The Lemmon-Top Traverse – Our 2023 Swift Campout

Southern Arizona is well known as a cycling mecca. Hundreds of miles of singletrack and dirt roads lay within thousands of acres of public land ripe for day rides and overnight exploring. In the few short years I’ve lived here, the now iconic San Rafael Valley outside of Patagonia has gone from a ranching road to a bustling gravel bike highway. Adventure travel companies, professional cyclists, and social media influencers swarm Tucson and the surrounding Sonoran Desert for sunny days and mild weather riding in a sea of grassland and saguaro forests… in the winter. Come summer, and for those of us who live here year round, this part of the country turns brown, crisp, charred. It’s hot. Too hot to ride for long, and not much fun camping either. So when we were asked to take part in this year’s Swift Campout, we knew there was only one place to go – up.

Luckily, Southern Arizona is also dotted with sky island mountain ranges that rise upwards of 7,000’ over the surrounding desert floor. Just north of Tucson we have the Santa Catalina Mountains – home to an incredibly diverse ecosystem of flora and fauna including Gambel oak woodlands, mixed conifer forests, wildflowers, deer, and black bear to name a few. Our group of 24 riders met at Windy Point Vista (except the hardy few who rode from town!) and headed up to beat the heat and celebrate the solstice with cold drinks, cool temps, and an impromptu bocce ball tournament. 

One of my favorite things about our trips is the diversity of rider experience and bikes that show up to pedal with us. This time around we had folks who’ve hardly missed a ride over the last year and a half, first-time Campfire riders, first-time bikepackers, rigid, hardtail, singlespeed, and even a trailer! We offered both gravel and mountain bike options, and as we rolled into San Pedro Vista, the group started splitting into their respective choices for the day. Here you can pick up the official Arizona Trail Wilderness Bypass for mountain bikers, so Nate and I decided to give it a try. Short of fun, I’d call the Incinerator Ridge hike-a-bike entertaining, with some really nice 360 views of the desert below and a glimpse of Rose Canyon Lake. The mountain bike crew reunited on Kellogg Trail headed up to Mount Bigelow and took a shade break before the Sunset Trail descent. Those on the gravel option continued up the highway a bit more before hitting dirt on Bear Wallow Road to skirt Bigelow. 

Everyone reunited in Summerhaven for a late lunch break and loitering on the general store porch. With a shorter route and being just three days past the official summer solstice, there were plenty of daylight hours to get the miles in before camp. Topping up water in the Visitor Center bathroom, we headed out of town for the last short stretch to camp. We had secured a spot the night before and buried a bunch of donated beer (thanks Matt!), bubbly water, and ice in a hole in hopes of arriving at camp with a pit full of cold drinks.

Tents went up, hammocks were slung, and we settled into a long, relaxed afternoon getting to know our group a little better. Josh’s bocce ball set was taken out, and what started out as a curious match to figure out the rules soon turned into a full-on tournament. We played in waves of four people at a time, and with no one being overly skilled or lucky, the matches lasted about 15 minutes each. Jay, Jeff, Matt, and Katie lined up for the winner’s match, and in a stroke of uncanny yard game skill, Katie swept the other three in about three minutes. 

If you’ve been on one of our trips, or read the trip reports, you know that no Campfire outing is complete without an evening around the fire cooking up some S’moreos. Unfortunately we had to forgo a fire due to extremely dry conditions, but we kept the tradition alive toasting ‘mallows on camp stoves and keeping the stoke alive. 

We’re incredibly lucky to have such a refuge from the summer heat, and the next day highlighted the fact. We woke to temperatures in the high 50s, while down below, Tucson was set for another triple digit day at 110F. Those who had pedaled up from town headed out early the next morning to beat the oven-like heat that awaited us. For the rest of us, we lazed in camp for a bit while Patrick, our Swift representative who was along for the ride from Washington, hosted a raffle with a bunch of sweet bags. Climbing up the control road back to the pavement was already feeling hot at around 9AM. There was some talk of riding singletrack and hike-a-bikes on the way down, but the descent from the top of Lemmon is way too good to pass up. What took most of the previous day to ascend, we covered in about 30 minutes of freewheeling with hardly a stroke of the pedals. 

If it weren’t for the push of the Swift Campout, I don’t think many of us would have found ourselves pedaling and camping this particular weekend. We turn indoors and lethargic in the heat of a Southwest summer, or we leave altogether for a little while. Even if you live in more temperate climates, the global impetus to go ride and camp with friends and strangers is one of the more noble things I can think of, so kudos to Swift for making it happen!

Thanks also to everyone who came out to ride with us and to those who provided photos for the writeup. Our calendar of Breakfast by Bike events is here, and keep an eye out for our Fall bikepacking schedule to come in the future. Until then, stay cool, ride safe, and drink water.

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