October 26, 2014

Sunflower: Pines & Spines

I love the idea of exploratory rides. The planning stages are more intense, the route scoured over intently and various points of interest (POI) flags are posted to the track. This particular route came from two sources, the mtbr AZ forum, where a renowned downhill seeker posted a video showcasing the Gold Ridge #47 trail, and myself. Huh? Well, this goes back to last year's ride over Reno Pass where we ended up racing daylight (losing badly in the process) on the Arizona Trail's (AZT) passage #21. I was also looking at this route for inclusion into the AZTR750, so riders could experience more of the AZT instead of riding the pavement on AZ188.

I wanted redemption on #21 and to see how rideable it really was since we hike-a-biked (HAB) the last 5 miles of it in the dark. Reno Pass was out this time around. Insert a bit of passage #22 and some jeep roads leading up to Gold Ridge and all of a sudden you have a monster loop. I was under no illusion this could be done in one day so I used the spring on El Oso as a location to make camp.

Day 1: Altered plans, Gold Ridge & The Bear

All I wanted now was some company. The normal bunch of crazies all balked at the idea, perhaps still feeling the effects from the Coconino loop. I posted up a call on the forum and had a few takers. Derek, Rob & Bart took the bait and we all met up in Sunflower.

No rain in the forecast, but temps would be above normal pushing 90º down in Tonto Basin. I left the tent in the car and we all were rolling before 8:30a.

This is one of the few AZT passage junctions without a designated trailhead. The deadend road leading to Bushnell Tanks would serve as our jumping off point, but there isn't a straightforward entry onto the AZT. I had planned on accessing the AZT via the Beeline Frontage rd, but the gate was locked. What to do? Bushwack right from the get-go. Let's just get that out of the way early on. It also included a barbed wire crossing, we noticed a gate after we climbed over!!

Onto passage #22. The trail is rugged, mostly rideable with the exception of a few short steep upslopes. We quickly left the AZ87 corridor and could feel the remoteness almost immediately, well, until we spotted a huge cabin nestled among the hills, but we were out there - way out there!!

Here are the cast of characters at an early gate crossing.
Derek, already smiling over his reduced gear ratio selection.
Rob, stoked to be on his first bikepacking trip.
Bart, ready for some Coconino redemption and fast trails.
Unfortunately for Bart, neither happened. Barely 2 miles into the ride I watched as he got hung up on a rock and slo-mo'd to the ground snapping his rear derailleur hanger. It was toast. No spare on board either, so a singlespeed, SS, conversion attempt was had. Derek broke out his newly acquired Youtube skillz and the fellas had it swapped over relatively quick. We convinced Bart to at least give it a go before calling off the ride. A mile down the trail, the chain line wasn't quite right, skipping on the torque strokes so Bart called it.
Back in business?
This would be a recurring theme and not just the SS'ers.
We pushed on after Bart left onto mostly rideable trail. It was still tough going, reminding me of the Canelo Hills. We came across some hunters out camping, little did we know they strung their hammock directly over the AZT!! They didn't seem to mind as we rode through their camp, lifting the hammock for us as we passed under.
Plenty of watering holes along the route. It's been a wet couple of months in the desert.
Our first water crossing, Sycamore Creek feeder.
One of the new fancy AZT signs, 7 miles from the halfway point! 393 to Mexico, 407 to Utah!
We neared the Cross F trailhead and our track kinda petered out. We were led into a pile of debris and a tall barbed wire fence with no way to easily circumnavigate it. We back-tracked a bit and found another trail leading off in the general direction we wanted. It turned out to be a small drawing error in the file and we soon popped out on the pavement of the old Beeline Hwy. This used to be the route from Phoenix to Payson when I first moved to the Valley in the early 90's, but since then the road was diverted and expanded to a divided 4 lane highway.

We opted for a snack break along the shady shoulder. Not much traffic, a few trucks and ATV's went whizzing by. Up the road we were on the lookout for FR25 to take up into the mountains. We found it, gated, locked and armed with no trespassing signs on private property.
Above Cross F trailhead.
We were lured by constant bits of primo trail.
Traffic jam on the old Beeline Hwy.
Rut-roh! Plan B, do we have a plan B??
The pic above is a prime example of why you should load a good set of topo maps onto your GPS. A few minutes panning around the region and we noticed FR201 peeling off the Beeline a few miles up ahead leading us directly where we wanted to go: Gold Ridge trailhead. One slight hiccup on the way, an unmarked dirt road veered left while the pavement began to swithback to the right. We continued to climb the pavement since the topo indicated FR201 was directly off the Beeline. Wrong assumption. 500' of bonus climbing later we realized the topo was incorrectly labeled, we back-tracked once again to the dirt road where a short while later came upon FR201.
FR201 was in surprisingly good condition, only a few short HAB sections even for the SS duo.
Not a bad locale to throw down some tents.
Starting to make our way around Mt. Ord.
A few breaks in the pitch delivered moments of uneasy downhill speed.
The adjacent canyon through this haunted forest provided a glimpse of our intended route. We were quite pleased with our new option to the summit.
Climbing to the sky.
We had been climbing for a good while and were rather excited to see our original track appear on the GPS, we were close to the top!! The top also meant pines, big tall pines reminiscent of Flagstaff practically within eyesight of Phoenix.
Merging onto the original GPS track.
Derek all smiles to be done with FR201.
FR3348 took us the final 1/2 mile or so to where the Gold Ridge trail begins its decent into Tonto Basin. There were campers set up around every corner, hunting season in AZ in full swing. We poked around for a bit looking for the trailhead before finally spotting the wooden sign behind a few trucks. Time to see what all the fuss is about on Gold Ridge.
I knew some downhill HAB was going to greet me at some point.
The trail starts off great.
A few dismounts early on, but only 3-4 total.
Rob riding into a postcard.
Gold Ridge slicing across the mountainside. Rob saw 5 or so deer near here, I only caught a glimpse of the last one bouncing through the bush.
Mogollon Rim making an appearance on the horizon.
Somewhere around the 2 mile mark the vegetation began a steady encroachment. First a branch or two, then a couple of shrubs. Next thing we knew the ground was no longer visible, buried beneath a flood of manzanita, shoulder high too!! Branches grabbing the handlebars, jabbing fingers, poking your arms, etc. It was so bad for a mile stretch the bike was no longer a riding machine, rather a battering ram.
Derek is ON the trail.
Rob on a 'wide open' piece of dirt.
We spotted a hunter up on an neighboring hillside scouting for game, then came across his campsite next to the trail. What a remote glorious place to camp. We neared the tents and two heads popped up from the manzanita, a father & son decked out in camo. Kinda startled me they blended in so well. We gave a wave and dropped down the ensuing steep grade.
Waiting for the trail to drop off the Earth.
A few steep sketchy downhill runs mixed in with a handful of punchy climbs to keep things honest.
Town of Rye still a long way down.
The extended downhill HAB finally arrived beyond this rise, but it really wasn't too long. The bit of trail on the otherhand was steep, loose and rutted. Tough footing, made my left knee start to ache a bit.
Here I'm pretending to know where we're headed. Photo by Derek.
6 miles later, we arrived at the Deer Creek TH. Pines no more, spines-a-plenty in the land of cacti.
Our pace was steady albeit slow all morning. We couldn't seem to get above a 4mph average!! We arrived at our easy pavement segment along AZ188 around 3:30p. We coasted into Jake's Corner sometime around 4p more than ready for an extended break and some refueling.
Late afternoon sky at Jake's Corner.
Fountain drinks & live music, yeehaw!!
A few folks at the bar were curious to what we were doing. Quite friendly in there for the most part, the bartender wasn't the most personable, but whatever. One fella pulled up outside and was talking to me about where we were headed. He asked if I knew what El Oso meant, I said 'The Bear' and he promptly stated that the area has the highest concentration of black bear in the state. True? Perhaps. Another guy became very excited when he heard we were riding up to Four Peaks, as his family once owned the Amethyst mine on the peaks. You meet all kinds of people out and about. Get out there, go ride!!
Food was limited at the bar, so snacks were had from the store.
Randomness behind the bar.
I wasn't about to make the same mistake from Mingus Mtn. I gorged on food/drink. Chocolate milk, Gatorade, Pepsi, water: gone. Pizza, avacado, pickles: gone. It's a good thing we weren't climbing El Oso right away, I had 20+ miles to digest.

One unexpected bonus for arriving behind schedule was Tonto Basin was now in the shade. It was warm, but comfortable hovering around 80º. We cruised along the paved shoulder all the way to Punkin Center before switching over to night mode and a secondary parallel less traveled road.
Four Peaks still a ways off in the distance.
Big gearing starting to pull away from the SS'ers.
At the Punkin Center turnoff.
Another refueling location if needed on future rides.
Waning daylight cast over Four Peaks.
Our goal for the day was to reach Middle Water spring some 8 miles & 3000' up El Oso road. It's a stout climb on an empty bike. How would we fare loaded down at the end of a long tough day? So-so on El Oso. I walked a bunch more than last time, only catching up to Rob & Derek when they too were enjoying the extended hiking. Slowly, methodically we made our way up the road arriving at camp just before 9pm. Whooped would be an understatement.

The spring was full, Rob found a couple of trees for his hammock and Derek & I found enough clear space for our setups. Derek had a tent, I went sleeping bag / air mattress under a starry sky. Dinner was cooked, ice cold Yuengling cracked and shoes off taking in the sights of the western skies. We were fortunate enough to catch an extremely bright shooting star too.

As I readied myself for the night I dug out my new PowerMonkey charger for the GPS, which was now on low battery after 12 1/2 hours on the trail. To my surprise the PM was dead, wouldn't even turn on!! I was pissed. Why? I had fully charged the battery the night before, all systems GO. The PM was only on its second bikepacking ride and nada. A complaint has already been submitted. I had such high hopes for this device, hopefully it's just a lemon, but I can't trust it as far as I can throw it right now.

Day 2: Short spin to the finish?

The vehicle traffic on El Oso started around 5a, which wasn't really all that bad, kind of a slow wake-up call in the pre-dawn light. We set ourselves up nicely for a short second day knocking out 56 miles on Sat. I was planning on reaching Sunflower around noon, we 'only' had 20 miles to go and most of it was downhill. Easy. Right?
Middle Water spring in the tire & Rob still snoozing in the hammock.
Roadside accommodations.
We nudged Rob awake just before 8a, packed up and continued climbing the last 1 1/2 miles to the top. I generally consider the junction of Pigeon Spring rd the top, but there is more climbing to be had. It also marks the return of the AZT and passage #21. The dirt road tends to undulate a bit more as it continues to snake towards the Mazatzal Divide trail - another dirt road. We made good time across the divide, mixing in some HAB while taking in the views of Roosevelt Lake to our right and the urban sprawl of Phoenix to our left.
Three of the Four Peaks.
Finally!! Near the top.
Roosevelt Lake.
It's best if you don't look up sometimes.
Mt. Ord still far off, near the finish line.
The unmistakable profile of the Superstition Mtns.
Ahhhh, morning in the pines.
Yet another HAB pitch.
What's this? An extended downhill!! Just beware of the ruts from the recent storms.
We were finally getting close to the singletrack turnoff, roughly 8 miles from the end. I totally drew a blank on the final two HAB's leading to the turn, you can't remember them all!! When we reached the cairn marking the trail the look on Derek & Rob's face was priceless. Rob said it best, 'That's a whole different level of 'oh shit''. He was spot on.
Up we go, HAB continues. At least there are steps!!
We have to go up there?!?
Passage #21, the death knell for the AZTR750 addition. I was already leaning towards not recommending the route to this point, but a few miles into #21 the decision was easy to make.

This 8 mile stretch has some fantastic potential, but until a serious amount of work happens it will remain a vague, primitive, burly, overgrown, yet scenic trail. It's one of the few sections of AZT that isn't marked very well. Only an occasional carsonite sign and random cairns mark the way. Most drainage crossings require a dismount, then it was anyone's guess where the trail went. My GPS was now dead, only making it 7 miles along the divide. At least Rob had the track on his phone and we utilized it on a couple of occasions.
Mt. Peeley? on the horizon.
A quick loss of elevation puts us down at the base of these mountains.
Narrow, a bit loose too.
Crossing the drainage.
Bone-rattling trail along aptly named Boulder Creek.
Tis but a small rut.
It wasn't all this bad, but enough to slow progress to a snails pace.
 All three of us were going through our water, it was warm and the trail was slow. One of our Boulder Creek crossings had flowing water as the creek went above and below the surface. We took the opportunity to filter more water from the cold pools.
Thirst quenching pools. Photo by Derek.
With only 3+ miles to go, the feet were dunked.
Derek surveying the land.
Rob was about to test those leg coverings.
A bit refreshed after our water stop we mixed in more of the same, some fast flowy sections, more rubble, a lost trail, then a most unfortunate stallout on a rock.....
Rob signaling the 'ok' while buried in catclaw.
I saw the whole thing play out, hung up, balance check, then a slow tip over the side of the trail. The catclaw was so thick Rob hovered a few feet above the ground. It took a few good tugs on the bike to extract it from the tangled mess. I then pulled Rob out no worse for wear. I never thought I'd say it, but it was a good thing all the catclaw was there, it cushioned the fall. Sure beats falling down a slope of rocks & cacti!!
While faint, at least the trail corridor was clear...for now.
Look! More riding!!
This was a fun hilly section, the trail was getting good, but one HAB remained.
An auto graveyard, yet no road to be seen.
Sycamore Creek.
The Sycamore Creek crossing was a little confusing, but after going downstream a bit it was an easy traverse. We took a short break, slammed a Pepsi I had been lugging around then watched a couple of dogs go crazy playing in the water. A hiker soon approached and we chatted him up a bit, he accessed the area by following the creek instead of the trail. We continued on the trail finally nearing the end.
Up, up, up we go with AZ87 tantalizingly nearby.
The fellas back on their bikes.
I think I see my car to the right of the bridge.
Completing our Mt. Ord orbit.
Weathered signs on a weathered trail.
Passage #21 was all business.
The price for not having knee-high socks!! Ouch.
3 hours to go 8 miles will blur your vision.
The ride ended where it began, a short bushwack back up to AZ87 where we were greeted by a 1/2 mile of soothing pavement. It was almost 2:30p. Loop complete, another adventure in the books. I'm sure glad I had a couple of friends to share this ride experience with. Much respect for Derek & Rob grinding it out on the SS's. I'll bikepack with these gents anytime.
Full loop with all the navigation errors & profile.

Full photo album: