Tucson-Adjacent: Sky Islands and Mt. Lemmon

It’s been awhile since I wrote a blog post, in that time I’ve made several more frames, and have only taken one bike trip. I was due, but working up the desire to go out again was a process.

Quick update on the framebuilding, since that drives most of the traffic to this site: My framebuilding and carbon work has come a long way since I started this journey. The accuracy of the fibers, the finish on the tubes, it has all really miles beyond where it was the last time I wrote a post about it. I’ve tried at various times to spit out another post catching up on the framebuilding front, but I just haven’t gotten anywhere. I’m stuck between wanting to give a full technical DIY post about fiberwinding and 3D-printed titanium, or just give them the “draw the rest of the fucking owl” treatment. I’m also holding off on about five different podcasts and articles just because, I don’t know, the last few years have been heavy on bikes and these represent a nice little plateau for the hobby. The bikes ride great, one lives in NYC, and the other with me in Berkeley.

Postscript: I suppose this trip post as well is a bit “draw the rest of the fucking owl”, I don’t give much of a packlist or day-by-day accounting of what to expect. Plenty of bikepacking packlists out there, I’m personally pretty damn lightweight, here I’m using a bivvy basically as a sleeping bag shell instead of a tent, as sleeping outside was often frosty. Love my Enlightened Equipment 20-degree down quilt, which has been everywhere with me. Some days are harder, some days are easier, a map of each day is on my Strava

As for the mixed-surface cycle touring, I ran it into the ground too and got tired of it. Seems to be a trend with bike things for me these days. I didn’t like how some of the experiences from Central Asia sat in my brain, so the stories from past trips faded into the background while I worked on other things.

A part of my pause was a reaction to the absolute explosion in gravel/bikepacking resources and industries established since I first went out in 2014. In just a decade, the world of bike touring, or ‘bikepacking’ (which was barely even a coined term at that point) has been turned on its head. I was reminded today that Bikepacking.com didn’t even call itself that until 2015. Now everyone is selling a new expensive bike bag, taking a new insane trip, racing long distances or setting a new FKT or planning a new “___ Traverse” route. It’s just overwhelming and exhausting the amount of content being created. Then every new route is more challenging than the one before, like “Oh and BTW there’s a stretch of riding where there’s 500 miles between water stops. Just drink your urine, it’s fine. Rated 4/10 for difficulty because the singletrack section wasn’t technical enough.”

I was finding it hard to reengage with that behemoth of a world after it grew up. How do you set your own special experiences apart in the deluge of content and ride-this-way-or-you’re-not-‘bikepacking’ energy? Thrilled to see other people taking trips around me but not particularly enthused with the idea of going out and doing the rah-rah-me-against-nature thing. That is until I started my career in earnest and all the navel gazing just morphed into ‘you need to take a vacation’. So I took one, to Arizona, on a singlespeed. Back to basics.

Quick stop in Dirt Paradise, Santa Monica on my way to AZ.

Singlespeeding. I have always been intrigued by the singlespeed thing, if there’s anything that got me back out on the road, it’s that, and my curiosity about it. I just couldn’t really understand it, why were these AZT folks saying that they wouldn’t do the race geared? As a framebuilder, I’m a worrier when it comes to clicking and mechanical sounds from my bike. I got the part where the attraction of singlespeeding is the simplicity of it. the derailleur hanger won’t bend, there’s no chain rattle because of the tension. Don’t have to worry about breaking your derailleur on a log, etc.

Majestic sunsets the whole way.

But does that balance out losing 90% of your gear range? Gaining the ability to throw your bike around a biiiit more recklessly? I mean, no it doesn’t. But if you are like me and reliability eats at your brain, and you’ve got strong quads and durable knees, and are burnt out and looking for something new from riding, then … singlespeeding may be for you. I came out of it 100% convinced that singlespeed is the right system for rocky, rolling desert routes, purely because things break in hostile, expansive environments, and if you don’t have replacements of those things with you, you’re just kind of sunk. It amazes me how tenuous your connection to being on the road can be. Whoop, leave your axle behind. Well shoot, it’s proprietary and MRP has since updated the model. Now you’re sitting outside a bike shop waiting for FedEx for one that’s been custom made. I didn’t make a single adjustment to the bike… after setting off, it didn’t click, I never once worried about it falling over. Not only did this bike pass my ‘staircase test’, I could pick it up over my head and throw it over fences and things. The thing was just a tank.

The frame is a Surly Lowside, basically an urban street cruiser, attached to a short travel, scratched to all hell MRP Baxter fork and running on 27.5in Rodeo Labs carbon wheels with Rene Herse Umtanum Ridge tires. Other accoutrements are PNW and a Brooks C15. I think none of these parts really naturally belong together but I give all a thumbs up given the magical way they performed together. In particular those tires, wow, incredible performance, both grip and rolling resistance. They were developed with specific insight from Lael Wilcox on the ideal tire for the Tour Divide and it shows. The Lowside frame was a bit difficult to acquire when I got mine, a tribute to another smash hit from Surly’s marketing department, selling it as “your childhood bike grown up”. I snagged the frame, didn’t really believe the order would go through, and then it sat in my apartment for months staring at me half built and people would come by and say “that looks like a BMX bike.” I mean maybe? It’s not a mountain bike or a gravel bike, and doesn’t have any rack attachments so it’s not really a bikepacking bike either. It’s a good quality Bike Bike, it has one 32-22 gear and it goes places.

Old Mining Infrastructure

Here I took it to Arizona, for a combo route of all of Bikepacking’s Tucson and Tucson-adjacent routes. Sky Islands Odyssey and the Redington-Lemmon loop, connected by the tough little singletrack section of the Arizona Trail that crests the Santa Ritas and then drops into the Saguaro National Park. I rode 450 miles over 8 days, packed with 40,000ft of elevation gain. I’d say the route was probably 20-60-20 singletrack-gravel-road, which was a good mix of terrain for this bike and my patience. If the definition of bikepacking is cycle touring carried out over diverse terrain, then this trip was bikepacking. 32-22 is great at churning through 5-7% gravel climbs. Flat pavement is a chore, but that’s a good thing, right? It’s never tempting to go get cheap miles, and I fly for longer in the sky.

On the Axle note… I did a big ride in Santa Monica on the drive out and left my front axle, of all things, on the curb. So I was delayed out of the gates by logistical issues. A good review for Dane at Endurance Cycles in Tucson who was a great partner in the battle against logistics. Tucson also had a big rain/snow storm hit higher elevations just before I arrived. By the time I got out there, things had dried out a bit but not so much to be dusty. This would have been a more snowy and muddy trip 4 days earlier. I was also squished up against another looming rainstorm on the other side which would have made more mud, so I hurried a bit. Logistics worked out in my favor and I had 8 long, perfect days between rainstorms. Cloudless skys and went between 30-32 at night and 75 in the day. It is the desert, after all.

Harshaw Road to Ruby Road over two passes, a good ride breaking in the singlespeed legs and learning what was possible and what was going to be walkable. I found snow on the Harshaw pass, and a few dried mud bike tire tracks. Not for me, though.

These roads go very close to the border, and for that reason they are packed with border patrols. They, in my case rather aggressively, pay bikers no mind. Weird thing to say, I guess, but the only way to explain how I got rolled up on at 11pm my first night in camp and the dude just sat there and idled for hours. I had, I guess, picked to camp at his watch site. I kept waiting for him to come say hi, but he just never did and I wasn’t going to, like, go knock on a border patrol’s window at 1am and be all “Hey how’s it going? Are you leaving soon?” At 6am on the dot, he drove off. They have a job to do and I’m not it.

The Buenos Aires National Wildlife Reserve was stunning in the sunset glow. Prime hours for riding from 4:30-6:30pm at this time of year. With the sun dropping at an angle, the deep orange-red-purple sunset seems to last forever.

From Buenos Aires to Box Canyon road via Green Valley, one of the best climbs of the trip up to Box Canyon’s intersection with the AZT. Racers hit this section on Day 2-3, usually. The first hike-a-bike, and it’s a doozy. 20 miles of up and down, steep, rocky paths in and out of dry stream beds and tiny valleys. One area where I started to realize why there’s a growing fellowship of singlespeeders doing the AZT race: the lack of a derailleur works in your favor here with so much vegetation and steep, rocky scrambles.

Box Canyon starts very sandy.

AZT

AZT

After the Santa Ritas, the going gets easier, and after the trail crests there’s a section of dreamy singletrack which weaves through the rather expansive exurbs of Tucson and Saguaro National Park. It is gently downhill, and I spent a magnificent evening riding here with the sun setting and peeking between the Saguaros. Food stops are farther apart than usual on this route, don’t expect even the proximity to Tucson to place a Mickey D’s out in the middle of the desert. Tucson’s footprint is big, and the ‘grid’ it is on is not your normal compact city grid, it is vast, sprawling primarily residential zoning scheme with commercial zones placed far, far apart. Vail is surprisingly out of the way from the drainage ditch through which the AZT passes under I-10. The Rocking K market is in a convenient location, soon after this complicated section of the AZT. One of your best bets for water in that section is the Posta Quemada Canyon campground, which sits AZT-adjacent and can be integrated naturally into the route. Otherwise you’re filtering from Cow Tanks, which is fine too. The water is occasionally good quality but it might taste like cow.

AZT, Saguaro NP

From NW Tucson, I hit Redington Road, which goes over a pass and into the desert. I’d say the best two days of this trip were the pair of 80 mile days going up Redington Road and then up and over Mt. Lemmon from its rough gravel backside. Just a great pair of climbs where I felt really good and adjusted to the gearing. It is an experience that definitely shapes the trip, and here it just was a great feeling to have it all come together as a totally workable, even optimal, setup for this terrain and my fitness. The ride up the back of Mt. Lemmon was one of my favorite gravel roads ever, starting deep in the desert and traversing multiple biomes to reach a peak in the middle of a massive pine forest.

I don’t know why this came as such a surprise, before I started researching this route in October, I would have had the perception that this region was somewhat homogenous desert. In the immortal words of my last Fed boss, “you’ve crossed one desert, you’ve crossed them all, right?” How wrong I would have been. The route covered everything from high desert, huge oak forests and flowing grass fields, to snowy alpine pine forests on Lemmon. The climbs here, independently into one of what are called the Sky Islands would see the scenery chage rapidly, within 1-2000 feet of climbing, you can rise from the desert floor and thousands of cacti to flowing grass fields and snow!

Lemmon Service Road

Lemmon Service Road

Main Lemmon Road, why the mountains are called Sky Islands

Snow on Lemmon made for slow going

Incredible diversity of wildlife. I did not see any big cats, but I saw a kitten run across the road on Lemmon, and when I stopped to look, I heard some warning growling behind me, so I took off. Coyote howls every night, one night one discovered me and yapped a bit before moving on to something else. Roadrunners often, a few hawks and eagles, which were gorgeous and I wish I knew more about. No snakes or other spicy fauna, but a few wild pigs and many, many white tailed deer. Also quail coos. As I compose the first draft of this on the last night of the trip camped high in the Santa Ritas, I am being serenaded an owl.

I got word with a few days left that another storm front was moving in. Rain, snow, etc. at higher elevations. My weather luck was about to run out, and the new year was going to be a muddy one. I didn’t shorten the route, but I pushed a bit more to get through the planned route. I wanted to get, at least, through Kentucky Camp and Canelo Pass, another section of the AZT. Kentucky Camp has some cabins to rent, a nice little oasis in the Santa Ritas. From there, an alternate route on Papago Springs Road had me bushwhacking a bit to avoid some locked gates, and up/down one final pass to my car in Patagonia.

This was a demanding experience, I like to say the nice things and there was a lot of deeply fulfilling good. But yes, it was grueling and in that served its purpose of helping blow off some steam. There were long, uninterrupted riding days compressed into short daylight hours, and the terrain skewed heavily towards singletrack and rough gravel because it is monotonous to ride this bike on flat pavement. Again, it shapes the experience. But the problem is that gravel often has steep climbs, and from those I learned a lot about how to really contort my body to get the absolute most out of my pedal stroke. It was a quad-buster, no doubt. I can see myself becoming a stronger rider technically and physically because of the singlespeed experience, it demands dramatically more control and engagement of the muscles in your lower back and quads. It was also occasionally blisteringly bright, and the desert sun and dust and low water availability, whew, the sweat situation was a whole thing in itself.

AZT

AZT

But what a beautiful area, the Santa Ritas themselves are a dense thicket of gravel roads and intense views, of which I could only scratch the surface. It would take a lifetime to truly explore this region in its full, and it would be worth it. Because every little valley and mountain range and river wash is different, some are dry and brutal, and others are lush and spring-fed, and they may be right next to (or in the nature of the Sky Island where the biomes are split vertically) directly on top of each other. I was fortunate to visit this place and have the conditions I had. I say this about everywhere I go, but this is definitely one of those places to which I will be drawn back. It was a great trip.

Route and alternates mapped out along the way. Really like this GaiaGPS layer combination: USFS base map overlaid with 1m slope gradient heatmap, and if I zoom in further a private land ownership layer which tells me property by property where the public land is.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s