Biking and hiking on Arizona’s Mogollon Rim
Aspen Times Weekly
There is no law against being a pusher, nothing wrong with getting off your bike and shoving. It can often mean the difference between grinding out miles on a busy, noisy, polluted highway and finding high adventure in the wilds.
On a bike tour in Arizona this May, Graeme and I ended our first day by pushing our bikes to the remote shores of Tremaine Lake in the Coconino National Forest. We settled into our camp as the last rays of sun illuminated cumulus clouds with a rosy tint. Suddenly, a distinct “bark” blasted through the pinons. “Coyote or elk?” I quizzed Graeme. We listened and the bark echoed again. “Elk,” we agreed.
Graeme and I had been barked at two years before on a misguided, ill-conceived and incredibly rewarding route-finding fiasco on the Gila National Forest of New Mexico. We had ventured off-road, then inadvertently off-trail, bushwhacking 20 miles with our bikes. That mishap took us into a wild, forgotten canyon that was way off our original route. We learned that getting lost can lead to the best of adventures. We also discovered that a territorial elk can sound downright canine.
Our Gila tour remains a benchmark for either idiocy or bold adventure (there’s a fine line between the two), where barking elk became a siren call far from the civilized, industrialized, mechanized, computerized world. You won’t hear an elk bark if you stay locked into your pedals. That’s why our challenge on bike tours (we’ve done 15 in the last 20 years) has always been to follow the faintest roads on the map, link them with obscure trails, and weave together unprecedented routes.
See Canyon was the wildest it got this spring in Arizona. We had ridden south from Mormon Lake for a few relatively easy days, with some pushing through volcanic cobbles, cactus and cow pies. At the lip of the Mogollon Rim ” the far southwestern edge of the Colorado Plateau ” we faced a rugged escarpment of buttes and canyons dropping 2,000 feet to the desert below. We had a choice of either riding the Rim Road until it meandered down on a highway, or of navigating the defile before us ” See Canyon ” which plummeted through dense forest and underbrush.
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A sign at the trailhead warned: BURNED AREA. WATCH FOR FALLING ROCKS AND TREES. We thought it over for a few minutes. “Okay, Graeme, I’ll watch for the falling trees; you watch for the falling rocks.” After a traditional toast from the sacred scotch flask, we led our bikes off the rim. After 10 minutes on the steep, rocky trail we were totally committed. There was no going back.
Two miles took us four hours ” a two-water-bottle descent ” ranking as one of the most challenging trails we’ve ever tackled. Boulders, deadfall, and creek crossings required heavy lifting of fully-loaded bikes while balancing on precarious rocks. At dusk, cooking dinner in a small clearing deep in the gorge, an elk barked as if in welcome. Graeme and I smiled at each other, knowing we had found true wildness.
The next morning, we followed See Canyon to a beautiful mountain glade shaded by tall pines and leafy mountain maples. The creek had clear pools for bathing and the trail became a smooth single-track to make up for all the obstacles above. Cleaned up, topped off with fresh water, and cheerful about our success, we started anew in a wholly different ecosystem and life zone.
We emerged on a Forest road at a small country store where a frosty morning beer enlivened the palate. As we rested on the front porch, a parade of eccentric locals arrived for their mail, groceries and gossip. We learned more about this funky little backwater in an hour than we could have from reading any tourist guide. By the time we rode off, the community of Mountain Meadow had become more than a mere crossroads.
This is the magic of off-piste bike touring. You mire yourself in a desperate situation, put faith and trust in yourself and your buddy, and methodically and humorously make your way through. When it’s done, you dust yourself off, swing your leg over the saddle and ride on. What you can never fail to acknowledge, however, are calculated risks like dehydration, snakebite and debilitating injuries. The liabilities of adventure are many, so you weigh the risks with each route decision, testing both skill and will in the outcome.
Now that we had come down off the Mogollon Rim, our next challenge was getting back to the top. The trail we had in mind climbed up another steep canyon, ending at General Springs, so named for General George Crook, a Civil War veteran and Indian fighter. General Springs also marks the final battle between the Apache Indians and the U.S. Army, when in 1882 an uprising by a band of White Mountain Apaches turned violent.
The Apaches killed a few settlers, then high-tailed it up the Mogollon Rim on the old Navajo Trail, hoping to outdistance cavalry troops that were in hot pursuit. The soldiers caught the Apaches at Big Dry Wash and killed most of them in a prolonged gun battle. The next day, Graeme and I planned to follow the same trail, pushing our bikes a thousand vertical feet to the rim.
We camped on a rushing creek on the edge of a pine forest and warmed ourselves at a blazing fire as stars blanketed the sky. At dawn we washed down instant oatmeal with stringent black coffee, then began the push up a rocky jeep road that ended at a steep single-track that switched back and forth to the rim. Halfway up the trail, in a gnarly side canyon, we explored a tunnel that had been blasted a hundred feet into the sandstone for an ill-conceived railroad in 1885. Our quixotic quest in shoving our loaded bikes up the rugged trail suddenly seemed plausible by comparison to the railroader’s failed pipe dream.
We reached the top of the rim in an hour, drank our fill of cold, clear water from General Springs, then rolled through ponderosa pine forests whose redolent scent was strong enough even to override the stench of my erstwhile companion. A series of Forest roads swooped and looped through tall timber for the most pleasant riding of the tour, the kind you wish could go on all day. Here was confirmation that off-piste on gravel is better than pissed-off on busy pavement.
Unfortunately, some navigating challenges end badly; maps don’t always show the best routes, especially Forest maps that are short on topographical detail. This demands creative interpretation, an exercise in geographical imagination, and critical 3-D thinking. Ultimately, scouting becomes essential, especially when linking roads and trails broken by gorges, lakes, and rivers.
Such was our experience a day later at the head of Willow Creek, an arm of the foreboding gorge of Clear Creek Canyon Wilderness. The map showed a gap in our faint, double-track road, broken by a squiggly blue line. We reached a clearing where the road ended, and with compass in hand, scouted through thick timber. We dropped into a beautiful little valley where the ground was heavily marked by elk hooves. We climbed the next ridge and found our road connection, relieved that it would be a relatively easy push the next morning.
The little valley was a side canyon to Clear Creek Canyon, and we were drawn to the wilderness boundary at the brink of the gorge. Soon we were down-climbing pour-overs and thrashing through brush and boulders. By dusk, we were within a stone’s throw of Clear Creek, but were turned back by a faint and plaintive warning that rang in both our heads. “It will be dark soon. Don’t be idiots!”
Graeme and I enjoy certain risks, but we measure our doses carefully. We also heed the warnings when we hear them. Our foremost concern is with our own physical fitness, a subjective judgment for oldsters like us. Second is that we have sufficient water and enough capacity for 36 hours of travel, which means a lot of weight, but is the price of security.
Third is that our equipment is sound and that we can fix whatever breaks on our bikes. And if, for some reason, we get marooned overnight, we’ve got everything we need for a comfortable bivouac on bikes that serve as wheeled backpacks.
We camped that night in the side canyon and watched as sparks from our fire shot off toward the starry heavens. We exulted in our prowess as route finders, proud of how neatly we had avoided the highway and 20 miles of Godforsaken pavement. Full of hubris the next morning, we pushed our bikes up the ridge and succeeded, almost immediately, in getting totally lost.
Our big mistake was blundering off the trail into a burn area where deadfall was strewn like Pick-Up-Stix. We spent the morning stumbling through an absurd obstacle course, stubbornly refusing to turn back. After three hours of punishing labor beneath a blazing sun and withering curses, we retraced our steps, eventually landing on the paved highway we had hoped to avoid, but which nonetheless took us back to Mormon Lake, our starting point. Humble pie is a bitter delicacy that we gobbled heartily that day.
Pushing a bike has its advantages, but it’s inevitable that sooner or later you will be overly confident, ill-informed, and boldly miscalculating. This is when haughty cyclists get put in their place, schooled by the maze-like quality of the great Western landscapes in which we hope to get lost again, soon.
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There was some fun post-game banter about maybe making a run at the Europa League crown, or at the very least a championship here in Colorado, but coaches and veteran players alike made sure the Aspen soccer team had its eyes aimed at a more reasonable goal, like making the playoffs.