Chasing Challenge on the Arizona Trail

An ultra-endurance race across the American West

Winding across the rugged and wild landscape of Arizona, the Arizona Trail spans 750 miles from Mexico to Utah. Arizona is not flat and covered in iconic saguaro cacti as is commonly envisioned. The route begins in semiarid grasslands and mountains before descending into the low Sonoran Desert. It continues through spectacular canyons and the steep Central Highlands, eventually gaining the Mogollon Rim and starting across the Colorado Plateau. Ponderosa pine forests replace the prickly and pointy desert plants. The trail wanders through the pines north to the San Francisco Peaks and then dives into the Grand Canyon. North of the canyon, only the Kaibab Plateau remains before the red-and-orange slickrock of southern Utah comes into view. For these many hundreds of miles, the trail is often rough, steep, rocky, dry, lonely and demanding, making it a challenging but amazing journey for bikepackers, horsepackers and hikers alike.

Decades ago, a few Tucson mountain bikers developed the crazy idea to see how fast they could ride the southern 300 miles of the trail. Ultra-endurance bikepacking events were still a new thing, and just two of six riders covered the full 300 miles that first year. Those 300 miles that now make up the Arizona Trail Race are loose, chunky, scenic and often steep and lined with the full suite of thorny Sonoran Desert vegetation.

The Arizona Trail is young, having just been completed just a few years ago. And unlike many other long trails in the United States, all non-wilderness segments of Arizona Trial are open to mountain bikes, and the Arizona Trail Association built, manages and promotes the trails with all non-motorized user groups in mind.

Other trail users may be scaly and venomous.
Other trail users may be scaly and venomous.

Since 2006, the unofficial and self-supported Arizona Trail Race has grown steadily, and some riders have begun racing the full 750 miles to Utah, lugging their bikes across the Grand Canyon on their backs in the process per National Park Service rules. This April, approximately 70 riders (including one brave unicyclist) took on the challenge, with around 50 completing the 300-mile distance and half of those riders continuing on toward Utah. It generally takes participants two to six days to finish the 300-mile distance and seven to 16 days for the entire Arizona Trail.

John Schilling, of Queen Creek, Arizona, is likely the only cyclist to have ridden every bike-legal inch of the Arizona Trail; Maurizio Doro, of Capoterra, Italy, could not hide his enthusiasm during the first hours of his ride across Arizona.
John Schilling, of Queen Creek, Arizona, is likely the only cyclist to have ridden every bike-legal inch of the Arizona Trail; Maurizio Doro, of Capoterra, Italy, could not hide his enthusiasm during the first hours of his ride across Arizona.
Jack Mahler, of Bend, Oregon, prepared to tackle the full length of the Arizona Trail on his unicycle. At the time of writing, he was about to begin the hike across the Grand Canyon; two-time Tour Divide finisher and adventure racer Sara Dallman shares her apprehension and excitement early in the 750.
Jack Mahler, of Bend, Oregon, prepared to tackle the full length of the Arizona Trail on his unicycle. At the time of writing, he was about to begin the hike across the Grand Canyon; two-time Tour Divide finisher and adventure racer Sara Dallman shares her apprehension and excitement early in the 750.

The goals these riders chase range widely–many set out to finish, which is no small feat for any rider. Others aim to ride hard all day and get solid sleep at night. It is common that riders have deadlines imposed by needing to be back at work by a specified date. A few are motivated by the prospects of riding fast, with minimal sleep, and breaking records. But virtually every rider who tackles the Arizona Trail shares a common desire for adventure and challenge. And for some, a single trip on the Arizona Trail doesn’t suffice, and this undertaking becomes an annual affair.

Kaitlyn Boyle, of Prescott, Arizona, pauses in the small town of Patagonia to fill up on water.
Kaitlyn Boyle, of Prescott, Arizona, pauses in the small town of Patagonia to fill up on water.

Self-supported bikepacking events like the Arizona Trail Race have grown tremendously in popularity recently. Back in 2008, the Great Divide Race, Iditasport, Grand Loop and the Colorado Trail Race were the only ones in North America. Now there are more than 30 similar unofficial challenges from which to choose. Rules vary but generally state that riders must follow a very specific route under their own power–drafting is prohibited and outside support is strictly forbidden unless services are available to all participants. This means that gas stations, motels, restaurants, bike shops, grocery stores and other commercial services are fair game. But don’t even think about caching food along the route or having a friend meet you on trail with a giant sub sandwich.

With an armful of food, Alexis Ault, a geology professor from Logan, Utah, prepares to climb into the Santa Rita Mountains; veteran ultra-endurance bikepacker Tracey Petervary, from Victor, Idaho, was the first female to complete the 300 this year. Her first words upon stopping were “That was the most difficult trail I’ve ever ridden.”

Bike and gear choices for the Arizona Trail Race generally reflect the unforgiving terrain and weather conditions. Full-suspension rigs are most common, although there are always quite a few hardtails at the start, including a handful of singlespeed 29ers (32×24 was the gear of choice for the fastest singlespeeder this year). A GPS unit is indispensable for staying on route. Most riders carry a reasonable bike repair kit with ample items for fixing flat tires and sliced sidewalls. Beyond that, bags contain a small first-aid kit, a generous supply of chamois cream, sunscreen and chain lube. Water capacity of at least 4 liters is mandatory, and moderately bright lights with long run-time are needed for the extensive night-time hours (although dynamo lighting systems are becoming more widely used). For clothing, this race generally necessitates a selection of versatile and compact garments for riding in temperatures ranging from freezing and 90+ degrees Fahrenheit.

California rider Stan Potter wrapping up a 9-mile descent north of the Gila River.

In an event with a clock that doesn’t stop at the end of a stage, when the sun sets or at the 24-hour mark, participants are forced to grapple with balancing minimizing sleep while maximizing riding speed and alertness. In the wee hours of the morning, the sleep monster could be lurking just beyond any bend in the trail. In the 300-mile distance, a few riders have managed to complete the entire route sans sleep–that’s roughly 48 hours in one push. For many, a quick nap and maybe an hour or two of shut-eye each night may suffice. Some riders opt to sleep a bit longer and pedal faster during the day. And for the 750-mile distance, four to six hours of sleep per night is common. A light sleeping bag, a bivvy and an ultralight sleeping pad is the preferred sleep setup, although in the past few years, more riders are pushing limits and skipping a sleep kit entirely.

To fuel their bodies, riders generally take in at least 250 calories per hour, and because the aid stations and support crews in other styles of ultra-endurance events are nowhere to be found, all those calories must be either carried from the start or procured along the way. Gas stations and markets are great for quickly grabbing food for the next stretch of route, but such options along the Arizona Trail are limited. Numerous stretches of more than 24 hours in between resupply points test riders’ abilities to carry sufficient calories and food that will actually sound appetizing under a blazing mid-afternoon sun or when suffering from mild dehydration. 

A pair of through-hikers beneath Picketpost Mountain marveled at the bird diversity and scenery of the Arizona Trail. These two hikers are also veterans of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route.
A pair of thru hikers beneath Picketpost Mountain marveled at the bird diversity and scenery of the Arizona Trail. These two hikers are also veterans of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route.

Riders on the trail routinely speak of incredibly technical riding, rattlesnakes, demanding hike-a-bike sections, running short on water, strange nocturnal wildlife encounters, bonking, sliced tires, crashing, oppressive heat and simply being humbled by a landscape that can make one seem utterly tiny. But after the tales of adversity are complete, there’s generally a pause. A grin spreads across the rider’s face. And impassioned stories then spill out: stories of swooping through the rosy sunset amid flowering ocotillo, of pedaling silently beneath a starry sky, of legs finding renewed strength, of the inspiration carried by the first light of a new day, of endless descents and huge views and of self-discovery and a life-changing experience. This is the Arizona Trail. And it is experiences like these that are attracting mountain bikers in ever-increasing numbers to bikepacking challenges like the Arizona Trail Race.  

If you’d like to learn more about the Arizona Trail and the Arizona Trail Association, click here.