Holly Returns! Bikepacking the Arizona Trail

This time last year, VIDA Ambassador Holly Borowski set out her first bikepacking route on the Kokopelli Trail. During this trip she fell in love with simplicity of mountain biking all day in beautiful scenery, and the autonomous feeling of having her daily essentials along for the ride. You can read all about it in her blog Going the Distance— Holly's First Bikepacking Adventure. Since then, Holly has been scheming an even bigger adventure and last month she completed the Arizona Trail (AZT). Read on about her journey, and learn some tips for your next (or first) bikepacking endeavor.

Holly at the Mexico border

Holly at the Mexico border

This spring I had a little time between finishing grad school and starting a new job, so I decided to give the Arizona trail a try on my mountain bike. Altogether, the bikepacking trip would be about 750 miles long. To make logistics simple I decided to ride it southbound at the same time as the northbound Arizona trail race, so I could trade cars with one of the racers (Neil Beltchenko, who ended up setting a record for the route!). It was a tough and fun adventure, and I want to share some of my experiences with you here.

My Approach
Although I'd be riding the race route, I intended to treat my ride as a tour, not a race.  I only planned on night riding if I absolutely had to.  I also love stopping in towns for a beer,  a good meal, and a rest if I'm losing motivation. My biggest goal was to finish, and I didn't want to jeopardize a finish by pushing too hard, so I planned to keep a very conservative pace. And, most importantly perhaps, I wanted to have fun and experience Arizona--I didn't want to feel sleep deprived, stressed, or near my limit.

Even though I prefer the touring approach, I am inspired and impressed by the racers. Not only do they push a hard pace throughout the full 750 miles (or the 300 mile version of the AZT race), they have to balance their need for sleep with the opportunity to put in extra miles at night. They also have to make difficult gear choices--the lighter their setup, the faster they'll go, so they often sacrifice comfort for speed (e.g., no camp stove, very minimal sleeping gear, etc.). These guys and gals are tough, and the handful of racers I met along the way were also down to earth and fun to talk to too. 

Sunset at Apache Junction

Sunset at Apache Junction

The Ride
Despite my touring approach, the AZT was one of the hardest things I've done (making it hard to imagine what the racers went through!).  The trail was extremely rugged and included significant hike-a-bikes.  Elevation profiles didn't always give a good prediction of how difficult a section of trail would be, since even some of the flatter sections were rough or overgrown enough to be very slow riding or even hiking. Of course the trail's length and the southern AZ heat kicked my butt too!

The Grand Canyon
Bikes aren't allowed to be ridden in the Grand Canyon, but may be hiked across if the wheels don't touch the ground. The solution for many AZT riders and racers nowadays (myself included) is to carry their bikes across on their backs.  The Grand Canyon hike started on my second day so luckily I was still fresh....

I severely underestimated the Grand Canyon.  In my preparations I had briefly tested a setup that turned out to be ok,  but I never did a full-weight test.  With all my excessive food and gear,  I knew I would have a really hard time after I took about 5 steps into the canyon.  I instantly regretted all the comfort crap and extra food I'd brought with me.

Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon

When you carry your bike across the Grand Canyon, you attract a lot of attention. Some people are familiar with what's going on, but most are surprised to see it and want to know more. I imagine this can get annoying for racers, who are trying to get across as quickly as possible. But for me it was a welcome distraction from the difficulty. I met a number of hikers and runners from all over the world, each in the middle of their own adventures. I had a lot of fun chatting with many of them and hearing about their backgrounds and experiences. The friendliness of strangers I met there turned out to be a highlight of my experience in the canyon.

If I'm being honest, though, I didn't appreciate or enjoy the Grand Canyon. In my head I knew it was beautiful, but it was hard to be inspired by the beauty when I was struggling so much physically. I would like to go back someday so I can really see it.

Grand Canyon North Kaibab

Grand Canyon North Kaibab

The hardest part was the hike up South Kaibab. The trail was steep--5,000 ft of elevation gain over about 7 miles. Toward the end my efforts were small--sometimes I only managed 10 or 20  steps between mini-rests, trying to keep some kind of rhythm going. Unfortunately I ran out of water a couple miles from the top, and it was late in the evening so nobody was out. Then, about a mile from the top I decided to ditch my bike, run up to the north rim to get some water, then come back down later for the bike. I brought most of my camping gear with me for the 1 mile jog/hike, and was frustrated at how much more quickly I could travel without the bike. When I reached the top, I took a nap for a few hours, then went back down for the bike. Hiking up with my bike without all the camping gear made me realize how much of a hindrance packing too heavy had been. The bike itself (plus a little gear in my pack) was not fun to carry, but it wasn't so terrible--at least I could keep moving at what felt like a much more reasonable pace. I don't know if I'll ever do this again, but in any case I learned a big lesson about the tradeoffs between minimalism and comfort.

Northern Arizona
The riding in Northern AZ was some of my favorite on the trail. It was a mix of forest trails with some dirt roads. The trails were often rocky, but there were also several sections of fun and flowy singletrack. My friends Eszter and Scott (Scott organizes the race every year and has built an awesome tracker for it too) rode with me for a few miles of trail north of Flagstaff, which was a huge highlight of my ride. I also started passing some of the northbound racers come through around then, and it was fun to briefly chat with each of them to hear how their rides had been going, and to exchange info about the portions of trail we'd each ridden so far.

Saguaros

Saguaros

I enjoyed a long stop in Flagstaff where I needed a bike repair (I'm a dummy and lost a piece from my headset when I took my bike apart for the canyon). I didn't mind the extra time off, and hugely appreciated the help and conversation from the guys at Cosmic Cycles. After Flagstaff I had a number of nice days, weather and riding-wise. One of my favorite parts was stopping at the General Springs cabin, where a couple of the racers, Ron and Josh, had decided to spend the night. Upon meeting them I decided to stay there too--it was so much fun trading stories and hanging out with those guys, and it definitely put me in a good mood leading into the next bit of riding!

Minor Setbacks
I felt lucky to have incredibly few setbacks, but I did develop some bad shin splints a few days after the canyon, likely because I hadn't really trained for the long hike. One evening they were so bad I thought I might have to quit, but then I remembered I could take a day off any time I wanted. In the end, I took a few half days off to recover (one in Pine that seemed especially helpful). The shin splints never went away, but also never seemed to get worse and only hurt when I hiked. I guessed that I couldn't do any major or permanent damage by ignoring the tightness and pain in my shin, so I'd just deal with a little bit of hobbling on the hike-a-bikes as long as it was tolerable. This worked out, but probably wasn't that smart, and definitely reduced my enjoyment on some of the rougher parts of the trail.

Southern Arizona
A long detour around the wilderness areas between Payson and Pine marked the transition from the forests of Northern AZ to the Sonoran desert (I was excited to see my first Saguaro along the highway!), and also a transition into the heat. Once I got back to the trails, riding among the various types of cacti and desert plants was exciting and beautiful--I thoroughly enjoyed the new terrain and ecosystem! I also got my first taste of overgrown trails in southern AZ--all the spikey and pointy things want to grab your legs and tear them to shreds. I found that this was no big deal when I was feeling good, but i was feeling tired, the scrapes and scratches really started to drive me crazy.

Gold Canyon

Gold Canyon

I was also surprised by the trail's difficulty in much of southern AZ. Sections I expected to be relatively flat actually consisted of seemingly endless ups and downs. I started to learn that what looked a small blip on the elevation profile could often be a slow, mentally taxing hike-a-bike where it seemed to take forever just to travel a mile. But at least there was usually a fun downhill on the other side!

Oracle Ridge
The Arizona trail (from a southbound perspective) climbs up Oracle ridge and onto Mount Lemmon before dropping down into Tucson. I had heard this section of trail was going to be a big challenge, so I spent the previous night in Oracle, and stuck around until 10am to mail a few things home and ditch some weight. I think this was a good choice because Oracle ridge turned out to be just as tough as everyone said. 

Picket Post

Picket Post

When I was on the ridge that afternoon it started to rain, so I decided to wait it out and hope it cleared up. Unfortunately it didn't clear, so during a brief break in the rain I set up camp and tried to turn in early for some extra sleep. A few hours later I realized my sleeping bag was getting wet--I must have poked a hole in my bivy sack. I had been in a similar situation one night on the Colorado trail (I really need to stop poking holes in my bivy sacks), so although it was a pretty crappy night I knew things would be ok. I also had enough cell service to check the next morning's weather, so I knew that it would warm up by around 7am--I just had to deal with being slightly damp and chilly until then.  I actually felt lucky to have been through this on the CT, because it allowed me to relax and just wait it out, instead of worrying and thinking about worst-case scenarios like I did the first time around...

Indeed, it warmed up the next morning. As soon as the sun started poking through the trees, I laid out some of my gear to dry as I started getting ready for the rest of the climb (which was crazy-hard, slow, and overgrown). I knew that once I descended into Tucson, the weather was likely to be hot and dry, so I wasn't too worried about having slightly damp gear--one of the major advantages of a bikepacking trip in the desert is that everything dries out pretty quickly!

The Last Few Days
After Oracle ridge, the trail still had its tough spots but overall was significantly easier. I had been out for a couple weeks, though--I'd lost weight (perhaps unavoidable, but it wasn't the type of weight I wanted to lose--I lost a lot of muscle) and was feeling tired and ready to be done. The last day in the Canelos was hot and had some tough, steep hike-a-bike climbs (along with loose dirt that sometimes made me slide backwards while pushing my bike), and was mentally taxing, but I finally made it to the Mexican border at around 7pm. Steve, a Sierra Vista local was waiting to pick me up and bring me back to my car in Sierra Vista--what a generous guy, and I appreciated the drive so much, since otherwise I'd be tacking on an extra 30 miles to my ride.

Looking back
Looking back at the trip, it was different than I expected. Harder than I expected. The trail was more rugged. I walked more than I thought I would. I had to fight against lack of motivation more than I had on the Colorado Trail. I had to adapt to the heat (which was moderate compared to what it could've been, but still affected me). There were many amazing sections, but there were also a few less-amazing sections--these are where I typically struggled. As a whole, I'm so glad I did it. When I look back, it still seems so long, and perhaps Arizona's diverse ecosystems contributed to that. In my mind it almost feels like 3 or 4 separate trips.

I may tackle another big one sometime in the future, but in the next few months I am looking forward to riding without gear on my bike, and perhaps a couple of weekend bikepacking trips in the fall. I hope you'll join me!


Thank You!
I am so grateful to everyone who helped me in various ways to prepare for and complete this trip. Thank you to Ashlee for the Clif goodies, Neil for the car swap, Cosmic Cycles in Flagstaff and Certified Bicycle in Payson for the bike work and conversation, Eszter and Scott for riding with me along the way, Scott for organizing the race and publishing the route, and Steve for the ride from the Mexico border to Sierra Vista.

— Holly