The Gila River Ramble, just south of Phoenix, Arizona, is a multi-day mountain bike route concocted by Scott Morris, resident expert on all rides Arizonan.
The word ‘ramble’ is a somewhat modest definition for the steep, rocky grades involved, the lofty ridge rides, the precarious, whirligig switchback descents, and the endless singletrack alleyways that wend through forests of giant saguaro and clumps of prickly choya cacti. Despite its mild-mannered title, think more along the lines of weekend epic than casual saunter…
Still, there’s no doubt it’s a wondrous part of the state to explore on two wheels. The mineral-rich landscape is in every way a match for the riding on offer; rocky jeep tracks, hewn from sheer sided canyons, link one abandoned mining settlement to the next. Imposing red rock buttes and mesas, along with the ever-craggy Superstition Mountains, complete the scene. This is rugged desert riding at its finest.
Broadly speaking, the Gila River Ramble combines a backbone of the AZT with a knot of jeep tracks between Kelvin and Florence. There are various interconnecting trails to choose from, depending on time – and in our case – weather. As misfortune would have it, our 4 day trip coincided with an unexpectedly robust and persistent rainstorm, that soon washed away all preconceptions we had for a warm and dry winter escape…
Joe rode: his Rob English, that cleverly dislocates into two for easy air travel, as he was flying in from New York.
Gary rode: his custom AM Peirce, fitted with a ‘dinglespeed’ – yes, just two gears. He only used one.
I rode: my mighty Krampus, complete with goliath tyres.
This is definitely a ride where packing light pays dividends; we all sported bikepacking soft bags (Porcelain Rocket and Revelate) to best enjoy the singletrack riding.
Gary and I ran tubeless tyres, Joe loaded his inner tubes with sealant – a must in this prickly part of the world.
Surly Krampus (Update)
This was my second bikepacking trip on the Krampus, and one that reinforced how much I enjoy riding this beast of a bike on a multi-day ride. The extra heft of those 3in Knard tyres didn’t prove problematic, handsomely compensating with their bonus grip (both up and down) and their rock-muffling prowess. I didn’t miss a lack of a suspension fork, nor did my back. I did, however, suffer one cut on the rear tyre – the rocks on the AZT are known for their blade-like sharpness – but thankfully it didn’t penetrate the casing, and looks to be holding out just fine.
The only real issue I ran into was the chain to tyre clearance, at least with the 1×9 setup I was running. The chain runs extremely close to the tyre when shifted into the last cog – a 36T in my case -and has a tendency to pick up mud and sling it both into the rear derailleur and the front chainring. Bad news. If I was running an MWOD or OD double, I could avoid using that last cog as much for the gear range I needed. As it is, I’ll soon be converting to a Rohloff, which should eliminate the issue altogether.
To be fair though, these were the kind of foul conditions that would probably have made a meal of any derailleur system, single, double, triple or otherwise.
Some Nitty Gritty
All the necessary gpx files to download can be found at bikepacking.net’s Gila River Ramble web page, along with navigational cues and waypoints for all important water spots – not that this was an issue for our sodden ride.
We started our loop at the Gila river crossing east of Florence, linking Kelvin (no food or water) and Superior (all services), returning via Box Canyon.
Between the three of us, we used a concoction of Garmins and iPhones – Gaia is an excellent offline topo app and well worth the $20 download fee. Unless you have a dynamo and a dust/waterproof phone case to hand, a handlebar mounted GPS unit makes for fluid riding and is far more efficient in terms of battery usage. The user-friendliness, the interface of a smartphone offers a better sense of the whole ride, making for easier tweaks to the tour if needed.
For Joe’s musings, check out his fantastic site, Pedaling in Place. Gary’s photo album – complete with my cacti encounter – can be found here.
Although we’d always intended a chilled, laid back pace to our ride, our distances were loped short by the trail conditions, and travel times that bookended the trip.
12,746′ elev. gain
5.6mph moving average
18:06 moving time
After the inevitable late start that preludes such tours, we take to the road, a few miles east of Florence, AZ. The majestic Superstition Mountains are never far from view.
Saguaros cacti, omnipresent residents of the Sonoran desert, stand vigil around every corner.
Our route debuts with a series of rough and tumble jeep tracks – here, Joe hunkers down for one of the steeper pitches. We only pass one vehicle, whose driver complains the roads are hurting his kidneys. I’ve noticed most backcountry conversations in the US end with a warning. ‘Watch out for the, er…’ There’s a pause, while he racks his brain for something, anything, that might qualify as a danger. Finally he adds, ‘the mountain lions. There’s a lot of them out here.’
But our concerns are more for what the sky has in store. After weeks of unblemished sunshine, it’s just our luck that the weather forecast is set to take a turn for the worse…
Scoping out a campspot for the night.
Campspot found, food is prepared. Over the years, Gary’s fine-tuned his lightweight gear, without throwing money at it for no reason: his setup is as lean as his physique. As such, he favours a homemade denatured alcohol stove into which he carefully measures thimble-fulls of fuel. An insulated cozy completes the cooking procedure. This is a list of what he generally carries.
Dawn brings a few tantalising beams of sunshine.
It’s the excuse we need to linger around the campsite. In the absence of both tent poles and trees, note Joe’s cunning use two front wheels to support his tarp for the night.
My own home comes courtesy of a Six Moon Designs tarp that not only doubles up as a poncho, but zips away neatly into its own pouch. The short carbon pole helps further to reduce its pack size. The weight is just 310 grams, plus 51g for the pole…
More gear nerdiness: an elegant Rob English 29er, complete with Revelate bikepacking bags, and Shimano 8 speed internal hub for ease of travel.
As usual, the minutae of our gear choices are discussed and debated. Fearing the wrath of desert spines, Joe has opted for a bulkier traditional foam pad over an inflatable Thermarest.
Framepacks provide the means to centralise cargo on the bike, which suits more challenging terrain. Gary’s brand new Porcelain Rocket pack is fashioned from high tech Cuben fiber (hence visible Clif bar), weighing in at a scant 190g. Probably more to do with his legs than his gear, Gary is often a blip on the horizon which we scramble to chase.
More grunty pushes required.
Then, after a stint on two-track, we take to the Arizona Trail.
Choya cacti, alien-looking life forms that speckle the mountains.
This particular section of the trail is known as Ripsey. After a prolonged climb, it picks its way delicately along the knife edge of a ridgeline.
A rotund barrel cacti.
For the most part, our trail hugs the hillside tightly…
… wending its way amongst the beanpole saguaros. At one point, we cross paths with an ultra runner, who in a babble of words, downloads all the ‘beta’ for the trail ahead. ‘It’s brutal out there,’ he concludes, with a touch more drama than may be necessary, before bounding off in his zebra-stripped gaitors.
A short scramble leads us to the campspot for our second night, where plentiful and clean water is to be found at an artesian well. The evening’s entertainment comes courtesy of Joe’s iPhone, which we huddle round to watch Batman: The Dark Knight Rises. Joe, a university philosophy professor no less, claims to have seen this movie ten times, a handfully of which were in the theatre.
In fact, the terrain ahead does indeed prove to be brutal, but not for the reasons for which we’ve been warned. Day 3 is marked by rare rainfall that fluctuates from torrential downpours to persistent drizzle… On a brighter note, at least it brings out the colourful wonders of the desert: the choya cacti positively glow.
Loose and sloppy mud, combined with tired legs, has us pushing up many of the climbs.
Inevitably, I forgo taking photos once hands and fingernails are encrusted with mud. This record of Joe’s steed is just the tip of the muddy iceberg.
Still, when riding finally becomes more feasible, it’s everything we’re hoping for, even if the rockscape is half shrouded by cloudcover…
… out of which appear bizarre monolithic sculptures.
An ocotillo cacti begins to bloom. Kickstarted by the storm, in a month the desert is sure to be awash with vibrant flowers.
Joe, bedraggled but still smiling. The day is punctuated by knee high creek crossings and congealed, muddy quadmires through which we drag our bikes.
We reach Superior long after nightfall, seeking refuge in Casa Donegean. Two rounds of tortilla chips are demolished in quick succession before we begin to debrief. Gary and I polish of a combination platter each, while Joe makes quick work of two generously-proportioned burritos.
A night in a motel provides a chance to dry of bodies, gear and bikes, then we’re back at Casa Donegean for a breakfast feed. Given the continued downpour, we consult the iPhone, reluctantly opting to bypass the singletrack south of Picket’s Post, supposedly one of the gems of the Arizona Trail.
Joe and I supplement the morning feast with 3 freshly-glazed doughnuts…
Bellies full. Bodies dry. Considerably happier. Downtown Superior, a somewhat ramshackle and characterful old copper mining town, is being resuscitated back to life to draw tourist dollars.
Of course, I can never resist a good mural.
Nor some Americana.
Then, we’re headed back into the mountains once more, dwarfed by the rockface that towers above us.
As the rain stops, conditions quickly improve, even if the creeks are still overflowing.
Wind and a few rays of sunshine do much to dry out the trail, as long as we avoid its murky puddles.
Back up we climb: the view from atop one of the mining roads, across distant desert plains.
Our return journey leads us through Box Canyon, en route back to Florence.
The last light of the day – and finally a break in the clouds.
One final night is spent camping beyond the canyon. There’s just time to catch the last instalment of Batman before the tents are sprinkled with rain once more.
Then it’s back to the car to drop Joe off at the airport in Phoenix. We loiter in the Safeways car park to dry gear and pack away our belongings, basking in the accomplishment of the ride, but more than a little downcast it’s over so soon. We marvel at Joe’s remarkable mountain bike that squeezes so neatly into an airplane-friendly suitcase.
Despite such inclement weather, the closing of the lid marks the end of a wonderful few days of riding. Thanks Joe for making the trip from New York, and Gary was driving me all the way down from Santa Fe. Until the next time…
Camera: Canon 5d Mk2, Canon 17-40mm f/4 and 70-200mm f/4 lenses.