September 27, 2014

Kaibab Krossroads

A few months ago a ride plan was hatched to bikepack the Colorado Trail from Silverton (Molas Pass) to Durango, but we called an audible a few weeks ago to keep things a bit closer to home.

It's official, Seron has the bikepacking bug. I knew he'd catch it, there's really not much you can do about it. He also shares a similar thirst for miles along the Arizona Trail, AZT, especially miles his tires had yet to spin on.

Our revised plan would take the two of us north to the Kaibab Plateau. I was just up here a month ago, but have no qualms about returning as often as I can. You can feel the remote grandeur on the rides up there. The proposed route would stage us at Stateline Campground on the AZ/UT border, take House Rock Valley rd south to the Navajo Trail then northwest to a series of dirt roads up to Jacob Lake. From there we'd follow a new series of forest roads south to the Grand Canyon National Park border where we'd join up with the AZT for 66 miles back to Stateline.

We kept a watchful eye on the weather forecast, but as departure day neared the outlook wasn't favorable. Storms were brewing and AZ has been getting hit hard as of late. 80% chance of Thunderstorms on Sat & Sun morning meant we'd be getting wet at some point. We didn't care, it was time to ride.
Off to a good start. Photo by Seron.
We broke free of the urban gridlock early enough to make good time north arriving at Stateline around 9:30p to mild temps and an inky moonless sky. We plopped down in an open site, cracked a few brews and marveled at the starry sky.

Day 1: Navajo Trail

Morning came and with it clear blue skies!! What a beautiful scene. Most of the other campers took off early for the nearby slot canyons of southern Utah. We wouldn't see a soul the entire day until reaching Jacob Lake.
Stateline Campground: FREE. Fire pits, covered picnic tables & pit toilets no need for anything else.
Take special note of this 'before' picture!! Photo by Seron.
This was a Team Voodoo ride, no burritos were harmed this weekend.
House Rock Valley rd. looking north into Utah.
13 mile warmup over the washboards.
Slowly the clouds creep over the Kaibab.
Big country out here, gives me the impression of what the Tour Divide may feel like. Photo by Seron.
A two mile gradual downhill leads to the Navajo Trailhead. I knew what we were about to get into, some serious Grade A hike-a-bike, HAB. Seron was getting a bit antsy to knock it out. This would be yet another test for his rebuilt knee.
12 miles in length the Navajo Trail completely traverses the Kaibab Plateau.
Sure starts out easy enough. Photo by Seron.
Early on you get the idea how remote and rarely traveled this trail is.
Helmet off, head down, I was struggling almost from the start. Not my usual HAB mode. Photo by Seron.
The breaks were plentiful on the way up, giving ample time to soak in the views.
Keep pushing!!
Mercifully I arrived at the top to find Seron already chillin' on the side of the trail. The HAB felt twice as long on this day, but in reality it's only 1000' over 1 mile. We were now on rideable terrain!!

I wouldn't really call it double track or jeep road, maybe just a corridor? Sometimes the trail rode like singletrack, other times it was lost entirely!! I recalled from last year a few tricky spots, one of which was much easier to navigate this go-round.
I think the trail has been claimed. Photo by Seron.
Crossing over the AZT, six down, six to go. Photo by Seron.
A much needed lunch break, pizza & Mountain Dew and I was a new man!! Photo by Seron.
Barely a half mile past our lunch break we found water in Joe's Reservoir, topped off and moved on towards the next kinder gentler HAB.
Cool sign that no one sees.
Thanks Joe!!
A fine opportunity to hone your GPS tracking skills.
Armed with a GPS track and prior trail knowledge, we still went off route in the pic above!! The nice 2-track we were on peeled off into the vagueness seen. At least we only overshot the turn by 100 yards.
Almost to the top!! Photo by Seron.
We crested the second HAB fairly quick, then the trail became fast. A couple of gates and we were on a long forgotten jeep road angling downward. The jeep road eventually dead-ends and some surprisingly nice forested singletrack connects to the final overlook.
Caught in the act!! Riding photoshoot.
Looking west off the Kaibab towards Zion.
A few roving showers and a glimpse of civilization - Fredonia, AZ.
Downhill HAB is always a special treat. Moreso when the footing is precarious at best, one misstep and you're sliding down the mountainside. Seron had to be extra mindful of the steep downhill, it's the one thing a rebuilt knee may balk at - or a good one for that matter.

We made it down without incident. The trail pitch eased and with it came a few miles of fast semi-chunk trail to the end.
End of the Navajo Trail is in sight at the line of trees.
The landscape makes one feel small. Photo by Seron.
Nondescript ending to the Navajo Trail.
This end of the Navajo Trail is truly in no-man's land. No signage and only a lightly traveled 2-track following a fenceline greet you here. There are however, fine views to the northwest!!
A man in his element.
Near our turn to head east.
I wonder how long this bottle has been here?
We began hearing the first rumbles as we followed the fenceline south. The rogue showers were closing in, one on each side, but our route would split them in two.
I really like this one, reminds me of an album cover.
Calm focus as we pedal away from storm cell #1. Photo by Seron.
Seron topping out on a big grunt climb with a new friend in the foreground.
Why hello there!!
It was 5 o'clock when we crested the main forest road climb, still some 15 miles out from Jacob's Lake. We held out hope of making it to the Inn before dark, but the darkening skies would surely prevent that. The road continued to climb, mile after mile. Occasionally it would kick up and get really rough, other times it was big gear spinning. Soon enough, I gave in and pulled over to put on my light. No sooner had I come to a stop a rain squall hit and had me scrambling to put on my rain jacket and take cover under some trees.

The rain ended quickly enough and we were back at it once more. The road continued its gradual ascent back into the tall pines of the Kaibab. We must have been about 5 miles away from Jacob Lake when the sprinkles stayed for good. The thunder kept a continuous din to the evening while lightning lit up the surrounding woodlands. The flashes were extremely bright and each time I counted off the seconds until the clap of thunder echoed around me. Nothing was closer than 4-5 seconds....until one gigantic bolt cracked down nearby. It was enough to raise the heartbeat a bit, but by now I had reached the pavement of US89A, only a mile from the Inn.

The rain was coming down rather heavy, I was soaked pretty good gear-wise, but felt fine. I took cover under a few trees while Seron caught up. He too was spooked a bit by that last strike. We made quick work to the Inn where a warm meal and dry roof awaited.
We garnered some funny looks entering the Inn.
We weighed our options after eating and decided we'd hang out at the Inn until they booted us out. No vacancies here. Instead of being 10-15 miles farther south, we rode across 89A to the Jacob Lake campground in search of an open site. None were found, but as we were completing our scouting loop a couple recognized us from the Inn and offered to share their site. Score. The rain had stopeed as well, so we were able to set up camp easily.

Not long after crawling into the tent, the winds picked up, the rain fell and was accompanied with a barrage of thunder/lightning. This would go on all night. I swear I thought my tent was going to get uprooted with me inside, yet somehow I fell asleep around midnight.

Day 2: AZT 42 & 43

5am rolled around and I could tell my right shoulder was damp. Damp would be an understatement as I quickly noticed my phone, GPS & charger all sitting in a puddle of water inside the tent!! The upper two feet of my sleeping bag was soaked along with most of my riding gear. The one thing the Contrail Tarptent isn't built for: sideways downpours. No fault of the tent, it's constructed with a mesh layer just above the tray.

The rain finally let up shortly after 5am and when I wormed my way outside there were blue skies above!! I slowly dragged my sopping wet gear out of the tent, hanging my sleeping bag over my bike and watching the water pour out of it. I was able to pull up a radar track on the phone and saw we were sitting between two impressive storm cells. One was coming up from the Flagstaff area while the other was creeping east from Fredonia. They each appeared to pack a punch.
Sunny start to the day!!
I rustled Seron awake to inform him of the weather. We made an easy decision to cut the southern portion of our route off especially since we were already close to our return track along the AZT. So we packed up all our wet gear and had a fantastic breakfast back at the Inn.
Time to head back to the trail.
Instead of riding the shoulderless 89A down to the AZT, we took a few forest road connectors from AZ67. A wise choice. We met up with the AZT for a couple of miles on passage 41.
Sure beats pavement, not too muddy either. Photo by Seron.
Huge shallow root system on this felled giant. Photo by Seron.
End of passage 41.
The clouds were now racing northbound overhead, we could see the darkening skies approaching. We knew we were going to get wet, but when? The answer came barely three miles into passage 42. Passage 42 is an extremely underrated section of the AZT as far as I'm concerned. 17 miles in length and for the most part is either flat or trending downhill on great forested singletrack. Sure, there are a few hills, ok rises, in the trail to keep things interesting. The light to steady rain didn't dampen our spirits, the trail was rippin' fast, clear of deadfall and only two gates if I remember correctly.
Onto 42 we go!! Photo by Seron.
Tunnel vision through the trees.
We didn't need the rain gear the entire day.
Probably the best section of 42, dropping into this drainage for a few miles with no climb out at the end!! Photo by Seron.
The drainage opened up to this.
A few bumpy scrubland crossings.
Near the end of 42 we had to take a few minutes to seek shelter from the pelting rain. Photo by Seron.
I had to remind Seron that passage 43 wasn't all downhill bliss like 42, there were a few contoured climbs we had to clear before the big descent to Stateline. He wasn't too concerned, neither was I, this is good trail up here - rain or shine!!
Crossing Winter rd and the start of passage 43. Photo by Seron.
We were fairly prepared to ride in the rain, just not sleep in it!!
One of the six or so climbing bits along the way.
It's a shame we weren't enjoying ourselves!!
Our first good glimpse of the finish line...far below.
Good weather test for the Garmin.
Fiery red cliffs of Utah. Photo by Seron.
House Rock Valley rd coming into focus.
Trees & shrubs quickly give way to the grasses.
The track shows a multitude of switchbacks here, not so much. Instead large sweeping turns rule the roost. Photo by Seron.
Nearing the bottom of our 1500' descent.
Such a glorious state this Arizona is.
One final obstacle before Stateline.
Practicing for my return in mid-April!! Photo by Seron.
Voodoo trail juju ditched for good? We're both rockin' the custom AZT head badges these days. I like it. Photo by Seron.
Remember this?
Some 30 hours later. Photo by Seron.
We finished around 2pm, rain was steady and we were now a bit concerned about getting the Juke down a wet House Rock Valley rd. Topo maps list the road as 'impassable' when wet!!

We were hungry and had plenty of food left over so out came the stoves & Mountain Meals!! While we were eating lunch a park ranger came into the campground. Seron checked in with him re: HRV road. The ranger mentioned he passed a Fiesta while driving in, so we figured the Juke would be fine as long as the rain didn't get any worse.

The weather eased up a bit so we took full advantage, loaded the car and drove onto the saturated road. I could immediately tell the traction was marginal at best. It reminded me of the wintery driving conditions back in PA. Onward we went. The first wash crossing wasn't flowing but the second one was. The water was 2-3' across with a small ledge on the exit, a quick punch of the gas and we were through! The only remaining challenge was an upcoming hill. It was a double-dip variety, the lower half being steeper and slippery. Again, the Juke had enough grip on the clay-based soil to crest the hill. We were in the clear as the next 15 miles had plenty of crushed rock on the road surface to get us to the pavement on US89A.
Vermilion Cliffs should be on the left. Photo by Seron.
The Honeymoon trail looked just as daunting as the Navajo trail, jeep road straight up the plateau. Photo by Seron.
I was bummed for Seron, his first visit to the Kaibab and we had yet to really see the Vermilion Cliffs. We arrived in the dark, then only saw a small side angle from the Navajo Trail and now the weather had the entire area socked in. A mile or so onto 89A the skies behind us up on the plateau began to show signs of clearing. Then we saw a few rays of sunlight peek through the clouds. Slate grey clouds lie in front of us and the sun was about to make a full appearance. I mentioned how we may get treated to a nice rainbow....uh, yeah. It was good. Stoopid good. The Vermilion Cliffs also made an appearance and we couldn't find a pullout fast enough. Luckily, there was a turnout approaching for a historical marker I've always wanted to stop at. Today was the day.

Here comes the sun!!
The cliffs draped in a late afternoon glow.
A full double rainbow.
Had to be the most vibrant display of color I've ever seen.
Pot-o-gold for sure.
San Bartolome, aka Saint Bartholomew
An abundance of geological wonders in the region, many I aspire to visit.
A little history on the Honeymoon Trail.
Awesome panorama Seron captured, full double rainbow!!
We were on quite a high after departing our rainbow photo op, a fitting end to a couple of days on the trail neither of us will soon forget. It's time to re-visit Topofusion and put together a friendlier dirt loop that includes AZT 42/43. I've had my fill of the Navajo Trail for a while.

Full photo album: