A Six-Year Saga: Reflections from the Black Canyon Trail
In celebration of his 30th birthday a few weeks ago, Miles set out with Emily for three days of desert singletrack on the Black Canyon Trail. Find Miles’ reflections from his first six years of bikepacking, photos from the trail, and some lessons he’s learned along the way here…
It feels like just yesterday when a group of classmates and I at Algonquin College decided to take a stab at the Kokopelli Trail for our “final project.” I entered the program after graduating from Trent University in Ontario. As a new grad, I worked a stale marketing desk job and figured there had to be some way to merge my love for the outdoors with my post-secondary education. Two years later, our group was making the decision to turn off our SPOT tracking device that relayed our position back to the program coordinator. We were three quarters of the way into the long climb between Dewey Bridge and the La Sal Mountains. We weren’t supposed to travel at night and my friend Scott was managing an asthma attack. It was a tense situation to be in, but I distinctly remember glancing over at my friend Sebastian, both of our eyes wide with excitement, and thinking, hell yeah.
A lot has happened in the last six years. I’ve ridden all kinds of bikes, had the opportunity to travel to some cool places, and have spent far too much time sitting behind my laptop. What started as some occasional guest posts on this site has led to a full-time position, even more time an my computer, and plenty of bikepacking. Although I’ve packed in a lot of riding since that first trip on the Kokopelli Trail, I am by no means a seasoned veteran compared to some of our contributors. In fact, I’d say my bikepacking experience is much more of a product of being completely engulfed in the industry, rather than mileage logged in far off destinations.
While I can’t say I feel much wiser, I celebrated my 30th birthday a few weeks ago. Emily and I made some last-minute plans to ride the 122-kilometer Black Canyon Trail in Central Arizona, just outside of Phoenix. I had ridden the trail previously while scouting the Fool’s Loop, but I was rushed and didn’t find time to truly enjoy it. The idea of sharing the trail with Emily, taking three days, and leaving plenty of time for breaks was exciting. The route is primarily singletrack, and while it feels remote, isn’t ever that far from civilization. It’s out there enough to scratch the itch without being overly complicated to plan.
Our timeline was vastly different than some of my earlier trips. Back in my twenties it was quite common to rise early and ride late, almost always setting up my tent in the dark. This time around, I pushed my ego aside and created an itinerary that left several hours each afternoon to relax. Arriving at Bumblebee Ranch on our first night, we took refuge from the sun on the office deck and ended up hanging there for nearly an hour before we set up camp. The ranch’s pop machine kept us entertained. As long as you book a campsite ahead of time, the ranch is an obvious first stop for those riding the BCT. We had the campground to ourselves, warm showers, and got to hang out with some gigantic pigs.
The majority of the trail between the northern terminus and Black Canyon City is non-technical and trends downhill. It’s an absolute blast on a loaded bike. We didn’t check out the new Russian Well segment that has been added on to the top of the route, mainly because we didn’t want to ride the gravel road up to it, but I’ve heard good things from those who have. It was refreshing to head out without any secret work agenda, which is something I’ve struggled with in the past. This time, I didn’t hesitate to turn my back on my original goal of riding the new trails north of Big Bug Trailhead.
We made time to check out the petroglyphs north of Bumblebee Ranch (thanks for the tip, Chris!), stopped for snack breaks regularly, and never passed the chance to relax in the shade. The trail becomes more technical as you get closer to Black Canyon City. There, loosely scattered fist-sized rocks slowed us down, punchy climbs snatched our breath, and the thought of fresh pie kept us moving forward. Speaking of pie, the Pie Box is now separate from the restaurant, although you can get pie at both locations, which are side by side.
Our original plan was to ride back to the trail and camp down near the Agua Fria River, but seeing how grimy the river was and sensing how hot the day was getting, our plans shifted. We opted to try our luck at the Black Canyon Campground instead. We didn’t have much of a transition from our dreary coastal winter to 34°C (93°F) on the trail, so Emily and I weren’t interested in pushing on in the heat. We weren’t surprised to see no one using the pool, so that’s where Emily and I hunkered down for the remainder of the day. Canadians are impermeable to the cold, so of course I swam.
Something else that has changed since my foray into bikepacking is my relationship with water and food. In the beginning, I prized myself in drinking water from anywhere and eating just about anything. Stanky farm runoff? That’s why I bring a filter! A single tiny oatmeal packet for breakfast? That’ll keep me fuelled me all day. These days, if grabbing some food to go and eating a proper, filling meal on the trail is an option, that’s the way I tend to lean. Managing my Crohn’s is a struggle on the best of days, so you won’t catch me kneading gels or feasting on nothing but Clif bars. And clean water is my version of a cold beer. Most days already feel like I have Cryptosporidium (and yes, I’ve had it), so I’ve started to carry more clean water and filter only when necessary. The Agua Fria River wasn’t doing it for me.
Just as we were getting ready to turn in for the night, our new friend Tory, who we met on our first day on the BCT, rolled in looking for a spot to pitch a tent. We invited her over to our dirt patch and spent some time getting to know each other. Tory is from Durango, Colorado, and has tackled some pretty serious rides during her first two years of bikepacking. She’s tough and doesn’t wait around for other folks to join her, so most of her bikepacking has been done solo.
Although I’ve always enjoyed random social interactions while bikepacking, I’ve grown to appreciate them on a whole new level. Beyond bombing down flowy singletrack, meeting up with strangers is what it’s all about for me. I’m quicker to engage in conversations, ask for assistance, and absolutely love swapping stories with folks. In Rock Springs, we ran into two bikepackers riding the Fool’s Loop on the hunt for headset spacers. At the Emery Henderson Trailhead, I left a note on a vehicle I suspected to be owned by bikepackers, which led to an email conversation with a family attempting the BCT. The most memorable was perhaps the Bumble Bee Ranch employee who was curious why most bikepackers “only drink IPAs and only ever two.” These conversations always make the world feel like such a small place.
The last stretch of the BCT is far chunkier than the first half. Punchy climbs tested our legs and lungs, loose rocks became the norm, and it felt like the trail was either descending into a dried-up canyon or climbing out of one. The heatwave Arizona was experiencing didn’t help our situation as temperatures soared closer to 40°C (104°). We carried around 10L of water between us, but that still wasn’t enough. As we rolled into Emery Henderson Trailhead, we were both running on fumes, hungry, and thirsty. Although I’ve learned a lot over the years, I still always seem to find a way to suffer at some point during most of my bikepacking trips. That probably explains why Emily is curious but not falling head over heels to get out on another trip with me just yet.
Thinking back to my original ride on the Fool’s Loop, which makes a big 446-kilometer loop of the BCT, it’s clear my relationship with suffering has changed. I originally imagined the route as a gravel-bike-friendly option for those leaving from downtown Phoenix. However, after hearing feedback from others and re-riding lots of it, it’s safe to say the Fool’s Loop is best ridden on a mountain bike. Although I’m quite proud of the route, it was a byproduct of someone eager to find their place in the bikepacking community. I guess maybe I thought being the tough dude on a gravel bike was my ticket to success. But, unless you’re looking for a tremendous challenge or have some kind of affection for tendonitis, the Fool’s Loop is a place for big tires and flat bars. Sorry if you’ve fallen victim to the loop on skinny tires!
Reflecting back on my first year of bikepacking, it’s clear that my methods and desires have evolved. Only recently have I realized that this has affected how I plan, scout, and share bikepacking routes with others. We have plenty of challenging routes, the Fool’s Loop included, but more approachable routes and overnighters for newer bikepackers are more important than ever. With that said, being a few weeks into my 30s, I’m not quite ready to give up sufferfests altogether.
Tips for Riding the Black Canyon Trail
- Ride Hard, Camp Hard: Pack light if possible, but don’t be afraid to spread the ride out over three days. My dream trip would be to get a larger group of friends together and book The Big House at the ranch for few days.
- Eat pie: If you ride the BCT and pass Rock Springs without having pie, you’re missing out!
- Don’t underestimate the terrain: The first day on the trail is incredibly flowy and overall pretty easy riding, but it gets harder and it might catch folks off guard who aren’t ready for it. It’s still a challenging route, and if something goes wrong, there aren’t many people nearby to help you. Have a backup plan in case things go sideways.
- Donate to the Black Canyon Trail Coalition.
- Forget everything you know about the Fool’s Loop: There, I said it. This is a mountain bike route. Bring big tires and ideally front suspension too.
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