Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Arizona Trail - FR 418 to Snowbowl Rd (Hart Prairie, AZ)

After a spectacular first day of riding in Flagstaff, at the Schultz Creek / Elden Lookout area, we were excited for our second day of shredding, at a trail just down the road. Our ride this time would be on the Arizona Trail (AZT), from FR 418 to the bottom of Snowbowl Rd, and sandwiched between Hart Prairie (known for its vast aspen groves) and the San Francisco Peaks (home of the Arizona Snowbowl). Since I wanted to get some photos of the aspen trees, which were in prime foliage season, we figured that we could also get in a good ride, killing two birds with one stone. Furthermore, growing up in Flag, I had never done this section (it wasn't built yet), so I was also looking forward to doing it for that reason as well. We assumed this ride would be more of a scenic tour than one with a fun/exciting trail surface, but we would soon find out otherwise...

To get to the AZT trailhead, we drove down Hwy 180 to FR 151 (just past mile marker 235) and made a right. From here we drove ~1.5 miles to FR 418 and then another mile to the trailhead. We were now completely surrounded by aspen trees, and I couldn't help but feel nostalgic and stoked about the atmosphere it created. It's funny, sometime it takes being away from a place before you truly appreciate how special it is!

A view on the drive in

Yellow canopy

The trailhead

Once we had geared up, we headed out. The first part of the trail climbed at a modest pitch though open aspen groves, with a few trees downed across the trail. As we continued to climb, the aspens gave way to ponderosa pines, with only occasional patches of the white trunked trees. The climb itself was never steep, heading up at a fairly consistent gradient. Unlike the riding we had done the day before, it was non-technical, with only a few short rock gardens.

Starting off the ride through the aspens

A nice smooth trail surface for the ascent

Into the pines

A small meadow during the climb

Around the 4 mile mark, we reached the start of the open grass meadows, which provided expansive vistas of the San Francisco Peaks to the east. The foothills of the mountain were adorned with brilliant yellow foliage, creating amazing panoramic views that would make any postcard or magazine proud to display. I almost rode off the trail more than a few times as I looked over my left shoulder at its grandeur – I finally had to stop and just take it in for a few minutes. Of course I had to take some photos too...

A typical view in the large meadow section

Hard to beat these views

Emily, leading the way

Plenty of colors!

At the meadows, the trail had flattened out a bit, but still contained a few climbs, including the steepest one of the ride, albeit short. It also entered and exited a few aspen groves, with one blanketed in a floor of fallen yellow leaves. Down the hill to the west, we saw a small lake, which I regret not making the side trek to visit. It was at this point, around the 7 mile mark, that the trail reentered the pine forest and we reached the first true descent.

The trial was nice and flat in this section

Heading toward another grove

Follow the light

Blankets of yellow

Lots of open landscape...

...and views of the San Francisco Peaks

The small lake I wish we would have visited

This part of the ride was much more reminiscent of the stuff in the Schultz Creek/Elden Lookout area, with fun and swoopy descents and techie rock bits thrown in to keep you on your toes. As a bonus, there were also quite a few natural jumps along the way to catch a bit of air; nothing too big, but enough to put a smile on your face. As with about any ride where I'm planning to do a write-up on, I jumped out ahead, so I could setup for photos of Emily as she passed by.

Emily settles in for the descent

A typical section of the descent

High alpine forest

Lots of little kickers along the way, like this one

On the second half of the descent we came across a couple of traverses that where more technical than the rest of the trail, but even then, it wasn't overly difficult. Eventually the trail entered a more open and less steep section, with undergrowth blanketed in grass and lupin. From here it wasn't long before the trail crossed over Snowbowl Rd, which we would use to climb up to Aspen Corner, just down from the ski area. From Aspen Corner, we planned to take a connector trail back to the AZT, which we would head back down on, to where we started the ride.

Emily enters one of the more technical traverses

Another traverse

Among the lupin

A fun little drop near the end of the trail

The climb up Snowbowl Road brought back lots of memories, as I drove it often during the winter time to snowboard, back when I lived in Flagstaff. The climb itself really put the screws to me, and I had to stop a few times to catch my breath. For most of it, I was by myself, as Emily was in much better shape and didn't seem to have the same problem with the elevation (up to 9,000'). Eventually, after ~4 miles of staring at the pavement, we made it to Aspen Corner, where we regrouped and rested for a few minutes before heading back to the AZT.

Starting the climb up Snowbowl Road

We made it!

The connector trail was full of hikers that had come to see the florescent yellow aspens, so we had to keep our speed down a bit. It wasn't long before we were back in familiar territory, right at the top of the descent we had made an hour or so prior. As we headed north across the meadows we had seen from the other direction, we were treated to new perspectives, both directionally and lighting.

Heading back

Eventually we reached the final descent, which had been our climb at the beginning of the ride. At this point I was pretty worn out on taking photos, so decided to put away the camera and focus on shreddin'! The gradient was perfect, allowing us to blast down the trail without much pedaling or braking. Forcing myself to enjoy the end of the trail without distractions (other than a couple fallen trees) was a great way to finish the ride --we were smiling ear to ear when we finally reached the car! After we loaded up, we headed back into Flag to meet up with the crew, who would be showing up for our Grand Canyon river trip, but that's a whole other story...

One of the few photos I took during the final descent

Nearing the end of the ride

A parting shot of the aspens

Awesome! This ride was just what I was looking for -- an opportunity to get some good photos of the aspen trees and ride some really fun singletrack. Supposedly this is a relatively new trail, and I would consider it a great addition to the already stellar riding in the area; in fact, there is a connector, "Rocky Moto”, which will bring you to the Schultz Creek / Elden Lookout riding area. If you happen to be riding in the area during the fall foliage season, I would definitely consider this a must-do ride. In fact, we were so taken aback by the ride quality, we did it again the following day, just so we could show our friends (who had brought their bikes too) how great it was. Here are a few of the highlights from that, our second, ride:

The crew starting off the ride

Mark, making his own jumps...

This doesn't suck!

Aspen glow

Melissa, somewhere along the AZT

Follow the leader

Winston reaches Snowbowl Road

Arthur below Snowbowl Road. We did not do this section on the previous day

Sandra, obviously enjoying the ride!

The tracks from our ride:

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