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SONORAN SINGLETRACK


Black Canyon City is an oasis—a refuge amidst a sprawling stretch of desert north of Phoenix. Rolling into town, we sniff out some burritos and kill time watching cars drift by from the patio in the late-morning sun.

I look out across the small Arizona town, past the desolate hillsides and out at the vast expanse of Sonoran Desert that stretches south to the Mexican border and beyond.

We woke up late. Somewhere out on the desert highway past the edge of town. Close enough to the road to hear the constant drone of traffic in the night; far enough from town that gunshots would be the sound to wake us in the morning.

A late-season snowstorm has brought record accumulation to the high desert, sending moisture down to lower elevations where it is wreaking havoc in the creeks and washes beneath the Black Canyon Trail.

It’s not quite springtime. Cedar and I are here to ride amid a long winter further north—to thaw out a bit and spin the legs through the desert.

We pedal away from the trailhead and hop over the first few rock gardens as the wheels start to turn, edging from left to right while the trail weaves through a barren landscape that is increasingly dotted with unique flora the lower we dive down into the canyon.

Out in the rugged hills, we are rolling along through poppies, organ pipe, ocotillo, and saguaros as the singletrack flows along trending down over bits of desert varnish and crushed rock.

"The heat of the desert—the first we’ve felt in months—is kindly warming us to the core."

The Black Canyon Trail is a collection of more than 80 miles of Sonoran Desert singletrack in the backcountry southeast of Prescott. Of national significance, the trail once provided a path for Native American travelers, and most recently was used as a route to move livestock through the desert canyons.

The trail project began to take shape in the ’90s but languished until shortly after the turn of the century when the BLM, and ultimately the Black Canyon Trail Coalition, organized and went to work creating the world-class trail that we are riding today. It gained attention in 2008 as a National Recreation Trail due to the hard work that has taken place to construct it.

The shared-use trail stands as a reminder of the history of this canyon, and the decades of trail work and advocacy that has ground down the formidable desert surface into the epic trail that we are meandering through today.

Past another array of prickly pear, hedgehog, and barrel, and under the shadows of unbelievably tall saguaros, the trail flows naturally with small bits of punchy uphill sprinkled throughout. Descending another couple miles, we eventually get dumped out into a rocky wash and meet the water’s edge in the form of a decidedly big and swiftly moving river.

We’re at the Agua Fria. Cedar and I come to a stop, set our bikes down, and prepare to find a route across. It’s muddy color makes depth finding difficult and we have little confidence in a crossing judging on looks alone.

I’m inclined to bail. It’s been a hell of a day, and climbing back out is much preferred to chasing after our bikes in a muddy wave train and grasping for tamarisk holds along the swift riverbank.

“We’re going for it.”

Two bikepackers that we met on the riverside, in the same predicament as us, are set on moving forward with their ride—planning to ford the river while bracing one another, carrying one bike per trip over multiple crossings.

“We’ll watch.”

As the two riders make it across, barely, and then back, we’re even less confident.

“That looked pretty sketchy.”

“It was.” They reply. “You guys should go for it.”

We watch them barely make it across the powerful waist deep water with loaded bikes once more before settling into the shoreline on the other side to situate their gear.

"Rolling along through poppies, organ pipe, ocotillo, and saguaros, the singletrack flows along trending down over bits of desert varnish and crushed rock."

In order to continue on our point-to-point ride, and to meander along yet another section of pristine singletrack that continues on from the other side, we reluctantly opt to cross the choked river.

Two crossings later, and a couple of tense moments, and we’re safe on the other side, high-fiving the bikepackers. From the other side, the trail continues on, gaining a high ridgeline before flowing through a stretch of cactus-laden desert and dropping down to another creek, likely flowing higher than it has in some time.

And so it goes, on and on—up onto a high point and down again to a creek or rocky wash. We’d continue on, and the pull of the Black Canyon is tempting us to do just that—to go deeper still—but it’s late in the day and we need to roll back into camp.

"The Black Canyon is tempting us to do just that—to go deeper still."

Such is the allure of the desert and its sprawling trails. The smooth and flowing miles, engineered from the rough soil, are addictive. The comfort builds with each undulating turn, sharp rock feature, or mountain vista. And the heat of the desert—the first we’ve felt in months—is kindly warming us to the core.

We’re forced to wade across the Fria once more before the ride is over, and coast into camp with that thankful feeling you get from stepping across your comfort zone and just making it back to the other side.

Evening is on the horizon, with silhouetted cactus on the ridgelines above camp. We have more riding planned, but we’re not in a rush. Something about this small Sonoran town has us a little less concerned. Amidst the raging rivers, the sharp plants and even the distant gunshots, all we can really do is think about the Sonoran singletrack that is out there patiently waiting for us, and what it’s going to be like once we get there.


LOCATION | ARIZONA

WORDS | RYAN KRUEGER

PHOTOS | CORT MULLER + RYAN KRUEGER

RIDER | CEDAR KYES

BIKES | ESKER ELKAT



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