Red Rock and a Dusty Child: Family Bikepacking in Sedona
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Although renowned for its chunky, world class singletrack, Sedona and its red rock buttes also make a fantastic backdrop for a family bikepacking adventure. Cass and Nancy head off with their five-year-old in tow – literally – to explore its trails, jeep tracks, and gravel roads…
Like many I expect, the success of our family holidays is a studied balancing act of needs, in an effort to satisfy the assorted wishes of three strong-willed individuals.
Whilst my own desires default to overseas bikepacking extravaganzas amongst alpacas and high peaks, my partner Nancy seeks a more comfortable harmony between warm weather campouts and Air B&Bs. Somewhere between the two lies Sage who, at the age of five, prefers as much time off the saddle as on it, and never less than a good night’s sleep, at least if cantankerous meltdowns are to be avoided the following day.
It was for these reasons that Sedona’s Red Rock Country felt like the destination of choice for a mid-winter escape. Just as the temperatures plummet across much of the land, Sedona’s lowly locale, a giant’s step down in elevation from the high plateau of neighbouring Flagstaff, promises respite from the dubious merits of cold weather campouts. Indeed, complete as it is with imposing buttes and neck-craning canyon walls, its spectacular location is guaranteed to blow all minds, whether aged five or ninety-five (the area is awash with elderly RVers). With both an abundance of motels and starry campouts on tap, this compact little mountain biking mecca exudes ample opportunity for both singletrack day rides and short hikes alike (even if its popularity amongst ATV thrillseekers means its gravel roads can be lost in a haze of dust come the weekend).
Of course, with this decision came more head scratching and protracted deliberation, as I considered what gear would suit the terrain best, drawing from our yard-full of options at home. Not wanting to sacrifice the promise of primo singletrack, we forwent the Xtracycle longtail and decided upon the Burley Piccolo. We even left, after much deliberation, Sage’s beloved Islabike – complete with gears, a rear rack, kickstand and all – which he’d only just received for his fifth birthday. Although his riding confidence and skills are improving by the day, given the distance we hoped to cover and the big boy challenges of Sedona’s chunky terrain – there are few mellow rides, at least by family standards – the trailer-bike seemed like the ideal solution.
So, with our aforementioned needs in mind, we settled upon a strategy of dividing our time between base camping, day rides, and short hikes – with the promise of a motel interlude and a hot shower to scrub off red dust – before building up to the finale of an overnighter.
As I’ve mentioned, the key to success for many a family cycling adventure is time spent off the bike too, especially if you’re hoping for a long and fruitful bikepacking future. This can take the form of a number of activities: fire building, rock hunting, running, or simple, wholesome cavorting. As tends to be our style, we also zoned in a relatively small area, preferring to become familiar with a pocket of land rather than trying to cover it all. During our day rides, we used the car to strike out a little further afield to the trails around Oak Creek Village. But most of the time, we were happy with our new backyard and its fine views out to the Cockscomb. As for the trails, I was surprised by how much I could clean with my little motor behind. And for his part, Sage was thrilled to be involved, craning his head round towards his mama to make sure she’d made it through too.
The week crescendoed in scale to our overnighter, a meandering loop out to cliff dwellings from Faye Canyon. For the most part, we followed jeep track and rough-hewn ATV trails, along surfaces that began in a mellow mood but soon descended into the dirt road equivalent of a barroom brawl. Factoring in the short winter days, our distances were predictably short: it’s always wise to allow ample time before dark to pitch the tent, scurry for wood, and prepare food together as a bookend to the day and a chance to unwind. A relative bikepacking veteran by now, Sage is a master tent builder (in enthusiasm, at least) and, as a collector of balloons, insists on blowing up all the air mattresses himself; the latter is a task that is especially helpful, given that one of the three requires the lungs of an opera singer to fill. And how his zeal fills me with pride. This love of biking and the outdoors is something I hope will thrive naturally, as long as I can resist the ‘pushy dad’ syndrome.
On the whole – and despite the occasional malaise and meltdown – both our day rides and our overnighter were a definite success. Mixing activities had the desired effects of keeping spirits high and Sage’s mind and body motivated. There was one unexpected plot twist: the unearthing of a pipeline road. Experience has taught me that whilst these throughways promise a direct passage from A to B, their grades that are rarely less than epically steep and ferociously hard to ride, especially when a trailer bike is involved. This, along with a succession of loose, babyhead-strewn arroyo crossings, had Sage hopping off his trailer bike to help push, drag and scramble, kicking up dirt and red dust as he scampered from one of us to the other. Cue another wave of paternal pride. In my eyes at least, a smiling, dusty, grubby, happy child is simply a wonderful sight to behold.
- Although Sage can ride his own bike, we used a Burley Piccolo, reviewed here, which allowed us the option of tackling more challenging dirt roads and trails than we would otherwise have considered. We fitted the Piccolo’s mounting rack to both our bikes, so we could easily swap it between them.
- Plus tires offer extra stability and comfort when you’re carrying gear and human cargo over chunky terrain. We rode a Surly ECR and Tumbleweed Prospector.
- Our Big Agnes Copper Spur UL3 is tried and tested; it’s easy to pitch and offers two porches.
- Sage slept cosily in an Outdoor Baby Sleeping Bag designed by Milk and Honey. He also wore his Patagonia puff jacket, gloves, and a wooly hat, as the nights were chilly.
- To smooth our the land, he uses my old Thermarest 3/4 Prolite 3, it’s a perfect fit for his 5 year old body. We also brought simple foam seat mats for kicking back around the fire.
- We love our 1.8l Evernew Ceramic Pot for cooking. It’s doesn’t stick and burn, and there’s room for generous portions!
- A solar-powered lantern is useful for hanging in the tent, to make prepping for sleep time and book reading easier.
- We carry a small trowel so I can teach Sage the Leave No Trace principles.
- We generally make our own, health-conscious camping food but on this occasion carried ultralight, dehydrated meals for the overnighter, considering our already substantial payload, water carrying needs, and the challenging terrain.
- More Smores! But that goes without saying, right?
A Mini Guide to Sedona for Families
We visited Sedona in December. Although the nights rarely drop much below freezing even in mid winter, a couple were chillier than expected, due to a cold front that brought winds strong enough to send us scarpering to the nearest motel. Otherwise, the daytime temperatures are typically T-shirt and shorts-friendly, and the evening’s perfect for bundling up, gathering around a fire, and hanging out. December and January are about the coldest months, with the months on either side probably being ideal.
We used the excellent Sedona Core Trails map, published by Beartooth, which graded trails. Generally speaking, there aren’t too many trails that can be considered especially family friendly. The main exception is Bell Rock trail, which is easy going, incredibly scenic, and offers a number of areas that are perfect for exploring on foot along the way. We connected it with Templeton and the Llama loop. We also rode the Cockspur Trail and various trails leading in and out of the more challenging Mezcal Trail. It’s a great slice of ridgerunning singletrack that was definitely out of our comfort level at times, but it’s easy enough to walk the bits you can’t ride.
As a break from cycling, we explored Faye Canyon, which offers an easy, child-friendly hike with great views. There’s no shortage of other options, but we zoned in on areas close to West Sedona, so we could spend less time travelling between areas and more time enjoying them.
Sedona itself has all the usual suspects in terms of grocery stores, including a Safeway, a Whole Foods and a Natural Grocers. Cafe Paleo Brio was a hit with Sage; it’s designed like a cave and the crazy lighting had him bouncing around the walls.
The children’s part of West Sedona’s library is incredible. There’s book galore and activities too. A great place to mellow out after a hyperactive morning on the trails.
There are plenty of excellent bike shops across ‘greater’ Sedona. In nearby Oak Creek Village, the friendly and coffee serving Bike and Bean is a favourite. Over The Edge and Absolute Bikes are also recommended. All offer full suspension rental, should you feel like taking a break from your regular bikepacking rig. Sedona trails are pure bliss!
With thanks to Drew – aka Singing Coyotes – for suggesting areas for us to explore.