The Kofa Conting3ncy

February can be a tricky month for a weekend bikepacking trip. As I write this on a Sunday afternoon in the later part of the month, the temperature sits at a pleasant 75F. The last few years, however, our advanced trip that we usually schedule for this time of year has been met with incredibly strong wind, rain, and freezing temperatures down in the Santa Ritas. This year we decided to head north for the Gila River Ramble where the mercury should have been a bit more favorable. As the weekend drew nearer, it was evident that that would not be the case, as all of Southern Arizona was forecasted to be wet, cold, and snowy at higher elevations. Josh planned a contingency route for the Canelo Hills, which was scrapped due to weather, and by Thursday afternoon a third variation had been settled on: the Kofa Contig3ncy.

Like all wildlife refuges around the country, Kofa was established for the focused protection of a key species: in this case, the desert bighorn sheep. The refuge encompasses over 650,000 acres of mountains, creosote plains, washes and rolling hills home to bighorn sheep, Sonoran pronghorn, deer, rodents, birds, badgers, and foxes. With most of the land a designated wilderness area, our route stuck to the perimeter of the refuge with consistent views of the Kofa and Castle Dome Mountains.

After the long drive early that morning, our group of eight got a late start on Friday after double-checking gear and water for three days out. Of all the Campfire trips in the last few years, this one was definitely the most remote, with no food resupply and water to come from wildlife water tanks or bedrock pools. It felt great to be moving after the long drive and busy week at the shop, and the general sentiment in the first few hours of the day was “Whoa, this place is incredible!” or “This is not what I expected.” Recent rains had done the desert good. Ocotillos were leafed out, the brittlebush looked healthy, and there was a tinge of green everywhere you looked. 

At mile 15 a few folks split off to grab water at the last source for the next 50 miles and check out the Hoodoo Cabin. We re-grouped a little while later for a sunny lunch, and because of our late start, the pressure of covering another 30 miles before sunset kicked in a bit. The sandy stretches noted on the map could have made for some tedious pedaling, but again, the rains played in our favor, and the washes were firm enough to make it through without pushing. The final miles of day one ended with a gradual climb, and we camped just below the King of Arizona mine with an impressive view of Kofa Butte to the north. Clothed in goose down and sitting around the fire, we relaxed and enjoyed the pleasant feeling of rest well earned. 

The night wasn’t too restful though. A light rain blew in around 4AM, which then grew into a proper windy downpour, and by 6:30AM, the dry wash we were camped by began to flow. Sometime in the night I heard the metallic ping-ping-ping of tent stakes being reset, and it turns out that none of us made it through the rain completely dry. Luckily the rain subsided with sunrise, and though we failed to get a fire going, the sun was out just enough to dry out the essentials before packing up for day two. 

We passed the King of Arizona mine first thing that morning and then coasted the next 10 miles with big views of Castle Dome Peak in the distance. Wind from the northwest was building, and we would find ourselves pedaling into a headwind for the next 43 miles. It was a grit your teeth and get through it kind of morning. Pulling up to the Little White Tanks for a rest and water resupply was a welcome early afternoon break. We filtered water from an impressive system of cascading bedrock pools, and after lunch and coffee, we carried on into the wind. 

Clouds finally thinned and the warm sun was a nice contrast to the cool wind. The route firmed up a bit after we rejoined King Road, and the miles rolled over a little quicker. After a short break where half of us almost fell asleep in the lazy sun, we came through one of the main entrances to the refuge, read up on some natural and cultural heritage, and then headed north for a 15-mile straight shot on a gas line road into the never-ceasing headwind. Though no less beautiful, the combined monotony of the straight road and wind left our group feeling very ready for camp. A few miles and an hour later, tents were pitched and a warm fire of ironwood and palo verde capped off the evening. 

Dave and Austin had the fire going again in the morning from some leftover coals, and the day had that pleasant feeling of having made good use of a weekend with only a few hours of pedaling to finish it all off. Breakfast. Morning stretches. Back on the road. 

Twenty-seven miles was all we had for the third day, most of it trending downhill after a couple of short climbs early on. At this point the route sandwiches you between the Kofa Mountains to the south and the New Water Mountains to the north with plenty of rolling hills in between. The water source at High Tank Six was dry, but a few pools just off the road provided a top-up to finish the ride. Our last stop for the loop was the Kofa Cabin, and similar to the Hood Cabin on the first day, it’s available on a first-come, first-served basis. Both had sleeping platforms, a wood-burning stove, and a few emergency foods in the forms of coffee, canned food, and bad reading material. 

Back at the parking lot, Jack supplied a cooler full of fizzy and stout soda water, and it felt good to be basking in the sun compared to the alternative of still pushing out bikes somewhere along the AZT in on the Gila Ramble. 

Thanks to Piet, Josh, Toby, Nate, Henley, Jack, Austin, and Dave for great company and good vibes on this trip. You can see our modified route here, and if you’re looking for a late winter ride in the coming weeks, the wildflowers are likely to be pretty spectacular out there pretty soon. Otherwise, join us for Breakfast by Bike on March 7th, or check out our Beginner Overnighter to Colossal Cave State Park on March 9th.

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