Being Lost in Sedona Could Almost be Considered a Rite of Passage
This story originally appeared in the January 2014 Issue of BIKE.
Story by Nicole Formosa
Photos by Garrett Grove
In a place known for attracting soul searchers seeking enlightenment, it almost seems presumptuous to not leave your ride up to some degree of chance.
Or maybe that’s just what I was telling myself as I hefted my bike farther up a faint hint of a trail somewhere in the maze of singletrack and slickrock known as the Hogs, one of Sedona’s best stashes. Rarely found on maps of the area until very recently, navigating through the short labyrinth of trails with swine-centric names such as Hog Heaven, Hog Wash and High on the Hogs is inherently part of the adventure.
There are no signs or markers, leaving the uninitiated to follow instinct, the occasional cairn or the dusty tread patterns of those who entered the web before. In this case ‘instinct’ led me, and my riding partner, directly to a dead-end in a cluster of pinyon pine trees on a steep ridgeline.
Similar to the New Age devotees who flock to Sedona, one is never truly lost there, simply searching for clarity on a new path, and before long, we found ours. Soon, our tires were crunching along on a narrow strip of loose, rocky dirt lined with desert sagebrush and foreboding Prickly Pear cactus needles as we wound our way up to treeline, dwarfed by magnificent red spires stretching for the sky.
Pedaling across a vast red-rock mesa as the desert sun dipped below the horizon, an evening light struck the distant crimson towers in a way that would cause even the most carnal rider to ponder the mysticism and sacred energy believed to be steeped in the iron-rich rocks.
Below the Hogs, a fortuitous trail fork choice spits us onto the blissful Pig Tail. The fast, smooth, bermy rollercoaster sprinkled with high-speed booters is short—just a half-mile—but after squeezing the brake levers inching over and around obstacles on the Hogs, a chance to open it up, no matter how brief, is exhilarating.
The Hogs are quintessential Sedona—intervals of quick, lung-busting rocky ascents, steep rollers, slickrock, exposure, expansive views and a difficulty level that will make your body scream like it powered through a ride three times as long as your GPS claims. But riding here has always required more than advanced technical skills and the fortitude to pedal palm-sweatingly close to a few scary ledge drop-offs—it also meant poaching. Less than a month before we rode them, the Hogs, like the majority of the approximately 200-plus miles of trails in Sedona, were technically illegal.
underground and unknown
Sedona’s rare natural beauty and its mysterious vortices—points of heightened energy believed to emanate from the ground in multiple locations in and around town—have drawn spiritual seekers, healers and psychics to the dramatic desert landscape for several decades. As I strolled through the Center for the New Age in the heart of town, one transplant nicknamed Reiki Rob bluntly told me that he came to Sedona from the East Coast on direction from a lucid dream. Then he scrambled onto his outdoor massage table, just next to the sign hawking UFO sighting tours, contorted his thin, lanky limbs into full lotus pose and grinned widely for a photo.
On any given day in Sedona, one could pamper his or her soul with an aura reading, a potpourri of therapies and a psyche-cleansing meditation session atop a vortex. If timed correctly, you could end the evening twirling to the rhythm of beating drums at a full-moon party below Sedona’s famous Cathedral Rock, an aural and visual experience so entrancing that it’s possible to imagine the shadows dancing off the behemoth rocks as obscure wild animals without the aid of mind-altering substances.
Aside from the metaphysically minded, retirees, wealthy second homeowners, hikers and Grand Canyon-bound tourists swell Sedona’s modest year-round population each fall at the beginning of the high season. But, despite the town’s triple threat of challenging, accessible singletrack; its proximity to mountain bikers’ well-trammeled southern migratory route to Moab, Fruita and Hurricane; and the presence of its own craft-beer brewery, mountain biking has traditionally been something of a second-class attraction in Sedona.
“It was undercelebrated for how awesome it is,” said Troy Rarick, who brought his Over The Edge brand of bike shops to Sedona two years ago after renting a winter house in town since 1997. Sedona Over the Edge, owned by Jason First and Michael Raney, opened in the former location of Mountain Bike Heaven, the shop at the core of Sedona’s early mountain-bike scene for two decades.
Around the same time, the Forest Service, which manages nearly all the land surrounding Sedona, and local riders finally took the first steps toward repairing a severely tarnished relationship. Patrick Kell, IMBA’s southwest region director, came into the picture in early 2012, moving to nearby Prescott and bringing with him years of experience securing funding for new trails in Vermont by working with land managers, not against them. Jennifer Burns returned to the local district office of the Forest Service as the recreation manager with a pro-mountain biking mindset.
The long-running rift between builders and the government had already put Sedona a decade or more behind other mountain-bike destinations in regards to big-picture planning. The new faces in town were ready to legitimize the trail network so volunteers could legally maintain existing trails and potentially seek funding for future projects.
So far, that willingness to work together has resulted in 45 miles of existing ‘social’ trails being added to the Forest Service system, including the town’s most iconic routes like the Hogs, Hiline and Hangover, which is famous for its white-knuckle sections of exposure and don’t-look-down cliffside traverses.
The Forest Service has also closed a few notable trails—Tomahawk, Damifino, Special Ed’s and Damifido are all off-limits—by issuing a two-year order that prohibits riders from traveling off designated routes in five areas located around sensitive archaeological sites or fragile soil in the Oak Creek watershed.
The decision quickly divided Sedona’s riders, earning the town the nickname ‘Sedrama.’ There are those who believe the closures unfairly discriminate against mountain bikers, and those who say you’ve got to give an inch to get a mile.
Rarick and Kell have often been accused of “selling out and working with the enemy.”
“In a political sense I agree with that, but right now they have guns and trucks and shovels: Let’s work with them,” Rarick said. “You have that animosity from an old school that’s been riding here for a long time. Sedona is core mountain biking. They were riding cool shit before anybody ever thought you could build a trail. And Hangover, in my head, was going to be the tipping point of could you make Sedona legal?
“We focused there and got that legalized early and it set a statement that we can still do rad shit here we just need to do it together.”
if you build it…
Sedona’s first trails were ‘ridden in’ through years of use starting in the early 1990s when a group of mountain bikers—led by Rama Jon Cogan, the longtime owner of the now-closed Mountain Bike Heaven—first ventured out on meandering fat-tire missions.
“Because the scene was so casual, it wasn’t a big deal to just go ride your bike, and they weren’t really building trails. There was nothing stopping them,” said Lars Romig, president of the Verde Valley Cyclists Coalition and a Northern Arizona native who’s been riding in Sedona since he was a teenager.
Those early years, known around town as the Rama years, were all about exploration (and safety breaks), but eventually technology and talent progressed, and riders craved variety and engineered trails to complement the organic feel of riding Sedona. The Forest Service wasn’t interested.
After requests to build new trails were repeatedly turned down, frustrated trailbuilders started sculpting dirt and rock into their own riding sanctums on unused open space and National Forest land.
“At first it was a desire to smooth out the older routes, but then a big shift happened. New trails started sprouting up everywhere,” Cogan wrote in his 2011 recollection of the birth of Sedona’s mountain biking scene, “Rise of the Gnarly Crew.” “This phase of development added to a long-neglected desire for more and longer trails.”
During this time, some of Sedona’s most rugged terrain was populated with mountain-bike tracks. Mitten Ridge, Carrol Canyon, Cathedral Rock, Mescal Mountain and Broken Arrow all turned into prime pedaling territory. Some survived, and have grown into Sedona’s best-known trail troves, while others faded away.
Although tense at times, the situation was copacetic. The Forest Service lacked the leadership to curtail illegal building. Plus, mountain bikers weren’t technically riding illegally because of a Forest Service cross-country travel clause. While it was illegal to build and maintain the trails, riders could be there.
As singletrack continued surfacing, and the sport’s indicator species—Germans and Canadians—embarked on pilgrimages to explore Sedona’s reputed terrain, it became clear that a look-the-other-way approach wasn’t sustainable. The relationship between the Forest Service and the builders was about to boil over.
“Building trails you just end up with shitty trails,” said Phil Kincheloe, arguably Sedona’s most prolific builder, whose vision and artistry created some of the town’s seminal trails before he had an about-face four years ago. “You know what? It’s their job, it’s their land, it’s their management. In one sense, it’s a no-brainer. You can’t keep going the way you’re going. It’s got to change. All you have to do is look at other communities.”
trashed, then treasured
The Slim Shady trail rolls out of the Village of Oak Creek, a small community 7 miles south of Sedona, and connects with Made in the Shade, Templeton and the infamous Hiline. Its two-and-a-half miles of flowy, hand-built singletrack incorporate the natural washes and rocky sections so well that every dip, every turn feels like it was custom-designed for my bike and riding style. Traveling north to south, Slim Shady is exciting whether you’re hauling ass on a cross-country hardtail or ripping on an all-mountain bike with the buffet of trailside features providing a feast of steep slickrock and rock ledges.
It’s the kind of trail that’s nearly impossible not to have fun on regardless of your bike’s suspension, wheel size or frame weight.
This is also where the proverbial shit hit the fan in early 2009.
That year in January—prime Sedona riding time—the trail was brand-new and mountain bikers from Flagstaff were driving down to break in the freshies.The Forest Service decided it was time to make a statement. A volunteer trail crew obliterated Slim Shady, which was then illegal, by pushing down trees and destroying rock walls. It was the Forest Service’s modus operandi: trail appears, crew destroys it, mountain-bike community rebuilds it.
The cycle wasn’t sustainable, and Burns, a career Forest Service worker who had taken the recreation management job two months prior, knew it.
“There was another trail, now called Easy Breezy. The volunteer crew was supposed to go out there and do a soft closure because a lot of people get lost out there. They went and just trashed it. There was just this anger built up about illegal trails. That was just a huge black eye to us too. It made me just go: ‘We’re out of control,’” she said.
Burns vowed to end the futility and put Sedona on a positive path forward. Fortunately for her, Kincheloe, was equally as affected by the destruction of Slim Shady, a trail he built.
“That’s the first shot,” said Kincheloe, wearing a T-shirt with “No More Shitty Trails” printed on the back, as he hiked along the Huckaby Trail, shovel in hand on a trail day in early October. “Then it’s like why would I put energy into something they’re going to undo?”
The two formed a relationship, and Kincheloe stopped building trails where they weren’t permitted, which is a bigger deal than it sounds like.
In a land of myriad healing methods, trailbuilding is just one more type of therapy. Kincheloe, a plumber by trade, had been prescribing to that medicine as a way to clear his mind, and recover from a bad marriage, since 1995, well before he ever pedaled a mountain bike. Many others suffer from the same sickness, an addiction to shaping the contour of the land, envisaging how to lay out a trail and connect it to other routes, spending hours in solitude of the desert surrounded by nature’s raw beauty.
To keep the unsanctioned trails from cropping up, progression had to be part of the Forest Service’s long-term plan. A year’s worth of community meetings netted a long wish list of new trails and connectors, but the Forest Service’s scant $116,000 budget won’t go far toward chipping away at that list, especially while also balancing the needs of hikers and equestrians. Projects such as the legalization of Last Frontier and Western Civ., considered two of the best trails in West Sedona because of their flow and relative remoteness, and new construction on Canyon of Fools—a swoopy pedal through a deep, narrow wash in the Mescal Mountain area—has to wait.
“We have no maintenance money,” Burns said. “We’re S-O-L. And basically our regional office is saying, ‘If it’s not sustainable, if you can’t provide maintenance, you shouldn’t be building it, no matter what it is.’ We’re kind of in a bind right now.”
To fix this, Kincheloe and others are brainstorming a nonprofit trail fund called Sedona Red Rock, perhaps modeled after Grand County, Utah’s successful Trail Mix, which is responsible for maintaining and building the majority of trails in and around Moab.
In the meantime grant money is starting to materialize. Last October, the town of Sedona approved the construction of a bike skills park, although the community has to raise $30,000 to make it happen. And the Verde Valley Cyclists Coalition won a $5,000 grant to upgrade and add to the Hogs network, which will be padded by a $2,500 contribution from IMBA, $500 from Sedona Over the Edge and labor from Absolute Bikes and Bike & Bean.
That small amount of progress has cast a pall of positivity over much of the Sedona riding community. There is relief that the crown jewel trails are protected from sudden destruction. And excitement about the future—perhaps Sedona could finally host a race, á la the nearby Whiskey 50.
“To actually be heard is wonderful,” said Tony Fanelli, a longtime barista at the popular Bike & Bean rental and coffee shop, speaking above the whir of the espresso machine. “The folks who have been here longer than I have, they’ve dealt with a lot of negativity and that doesn’t just go away, at least not that quickly. But I think even that contingent is smaller than it used to be. I think people are seeing that working with the Forest Service is the way to go. You’re butting up with a government agency—it’s much better with sugar.”