Jul 10, 2013
The following is a guest post by Kevin League.
After becoming a papa in August of 2012, my drive to race bicycles and train for racing literally disappeared over the remainder of the year. As anticipated, the new addition to the family required more of my time and attention, but something also was changing inside me; a new chapter in my life had begun. I had always debated the pros and cons of riding bikes with the ultimate goal to be fast. I felt the creative side of my brain was being disregarded for the thrill of speed and appreciation of efficiency and fitness. While I had no intentions of giving up bike riding as a hobby or for fitness, what I felt I really desired was a renaissance back to my rooted love of the outdoors. I missed my old hobbies of photography, fly-fishing, and nature study. In many ways, my old favorite hobby of wilderness travel — backpacking — had been disregarded for all the time on the bike. But thankfully, there is a way to combine the two!
I have been attracted to the growing popularity of bikepacking for several years now. The ultralight version of mountain bike touring appealed to me. Strapping some lightweight camping gear onto your bike enables you to go far (or not far at all) and see amazing places. For the first time by bike, I would be able to travel into the wilds and, with provisions for overnight stays, do it again the following day. This leads to endless trip possibilities and, for my first tour, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon would serve as my testing ground.
Motivated by a variety of outstanding trip reports published online, I decided that the North Rim of the Grand Canyon offered all that I was looking for, including a nice mix of top-quality single and double track trails, plus a network of dirt roads and optional resupply points, if a plan B or C was needed. And of course the scenery is nothing short of world-class. I would flirt along the North Rim of the Canyon for 160 miles and camp 4 nights at select vantage points in the National Forest and Park. The route I choose is often referred to as the “Kaibab Monstercross,” an annual ultra-grueling, endurance race that is completed in one-day! For me, the point was not to test my endurance; I was planning on taking my time and enjoying all that the North Rim of the Canyon could offer.
Starting in January 2013, I decided to gather the necessary gear and study the route. I already asked for, and received from Santa two years ago, a handlebar bag setup, and my bike, a Salsa El Mariachi with twenty-nine-inch wagon wheels, undoubtedly one of the most qualified bikes for such endeavors. The rest of the gear would come to me as I auctioned off most of my old backpacking gear and purchased newer, ultralight versions of the same, plus a frame and seat bag system specifically designed for overnight off-road expeditions via bicycle. My first new camera in 10 years was purchased too. I was getting closer to being ready.
By mid-May, a week before I was scheduled to leave, I had not yet completed a “shake-down” trip to test the whole bikepacking concept. In fact, a variety of snafus would not land all of the critical pieces of gear until 36 hours before departure! I was lacking the confidence that I was hoping to acquire from riding a fully loaded bike and testing my new gear ahead of time. Furthermore, while I was in reasonable shape, in no way did I feel my body was totally prepared for what I was about to unleash on it. With these concerns unaddressed, I anxiously headed into an adventure.
Day 1 – Jacob Lake, AZ to Monument Point
Distance: 37 Miles, Climbing: +2,535 / -3,395 ft., Ride Time: 3:30
It only took a couple of seconds after setting out for me to notice how a loaded bike feels — it’s heavier, it’s slower, and the weight over the handlebars in particular impacts the handling of the bike. I estimated the weight of my bike, gear, food, and water at close to 50 pounds. Tires and shocks need quite a bit more pressure. Luckily my introduction to bikepacking was a good one, the terrain this day was relatively easy and a friendly tailwind would propel me south towards my first view of the rim and a rendezvous with my friend’s vehicle parked at my first night’s destination.
My friend Nathan and I coordinated our week of vacation together. His plans included backpacking the Thunder River area of the Canyon which offered me access to his car on my first night for a strategic water/beer stop, and later a meeting at the North Rim Campground on my final night on the trail.
I made my camp on a secluded spot right on the rim near the Bill Hall Trailhead at Monument Point, enjoyed a cold brew from the cooler, soaked up some views, and made conversation with a few hikers either returning or starting their journey into or out of the Canyon below. I set the camera up and grabbed my first time-lapse of clouds crossing the sky. A lot of my gear — sleeping bag, pad, tent — was all being deployed for the first time. The evening went flawlessly, the weather was perfect, and my spirits were high.
Day 2 – Monument Point to Timp Point
Distance: 30.5 Miles, Climbing: +2,633 / -1,989 ft., Ride Time: 4:48
Today would be one of the highlights of the trip; I would finally ride the Rainbow Rim Trail, a mountain bike-specific trail in the Kaibab National Forest that hugs the rim for 19 miles, which I had been reading about for years. But getting to the start of the trail was a bear. There was quite a bit of climbing and some hike-a-bike on primitive roads to get to the trailhead. Along this route I met a few other travelers on bike, horse, and foot. Many were interested in my “rig” and route. The views were great but somewhat infrequent along the Rainbow Rim, which made me appreciate every time I came across a glimpse into the great abyss. This being springtime, flowers and shrubs along the rim were flowering and hummingbirds buzzed from bloom to blossom. Flocks of western tanagers, with their fluorescent rainbow-colored plumage hopped from limb to limb. These friendly and spectacularly gorgeous avian species would be my trail companions each day of the trip. I set up camp at the southernmost trailhead of the Rainbow Rim Trail at Timp Point, where I found another fantastic campsite with views from the rim. Timp Point was completely vacant until John and Julie rolled up in their tricked out “overland” style custom Ford Sportsmobile Van, completely outfitted for a modern-day safari.
John and Julie own and operate Tonto Trails, a new boutique expedition vehicle rental outfit based out of Durango, Colorado. They had just returned from an overland expo in nearby Flagstaff, Arizona and were touring with a British couple, Toby and Jo, on the North Rim. John and Julie invited me over to check out their custom camper 4x4s and have a beer. I obliged! I spent some time getting to know everyone, hitting it off, and doing a bit of dancing and frolicking around the campfire. I was treated to a tour of the two vehicles they brought with them. Toby is a renowned photojournalist who covers the 4x4 and overland sports in Europe and around the world. He was working on a story on the Grand Canyon and Tonto Trails.
Not wanting to wear out my welcome, I departed to my camp early and made a fire from a select piñon pine firewood batch that I had gathered earlier. Piñon has the most amazing fragrance of any wood on earth and with this being my last night in the more lenient National Forest (campfires are not allowed in the backcountry of the adjacent National Park) this was my best chance to enjoy the spellbinding aroma. Shooting stars crossed the night sky.
Day 3 – Timp Point to Point Sublime
Distance: 25 Miles, Climbing: +2,002 / -2,066 ft., Ride Time: 2:56
As I was gathering things together in the morning, John came by my campsite to check out my bike. He shared his interest in bikepacking and recommended I come by and show off my bike to the others before I headed on. I went over and said my goodbyes, not before giving a handful of recommendations for their next night’s destination, which they were having a tough time deciding.
I made my way on some easy and pleasant wooded roads and dropped into a shallow canyon. I pumped water out of the Quaking Aspen Spring, and headed south toward the National Park boundary. Once into the Park, the fun began. The tread was challenging and the terrain was rugged and simply felt “wild.” At one point during a downhill run through a narrow ravine, two buffalo entered the trail directly in front of me, one from the left and another from the right, galloping and kicking up enough dust that I decided to stop rather than chance heading into a smoke screen, the contents of which included two huge beasts easily capable of destroying me and my machine. Once the dust settled, I continued cautiously onward. Oddly, I never saw the two buffs again, and actually can’t figure out where they ran off to. The ravine in which I met them did not let up for at least another mile and did not offer easy escape from the trail.
Eventually, I would drop out of the deep woods and transition into the piñon, juniper, and sage habitat that frequent the lower elevations just below the rim-top as I closed in on Point Sublime, this night’s destination.
At the aptly named Point, the view, as you might imagine, is spectacular. From this vantage you have a commanding view of the Canyon and can even see the swift currents of the Colorado River thousands of feet below. I set up camp and rested in the heat of the day. Later in the afternoon, I was pleasantly surprised when the overland crew rolled up, and soon after sharing greetings the party was on. That evening, we were joined by three more overlanders, outfitted to the gills with professional photo equipment to capture a show put on by the setting sun. I was invited to indulge in much appreciated apps, vino, and dinner and enjoyed what turned out to be an amazing evening — ending up tops in the “least anticipated/coolest part of the trip” category. An excellent buzz was achieved (by all) and eventually I stumbled off to camp, but not before admiring a celestial showdown between Venus, Jupiter, and Mercury that disappeared below the western horizon.
Day 4 – Sublime Point to North Rim Campground
Distance: 19.1 Miles, Climbing: +2,243 / -1,276 ft., Ride Time: 2:27
I left Sublime Point after saying my final goodbyes to my new friends, and with a subtle hangover began my shortest but most challenging day in the saddle. At this point in the ride, my lack of fitness was showing. My legs were toasted and I generally felt fatigued. But with no other real options, I happily kept the pedals turning. Later I would realize that the volume of riding I was completing in any given day was equal to the volume that I was doing in a typical week leading up to the adventure.
It was a slog, but I eventually navigated all of the surprisingly sandy tread on this route and rolled into the Grand Canyon’s North Rim National Park compound. After over three days with no contact, the first thing to do was to call my anxious and curious family. Soon afterwards I grabbed lunch at the deli and showered the first layer of filth off my body at the campground, where I met Nathan, who was just coming back from his grand adventure in the Canyon. Nathan and I took it easy, hit the saloon, shared some stories and met a small group of young dudes from England who had brought their 40-year-old double-decker bus, complete with custom paint, over the Atlantic, for a tour around the good ole USA! Nate and I caught the sunset from the patio at the North Rim’s lodge and polished off a pint of ice cream, heading off to sleep early in preparation for the following big day in the saddle. As forecasted days ago, a dry desert wind picked up notably from the south and gusts of wind rustled my tent from side to side.
Day 5 – North Rim to Jacob Lake
Distance: 47.6 Miles, Climbing: +2,217 / -2,122 ft., Ride Time: 4:14
To be honest, I was a little worried about this day, which featured over 20 miles of rugged singletrack on the Arizona Trail, a trail that bisects the arid-zone-uh state longitudinally. In total, nearly 50 cumulative miles were needed to get me back to my starting point; on paper, a daunting proposition considering the effort it had taken to get me this far. However, two important elements were in my favor — 1. In general, the terrain featured as much elevation gain as loss and, 2. The wind, which was howling out of the south, would be at my back all day, propelling me towards the finish. The latter, in particular, gave me the confidence needed to tackle the day with little to worry about.
I didn’t make it out of the parking lot of the campground before bumping into a couple of mountain bikers checking out me and my ride. Richard is the owner of Moustache Custom Cycles in nearby Flagstaff, Arizona, and, as you would have guessed, has a sweet 'stache. His bud also had a beard that I would describe as having the ability to nest a medium-sized bird in. They wanted to hear about the trip and the day’s itinerary. I gave them all the local knowledge one could acquire over 5 days and headed off knowing that I might bump into them on the trail. The effect of the wind was noticeable and I made good time.
Once on the Arizona Trail, I came across a historical fire tower, which welcomed a walk up for a view. Further down the trail I acquired my last view of the Canyon. I said my goodbyes to the Grand at that point and headed onward, north. Rich and company later joined me before outpacing my tired ass up a deeply forested hill, which was the last I would see of them. Phlox and daisies dotted massive montane grasslands with small ponds, where I hoped to get a final glimpse of a buffalo or see a wild turkey or two. Finally on the pavement, I was really flying; I covered the last 20 or so miles in just a little over an hour; not bad on a loaded mountain bike. I rewarded myself with a fat pastry from the Jacob Lake Inn and called it a trip, a really fantastic, hard earned — but not without some surprising perks — first-ever bikepacking adventure.
Photos by Kevin League
KEVIN LEAGUE works to protect important private land and public open spaces in Southern Colorado as the Pikes Peak Conservation Director for the Palmer Land Trust and advocates for cycling in his region as a member of the Board of Directors of Southern Colorado Velo. In his free time he enjoys exploring the western United States by bicycle with his wife and daughter.