Trip Report: Black Canyon Trail, Arizona

Editor’s note: We are excited to feature an article by guest contributor Jillian Betterly. Jillian is a photographer, experienced bikepacker and bikepacking clinic organizer. She offered to share her recent trip report and photography with the Dropper Post.

Bikepacking is 40% planning, 60% dealing with moment-to-moment changes, and this trip was no exception. The Black Canyon trail runs south out of Mayer, Arizona to just 30 minutes shy of Phoenix. The terrain is a mix of Sonoran Desert vegetation and shale rocks, and there are enough cacti to remind you to keep your wheel centered on the single track. We got an opportunity to ride this trail during its worst weather: two days of rain. The second day brought on a different challenge of riding with an out-and-back ultra marathon. Altogether, it made for a new experience in bikepacking for me, a good example of planning vs. reality.

The Black Canyon Trail trip was the idea of Jocelyn and the ladies of Komorebi Bikepacking Team. The plan was to escape rainy Portland for a warmer vacation, though the resulting trip was just as rainy. The Colorado crew left the night before the meetup to get in some riding on the Arizona Trail. We camped out near the northern end of the trail the night before shuttling in. After a late start on Friday, we picked up the Portland crew to set out on 20 miles of sunny, perfect single track.

The trail is hard to find in the north, as it’s very narrow and doubles as a cow path. The first few miles included a refitting of bags, a scorpion over the bars and off a ledge into a pile of sand, a botched high five that turned into medical kit fix up and an acceptance that this was our life for the next three days. Once we all got our groove, the ride was on. With a minimal amount of climbing, we enjoyed a descent on technical single track that took us to our first camping spot. We camped close to an aid station for the incoming ultra-marathon the next morning, a situation which also left us with porta-potties and water – what a treat!

The rain started late Friday night, and we woke up on Saturday to a nearby stream, which had previously seen no water, gently flowing. Day two was short in mileage, but there were two challenges: constant rain and runners. We also had a woman in the group that wasn’t as comfortable with single track as the rest of us, so we worked as team to get her safely to a two-track road that would take her to the day’s destination. It’s important to always have a backup route and exit plan.

Completing the route wasn’t the goal: enjoying the adventure was.

We moved on, soaking wet amidst a stream of runners. We did enjoy heckling the runners, making them smile and cheering them on. But now, they were running towards us on single track. I was even accidentally shouldered by a runner and took a good tumble down a cliff side – we later found out the guy was in second place. Being cold, wet and on high alert took a toll on me, and I was happy to see that the reroute due to flash flooding was a gravel road to town.

Black Canyon City provided us with food, beer (lots of beer) and a campground. We stayed at Good Sam (a KOA property) that has a low-area camping spot, complete with a hot tub straight out of the 70’s, tiki-styling and all. But the real shining star was the laundry room, which they commissioned for us to set up camp in since our campsite was flooded. We hung out in the hot tub, amidst rain and booze, until we couldn’t – then, it was on to a laundry room party. We made hot chocolate and whiskey and shared crazy stories about our bikepacking adventures, a most unique bonding experience. It’s the small things, the small generosities that makes bikepacking such as amazing experience.

The next morning, we woke to rain again – and wouldn’t see the sun again until the moment we finished. Rock Springs Café is a must stop in Rock Springs, we had our eyes set on pie. Rock Springs Cafe’s pie is divine. At breakfast, we worked on a reroute in case of possible high river crossings. Jocelyn rode over to a tour guide business to get the local low-down, and they said it wasn’t safe. We decided to take the freeway (we later learned this is illegal inside the Phoenix/Tucson metro areas), formed a paceline and pedaled about 5 miles to the exit that took us back to the trail. Jeneane parted with us to grab the van and wait for our call on where we would end.

After a wet and muddy ride on a dirt road, on which we were coal-rolled twice, we found single track again. The constant rain made for tacky mud, and had it not been for the sections with shale rocks, the trail would have been a nightmare. We had our biggest climb on the third day, just under 1000 ft, and it was brutal. We had to walk the steepest sections as the peanut butter mud stopped any forward movement. The beautiful green desert made up for all the not so great parts, and we even got a rainbow. We made it to the peak, enjoyed the view and our pie. It’s downhill from here… or so we thought.

Layered up for another amazing descent, we met with the last two miles of mud. It was the kind of mud that destroys bikes. We lost a chain and blew up a derailleur. It was somber walk out, and those of us that rode got accidental mud masks going down the last hill into New River. Jeneane was at a cowboy bar waiting for us; I was so happy to see her and mark an end to the day. Celebration was in order, and though we might not have completed the whole trail, we rode in the rain, against an ultra-marathon, and worked as a team to have the best time possible.

Each bike adventure brings on varying, different challenges. Dealing with change in route and plans, with little time to decide and move on, was this adventure’s unique challenge. As a group of women riding our first trip together, we did amazing with overcoming these challenges. Completing the route wasn’t the goal. Enjoying the adventure was, and with bikepacking, it’s all about the adventure!

Thanks to the companies that helped make this trip possible:

[Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article mentioned that riding a bike on the freeway is illegal in AZ. Per an astute reader’s comment, the article was updated to note that freeway riding is illegal inside the Phoenix/Tucson metro areas.]

3 Comments

  1. Nice writeup. Sounds like a really tough trip.

    Just one nit-pick – where did you hear that cycling on the interstate in illegal in Arizona? It’s only illegal inside the Phoenix/Tucson metro areas. Totally legal on the section you rode.

    • Garret Schmidt Reply

      Thanks for the heads up, Nicholas. Adding an Editor’s note for this.

  2. Hi Nicholas,

    We rode on 17 from Rock Springs, about 5 miles as a group. One of our riders continued on 17 past New River and she was pulled over by a Trooper and told what she was doing was illegal. Now, he could have been in the wrong but she was in the PHX city limits at this point. The worst part was he offered her no solution, and there was no frontage road. She made it back to the Carefree highway safe to pick up our van to pick us up. It’s good to know that it’s only illegal within city limits.

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