This past weekend, I headed out on my first bikepacking trip straight out the front door since moving to Arizona. I love the simplicity and ease of packing up my gear in the living room, rolling the bike outside, shutting my door behind me, and hopping on the bike. No time in the car, no gas burned, and no time wasted. Caroline followed me out the door, and we rode down into town to meet three guys from the Phoenix area who were joining us for part of the trip. They had arranged a trip for a bigger group of first-time bikepackers, but everyone else bailed. And I had tried to gather a group of local riders for a fun overnighter, but they all bailed. So the crew from Phoenix joined Caroline and me, and we guided them over to Skull Valley.
We climbed and climbed up over West Spruce Mountain, the high point above town in the Sierra Prieta, including just a bit steep hike-a-bike for good measure. What bikepacking trip would be complete without some trudging? We took our time, bounced, slid, and walked down the steep descent on the other side, and as the sun got low in the sky, rolled into Skull Valley to fill up on water. A short trip up the wash above town led us to a nice camp spot, and we relaxed for the evening and were asleep before the full moon got too high in the sky.
The lazy evening was followed by a lazy morning as we all packed up, shared more stories, and talked about all the things the new guys learned the previous day - less weight on the handlebars, keeping food handier, lighter tents, the virtues of seat bags, and so on. We coasted back down to town where the guys got breakfast at the diner, and Caroline and I said goodbye and headed west to do some recon for future bigger trips. Mike, Doug, and Evan planned to climb back over Copper Basin Road to Prescott. As we pedaled out of the valley, Caroline and I talked about how we hoped the route the previous day hadn't been too adventurous for the others and discussed how challenging it is to remember back to our impressions of trails and terrain when we were new to bikepacking. With the Colorado Plateau Geology and Bikepacking course I'm developing, I'm trying hard to pick out rideable, enjoyable loops for the students. We'll see if I can succeed at that.
Our route for the day carried us west into the steeply rolling granitic knobs and basalt-capped mesas west of Skull Valley. I love the area's deserted, forgotten feel. The trails don't see much use, it's rare to see others out there on the jeep trails, and it feels like you can just ride forever in almost any direction. We planned to do that, sort of.
West, west, and farther west we went. Jeep trails on the map turned out to be singletrack, sycamores glowed yellow along the few places groundwater finds its way to the surface, and the October sun overhead felt surprisingly warm as I watched my water slowly disappear. We ducked under a gate and watched the road degrade to a bench covered in chunky basalt cobbles. Bounce bounce bounce. It was mostly rideable, but it sure wasn't comfortable. And the route probably had eight more miles of this?
Eventually we bounced our way up onto Tank Creek Mesa. An ancient USFS sign read "Tank Creek Free Use Area," something I had never heard of. The sign had probably been there since the 1970s, and it faced a route that has long since been closed to vehicles. Almost immediately after passing the peeling sign, I noticed a goathead in my front tire. I stopped and noticed a dozen more around my tire. We quickly retreated and took a different route that was a bit rockier. The goatheads abated for a bit, but before long, my tires were picking up 15 every 100 feet. I stopped and pulled my front wheel off to assess how much sealant I had in my old tire. There wasn't much. I then did some simple math in my head - 15 goatheads every 100 feet over 8 miles = trouble. It didn't take much discussion for Caroline and I to agree that turning back was the prudent thing to do. Never before have I been turned back by goatheads, but man, these things are BAD down here this year!
It took us a few hours to reach good dirt roads, and a couple more hours to get back over to the right side of the mountains. We even managed to make it to the final hike-a-bike, the one that literally leads to our front door, right at dark. My plans for a bigger route in the nothing west of Skull Valley may need some rethinking after the combination of rocks and goatheads. But at least I now know there's ample water to survive out there, so long as you know where to look.