The Sky Islands Odyssey is a special route for us here at Campfire. In 2022, we rode the East Loop as the advanced option in our backpacking series, a trip that saw temperatures well below freezing and eternal wind. A few weeks later, we supported Sarah Swallow’s Ruta del Jefe event by providing repairs, service, and good vibes just off Mount Hopkins Road. February can be a bit finicky weather-wise down around the Santa Rita Mountains, but we crossed our fingers and decided to kick off 2023 with another go on the East Loop. Read on for a recap of our ride, as well as a short writeup from Sarah’s “Journey through Bicycles” presentation that we hosted just a couple weeks after the ride.
One of my favorite parts of a Campfire trip is figuring out how to get to the start. Some folks make the effort to arrive by bike, pedaling from Tucson or, infamously, Phoenix to Flagstaff, on a cargo bike via the Arizona Trail (ahem, Eric). This time around, Chris picked me up at a Waffle House, while Toby, Josh and Dan rode three abreast in Josh’s little Mazda pickup truck (Ed would meet us later that night having pedaled down from Tucson). We met Jeff, Hannah, and Jon at the Elephant Head parking lot on a Saturday morning, and after introductions and land acknowledgements, we headed north towards Green Valley. Based on last year’s experience, clockwise seemed like the best direction for the route, starting with the sustained but mellow climb up Box Canyon Road and hoping to ease the pain of the Solero Canyon section coming the other way.
We had easy miles to start along the De Anza multi-use path, in and out of snowbird communities, golf courses, and finally, on to White House Canyon Road where Dan defiled his low-sugar diet with a box of Caramel Delights from the Girl Scouts parked on the side of the road. A brief sandy section gave way to the start of the Box Canyon climb, and we decided to make a lunch stop at the Basin Spring rock seep a little over halfway up. The weather was cool enough that no one was relying on the water, and a good thing, because there wasn’t much of it. For lunch, a mixture of snacks, burritos, bars, and sandwiches were produced. I was crawling around the rock seep, when from down below I heard a metallic crunch and a gasp – Toby stepped on my sandwich.
After lunch and plenty of heckling directed at Toby, we rounded the north end of the Santa Ritas and headed south along the eastern edge of the range towards Kentucky Camp, our water source for the day. Here and there we followed the Arizona Trail – at times a trail, at times a dirt road – with beautiful views of the Whetstone, Mustang and Huachuca Mountains. The climbs were steep and loose, making the big porch and chairs at Kentucky Camp a welcome sight. We lingered here for a bit and read up on the interesting history of the camp and its attempt to mine gold using water cannons. After a few more singletrack miles and one last chunky climb, we settled on a beautiful camp with sunset views of snowy Mount Wrightson. With camp set and dinners down, there was nothing left to do but enjoy a fire and a few rounds of S’Moreos.
Day two started with one worry and one hope. The worry was that the forecasted rain would prove true and bring peanut butter death mud. The hope was that Tim (Campfire trip alum who we ran into on his motorbike) would come through on his promise of pizza and beer at the end of the day. Both happened (more later).
With all the previous rain and snow at higher elevations, we had a few stream crossings to begin the morning, where Hannah performed some impressive underbiking on her Specialized Sequoia. A long downhill dropped us at the Sonoita Mercantile just in time for second breakfast and a little resupply for the rest of the day. Soon a strong wind picked up and cobalt clouds covered the southern horizon, the exact direction we were headed. With a sense of urgency, we pedaled out of town into a stout headwind that eventually subsided as we turned off into a more forested, undulating section of oak and juniper. Then, the rain came just as we hit highway 82.
It wasn’t a soaking rain, per se, but it persisted until we arrived at camp several hours later. Being the desert bike riders we are, most of us only had flimsy little rain jackets, so by the time we hit Canelo Pass, thoughts of Tim’s promised pizza and beer were about the only thing keeping us motivated. Views on the descent into the fabled San Rafael Valley were all socked in with clouds. Now it was a sideways, soaking rain. I gripped my bars and expunged a stream of water from my gloves.
We made camp that evening a few miles from the Harshaw Creek Road junction, and true to his word, Tim was there with pizza, beer, dry firewood, and an awning off the side of his van. After dinner we took turns drying clothes and shoes around the fire and polishing off the last of the S’moreos.
Being so close to town on our last morning, most of us pedaled straight for Gathering Grounds Cafe in Patagonia where we loaded up on breakfast sandwiches, burritos and coffee. Leaving town, we turned onto Salero Ranch Road and began our final section around the southern end of the Santa Ritas. This portion of the East Loop is a rollercoaster of chunky jeep roads that endlessly dips in and out of drainages coming off Mount Wrightson and Mount Hopkins. Steep climbs give way to fast, loose descents, and the cycle continues for a little over 20 miles. The road started to feel a little tacky here and there, and if more rain had come our way, it would have been peanut butter mud for certain.
Arriving at the adobe ruins, we made a quick lunch of whatever was leftover in our bags – a freeze dried meal, a can of tuna, tea and a Clif Bar. On last year’s ride in the opposite direction, we camped here on the first night in hopes of using the adobe walls as a windbreak. It was a long, cold night, and luckily, our experience this time around was much more enjoyable. From here, the route finished up with one last climb and then largely downhill back to our cars.
These rides wouldn’t be the same without the kindness and good vibes of the folks who join us, so a big thank you to Josh, Toby, Jon, Jeff, Hannah, Ed, Chris, Henley, and Dan for making it happen. Hannah posed a lot of fun questions over the weekend, one of which was polling the audience on their luxury items for the trip. Below are a few of them.
photo credits: Henley Phillips
We’ve got more rides and events already planned for the Spring, so please check our Events page here. Hope to see you at the next one!
“Journey Through Bicycles”
A week after finishing our loop of the Santa Ritas, we hosted a sold out event with Sarah Swallow at Borderlands Brewing to hear more about her past as a bike traveler, her work on routes and adventure rides in the Sky Islands, and the importance of being informed riders in the places we pedal. With a beautiful slideshow of images, Sarah shared her personal history as a bike shop owner in Ohio, a pioneer of the Trans America Trail (dirt edition) in 2015, and the beginning of an ambassadorship that gave her the opportunity to travel and document her rides around the world.
Later on, she began splitting her time between Durango, Colorado and Tucson, and from there the idea to create a bikepacking route in the Sky Islands was born. The routes many of us have enjoyed today took several years’ worth of scouting before being released in 2018 and continue to be regularly updated. As she spent more time in the region, Sarah realized there were complex issues being confronted by individuals and communities every day. From that awareness, Ruta del Jefe was created as an opportunity to showcase not only the beautiful riding in Southern Arizona, but also shine a light on issues unique to the Sky Islands.
To end the evening, Sarah answered a round of questions from the audience and finished up with some exciting news for upcoming projects, including moving Ruta del Jefe to Cuenca Los Ojos in Sonora, México and work on extending the southern terminus of the Tour Divide to finish across the border. Thanks to Sarah for your time and hard work creating meaningful events for the cycling community to enjoy!