Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Rocky Ridge / Sunset / Schultz Creek Trail (Flagstaff, AZ)

A week-long mountain biking trip to Sedona/Flagstaff was never planned, but instead, was a impromptu backup to our Grand Canyon river trip, which was being held hostage by the inept politicians on Capital Hill. With ~$30k, a year and a half of planning, and a month's worth of saved up vacation time on the line, our crew of 16 decided to make the best of the waiting game by putting together other adventures while we staged in Arizona, awaiting word of the park reopening.

It actually didn't require a whole lot of additional planning, since I had lived/grew up in Flagstaff for 25 years (before moving to Oregon), and already knew where some great riding would be found. Flag/Sedona is where I learned to mountain bike, and was my primary sport before falling in love with whitewater kayaking up here in the Pacific Northwest. Emily and I were already planning to show up in Arizona early and rent bikes for a few days, but when it looked like a coin flipper on whether or not we'd be able to put on The Grand, we decided to bring our own bikes, just in case we'd need them for a longer time period. With the rest of the crew heading down just a few days before our launch, I got ahold of everyone to discuss the sobering possibility that the Grand Canyon trip may not happen and what they were thinking about as far as contingency plans. I was truly amazed/inspired by the group's commitment to the trip, with every member "all in" and headed down to join us. All but three in the group were bringing their mountain bikes, and the others were planning to just hang out and make the best of it in other ways.

After spending a few days with my parents in Mesa (a suburb of Phoenix), Emily and I headed up to Sedona for a day of mountain biking, on our way up to Flagstaff, where we'd be meeting the rest of the crew. I was happy to get moving, as I had become worn out watching CNN and CSPAN, hoping for any sign of a compromise, and just needed to get out on the trail to forget about the whole damn thing. We ended up riding Slim Shady -> HT -> Little Horse -> Llama -> Bell Rock. We had such a great time that we headed out and did another loop on Slim Shady/Made in the Shade! Although I hadn't ridden this specific trail system before, it brought back many fond memories of riding the red dirt trails found in this area.


Startin' it off on Slim Shady

Red slickrock playground

The author finds some stairs

Yep, we're in the desert

The end of the Llama Trail

Evening session on Made in the Shade

Desert sunset

The next day we drove up to Flagstaff, checked into our hotel, and then headed out for our first ride in the pines, at the Schultz Creek/Mt Elden riding area. While living in Flagstaff, this was the trail system that I rode all the time, including after work rides, and is the area that made me fall in love with the sport. I already knew what trails I wanted to ride -- we'd start with Rocky Ridge, climb up Elden Lookout Rd, and then descend down Sunset/Little Bear/Schultz Creek Trail. Unfortunately, we got word at the parking lot that parts of Little Bear had been taken out by natural events and was closed for repair. With that news, we decided we'd just figure out which way to head down once we got to that point.


The bottom parking lot, serving the Elden/Schultz Creek riding area

As we changed into our gear in the bottom parking lot, the sun was shining, the air was nice and cool, and our spirits were very high. I was really excited to show Emily the trails that I had cut my teeth on! As we started up Rocky Ridge, I remembered it being a solid technical challenge, and we soon found ourselves in a continuous stretch of boulder gardens. Coming from my recent years riding the buffed singletrack in the Mid-Willamette Valley, I was a little out of practice, which had me dabbing from time to time along the way -- even so, I was having a great time! Emily, who has become such a solid rider, was eating it up and also loving the challenge.


Let's do this!

Emily starts it off up a rocky pitch

Typical scenery on Rocky Ridge

A rare speed section

Emily clears a fun rock up

~2 miles later (way too soon) the trail ended at Elden Lookout Rd, which we rode up an additional 7.5 miles to the summit of Mount Elden, at the radio/lookout towers. The view of Flagstaff and surrounding area is pretty amazing, and we spent some time just taking in the place we used to call home. When the desire to shred some sweet descent overcame us, we saddled back up and headed back down the road to the start of the Sunset Trail.


Somewhere on Elden Lookout Rd

A meadow, near the top

Climbing in the aspens

The summit!

Flagstaff, from the top of Elden

Let's get this descent started!

We actually had to make a short/steep climb up the trail before it started to descend. Just as I had remembered, the trail had a nice mix of flow and technical features. We rode through a small aspen grove and down a techie pitch before reaching a small overlook, and the start of "The Catwalk" (aka Organ Donor). Make sure to stop and take in the view before continuing on, which looks Northeast and onto Sunset Crater.


A steep climb at the start of the Sunset Trail

Great view of the Peaks from the top of Sunset

Emily enters an aspen grove

The author exits one

Emily picks her way down a rocky bit

Taking in the view before the Catwalk

The Catwalk itself is essentially a benched-in traverse along a ridge with exposure to your right. It's not overly dangerous, but make sure you keep your eyes on the trail and walk any of the technical stuff you don't feel comfortable riding, as a wreck here could certainly be unpleasant.

The Catwalk

More Catwalk

The trail soon leaves the exposed ridgeline and enters a more wooded setting, referred to as "The Hobbit Forest". The highlight of this section begins with a steep set of switchbacks that are a real hoot! Soon after is a super techie boulder garden that I wanted to scout before dropping into. Once I had my line picked out, I hiked back up to my bike to give it a go. My run through the boulders went pretty much as planned, and I was stoked to have a good line, both clean and injury free!


The start of the switchbacks in the Hobbit Forest

Lovin' the downhill

The author on line in the boulder maze

Finishing up the boulder garden

Now riding though a grass meadow, we started a short climb, which brought us to an intersection with the Upper Brookbank Trail. It was at this point that we had to make a decision, continue with Sunset, or switch to Brookbank. Since I didn't have a detailed memory of either, we flipped a coin and decided on Sunset. With our choice made, we continued climbing for a short bit until the trail eventually summited atop a saddle.


More meadows

and another climb

The start of the descent, down from the saddle, weaved though an open pine forest before dropping into a drainage, where the trees closed in a bit. This section of trail was super fast/fun, with a few nice kickers here & there to get some air off of. We did come across a few hikers along the way, so we had to control our speed a bit more than we would have liked to.


Leaving the saddle

Wide open up top

More aspens along the Sunset Trail

The Sunset Trail eventually ended at a parking area, where the Schultz Creek Trail picked up. I had remembered this being one of my favorite sections in all of Flagstaff, so I was excited to see if my memory was correct. We did have one bit of excitement near the top, where a steep drop-off snuck up on us -- I was leading at that point and luckily got my front wheel up, avoiding a high speed crash. We were both pretty wide-eyed and laughed a bit before continuing on.

We were now following along Schultz Creek, with the trail surface allowing for a high-speed descent. It crossed the small stream a few times, but there was only enough water in the creek to get our socks a little wet. Because we bombed this section, I wasn't able to take many photos, but trust me, it was good, and we were both smiling ear to ear when we finally made it back to our car.


Schultz Creek Trail

More Schultz Creek

What a great first day of riding in Flagstaff -- the weather was perfect and the fall foliage was in its prime. The ride quality was just as good as I had remembered it, with lots of technical challenges to keep you on your toes, but not so much you couldn't enjoy the surroundings. Emily was equally stoked and couldn't believe she didn't do more mountain biking while living in Flag. With a ride like this, we were definitely looking forward to hitting the Arizona Trail the following day!


The tracks from our ride:

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Nate!

    My wife and I went to grad school in geology in Flag, and ended up in Bend because the ponderosas reminded us of a good place.

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