September 1, 2014

Sublime Kaibab

How do you know when you've had an incredible 3 days of bikepacking? When you arrive at work the following day and can not remember ANY of your passwords!!

Labor Day weekend rolled around and with it an excuse to head north to the Kaibab Plateau and the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Last year a few of us did a similar loop, or an attempt at least, of 140 miles over 2 days. It was hard. Real hard. I wanted to savor this one a bit more, do all my riding in daylight hours, so a 3 day variety was concocted. I originally put in an out-n-back, OnB, option to Point Sublime, but on paper we weren't sure about tacking on a 5 mile climb.

The core group of usual suspects were rounded up where Ray & Bart were still going to knock out the loop in 2 days due to time constraints. Meanwhile, Team Tour: Jeff, Nancy, Steve and I would ride at a more leisurely pace for 3 days. The forecast was looking very promising, highs in the mid to upper 70's, low's in the upper 40's and 0% chance of rain!! My tent would not leave the car, replaced with a stuffed football for a pillow!! Who says bikepacking has to be uncomfortable?

I was able to leave work around lunchtime and made quick work getting through metro Phoenix on a holiday Friday. I checked in with K to let her know I was headed north and five minutes later as I reached New River my face went flush. Shit!!!! I forgot my 100oz bladder back at work in the freezer! Ugh. I was already an hour into my trek north, now what. Turn around? Wait...Steve was getting out of work a bit later and wasn't far from my work. A quick call and he saved my ass, snagging the bladder before things closed up for the day. Dude, I owe you one.
Maybe next time I'll take the express route.
Mind now at ease and back on bikepacking mode I made good time into Flagstaff and pulled into Jacob Lake to meet the others around 6:30p. Sun still shining!! Steve arrived around 9:30p and Bart sometime around midnight.

Day 1: Forest Roads & the Rainbow Rim

We woke to my temp gauge reading 39º!! It was a bit of a slow morning, but we all seemed to be on a similar sluggish pace. Ray & Bart hung around for the group photo and were soon off down the dirt road. The rest of us followed suit about 10 minutes later.
Six nutjobs ready for an adventure. Photo by Jeff.
The ride starts off easy enough, gentle climbing on well maintained forest roads, but I could tell immediately I was out of my comfort zone. My lack of recent riding was going to make this trip much more difficult, throw in an average elevation near 8000' and pedaling a loaded bike, I had my work cut out for me.
The gang stomping out the miles.
An early vista, we'd soon drop down to the canyon floor.
The others started peeling off layers, but I knew a big downhill was only a mile ahead. I'm glad I waited, I peeked at my GPS to see 35+ mph on the descent. Steve and I started up a short piece of pavement, we glanced ahead and what did we see? Look: it's Ray & Bart!! Steve took off on the climb to chase them down, all part of our 'catch & release' program. They kept going while the four of us re-grouped before another long downhill to the low point of the route through Warm Springs? Canyon.
Careful or you'll miss the turnoff.
Time to shed layers.
Some petroglyphs along the way.
From the canyon floor we had a short grunt climb up to the scrub land on the western edge of the plateau. Every so often we were afforded a glimpse to the west. 30 miles of forest road lie in front of our tires before hitting the Rainbow Rim trail.
Nancy powering the loaded singlespeed (SS) up a healthy grade. Photo by Jeff.
I was in good spirits even if my legs were screaming at me to stop. Photo by Jeff.
The climb out of Warm Springs isn't real steep or super long, but it was enough of an effort to really put a hurt on me. My quads hurt. We were barely 15 miles in with a goal of around 65 for the day. I knew I was in for a battle all day. Thank goodness we were on a tour pace, I needed the extra breaks and it allowed me to never really fall too far behind. The others could tell I just wasn't myself, and I really appreciated the frequent stops.
Jeff came across this fatty crossing the road, by the time I rolled up he was giving us the business from the bushes.
Lots of this early on. Photo by Jeff.
Ahh, back in the trees. Aspens too!! Photo by Jeff.
Getting close to the rim now. Photo by Jeff.
Found this rustic cabin by Big Saddle Tank.
We reached the split for Crazy Jug Pt., we weren't going out to this overlook, instead we were in search of the 'rim trail' as seen on topo maps of the area. Our hope was to shave off a bunch of miles and a long uphill grind in favor of a trail connecting us over to the end of the Rainbow Rim trail at Parissawampitts Pt.

We poked around a bit, determined where we were on the small printed map I had, and concurred that the vague trail marked as FR D1884 was probably what we were searching for. Unfortunately, it was a rubbly mess and overgrown from the start. No thanks. Back to the original route.
Rim Trail??
Solo snack break among the aspens.
Finally! The Rainbow Rim trail.
After our Rim Trail excursion, I fell off the back of the group quickly. A few miles down the road I stopped for a jolt of energy for the upcoming climb. It helped, but I still found myself in HAB mode on the chundery forest road. At the top the miles peeled off rapidly descending to Parissawampitts Pt. I was so ready for a long lunch break...and a nap!!

The trailhead was empty when I rolled in. I was expecting to see the others, but they moved on to a better spot with a view. For about 30 seconds I was dreading that they decided to push on to the next overlook a few miles down the trail. Whew! They were perched on a super canyon overlook already digging into lunch.
Perfect spot for a break. Photo by Jeff.
Contrast in styles, Steve kickin' back relaxing. Photo by Jeff.
Me, spent, whooped and ready to lay out my sleeping bag! Photo by Jeff.
Parissawampitts view.
The mighty SS duo, Nancy & Jeff.
The extended lunch break was sorely needed. Belly satisfied, we started east on the Rainbow Rim trail. Our initial goal was Timp Pt. at the eastern end of the trail, but we all agreed if time permitted we'd prefer to push on to Quaking Aspen Spring another 5 miles away.

The Rainbow Rim trail is unique in that it is true singletrack that winds in & out of drainages right up to the edge of the Grand Canyon. There are a bunch of points along the way, Fence, Locust, North Timp & Timp after leaving Parissawampitts. Most of the trail is great riding too, nice flow, some long gradual downhills and good climbing grades. I recalled from last year how I thought the trail was better past Locust Pt. I would still say the same, but it's not a huge contrast in differences.
Not a bad trailside view!! Photo by Jeff.
Rippin' singletrack.
Near Fence Pt.
Rainbow Rim is approximately 18 miles long, we stopped briefly at all the big overlooks and talk soon turned to the reliability of Quaking Aspen Spring. We all were getting a bit concerned about our water levels and the tough route that was to follow the next day.

At Locust Pt. we ran into another rider who had just finished for the day. I asked if he had any water to spare, he gladly offered up most of his water bottle from the cooler!! I had really begun to suck down the H2O. Nothing like riding yourself back into shape on a 3-day bikepacking ride.

As luck would have it, a few miles down the trail we spotted a series of small water tanks off the trail!! Glorious!! Time for a water filtering party.
Impromptu watering hole. We later found out it was for an equestrian event!!
I believe it was around 5p or so when we reached Timp Pt. Still plenty of daylight left for the 5 miles to the spring. But wait...there's more Rainbow Rim!! There's a new extension in the works and we were able to sample the first 1+ miles of new tread. We missed one turn along the way resulting in a short steep drainage crossing, but otherwise the trail was already packed in quite nicely. We reached the end of the extension then bushwacked a few hundred yards over to the dirt road to resume our route.
View from Timp Pt.
Timp Pt. trailhead.
Steve and I assuming the position. Photo by Jeff.
I figured my legs had just enough left to get me to camp. One thing about the Kaibab, most of the forest roads are in really good shape. The only snag? A 'Road Closed' sign stood in our way!! The was a small prescribed burn going on which appeared to be winding down. A vehicle exited from behind the closed sign signaling an 'all clear' to us.
Looks like a good place to camp!! Photo by Jeff.
A few fast miles later we arrived at Quaking Aspen Spring to find.....WATER!! The spring was contained in a concrete housing just up a few steps onto the hillside. I didn't want to sit down right away for fear of not getting back up!
Our home for the night.
This made for a nice cooking surface too.
...and a refrigerator!! Photo by Jeff.
I took care of all my chores before settling down for dinner, Garmin charger, air mattress, etc. We sat around watching it grow darker by the minute. Our secluded valley meadow was eerily quiet, surreal. You could have heard a single leaf drop to the ground. Before long the Milky Way was above our heads with a billion stars free of light pollution. Livin' large.
The mild temps allowed me to swap out my tent in favor of a comfy camp pillow!! Photo by Jeff.

Day 2: Sublime Detour

Sunday morning wasn't as chilly as Jacob Lake, so it was a bit easier to get moving. I normally don't drink hot coffee, but decided last week to try out some single serve coffee packets for the cool mornings. Fry's had a few varieties on close out so I wiped the shelf clean. I must say it was a nice change of pace & compliment to my oatmeal.
Breakfast by the spring. Photo by Jeff.
We pushed off with some easy forest roads to start the morning. I knew there was a grunt climb approaching and first reports were in: my legs felt almost normal!!
One aspen in the bunch was already in fall form.
Steve taking the direct route. Photo by Jeff.
We reached the junction where I deviated off the course last year and veered right. What followed next were some surprisingly good stretches of forest road. A few long contouring downhills brought us quickly to the Grand Canyon park boundary. We were making great time and I was wondering when we'd hit the rough stuff I had heard about.
I much prefer this method of entry over the seemingly endless line of cars at the South Rim.
Into the park we go!
Maybe next time a visit to Swamp Pt. is in order.
Good climbing grades early on. 
We were on the prowl for the Kanabownits fire tower & spring. We dropped down into a side canyon and I realized we missed the turn to the fire tower. No way I was going back up, so we focused on finding the elusive spring. No luck there either, but we were good on water anyway after filling up at camp.

A few miles later we arrived at a 'T', turn right and go to Pt. Sublime, stay left and continue on with the route to the North Rim. Jeff posed the question, 'Do you want to check out Pt. Sublime?'. Almost immediately the rest of us nodded in agreement, let's do it! We knew it would be mostly downhill on the way out, hoping the climb back wouldn't be to much of a sufferfest.

The ride out started with a climb! At least we'll finish our return on a downhill. The next 4 1/2 miles were a nice gradual coast downhill. We cruised by a group of 4x4's parked off the side then made the climb up the final 1/2 mile to the overlook. Only a couple of vehicles were there and one was leaving.

We scrambled out to a ledge past the last tree to see this:
270º+ cell phone panorama. Simply incredible. Best view in the Canyon IMO.
It was a tad windy
Nice work Colorado River.
Massive cliffs of the Grand Canyon.
What a perfect morning to be on the Canyon's edge, so clear.
Oh, the places that bike takes me.
We retraced  our tracks back up Pt. Sublime road as a few more tourists rambled down the road. I spotted my obligatory Kaibab squirrel too!! We all remarked how easy the climb out seemed. To quote a friend, 'That was a good life decision', so glad we opted for the scenic detour.

We rejoined our route to find a steeper grade and slightly deteriorated road conditions. This would be the beginning of a series of seemingly relentless ups & downs. To say this section was taxing would be a gross understatement. The spry feeling in my morning legs had evaporated as the HAB's became more frequent. The good news? It was 'only' 11 miles or so to the North Rim and ALL downhills were welcomed as 'free miles'!! 
A nice camp spot at a place we call Pt. Sublime-ish, closest the route gets without doing the OnB.
Pt. Sublime-ish.
Trying to muster the energy for a late lunch push. Photo by Nancy.
Not all of it was punishing, near the end a few meadows appeared albeit with sandy roads. Photo by Jeff.
We were finally nearing the North Rim, I had fallen off the back once more as my mind wandered to thoughts of lunch. I saw the first Arizona Trail (AZT) marker and knew I was very close. I was ready to chill for a bit.
The start of Passage #39.
That wasn't all mine!!
Water refill station and some more Canyon views.
Afternoon shadows creeping in, Humphrey's Peak on the horizon.
The pic above is the reward for relaxing here.
One of my favorite National Park signs.
I think it was around 4:30p or so when we left the North Rim. Our main objective was to reach the park boundary along the AZT before making camp some 12 miles away. We had a stretch goal of reaching the East Rim overlook, another 7 miles farther, but that wasn't looking probable after our Pt. Sublime detour.

AZT Passage #39. What can I say about it. It had more climbing than I remembered. A few more HAB sections too. There were some really nice stretches of singletrack mixed in, but it was borderline overgrown. Then there's the drab utility corridor the trail follows for a couple of miles before dropping down near the park entrance booth. It's an ok passage, doesn't really jump out at you with awe inspiring views that's for sure. It's more of a means to an end and end it did, after a mile+ gravel climb turn singletrack descent. 
Primitive singletrack. Photo by Jeff.
Couldn't quite ride under this one.
Utility corridor.
I was last to the top of the climb as the sun was getting low on the horizon. We missed the Kanabownits fire tower, so I opted to ride over to the North Rim lookout tower to catch the sunset.

Park housing near the entrance station.
Found these cool hiking blazes on the gravel climb to the fire lookout tower.
A bit of a grind at the end of a long hard day.
A little rickety, but worth the climb up.
Humphrey's Peak succumbing to alpenglow.
The final mile of #39 is sweet, twisting singletrack through the forest then one short grass covered meadow to the park boundary. It's a small taste of what's to come.
Completing our tour through the Grand Canyon's north rim area.
37 miles to Jacob Lake tomorrow, for now we camp here.
I found the others near treeline sprawled out on the bumpy terrain. Evening meals gobbled down, we settled in early for a much required long rest.

The sliver of moon set and the sky turned black once more. The Big Dipper rocked me to sleep. I woke sometime after midnight to see the Dipper's handle set below the treetop shadows. Back to dreamland I went.

Day3: Meadows & Burnout Along the AZT

Our day was set up nicely. 37 miles of AZT back to Jacob Lake. We were hoping for an early afternoon finish before the 6 hour drive home. 

Early on the theme was simple: ride through a meadow, HAB up into the forest, cruise sweet tree-lined singletrack, descend to the next meadow, repeat. And so it went.
Our day started with a few 'warm up' miles like this.
Nancy enjoying the sunshine. Photo by Jeff.
Let's push!!
If you have to HAB, might as well enjoy it. Photo by Jeff.
Short detour to the East Rim trailhead.
Nancy along the East Rim overlook, Navajo Mtn on the horizon. Photo by Jeff.
Saddle Mtn. Wilderness boundary. Photo by Nancy.
Wide singletrack makes for fast riding. Photo by Jeff.
I came across a few of the stock ponds from last year and all of them had water. This can be a challenge on the Kaibab. The others got out in front of me as I stopped for picture taking. I was really enjoying the flowy forest singletrack when something caught my eye...
Trail magic!! I took this opportunity to add to my stash.
Most of the trail up here is good, sans the HAB sections!!
Double track that rides like singletrack.
Look closely, you'll find Jeff & Nancy finishing their HAB!! Mine was about to begin.
Snack break!! Pre-cut avacado, perfect. Photo by Jeff.
The Kaibab squirrel makes an appearance on the AZT signs up here.
AZT fading to grass next to AZ67.
I was cruising along through another meadow, came around a turn to find Steve futzing with his rear wheel. Jeff & Nancy had also stopped to see what was going on. Steve had been riding really strong all 3 days and now it appeared his ride was over. Sucked in rear derailleur, busted hanger & spokes!!
Only 18 miles from the finish too. Photo by Jeff.
One of his sun sleeves fell off his pack and became tangled in the rear derailleur causing the mishap. Next time put those things on!! He ended up hitching a ride back to Jacob Lake & luckily this all happened only a 100 yards or so away from AZ67.

As soon as we left Steve we had a rather hefty HAB staring us down. One of two bigger efforts on the day, the second was to come 10 miles later. At the top of the HAB the scenery transformed into the burn area. It's a stark contrast to what we'd been riding through up until this point. Lots of low lying greenery with sheered off trees. While the forest recovers, the trail is already back in top form. Good contouring singletrack for miles on end.
The trail is about to get fast!!
Typical terrain through the burn area.
Looking northeast towards the Vermilion Cliffs.
Vermilion Cliffs and a faint Navajo Mtn. in the distance.
I knew there was only one climb left, but it was a doozy. A steep drop down a rather large drainage followed by a HAB out the opposite side. The ride down was sketchy enough. I almost went OTB as I clipped a large rock with my front tire going off a ledge drop!!
The short flat trail at the bottom was spectacular!
Start pushing.
The burn area finally gave way to more forest singletrack. Five miles later we had crested the final descent towards Jacob Lake.
Finally, a giant information board with useful maps!! We saw at least 4 others, all were blank. Photo by Jeff.
The AZT on the Kaibab, aka Trail No. 101.
As the final miles approached, I had been hyping the big descent to Jeff. Last year it was fast, this year, well, not so much. Storms had done a number on the terrain creating huge ruts and off camber riding surfaces. 90% of the downhill is on an old forest road through a canyon too, but not even the wider girth helped much. As an added bonus there were a few downed trees to contend with as well. It took twice as long to exit the canyon as I had hoped, but all that remained were a couple of miles of tree-lined trail. Oh, and a few dismounts to climb some rock outcroppings!
Right when things would speed up...tree.
One final HAB.
Loop complete before 2pm! The trail magic providers were found!! A group of 3 AZT section hikers left a few gallons along the trail.
 Another fine bike outing in the books. I caught up with Jeff & Nancy back at the cars, Steve had already come and gone. We shot over to the Jacob Lake Inn for post-ride grub while downing Coke after Coke!

Even if I wasn't in the best fitness, I'm sure glad I did this ride. The route is top notch albeit tough as nails. When suffering on the saddle it's nice to have good friends along. Until next time.

Full photo show:

The drive to/from the Kaibab is always spectacular. The return trip was no exception as the afternoon grew long. I stopped for a few pics & pointed the DSLR out the window for a few others. If you're ever presented with the opportunity to drive through this part of Arizona - TAKE IT.
US89A stretches out beneath the Vermilion Cliffs.
Kaibab Plateau meets the Vermilion Cliffs at House Rock Valley.
Large boulders scattered about near Cliff Dwellings.
How large? That large.
Soap Creek canyon cutting its way towards the Colorado River gorge.
Echo Cliffs.
Humphrey's Peak, highest point in AZ at 12,633 ft.


  1. John, I just found your blog and its awesome! This is a super detailed write-up on the Kaibab loop, thanks for sharing! I'm not too familiar with the weather in that area (I live in SLC area), do you think that loop is rideable in March? The other thing I'm wondering is would a gravel bike or a mtn hard tail (with a front shock) be a better choice for that ride? Thanks in advance!

    1. Hey Paul,
      Thanks for the kind words, glad you enjoy it. As for the route, it typically doesn't become rideable until May, more like mid-May when the North Rim officially opens. Quite a few sections are above 9000' and get buried in snow. You could probably do the route on a gravel bike, but I think a hardtail may be the better choice overall?? Take that with a grain of salt since I don't own a gravel bike. ;)

    2. Awesome, thanks so much for the suggestions!