July 5, 2015

Grand Bikepack

Nancy's email asked if I'd have any interest in a Flagstaff to Grand Canyon bikepack? Duh. Yes. A bunch of us had done this ride almost two years ago and it was a blast, but that one was done in September when the monsoon has left town and temps have cooled off considerably.

This go round, we'd first have to work out a suitable timeframe with our schedules. My place of work decided to give us Monday July 6th as the holiday, where most others had Friday July 3rd off. We worked it out, but I'd be driving up awfully early on Saturday to meet Jeff & Nancy at the AZT crossing of FR418 north of Flagstaff.

1:45am. bzzzz, bzzzz, bzzzz goes the alarm. I'm out the door at 2:40a and at our rendezvous location before 6am. Gonna be a long day.

It begins to drizzle as I arrive, not good. There are sections of this route that are to be avoided at all costs during times of moisture. Our eyes had been glued to the forecast leading up to the holiday weekend. By all accounts 20-40% of afternoon t-storms were predicted. The South Rim forecast was more favorable, so we rolled the dice. We also had a contingency plan of pavement for the return portion if things became too dicey.

Jeff & Nancy had camped out and said it poured most of the night, but how far north did the rain extend? That was the million dollar question. All packed, we pedaled off into the shoulder high ferns that graced the AZT. A record June rainfall produced a surreal sight. Five minutes into the ride we were soaked (and loving it) from the accumulated moisture on the leaves. Cue the 15 mile downhill...
Wading through the greenery.
You can almost smell the fresh mountain air.
 We exited the singletrack about 6 miles in and found ourselves on a familiar jeep road leading towards Missouri Bill Hill. It was on this stretch where our ride hung in the balance. The mud began sticking to my tires, I kept rolling. A few pelts from pebbles being launched airborne courtesy of my rear tire had me concerned. I kept rolling. The knobbies soon disappeared from view. I kept rolling. My tires became clean!! Then they loaded up again. I kept rolling. We made the descent into Babbitt Ranch and slowly the mud gave way, the surface changed, tires became clean - we were in the clear!!
Sticky descent near Missouri Bill Hill.
Meeting the locals.
Loner under a welcomed canopy of solar relief.
Choose your track.
Surprisingly, we ran into a couple of dudes driving a pickup truck towards us out here. Didn't really expect to see anyone until Tusayan.
Green abounds!! Stock tanks had water too.
New signage at the west end of Babbitt Ranch.
Leaving the dirt road scene in favor of vague singletrack.
Unfortunately, the trail was muddy. We battled another mile of potential death mud here.
This stretch of trail was particularly taxing on me. Sticky, yet slippery, mud on an uneven surface slightly uphill takes a lot out of you. We were all getting hungry for lunch, but wanted to make it to the Moqui Stage split 5 miles away. Jeff & Nancy pulled away (this would be a recurring theme) as I began to deal with numbness in my left foot and a dull pain in my right knee & achilles.
Some rubbly bits.
Our view during lunch. Hunphrey's now engulfed by storm clouds.
Pizza to the rescue! Photo by Jeff.
Our memory of the next 19 miles to Grandview varied as none of us could really get a feel for the upcoming trail. I didn't recall this much effort being needed and the trail surface was rockier than I recalled.
Plenty of new signage along the way.
Tried to capture a few wild horses keeping pace with Jeff, but I was too slow.
NOT Russell tank, tsk, tsk.
Empty anyway.
The real Russell Tank, still empty.
I had to Google this one. A tree will be tagged as such when it's deemed to be at imminent risk of falling. Slated for immediate removal. 
The trail conditions improved after Russell Tank trailhead. Well, except for the signed 'bike route' detour. Last time we stuck with the trail and found only a 5 minute hike-a-bike. This time we took the detour to see where it went. Out of the way on faint trail and still had hike-a-bike and two gates!! Skip the bike route next time.
A few miles out from Grandview, we get a teaser view of the Grand Canyon.
Beautifully contoured forest singletrack along the Coconino Rim.
No thanks.
Worst of the deadfall.
I was very excited to reach the Grandview lookout tower. Photo by Jeff.
We were still making good time so why not climb the tower! We chatted with a hiker up in the tower, three people in 60 miles so far. The Grandview lookout tower is constructed well, not like the rickety North Rim tower. The advantage here? Excellent Canyon views!!
The Grandview tower sits about 1 1/2 miles south of the Canyon's rim. 
Zoom view.
The other bonus? The start of a 16 mile downhill into Tusayan!!
Setting our sights on the S. Kaibab TH, 22 miles away.
We were anxious to make tracks to Tusayan. We all remembered how much fun this section of AZT was and it didn't disappoint.
Long gradual downhills will cure most ails. Photo by Jeff.
Crossing under SR64 north of Tusayan.
Getting close now, Grand Canyon NP boundary. No lines here!!
We saw plenty of elk of this ride, even spooked a herd of ~30 just before Tusayan. Photo by Jeff.
My internal compass went haywire here, it felt like we were riding away from the Canyon at this point!!
We made it before sunset!! S. Kaibab TH.
One tired pup.
Singlespeed power unite!!
Aside from being whooped from an 82 mile ride, we were all stoked to reach the rim well before sunset. Photo ops complete, we rode over to Mather Campground and secured a spot for the night, then waited what seemed like hours for the shuttle bus to whisk us away towards dinner. That chicken burrito supreme never stood a chance!!

Back at camp I was assessing my physical state and it wasn't too bad. I figured I'd see how I felt in the morning after a good nights rest.
Deluxe accomodations.
The return ride got going almost on schedule. We were up just after 5a and rolling away from the campground at 6:10. The general store didn't open until 6:30a, so we took a few minutes to catch the early morning canyon rays at Mather Pt.
The people provide a sense of scale.
Colorado River making a cameo.
Our bikes wanted to check it out too.
I asked a lady to take our picture and before we knew it three other tourists were adding our picture to their scrapbooks!! We didn't know which camera to look at!!
We finished our sightseeing, topped off water and made our way back to the market. Breakfast devoured, drinks/snacks to go and we were off a little past 7:30a. Our return route would be almost entirely on forest roads giving us an opportunity at a faster finish.
Super fast paved bikepath got things going quickly down to Tusayan.
AZT exhibit at the IMAX in Tusayan.
Skies were clear for our spin through the Kaibab.
Only a couple of miles onto dirt my right knee began to rear its ugly head, as did my achilles. I've had some recent knee issues when hiking, but this was different. I stopped and adjusted my cleat back a bit and also adjusted my left cleat to help alleviate my numb toes. Almost immediately I could feel relief in my achilles. One problem solved.

I couldn't quite match Jeff & Nancy's cadence even with gears on flat forest roads. It was a bit frustrating. I popped a couple ibuprofen to help me along. An hour or so later I stopped again to make more cleat adjustments. This time I played with the angle of the right cleat. I'm fairly confident this is a cleat positioning issue. I've only had these shoes since Feb and missed two months of riding after my injury. Nothing has changed on my bike and I haven't had these particular issues in the past.

We kept getting passed by Forest Service trucks, one every 10 minutes or so. We assumed something was going on and it turned out they were setting up for a prescribed burn in the area. At least we were long gone before the smoke began to filter through the air.
Not yet.
Singed trees from a prior burn.
Slightly downhill and fast!
Even with my stops to tinker my setup, we made great time back to the Moqui Stage stop. We tacked on another 5+ miles before our lunch break.
Oh no!! Not the Great Western Trail. It was short lived thankfully.
The AZT is only 1/4 mile away behind this sign, our lunch spot from the day prior.
Clouds building near our finish on Mt. Hunphreys.
A very fast section of dirt road through Lockwood Canyon on Babbitt Ranch.
We had a nice tailwind to boot, but as soon as we reached the end of Lockwood Canyon our route turned south and with it came a hearty crosswind. Storm clouds continued to swirl ahead of us. Would we be able to make it back without getting soaked? More importantly would our drivetrains survive a round or two with death mud? It wasn't looking promising.
Wide open expanses of Babbitt Ranch.
Gloom & doom ahead.
I had to take a couple short breaks along the long open stretches of dirt road to give my knee a rest. I caught up to Jeff & Nancy at our split near the junction of passages 34/35 along the AZT. I told them to not wait for me, I'd be taking it cautiously and the majority of the remaining miles were uphill. I watched them ride away towards the ever darkening skies, they were gone for good by the time I turned south onto a less traveled jeep road.
The goal: cover as much ground as quickly as possible before the rains come. I was in a potential death mud trap. Red Mountain to the right.
Steeper than it looks, plus the loose surface had me pushing the bike for a bit.
The rumbling thunder became louder. A few flashes of light illuminated the nearby sky. I kept waiting for the sky to open up, but so far only a sprinkle. I was nearing the top of a hike-a-bike section when the rain picked up. I opted to break out my rain jacket before I really needed it and to munch on a dark chocolate chip oatmeal cookie I picked up earlier. Good call. It was perhaps a 10 minute break. Two things happened, the rain began to let up and my knee started to feel almost normal. Was it the cleat adjustment from earlier in the day or the last two ibuprofen from an hour ago? Not sure, but I didn't really care either way, I was feeling pretty good.

Next thing I knew the sun was back out and I stuffed my rain jacket away. No death mud in sight!!

The route now approached US180, I really wanted to keep my tires on dirt and when I was putting this ride together I saw a faint 2-track winding through the forest for a mile leading to a more prominent forest road. I had warned Jeff about the hand drawn track and as I dipped into the forest all I saw was churned up earth from heavy machinery. I decided to not proceed, not trusting my own track or not really in the mood to wander the forest looking for a vague path that may or may not be there. So, I reluctantly turned around and pedaled south on the shoulder of US180 for a mile. I took my first opportunity to get back on dirt and rejoin my track. (Note: Jeff informed me later that the 2-track reappeared and it was fine)
The next few miles flew by. Took a nice snack break here.
I was now feeling great, the miles were cruising by and I was enjoying the new route back towards the AZT. I came to an intersection of dirt, crossed through a gate when things became more interesting. I was now following an AT&T cabling route, cables don't need switchbacks to climb hills. This section was seldom traveled 2-track at best, but at least the deadfall had been moved aside.
Saddle Mtn. in the foreground.
Jeff enjoying some grade A HAB. Photo by Nancy.
It was mostly rideable, except for the fall-line hill climbs. One was so steep I thought I was going to tumble back down if my foot slipped.
After 2 miles of generally crappy terrain I was back on well maintained forest roads. That section will be on the chopping block for next time!! Coincidentally, I began climbing a well graded road to a saddle...next to Saddle Mtn. High speeds ensued as the AZT junction approached. Hold the phone!! My screaming fast descent ended at a 'T' junction, not the AZT - which was only a few hundred yards away, but behind a rather tall barbed wire fence. Drat. Time for more on-the-fly wizardry.
Beautiful forest roads and incredible mountain vistas.
A short detour to Kendrick Park looped me around to the AZT next to the White Horse Hills. Only a few miles to go with no sign of rain. I really couldn't believe our good fortune with the weather. We definitely lucked out, not so sure I'd roll the dice like that again up here during the monsoon.
Kendrick Peak straight ahead.
Lavender shag carpet.
Back on the AZT over 8000' in the land of aspens.
The handlebar high ferns dried out from the prior day.
I had to hold the camera over my head to get this shot!!
I finished up just before 5:30p for a 10 hour return. Not bad considering my bothersome knee. I still need to fiddle with my cleats as it's now over a week past the ride and I'm just beginning to regain feeling in my left middle toe!!

I think the perfect timing for this ride would be mid-late September when the days are still long enough, but after the monsoon breaks. The days would be a bit cooler and the nights would be chilly, not frigid. An added bonus would be the changing aspens at the beginning / end of the ride.

I'm already looking forward to this one again after a few minor route tweaks. Add this one to your must ride list.

Complete photo album:

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