March 28, 2014

Salty-Gila Tour '14

I've been concocting a bikepacking loop from home over the past year, scouting, refining and generally making it as rideable as possible. I gave it a go last year, but the heat, poorly timed new seat test and sluggishness on day2 put an end to that attempt.

This year I was determined to complete the Salty-Gila Tour, as it's been dubbed. I live in the far southeast corner of metro Phoenix and this loop would head north near the Salt River, follow the bordering mountains east to the Arizona Trail down to the Gila River, then head west through Florence and on to the finish. 220 miles in 3 days on 95% dirt, how cool is that?

I had a fair amount of interest from others, but as the dates grew near I was left pondering a solo attempt. At the eleventh hour two fellas committed, Larry from Tucson, and Michael from a few streets over. I hadn't met either one before, so I was excited to ride with new bikepacking friends.

Day 1: Urban Trail Connectors

We met up around 7am and right off the bat there was an issue. Michael's new rear tire was rubbing the frame and there was no way to give it more clearance!! He opted to return home to swap out the old one and play catch-up. Larry and I started out, making our way to a series of greenbelt connectors which led us to a south-to-north running canal.
The Tour starts out here.
No traffic to dodge under the freeway.
Pass Mtn on the left would be the big hurdle for the day.
We peeled off 20 flat miles easily, exiting a few miles of pavement for the singletrack we love on the TRW trail at Hawes. Let the 'real' Tour begin. We shared details of our plan with a fella out for a pre-work spin, he sounded like he wanted to take a few sick days to tag along!! He should have.
Singletrack in front of us near Red Mtn.
Three miles later we approached Power Rd where Michael had been waiting. The SPOT tracker told him where we were, so it wasn't too hard to find us! We were glad to see him as this was to be his first bikepacking trip.

There were plenty of hikers on the Hawes trails enjoying the beautiful morning. We made our way into the trail system working towards the Twisted Sister trail.
Michael on Hawes trail.
After a short re-grouping on a saddle, we began a steep switchbacked downhill. I rolled through the first couple and was getting set to round the next one when I heard someone crash behind me. It was Michael and his rear derailleur hanger had snapped!! He also scuffed up his arm good on the grippy rocks. He didn't have much of a choice but to call off the ride. The route isn't exactly singlespeed friendly and he wasn't too far from a bailout point. We felt really bad for him, he seemed very prepared minus a spare hanger. He put some thoughts together about the outing on his blog. Larry and I wished him well and got moving once again.
The ride ended before it really started for Michael.
We've had a strange winter here in the desert, warm throughout and very dry after a series of storms in the fall. This led to the wildflowers coming out really early this year, end of January early!! There wasn't much to see on the Hawes trail, but up on Twisted Sister as we rounded the mountain, the poppies and lupines were everywhere. Spring was still hanging around.

Our first wildlife sighting! Western Patch-nose snake. Followed by a rattlesnake about an hour later.
We cruised through Wild Horse trail to the NRA jumplines. We were now on the lower flanks of our big effort of the day - Pass Mtn. But first we sampled a fine singletrack connector that Jeff showed me on our East Valley Traverse ride some weeks earlier. Sure beats climbing on a busy paved shoulder!!
We opted to not get rad on our loaded bikes.
Four Peaks photo-bombing.
Our abbreviated paved climb led us to the back door entrance to Pass Mtn. It's quite sandy to start, but soon gives way to a nice climb up to the trail junction. We had our sights set on attaining the saddle before taking a lunch break.
Awesome overlook into Bulldog Canyon from the Pass Mtn trail.
I caught Larry in HAB mode here.
Larry had been off the bike for a while leading up to this ride, but had done a couple bikepacking rides on dirt roads in the weeks leading up to it. This was his first time riding a loaded rig on singletrack while also still trying to regain his prior level of fitness. It was really cool to watch him progress over the three days, not to mention the entire route was new terrain for him, no easy task.

We enjoyed a nice break before diving into the chunk-filled descent knowing the rest of the day would be much kinder on the joints.
The Superstitions still seem so far away, Gold Canyon, our camp spot for the night is on the far right of the mountains.
Larry surviving the Pass Mtn trail.
A short bit of pavement was welcomed by our arms, then a fast spurt through the flats of Usury Mtn park led us to an open swath of urban desert chock full of horse trails. It's hodgepodged together by the local equestrians and we were only going to do about a mile before dumping onto McKellips rd, but we spotted a trail paralleling the fence at our exit and decided to keep going on dirt. We added a bonus mile or so of dirt over pavement, making us both smile.

Into the Goldfields we go, this year skipping the heinous HAB I mistakenly took last go-round. There's not a ton of singletrack out there, but if you can find it, there are some good stretches.
Beautiful mountain vistas wrap around the jeep roads.
Lichen covered rock is everywhere.
All of a sudden the Superstitions were 'right there'!!
The trails led us to AZ88 at the Tonto NF boundary.
We were feeling good and had plenty of provisions for the push into Gold Canyon, so we decided to skip the out-n-back along AZ88 to the Blue Bird Mine snack bar. We started talking about dinner options and a hearty mexican meal won out. We simply had to ride the techy Jacob Crosscut trail first.

I warned Larry that the trail would become more rugged as we went along. Funny thing was, it didn't. At first I thought a rock or two had been removed, then it became very apparent that some serious trail work had been done out there. The trail is now a good mountain biking trail, still plenty of challenge, but without the incessant on/off required before. By the time we were ready to take the bailout trail I was wondering how far the trailwork extended, but that was for another day.
Still plenty of technical riding to keep you on your toes.
Out on the pavement of Apache Junction we could focus on dinner. Our meal of choice was at De La Cruz Mexican Grille in Gold Canyon. Bikes were leaned up against patio fence while we enjoyed our meal & fresh sqeezed lemonade.

After dinner we stopped at the grocery store for some re-supply, put on our lights and made our way past the high dollar homes in the Gold Canyon hills. We still had a few miles of trail to ride before making camp atop the Vortex.

Ideally I would have liked to knock out all of the Gold Canyon trails before camp, but I also didn't want to do them all at night. We settled for the Cougar loop then beelined over to Gila Monster trail up to the Vortex. The view up there even at night is amazing, darkness to the east, lights of Gold Canyon to the west, but not enough to pollute our view of the Milky Way. We settled in quickly since we didn't have to cook a meal and I fell asleep listening to the distant howling of coyotes.

Continued...Day 2: Oasis in Gila Country

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