March 4, 2016

Chain of Lakes

I had put this route together almost two years ago, just waiting for the right time to knock it out. A few friends had recently done similar rides, but kept things on pavement and well traveled dirt roads. Of course I had to add in some singletrack and off the beaten path connectors. The Chain of Lakes Loop was born.

I had one full Friday free before my work schedule changed a bit for the upcoming months. It was a clear sign to pull the trigger. Bob and I had planned on riding this together, but he had a last minute change of plans, so I was going solo. The forecast was calling for more warm temps, but reasonable. I figured I'd go through a bunch of water, so I packed my filter. Good choice.

My alarm went off, but I couldn't quite get rolling. I wanted to be at my starting point off First Water rd at daybreak. I didn't arrive until 7:30a, an hour and a half later. Oh well.

I knew the first few miles into the Goldfields would be a little slow, but the singletrack passed quickly and an hour into the ride I was already making my way towards the high point of Bulldog Canyon.
Hardly anyone rides these trails. Shameful.
Nearing the top of Bulldog Canyon.
I was ready for some fast dirt road descending, but somewhere along the way that message got lost in translation. I've been on this road before, and I couldn't recall it being so rocky, super chunky even. The road did 'trend' downhill, but it was work. It kept tossing in punchy climbs too, all of which I had somehow blocked out of memory. By the time the road exited the canyon I was ready for some pavement spinning.
The Great Western Trail is neither Great or a Trail, but it reared its ugly head in Bulldog Canyon.
The next few miles of paved shoulder riding were quite welcomed. Then I caught a glimpse of my main goal on the day: Four Peaks. It was still so far away. Am I really going to not only ride all the way out to it, but up, over and around it? Yeah. I'm dumb like that.
Crossing over the Salt River.
15 miles in and Four Peaks is a long way off.
The first lake in the chain: Saguaro Lake.
There's a short bit of pavement on the Bush Hwy I wasn't looking forward to. I was hoping traffic would be at a minimum since there's no shoulder and it's a winding uphill grind. I managed to not get run over and reached the turnoff for Butcher Jones Rec area. The next couple of miles flew by as I reached the parking area down by the lakefront.
Great spot for a quick break.
While I was munching, I heard a commotion across the way. A few people were wandering off into the trees with cameras at the ready. I heard a woman say 'I think they're wild'. In that instance I finally saw my first glimpse of the famed wild horses of the Salt River!! Cool.
It was nice to see everyone keep their distance.
I was about to enter new-to-me terrain out of Butcher Jones. The sometimes infamous hand-drawn routing lie ahead, but this time Bob had scouted it a few weeks prior giving it a thumbs up. I knew there would still be some challenges, the first being sand. While it was difficult in short bits, it was all rideable and finally gave way to normal jeep road riding as I climbed out of the basin.
Finally, Four Peaks feeling within reach.
One nasty HAB pitch greeted me, but presented this as a peace offering. Saguaro Lake, Superstition Mtns (where I began) and Weaver's Needle on the left.
The brittlebush were thriving in the warm temps.
I linked into Four Peaks rd and started climbing. It's not all uphill to the top, which can be demoralizing at times to know you just gave back some hard earned elevation gain. I was really hoping to arrive up top sometime shortly after noon. That didn't happen. The late start coupled with my slow crawling pace & HAB in sections put the time closer to 3p. This was going to be a late night finish for sure.
The grade was much steeper than I remembered.
Getting closer...
There were actually a few flowing water crossings.
Blasted Wilderness.
Nearing the top, the road cut doesn't look too bad from here!
The holy cattle guard, marking the top of the climb. Now, where are those easy downhill miles?
I was holding out on lunch until I arrived at Middle Water spring about a mile down El Oso road. Up top the temps were pleasant, but I had sucked down quite a bit of water getting there. At least I made the wise decision to bring my water filter.
The carrot for riders climbing El Oso.
I was surprised to see this much snow still clinging to the north side of Four Peaks.
Ahh, glorious agua from a tractor tire at Middle Water spring. It really does taste great.
An early view of Roosevelt Lake (Lake #2).
Stocked up on water & food, I turned my rig downhill for the next 8 miles or so. Free miles as I like to say. I only stopped once or twice to snap a pic, but otherwise made quick work getting down into Tonto Basin. The entire descent I kept thinking to myself, dang, this is going to be tough on tired legs with a loaded bike next month. There were another 7 miles or so of easy pavement spinning along AZ188.
I had a swell time recreating.
There's a dirt road on the north side of Roosevelt Lake that looks ripe for the riding.
I kept having this internal debate as I rode along AZ188. It's getting late, I should just skip my side detour up to Mills Ridge and the Arizona Trail and save a few hours. I could then detour over to the marina for a cold drink and/or snack, plus ride some of the Apache Trail in daylight. It all sounded very convincing, something a rational rider would say or do. Did I mention I do dumb rides? Without hesitation I turned right onto FR429 and began climbing away from the fast pavement towards Mills Ridge. It was really going to be a late night finish now.
The dirt road climb proved much more difficult than I recalled.
This was another one of my AZTR750 options I was planning, but during one of the HAB's it all became clear. What the hell am I thinking? The 750 is super tough as it stands. I have never attempted it. I really want to finish it and these optional additions, while really cool, are extremely difficult on their own merit. Maybe someday I could do it all as a tour. For this year I'll stick to the published route.

Just like that I felt almost relieved. Instantly the 750 'almost' seemed easier. I am not fooled by this perception. I do feel confident in my ability and am proud that I came to my senses for a change.
Hooray!! Time to go back down.
Here, the AZT points northbound towards Four Peaks.
The AZT, aka Vineyard trail, overlooking Roosevelt Lake.
The first descent is a bit rubbly, but things mellow out as you cruise across a couple of nice ridgelines.
Primitive contouring trails with lake views.
The light was beginning to wane and I really wanted to reach the two overlook vistas up ahead. One catch, there was a bit of HAB leading up to them. It's a good thing I had been on this trail before, otherwise I may have gotten frazzled by what I saw.
Vista #1: Apache Lake (Lake #3) and the Apache Trail, AZ88, which I would be riding back to civilization. 
Vista #2: Roosevelt Lake & Dam. The AZT crosses the bridge far below, my route then turns right onto AZ88.
The downhill begins in earnest after the second overlook. I walked a few stretches due to the loose steep nature of the trail. I was about a 1/2 mile from the bottom when I needed to turn on the lights. I debated briefly about riding over to the marina for a cold Coke, but opted to keep moving down the Apache Trail after I fully converted to night riding mode. This included swapping out my tinted lenses for clear ones in my Oakley frames. It worked flawlessly thanks to a replacement set of lenses from Revant Optics. It was sometime close to 8p when I got rolling down AZ88, still some 40 miles to go.

Since it was a Friday evening I figured traffic would be minimal and easily seen. I was correct on both counts. I was now on the lookout for a small pullout down by the lake so I could filter water. As luck would have it a truck came up behind me, so I pulled over to let it pass by. It just so happened to be the exact spot I was looking for! A quick jaunt down the trail led me to an alcove where I filled up on water.

I could hear something or someone stirring in the brush up the shoreline, so I made a little extra noise to make my presence known. The rustling continued and I assumed it was a couple of campers a few trees over making the ruckus. I finished up and made my way up to my bike, never did see anyone or anything.

As soon as I resumed pedaling I saw the small parking area was empty, but just around the corner the source of those noises was revealed: black cattle!! Once again it was confirmed, more times than not if you hear something big in the desert, it's cattle.
Late night snack break atop one of the many climbs.
The Apache Trail rides really well. The road is maintained often and there's not too much washboarding. There are plenty of climbs and I was taking note. It seems it will ride about the same in the opposite direction.

The night air was pleasant, rather refreshing until I would ride through a cold sink, brrrr. I knew I'd warm up when I started to climb Fish Creek Hill. I wasn't exactly looking forward to it. It can be quite harrowing behind the wheel, mostly due to it's one-lane width, steep grade and precipitous dropoffs. It often requires drivers to back up it they meet face to face on the hill, just too narrow to pass.
Getting ready to climb.
A few cars came down the hill as I waited to begin my ascent. One driver stopped to ask if I was ok, yep, just out for a ride. The climb wasn't bad at all and was over much faster than I thought it would be.
Cresting the top.
I was still a few miles away from Tortilla Flat, a touristy old west outpost that has a saloon & homemade ice cream...when open. I bombed down a long, now paved, descent into town on the brink of shivering because the air temp had dropped so drastically. It was 11p, stores shut down, but the small oasis was lit up in red lights.
Population: 6.
See the white light on the far right in the picture above? That beacon in the night was calling my name, one last jolt to the system for the final push - a Coke machine!! I quickly scrounged up the necessary $1.50 and boom!
Ice cold & oh so good!
I still had some miles to crank out as I approached Canyon Lake (Lake #4). The campgrounds were looking full, but mostly quiet. I made the short climb away from the lake to a scenic overlook.
Trust me, it looks much better in daylight!!
The final miles went by quickly as I put a wrap on the ride. I arrived back at my car just before 1am and 111 miles later. I didn't feel tired at the end and my legs still had plenty of life left. I packed up as quickly as I could and made a beeline for the closest In-n-Out Burger - they closed at 1:30!! I made it by 10 minutes, whew.

What a day, what a ride. I'm really glad I stuck to my original route and kept those bits of singletrack in there. The route consists of roughly 65 miles of dirt road, 35 pavement and 10 singletrack. Two thumbs up.
Here's the route: