October 6, 2013

Reno Pass / El Oso / AZT 21

I had planned to do an overnight hike through the Superstition Wilderness this past weekend, but my buddy had a last minute change of plans. What to do, what to do....I poked around through some of my GPX tracks I had recently put together and thought I'd go for a bit of an exploratory ride and knock out some more new-to-me Arizona Trail.

This particular loop would start and end in the tiny community of Sunflower just up AZ87 from the valley. It was mostly a dirt road route first cresting Reno Pass, then dropping down into the Tonto Basin. Some fast miles would follow, then an 8 mile climb up El Oso rd to the backside of Four Peaks. From there I'd do a short OnB to the Wilderness boundary near Pigeon Spring. I saw this trailhead when Mark and I did our Brown's Peak Challenge a few weeks back. The route would continue the rest of the way on the AZT Passage 21 (Pine Mountain), the first 11 miles on dirt road and the final 8 on singletrack....condition of which was unknown.

I was able to round up 3 others to partake in this adventure and we met up in Sunflower at the start of the 'closed to motor vehicles' pullout on Bushnell Tanks rd. We were all getting set for the day and I noticed I still had my lights on my helmet from the South Mtn ride. 'Won't need these', so off came the lights and tossed in the back seat of the car. (For the record, that was a poor decision!) We left the cars around 7:30a and immediately dropped into this riparian area next to Sycamore creek. Big trees, a couple of water crossings and a jeep road that hasn't seen traffic in a few years unfolded beneath our tires. A couple miles later we turned onto FR22 which was more like a 4x4 route. It was more narrow, rockier and had more brush growing in the middle. FR22 definitely had a primitive feel about it. The road began to climb and we soon found ourselves in HAB mode on a few occasions.
Yeah, this is a forest road. Photo by Caroline.
More HAB on our way up Reno Pass.
My front tire was attracting a ton of goat's heads, luckily I had fresh sealant in my tire. There were 2 or 3 times when my tire began hissing at me, but quickly sealed. Ezra wasn't so lucky. He had a tube in his rear wheel and it started a slow leak. He gave it some air a couple of times, but decided to swap out tubes at the summit.
Beautiful clear cool day.
Tube swap time.
Not much of a road.
Lots of bright yellow bushes lined the road.
Mt. Ord would serve as our landmark to the west.
It was now time for a long descent to the valley floor of Tonto Basin. I've been using a slightly conditioned mix of tires lately, mainly because I don't have the cash for a new set at the moment, and they are perfectly fine. Except on loose crushed granite surfaces, good thing there isn't much of that in AZ....oh wait, it's everywhere! I feel my front tire constantly wanting to 'slide' off the trail and it practically did, twice, on the downhill. I laid the bike down a couple of times without major incident, so I took advantage of the stopped time to snap a few more pics.
Caroline on the long downhill into Tonto Basin.
Looking back up towards Reno Pass.
Punkin Center, AZ What did you expect?
At the bottom of the descent we had a bunch of flat easy paved/dirt miles paralleling the AZ188 corridor. Up next was the 8 mile climb on El Oso rd. This is the northern entry up to Four Peaks. We found a nice shaded spot at the base of the climb for a snack then started up, up, up.
Ready to climb?
Snack spot.
The initial pitch was one of the steeper sections of the climb. It sure got the legs warm after our brief stop at the bottom. We plugged away on the climb, stopping every couple of miles to re-group. I'm still not sure how Ezra muscled his singlespeed up that road.
I'm making good use of my barends. Photo by Caroline.
Ezra working the SS.
Enjoying the view of Roosevelt Lake.
Side view of Four Peaks, leaves beginning to change at the higher elevations.
Ezra getting a short break from the climbing.
Matt chugging along.
Middle Spring & a good use for an old tire. Photo by Caroline.
Caroline and I arrived at Middle Spring to find it slightly overflowing a large tractor tire. Ezra arrived a couple of minutes later and the two of them decided to treat some water for the back half of the loop. Matt started experiencing some cramping issues and rolled up about 15 minutes later. We pushed off towards the summit of the climb 1 1/2 miles away.
Near the summit of El Oso.
At the summit the route intersects with the Arizona Trail. This portion of AZT doubles as forest road along the ridgeline. Caroline and I went on a quick out-n-back ride east to the Wilderness boundary while Ezra waited for Matt to crest El Oso.
Look closely, just right of center is a small white vertical line. The Fountain Hills fountain was blasting away, 150' into the sky!
Getting close to Four Peaks.
Pigeon Spring trailhead, finally a little bit of singletrack. Photo by Caroline.
End of the line for bikes. :( From the trailhead it was less than a mile to here.
See, there was a bit of nice trail tucked away.
Pigeon Spring, dry as a bone.
Roosevelt Lake in all its azure glory.
High above the Superstition Mtns & Weaver's Needle.
We met up with Ezra & Matt and continued on the forest road. The profile still had us climbing a bit, but now the grade was more rolling as we slowly reached the high point of the day. We stopped about a half hour later, Matt's cramping issue still persisted and we soon found out he was almost out of water! I'm not sure why he didn't top off at Middle Spring if he was low, because there were still 20 miles to go. Luckily, there was a small water cache at the Pigeon Spring trailhead and I happened to snag a bit while there. I gave Matt about 30oz. leaving me roughly the same for the rest of the ride. Time to ration a bit. At least the temps were pleasant and most of the remaining miles were downhill.
Big views all around.
More rolling forest road.
At the top of the final grunt climb of the day.
Ezra doing some trailside adjustments.
Caroline staying plugged in.
 We waited for Matt at the top of the last loose climb for a good 20 minutes and were beginning to get worried as he didn't have a GPS. The route was easy to follow, but where was he? More cramping issues really slowed his progress, but he rounded the corner and we soon began our fast descent to the singletrack turnoff. Was it getting too late? It was already 4:30p, we still had 8 miles of singletrack on unknown conditions in front of us. Caroline was the only one properly prepared for night riding as I only had my camping light. Ugh.

We reached the turnoff to the trail and it looked daunting, a short steep scramble on an overgrown hillside awaited. What if we stayed on the dirt road? Drops us down the wrong side of the mountain. Back to the trail. Let's keep it moving and see how far we get.
Matt pushes onto the trail.
The trail wasn't super steep, but very hard to see any hidden rocks and follow in spots.
Ezra was loving it, he rode most of the upper downhill, which IMO was the sketchiest section of trail. Kudos man!!
The golden hour upon us and views for miles.
The upper section was slow going, more walking than riding for me. The trail was tough to follow due to the high grass and general lack of use. At the bottom of the main downhill things picked up as we approached the part of the trail that would crisscross Boulder Creek numerous.times. We started to separate as we all pushed to get as far along the trail as possible before sunset.
There would be plenty of this.
My last shot of the waning light.
There were parts of trail that were fantastic, others were merely rutted drainage fall lines, but all in all the trail was fun. A few dismounts to cross Boulder Creek slowed things down a bit. I came up to a gate and debated whether I should wait for Caroline & Matt, but I knew Ezra didn't have a light so I pressed on hoping to catch up to him. I found him about 10 minutes later on the opposite side of a drainage unable to locate the trail! I motioned to him to follow me and we rode on for another 15 minutes until it was too dark to see safely. We were still 5 miles from the vehicles. I took off my helmet, hooked up my camping light and we waited for Caroline & Matt to arrive.

I started seeing a flickering light about 20 minutes later and soon after that we were within earshot. Somehow my crappy cellphone reception actually had a signal and I let the homefront know what was going on. It was going to be a late finish. The four of us set up with Caroline out in front with her bright lights, then Ezra, Matt and myself with the camp light bringing up the rear.

The trail was incredibly hard to follow at night, even with GPS. Most of the cairns were covered in grass and catclaw. Oh, the catclaw, it was everywhere. We ended up HAB'ing the entire 5 miles out to the road. It took us 3 1/2 hours to cover the relatively short distance due to a multitude of wrong turns, a mid-calf crossing of Sycamore Creek and the wincing pain of countless catclaw encounters.

We could see the cars on AZ87 from a long way out, but it seemed to stay out of our reach. When we finally did come to the pavement we crossed under the roadway via culvert only for a required bushwhack through more thorny goodness on a off camber slope up to the smooth blacktop. It was 10p when we reached the car! Somehow I managed to save about two sips of water, but a few cold drinks were waiting inside the car.

I'd really like to see what this last 8 miles of trail is like during the day and after a good trimming. I bet it's pretty darn good. My shins may feel otherwise.
Catclaw induced carnage.
I swear I'm going to start carrying lights on all my rides!! Hopefully, the others will still join me on some future exploratory type rides I have planned.

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