*This blog entry is my personal account of a bikepacking trip that myself and two friends went on in Arizona in early April. If you are unfamiliar with the trip or are visiting my site for the first time and want to know more about the AZT, you can click here if you'd like*
My front wheel rammed straight into a stump on the right side of the trail. I’m immediately airborne, front flipping over my handlebars. Everything is in slow motion. At some point in the air I did my rendition of a tuck which would not make a gymnast proud. I land flat on my back, cushioned by my Osprey backpack. From this point, I bounced mightily and am tossed like a ragdoll down an embankment left of the trail. My knee slams off a rock on the third or fourth roll, reminding me I’m still alive, and that I have body parts than can feel pain. I finally come to a resting place, arms and leg completely sprawled out like a starfish. I’m looking straight back up at my bike - everything looks fine minus my headlight laying a few feet away.
Deep breath. Then another. And another. Wiggle my toes. Check! Move my fingers. Check! I sit up, thinking about the “thank you” letter I’m going to write Osprey for saving my back whenever I return home. My mind is racing a million miles per hour. Blood streams down my leg. “I’m in way over my head,” I think to myself. Just thirty minutes ago, I managed to get myself up a 1,500 foot climb out of the Vermillion Cliffs up Buckskin Mountain. An hour into my ride and I’m already beat up? I’ve come maybe four or five miles, how am I going to survive another 750+? I laugh to myself at how silly this whole thing seems.
Leaving Pittsburgh a few days prior, I was in high spirits, thinking myself and my gang of bikepackers could conquer the Arizona Trail, a 750+ mile scenic hiking / biking trail spanning the vertical length of Arizona. We were on an Individual Time Trail (ITT) as part of the Arizona Trail 750 Race held every April. Flash forward to now, and I’m struggling to stand up! That’s just how it goes sometimes. I finally got up and dusted myself off. I replaced the headlight on my bike and made sure everything was in working order. When I convinced myself everything was good, I got back in the saddle and continued my descent down the loose rock. Eventually, I caught back up to Kevin and Seth further down the trail and shared my story. I was able to laugh about it at that point.
The rest of the Buckskin Mountain passage out of the Vermilion Cliffs is a nice mix of short climbs and descents in and out of washes and ravines. We made it to Winter Road where this passage officially ended, and continued on to the Kaibab Plateau North passage. The riding on top of the plateau heading south is great, a slow gradual climb that you can maintain speed on. After a few of riding through here, I turned a corner to see Seth laying on the ground with Kevin hunched over him. He was having extremely bad cramps in his thighs that he's never had before. We took a short break and got back on the bikes. About another mile down the trail, Seth basically fell off his bike and laid out in pain. The cramps came back again worse than before. I personally was pretty worried about him at this point, and I could sense his frustration and pain building. Kevin had a mini roller with him, so he rolled Seth's thighs and we decided to take a bit longer of a break there to eat and drink.
Back on the trail once more, we cruised through a couple more miles of great single track, and then the trail opened up to some fields. We were now in cattle territory, and they had the trail destroyed! Over the winter, with snow and rain slopping up the plateau, the cows walk across the trail and create massive holes (commonly referred to as "cattle post holes" by the AZT bikepacking community). Riding off trail on either side doesn't do much good, so you have to endure the bumpy ride for a few miles. I could faintly hear Seth cursing out cows as we passed by them. The cows just stared back. Having never encountered post holes like this before, my forearms and butt were quite sore after making it out of this section. We took another extended break by Government Reservoir, a cattle tank with muddy water in it. I angrily yet playfully chased some of the cows away, sending them off with a few choice words myself.
The trail south of Government Reservoir heads into a pine forest, and it was really beautiful. I was having a hard time enjoying it though, as my knee that I landed on in my wreck was really starting to act up and hinder me riding with any amount of speed. I slowly made my way up the climbs, meeting back up with Kevin and Seth every so often at one of the cattle gates. We crossed a few forest roads, and I got to see my first Kaibab Squirrel! The Kaibab Squirrel is native to and only found up on this plateau. They are very dark brown with a massive, bushy white tail. Reference picture here. We got into some really nice rolling single-track after that, but got spread out again. At one forest road crossing, the trail picks back up again on a sharp right turn. Blink and you would miss it and keep riding on the road. I barely saw the turn and made it, hoping the guys did as well. I rode on the trail for a short bit, then bombed down a large hill. I was flying through the forest, and then slammed on my breaks. I looked around - I was no longer on the trail anymore and was just simply out in the middle of the woods, completely lost! Seth had the Garmin GPS that we were navigating from, but luckily I had the Arizona Trail map downloaded for use in offline mode on my phone. I pulled that out and found that I was nearly a half mile off of the trail in the middle of nowhere! I accidentally got on a different forest road at some point that fizzled out into nothing. I got off my bike and walked it in a westerly direction until I eventually popped back out onto the trail. Figuring that Kevin and Seth were probably looking for me, I decided to sit down and take a food break thinking that they would come through in either direction at some point, and if not, I would just ride out to the highway where we were heading anyway. Sure enough, a few minutes later, the guys came rolling up behind me. Turns out, they missed that sharp turn off of the forest road a mile back and got lost themselves! I played it off like I was simply waiting for them, but eventually confessed that I was lost as well and we all just met back up there by chance. After a laugh, food, and water, we got back on the trail and made it out to Highway 89A.
Highway 89A is a fork in the AZT route, branching off in two directions. One way gets your back to dirt on the AZT through the Kaibab Forest all the way to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The other way takes you about 2 miles on pavement to Jacob Lake, a little unincorporated community with a lodge, diner, gas station, and some campgrounds. Highway 67 starts at Jacob Lake and goes south to the North Rim as well. Riding the road to Jacob Lake and then to 67 is an approved detour for the time of year we were riding due to snow on the actual trail. We took 89A up to Jacob Lake, and got seats at the diner.
Much like the burgers and sandwiches we got at the Jacob Lake Inn, Seth and I were cooked. My knee was throbbing at this point, and Seth's cramps had drained him of his leg strength. We ate our late lunch and assessed the situation. We still had about 42 miles to go until getting to the North Rim, where we could camp or start the Grand Canyon crossing. There is nowhere to resupply for food since the North Rim doesn't open until May 15th, and we were already feeling pretty crappy, so we decided to call it a day. I felt pretty bad for Kevin, who was still in great spirits and ready to push on, but it just wasn't smart for Seth and I to keep going today. We hung around the diner for a bit and made friends with everyone who works there, sharing our stories of the 4,000+ foot climb we just did over 30 miles from the Utah border to Jacob Lake. We got a room for the night, and rolled our bikes down to the lodge. If you're ever passing through the area, or heading to the North Rim, I highly recommend everything at Jacob Lake. Friendly staff, great food, and the rooms have a nice shower and beds. Kevin put on his go-to channel when staying at hotels on the road (Animal Planet), and we all got showers and cleaned up while the Tanked aquarium show played as background noise. We headed back to the diner for dinner and harassed the staff some more (some of them were from Ohio, so being from PA, we talked trash on their sports teams and the state in general).
The next morning, everyone felt great. We woofed down a huge (and delicious) breakfast at the diner. Today was the day we would get to the North Rim and then cross the Grand Canyon! Or, so we thought. Shortly before we got our checks, three backpackers came into the diner. They were hiking the Hayduke Trail, an 800+ mile hiking trail that covers a lot of southern Utah and Northern Arizona. They informed us of a pretty gnarly thunderstorm hitting the North Rim that night. Our hearts sunk as we checked the NOAA Weather App. Sure enough, there were horrible storms slated to hit Jacob Lake all the way to the North Rim starting in the early afternoon and lasting into the early hours the next day. The storm called for thunder, lightning, and hard rain. Once again, here we were, sitting at the Jacob Lake Inn assessing our situation. By the time we got on the road, we would be riding straight into the storm about 3/4ths of the way to the North Rim, and then either camping or hiking in it. Figuring that it wouldn't be too smart riding big metal bikes into a lightning storm, or hiking down cliffs into the canyon on a potentially muddy or flooded out trail, we had to begrudgingly take another day off. I went back up to the counter, told the girl working not to bother cleaning our room, and got it for another night. We officially scratched from the Arizona Trail Race, and I was pretty bummed out. We were just moving too slow at this point and weren't competitive, so there was no point in continuing on in an event where other riders were riding their hearts out while we were spinning our wheels in place.
Figuring that we still had 3-4 hours before the storm was supposed to hit, we decided to ride Highway 67 for a bit to see what the road was like a prepare for the next day when we would make our push to the rim. Highway 67, like the North Rim, is closed until May 15th and only open to local traffic from the park rangers and people that work at the lodges and rest stop on the route. It was nice being the only people on the road, weaving in and out of each lane as we climbed up to the plateau. It sucked pretty badly deciding to not go to the rim, because I was feeling amazing and could have rode forever that day. My knee was feeling a lot better, and the smell of the pine trees and gentle breeze gave me new life on our leisure ride. But, our decision was already made, so I told myself to remember to enjoy the day for what it's worth. It also honestly felt like a weight was lifted off of my shoulders being out of the official race and just touring the route at this point. There was much less pressure to perform now and we could go at our own pace with less stress to put up fast times on each segment and hit our travel marks each day. I flew the drone for a little bit, snapped pics, and we rode on for about 10 more miles. We passed a thru-hiker that had just crossed the canyon the day before. Chatted with him for a bit - he was doing the entirety of the AZT on a weight loss mission, and had been out on the trail for nearly 3 months! He was down 55 pounds if I remember correctly, super rad guy. After talking to him, we rode on a little more and then turned around, enjoying the downhill ride back to Jacob Lake as well as climbing a fire lookout tower.
We went back to the room, flipped on Animal Planet for a bit, and tested out our backpack rigging for the canyon crossing. Spent some time out on the balcony, and saw a couple drive in with road bikes (I actually stumbled upon their accounts on Strava, it was the woman's birthday weekend and they were riding Hwy 67 down to the North Rim as well). We went back down the diner for dinner, where we became regulars. Everyone at Jacob Lake knew who we were, the crazy bikepackers going from Utah to Mexico that were on the verge of overstaying their welcome. I really fell in love with Jacob Lake during our time there. It's just a really great place out in the middle of nowhere with friendly staff, great food, and people passing through - all with their own stories to tell. Jacob Lake was founded in the 1850s and named after a famous Mormon explorer, Jacob Hamblin. This was our second run in with the legacy of Hamblin. We spent a day backpacking in Coyote Gulch in Utah last year and visited Jacob Hamblin Arch, a mega-sized natural arch inside that canyon. Jacob Hamblin was now my friend, a connection that Kevin, Seth, and I have with him that spans centuries of exploring the same grounds that he did. After more Ohio jokes and a good meal, we headed back to the lodge, packed everything up, prepped the bikes, and got into bed with nervous anticipation for the next big day.