In the coming months, “Fully Loaded” will delve into various aspects of the world of bikepacking, discussing gear, inspiration, adventure, multi-day racing and more, all with the goal of sharing knowledge and enthusiasm, and getting more riders to strike out beyond the day ride.
I slid my coffee mug over to make room on the table for a couple of large maps. My friend Zach sat across from me, grinning with excitement. It was Friday afternoon, and we’d both wrapped up work for the week, so our attention turned to a nearby and yet unfamiliar section of rugged terrain in the central highlands of Arizona. On the maps of this country, contour lines crowd aggressively against one another, struggling to make room for one another in the limited distance between the high mesas of the Verde Rim and the Verde River far below. And deep tributary drainages distort the contours into series of zigzags. I traced a couple faint brown lines across dozens of contours, to the river, past a hot spring and then back across all the same contours a bit farther south.
Zach continued to grin as he ran his finger along some other jeep roads that wrapped around to the west, forming a loop. He nodded approvingly. We debated whether we'd need–or be able–to cross the river in the canyon, but decided to ignore that potential complication. The loop looked to be around 80 miles with a mix of decent dirt roads, rough jeep roads and a lot of vertical. And with that, we had a plan, a mere 20 minutes in the making.
I picked up Zach the following morning, and we drove for less than an hour before reaching our loop. We didn’t feel any sense of urgency to push off particularly early, so the sun was high overhead by the time we were ready to roll. Our bikes and backpacks were loaded lightly as far as bikepacking setups go–food for two full days, 5 liters of water capacity, a tiny alcohol stove, some spare parts and repair items, lights, maps and enough insulated gear for a night during which temperatures would likely get down close to freezing. After all, lighter bikes make for happier legs and more grinning.
The ride began with an hour of cruising along smooth gravel, weaving in and out of small canyons and across golden grasslands before turning north, at which point we began a climb that would take the entire afternoon. The road quickly degraded and I sensed that we were in for more of an adventure than we’d anticipated. Sometimes a brown line on a map doesn’t do reality justice.
Sinuous ribbons of rusty-orange sycamore trees lined the rocky washes between slopes covered in catclaw and prickly pear. Our bikes bounced and bucked along the rough jeep trail and through countless drainages, gradually gaining elevation. We occasionally paused to take in the remote landscape and reflect on some of the geologic oddities of the area. By the time dusk overtook us, we found ourselves standing at the top of a precipitous 4,000-foot descent down to the Verde River and our hot spring destination. On went our lights and we plummeted into the darkening grey of the night, immediately skittering and sliding through classic central-Arizona chunk.
Forty-five eye-straining minutes later, we pedaled gently along the river, accompanied by a steady current lapping against the banks. The rough canyon walls above were illuminated by bright moonlight, and ahead, the silhouettes of two palm trees marked the ruins of a small resort that once had stood at the site of the hot springs. We bounced down a set of dilapidated concrete stairs to a series of pools and old stone walls decorated with thick layers of murals. At the edge of the pools, a 30-foot wall plunged straight into the surprisingly wide river below.
Before I knew it, Zach was already soaking his legs in the warm water. I joined him and let the marvelous pool relax my weary muscles. But as comfortable and soothing as this end-of-the-day hot spring was, my stomach was rumbling. We retreated back to the palm trees, pulled out our camping gear and made a potato-salmon-cheese one-pot wonder. Even the simplest of meals tastes stellar at the end of a big day of pedaling.
The fronds of the towering but spindly palm tree rattled in a gentle breeze as I dozed off. This was, as far as I could recall, the first night I had ever spent beneath a palm. I was asleep within a few minutes, but the last thought I had was that we'd have to cross the river come morning–and that we’d seen no sign of a bridge.
"This seems like it's OK over here, just watch your footing!" Zach shouted. I stood on the shoreline and watched him feel his way across the nearly waist-deep channel. A chill ran through my body before I even stuck a toe into the water. Strangely, water is never something I'm particularly eager to get close to. But when your route necessitates a couple of cold river crossings on a chilly morning, there's not much choice.
"Whoa! That's chilly!" I exclaimed as I stepped in. It was immediately obvious that the river was being fed by snowmelt coming off the edge of the Colorado Plateau.
"Just wait until you get out farther," Zach replied, his voice an octave higher than normal. I laughed nervously and continued on. He was right, but before long, we were pedaling along the far shoreline in the warm morning sun, basking in the glow of more orange sycamore leaves.
The remainder of our route climbed away from the river, through Bloody Basin and up onto the tablelands from which we came. From our quick look at the map a couple days before, I envisioned a graded dirt road the entire way. But as we paused on the cobbly floodplain and looked at the canyon wall above, there was no sign of any such road–just a very steep and eroded jeep trail.
"Oof. This looks like it's going to be a slog," I said to Zach, looking up at the bluff above the river.
"Huh. The map made it look like a nice dirt road. Or at least that's how I imagined it," Zach replied, with a hint of uncertainty in his voice.
"Well, this looks to be the only way up. It'll probably be a slog, eh?"
And a slog it was: five hours later we were still climbing, our tires gnawing steadily at the loose ground most of the way up. As has happened so many times before, I stared out across the landscape in front of us in awe at the rugged, remote and awe-inspiring character of so much of central Arizona. We collapsed in the shade for another snack, I drank the last of my water, then we continued climbing, eyes scanning the side of the road for a cattle tank or puddle in a rocky streambed. The track gradually improved and eventually we hit the main dirt road through Bloody Basin and climbed to the rim above. The area's namesake red soil contrasted vividly with the purple sky as the sun disappeared below the horizon. We chased our lights' little beams through the rutted road and were soon back at the truck.
Relieved to have completed our loop, we both remarked at how a mere overnight trip can be such a fun and invigorating adventure. There's no better way than bikepacking to, in just two days, explore a new corner of the world, cover an appreciable amount of ground and develop a connection with that place. And every time I do this, I'm left with a new section of my mental map filled in. But around the periphery of that new section, dirt roads and trails splay outward to areas unknown, begging to be pursued and connected to other familiar places. It's a never-ending and unendingly fulfilling process for me.
About the author: Since falling in love with bikes as a kid while sporting a “MacGyver”-inspired mullet, Kurt Refsnider has bikepacked in countries across the globe and has won numerous bikepacking races. He is a geology professor at Prescott College where he teaches Geology through Bikepacking and coaches the school's Division II cycling team. He is also the founder of Ultra MTB Consulting and offers coaching and consulting for endurance cyclists and bikepackers.
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