ridgeline.

My route back crossed this flowing slickrock area. The lower pool looked deep enough to soak in.

It was definitely a fun exploration ride, too bad it didn't work out as well as I hoped, as it would have been a cool way to add about 10 miles of AZT to a couple of routes. On to the next one....