As I mentioned in my previous post, the Coconino Loop is a bikepacking journey around the Coconino National Forest, Northern Arizona. Concocted by Scott Morris, of Topofusion fame, and his buddy Chad Brown – both bikepacking fiends – it knits together 250 miles of trails and jeep tracks, with only a handful of paved miles to its name. It’s an incredibly diverse loop, flitting from corridors of ponderosas pines to the open, red rock desert of Sedona, via Cottonwood, Mingus Mountain, the Verde River and Williams.
I say ‘bikepacking’ because the route claims to be almost 50% singletrack, much of which is relatively technical. Between the slabby trails of Sedona, the medley of rough jeep tracks through the ponderosas, and the vertical challenges of Mingus Mountain, it’s certainly tough enough to warrant packing as light as you can – so forget panniers or a trailer on this one.
The loop is raced in 4 stages, or even by madmen who tackle it in one fell swoop – for the grand prize of a box of donuts no less. Yes, that means riding 250 miles of technical terrain straight through the night…
As mortals, we rode it in 4 and a half days, largely due to my obsession for taking photos and a couple of late starts. I’d add to that our first day out of Flag was slowed down considerably by tacky, clay-like mud on the Anderson Plateau, having rained the night before. A tenacious compound, it ‘slo-moed’ us down to a literal standstill, jabbing hopelessly with twigs to clear clogged drivetrains. So, keep an eye on the weather if you’re planning the ride. Spring and Fall are best, to avoid the sweltering heat of Sedona.
We ran fully rigid setups, but agreed front suspension would have made for less exhausting days – we were both pretty spent by the time we were done. Although you can trim this ride down to three nights, four felt good to us. We certainly didn’t feel like we were slacking…
Distance: 253 miles
Average speed: 7.4 mph
Elevation gain: 20 671ft (the official taly is 28 000ft. We diverted round the infamous Mingus Mountain hike ‘n bike and stayed on forest roads, which might account for 2000ft of the shortfall, but I’m not sure where the rest of the discrepancy lies)
Time: 34 hours moving time
Although the parts of the route that follow the Arizona Trail are well signposted, you definitely need a GPS for this ride. All the relevant info can be downloaded from the bikepacking.net. I used my lovely new Garmin Etrex 20 (thank you Nancy!) and though I have yet to unearth all its secrets, I’m now a GPS convert. Battery life was great – at least 40 hours with lithiums AAs, leaving it on and not fiddling with menus during the day.
I’m all for shouldering the bike if it gets me to places I’d otherwise not be able to reach – or to avoid pavement. But if there’s a good dirt road alternative, I’m happy to take that too. To avoid the route’s most infamous hike ‘n bike, I’d recommend taking the Mingus Mountain Bypass (there’s a separate gpx file) which skirts round the top of the mountain, keeping to mellow, scenic forest roads for the most part. It meets the main route some 10 miles later. We noticed that it’s also possible to turn off onto a graded dirt road at a couple of points on the way up to the Bill Williams Overlook, saving yourself some potential off-the-bike toils. If the trail on the other side is littered with blowdown, you can follow the dirt road down into Williams too.
I rode my Surly Ogre with my usual Porcelain Rocket kit. I was travelling light, but not as light as most. The Ogre carries a few extra pounds round its waist (easily slimmed back with a lighter wheelset) and I had some 6.5 lbs (3kg) of camera kit to lug round too – my DLSR and a few lenses, plus spare battery – so I certainly wasn’t riding as light as I could have been.
Gary took his AM Peirce, fitted with a 1×9 drivetrain and Stan’s ZTR tubeless rims, weighing in at around 25lbs. His full rig (minus food and water) tipped the scales 34lbs 12oz (15.7kg), plus 5lbs 10 oz (2.56kg) in his pack. Gary knows how to pack! He had tubeless tyres and I ran sealant in my inner tubes.
We both packed lightweight tarps (only used one night), and made sure we had enough layers for cooler conditions. I carried my Clikstand cookset, while Gary relied on cold food.
Here’s just an overview of the ride – I’m saving some photos for a story I hope to write up… You can check out Gary’s pics here.
The two bikepacking steeds. My Surly Ogre, and Gary’s AM Peirce.
Easing into the ride on the Arizona Trail at our start point of Flagstaff.
Unfortunately, rain the night before had transformed what should have been 10 miles of blissful singletrack in a sticky, treacly brew. Definitely not derailleur friendly: where’s that Rohloff when you need it…
Much of the AZT picks its way through corridors of ponderosas and alleyways of rock gardens…
Linking one grassy plateau to the next…
We met this Japanese AZT through-hiker on the route. Apart from in Sedona, we didn’t see anyone else on the trails.
Dropping down from the Mogollon Rim at Schnebly Hill Overlook. Built in 1902, the Old Munds Wagon trail was used by homesteaders in the Verde Valley to sell produce and livestock in Flagstaff.
Spring is in the air – a wonderful time to be in the desert.
Our descent into Sedona marked a change in flora – we were entering the land of agave and cacti.
Sedona is said to be a centre of vortexes to heightened spiritual and metaphysical energy…
It’s also a mountain biking mecca. The Coconino Loop weaves one trail together with the next – like Broken Arrow, a Sedona Classic.
Cathedral Rock. Note Pink Jeep in the background. At the risk of sounding like a zealot, these jeeps disgorge tourists too lazy to hike the few miles needed to get here. Not ideal for desert peace and tranquility…
Spot Gary if you can…
There he goes…
Catching these miniature barrel cacti as they began to flower was a highlight of the desert experience for me.
The waters of Buddha Beach were so tempting we crossed them without even needing to, straying briefly off route.
Leaving Sedona for solitude once more.
The Lime Kiln Trail was originally constructed in the 1880s to burn lime; now it’s just the wisp of a sandy path across the desert.
More splashes of colour…
And the desert rat’s favourite, the spindly, spikey occatillo cacti.
No need for the tarp… A perfect camping spot on a plateau above Cottonwood.
Cottonwood lured us in its grocery store, where set up camp for an hour of feeding and gear repairs. Climbing back out from Cottonwood towards Mingus Mountain was tough in the heat; sweat flowed off my helmet peak like a waterfall. That’s San Francisco Peak in the distance, where we began.
Tired legs and loose rocks = some pushing.
The classic hide of an alligator juniper, as we climbed up in altitude once more.
The route unearths all kinds of rarely used jeep tracks. At one point, we followed a powerline for a few miles across the valley.
Coyote Springs offered a welcome chance to stop for lunch and refill water bottles. Despite the life forms, we didn’t bother to purify it, and lived to tell the tale.
Stopping to soak it all it up, before the gravel road descent back down to the Verde River, where we camped the night.
Which, of course, was met by a drawn out climb back out of the valley. Foolishly, we’d expected an easy trail to round off the morning, before lunch in Williams…
But we ended up climbing back up to 9000ft, culminating with an infamous hike ‘n bike. Blowdown made our much anticipated descent from the Bill Williams lookout more of an assault course than a ride.
Eventually, the trail opened up once more for some sweet riding.
Williams – on the National Register of Historic Places – boasts some classic signage that harks back to the historic Route 66. I’m a sucker for ’50s Americana.
It was also home to the most excellent Rolando’s Mexican Restaurant. This double burrito special cost $9, and fed me for both lunch and dinner. You need to stop at this place if you’re doing this ride.
A good excuse for a break: waiting for the cargo train to chug by.
Before long, we were back amongst the avenues of ponderosas once more.
Then, we turned off onto trail again, following singletrack around Sycamore Canyon, dodging volcanic babyheads as we went. Given our tired legs, some sections were more than a little awkward to ride…
Don’t look down…
Great views and campspots abound… The latter part of the trail smooths out, reward for previous toils!
Maybe one day there will be a picture of a bikepacker…
Eventually we closed in on Snowbowl, back up at 9000ft, at the foot of the lofty San Francisco Peak.
From here, 14 miles of AZT awaited, a ribbon of singletrack perfectly crafted into the hillside. We weaved between rock and tree with effortless grace.
Back in Flagstaff, where a shower at the $40 dollar Canyon Inn Motel (eventually) shifted ingrained dust and mud… But not memories (-:
Cheers Gary! End of ride celebration at the Dairy Queen.