Cacti calling: desert riding in Arizona.

Here in the American South West, winter looms.

And with it,  desert heat and dirt roads beckon…


On the road again... From Skull Valley, we had little option but to count down the miles along an uneventful stretch of Arizonan blacktop. Our first attempt to stray off pavement was met by a locked, six bar gate. This is Wild West country and venturing into private land is no small matter. Ranchers carry guns here, and from what we'd heard, feel entitled to use them...


A clue, nesting in the rocks, that we are descending in altitude, and heading for drier climes.


In fact, despite the dark skies and the threat of rain, barely a dozen droplets seemed to fall.


Forever hungry, and with no other settlements across the desert to Parker, we detoured to the copper mining community of Bagdad and made a bee-line for the supermarket. Satisfaction soon came in a round of these magnificent, artificially-injected, crazy-coloured donuts, and their promised sugar rush...


Initially drawn by the association of its name but expecting little, Bagdad surprised us with its hospitality. First we were befriended by an ecclectic Sunday supermarket posse of kids. Then friendly Tyrone, who'd worked in the mines all his life, invited us into his home. As we poured over maps, we were fed huge slabs of homemade pizza, before watching a movie on a cinema-sized plasma screen amid scurrying kids and Mr Nibbles the guinea pig.


The retro-future diner at Bagdad, home to log-like burritos, perfect for a take away lunch.


Rumour had it that our planned dirt road was now 'controlled' by a local militia - a group of gun-toting individuals who spend the days playing out war games amongst disused buildings they've bought up. Training for Judgement Day? It's a pastime that's 'perfectly within their rights,' we heard - like Texas, Arizona is very gun-tolerant. We weren't too sure about how well we'd be welcomed in, so backtracked and continued further south, onto the graded dirt of Burro Creek Road.

It felt good to turn off the pavement, away from the 18 wheelers barrelling up towards the mine. Our mood was lightened by this kindly gold prospector, who, upon hearing our plans, chuckled gently and offered some sage advice for the road ahead. I asked him if there was still much gold to be found in the hills. 'If you have the patience,' came the reply. ' It's chicken and dumplings one day, feathers and guts the next,' he added, and chuckled a little more. Then, quoting a verse of King Lear for my benefit, he tipped his cowboy hat, gunned his old '57 Dodge to life and trundled off to try his luck once again...


The Surly Troll, parked up beside a Palo Verde, Arizona's distinctive, green-tinged state tree. Our gold prospector friend told us it flowered a beautiful shade of pale yellow in late spring, and that its seeds tasted like 'sweet candy'.

Nancy and the Invasion of the Saguaros, a tree-sized cactus native to Arizona.


Heading into desert solitude.


But as much as we valued the forthcoming peace and quiet, our lack of GPS was a little daunting in these parts. As it was, we relied on Nancy's iPhone, the Verizon cell network and Googlemaps. Their combined efforts did surprisingly good job at keeping us on the right track.

After all, there are few road signs round here and even fewer power points... Next time, a solar panel is on the gear list.


Most of the rattlers have hibernated by now, but this pancake-flat skin reminded us to take care. (photo Nancy Crowell)

A few naysayers had warned us of impossible riding conditions away from pavement. As it was, most of the trail was rideable, with the odd wash - sandy, dry creekbeds - to negotiate.


A happy desert rat. (photo Nancy Crowell)

Sublime. A perfect trail unravels towards the mountains.


Eventually, Burro Creek Road fed us into a steep sided canyon, down a sandy chute intermingled with gullies of rocks.


The trail then crossed a creek, where we hiked down around to scoop up valuable water from amongst the rocks.


Quiet companions at our campsite. They made for a striking silhouette come sundown.


Luckily we'd loaded up our inner tubes with slime. So far, so good.


Ever in search of adventure, we detoured off Burro Creek Road and cut across on the power line track. We'd heard it passed through a jigsaw puzzle of mesas, with the possibility of sighting long-horned sheep and burros - wild donkeys.


Nancy pondered whether the extra effort was completely worth it... The tortuous jeep track plummeted down one moment, challenging us with loose rock and watersnakes...


Only to climb right back up the other side, with strenuously steep replies. Some of them demanded near vertical scrambles.


Finally, we emerged back on the 'main' graded road again. There was just time to catch our breath, before crossing Highway 93 to continue across the evocatively-sounding Buckskin and Rawhide Mountains...


Desert compadres... (photo Nancy Crowell)

11 thoughts on “Cacti calling: desert riding in Arizona.

  1. Susie Moberly

    This is such a contrast to the turbulent seas we’re experiencing in Monsoon drenched Suratthani at the moment! I feel like I’ve been transported into another world of Cacti and dry creeks! Loved your account of the gold prospector, and his old ‘Dodge’ making your feel at home with a verse from ‘King Lear’… it’s those moments that make me ‘smile’. Cant say the well camouflaged rattle snake had the same affect even though it was a ‘gonna’… AMAZING Cactus companions and scary ‘close up’ of those thorns. Now, they can cause almost as much havoc as a rattle snake if left untreated (I say from bitter experience) Fantastic photos as always and happy to see you with Nancy enjoying the ride! Especially love the cloudy image with ‘threats of rain’! Take care… and it goes with out saying I wait in eager anticipation for the next post! Warm hug X

  2. Maureen

    Hi Cass–I came across your blog a couple of months ago and just wanted to let you know that I love it! Your adventures, photography and writing are amazing and I “almost” feel as if I’m along for the ride.

    My husband and I would love to do some more extensive bike touring and we hope to one day ride either the Continental Divide trail or ride across the U.S..

    I had a quick question for you. If you had only one week to ride on the Continental Divide trail, where would you go? I’m hoping that we can get out there this summer for a week to ride at least part of it and wanted your thoughts as to which section you’d recommend?

    Thanks for sharing your adventures with us “armchair cyclists!”

    All my best,


    1. While Out Riding Post author

      Thanks for your message Maureen.
      Where are you based? Figuring the logistics of getting there/away might dictate which bit you ride, given your time schedule is relatively short. New Mexico has some good local bus shuttle options – for instance, there’s a shuttle to Cuba for just $2 – and there’s the train from Grants too. Both of these would get you back to Albuquerque, and give you a good taste of the great riding in New Mexico.
      I took a shuttle from Denver to get me to Steamboat, and there are shuttles from Silverthorne/Brekenridge back to Denver again – perhaps from other ski towns further south too. Certainly, Colorado was a highlight for me.

      1. gyatsola

        I think Salida has a shuttle bus to Denver too. I’d certainly recommend the stretch between Steamboat and Salida as having lots of variety plus some good places to stay in between.

        1. While Out Riding Post author

          That’s a great idea. Steamboat to Salida would be a cool ride. If you were short for time, the same shuttle stops off in Silverthorne on the way to Steamboat, so that would cut off a couple of days – though I really like that part of the ride too. Have a great time!

  3. Maureen

    Thanks for taking the time to offer a GREAT suggestion. Steamboat to Salida would be a beautiful ride.

    FWIW, we live on the East Coast near Richmond, Virginia…You’re welcome to come stay at our place if your travels ever put you in this area.


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