Sun, Sand and Desert Single-Track: Bikepacking Arizona’s Superstition Mountains

Nature is ever at work building and pulling down, creating and destroying, keeping everything whirling and flowing, allowing no rest but in rhythmical motion, chasing everything in endless song out of one beautiful form into another (J. Muir, Our National Parks, 1901)

The desert is a landscape shaped by the destructive forces of water, wind, and  sun. Constantly in flux, never the same from one day to the next.  Yet its stunningly beautiful: from its coarse sedimentary rocks shaped like meringues, to its massive pillars of red stone and box canyons. Contrast is everywhere: blue sky with red rock,  green springs with  sand, cacti with rock, grey moonlight with yellow sun. Arizona’s Superstition Mountains and the hills that surround the Phoenix area are no exception. I recently spent ten days exploring the Superstitions and riding local trails at Usery Mountain Regional Park, Brown’s Ranch and the Phoenix Mountain Preserve. Pack your mountain bike, sun screen and plenty of water and head south.

Superstition Mountains

Located 65 kilometers east of Phoenix, the Superstition Mts. are a fantastic mountain biking, bike packing (touring), hiking and camping destination. If you’re riding a bike, stick to state land on the southern edge of the range. Hikers can enjoy the Wilderness area to the north.

Loaded and ready to ride
Sunset over the Superstitions
just northeast of Apache Junction
Looking southeast from the Lost Goldmine Trail.
A purple sky and black rock sunset.
The moon emerging in the east.
A Cholla cactus.
Another type of Cholla cactus.
A young Saguaro cactus.
A Palo Verde tree.
A Saguaro cactus standing tall.
After it rains, water collects in small rock pools. You can use a Lifestraw to hydrate yourself. This was the only water source that I could find along the entire length of this trail.

Hewitt Canyon

This multi-use recreation area is just east of  the historic  community of Queen Valley and can be accessed via. Highway #60.  Hewitt Canyon road winds its way north through gently rolling terrain and some great geo-features such as Hewitt and Roblas Canyon  as well as Hewitt Canyon Arch. This roads eventually summits Montana Mountain (5, 528 ft.), where it crosses the  Arizona Trail which can be ridden downslope to Hwy. #60.

A well-used gravel road winds it way up Hewitt Canyon, just north of Queen Valley.
Palo Verde trees provide some much-needed shade and a great campsite.
A Hewitt Canyon windmill.
A windmill filled tank is one of the few sources of water along Hewitt Canyon Road.
Looking north from Hewitt Canyon road.

Brown’s Ranch Single Track

Just thirty minutes north of Phoenix, this popular multi-use trail network is a favorite of local riders. With flowey single-track,  interesting geologic features and fantastic views of the Sonoran desert, Brown’s Ranch  is a must-ride area.

We see the world from our own perspective. Looking at things from another perspective, like the view from this rock pile, will make us better citizens.
There are large piles of eroded sandstone all over this area.

Usery Mountain Regional Park

Just north of Apache Junction, this regional park has flat valley-bottom riding , some flowey toe-slope single-track and some tough rock-garden ascents and descents. Like all of the Superstition Mountains, the landscapes are stunning.

The sun rises overs Cat Peak trail.
The trail descends into a dry wash.
Sandy single-track along the valley floor.

Some rocky sections along the toe-slope of the mountain.

Phoenix Mountain Preserve and the Phoenix Canal System

Just a few minutes from downtown Phoenix, this multi-use urban park has some great beginners single-track that provides awesome views of the desert, hills and city. If you connect this park with the Arizona Canal Trail,  you can enjoy hours of leisurely urban trail riding. This 40 km canal system, runs northwest-southeast through the city. With flat, paved and unpaved trails, often going both directions, the canal is a fantastic ride especially for bikepackers who want an easy traffic-free ride out of the city. This trail system also provides access to many areas of the city including other parks, restaurants and even bike shops such as a the Trailhead Bike Cafe.

A typical un-paved section of the Arizona Canal Trail.
There are many interesting things to see along the canal.

 

 

Tabor Mountain’s Trapper’s Shack

“8 trout-good fishing, also replaced stove pipe with larger ones 5”. No more smoke in cabin,” wrote Willie Kwiatkowski on December 28, 1977 in a tattered spiral-ring journal.”

This 39 year old journal can be found  in the cobweb covered rafters of an old backcountry cabin south of the Tabor Mountain fire tower, near the headwaters of Bowes creek. Called the “Old Trapper’s Shack,” this cabin is just one of the fantastic cultural features found in the Tabor Mountain Recreation Area , just fifteen  minutes east of Prince George. If your’e looking for some summer or winter adventure then this area is a must see!


Tabor Mountain Recreation Area Trail Map

You can access this historic cabin by mountain bike, walking, skis or ATV. Park at the junction of Giscome and Groveburn road, heading south to the junction of the Tower and VOR Forest Service Road. Its all uphill from here. Follow the VOR road east, until you reach the first switchback, where you can see the fire tower to the north. Take the narrow Frost Lake Multiuse Trail for about 1.8 kms, then head south down a narrow trail. This descent is heavily rutted and brushy. The trail eventually flattens out in treed wetland. The narrow trapper’s trail is covered with knee high grass, horsetail, balsam fir and spruce. Follow this trail, north along the edge of the wetland until you see the cabin.

You will have to cross a  makeshift bridge over  the creek that feeds the wetland. Proceed with caution.

This cabin is dry and drafty with a functioning wood stove. However, there is a a lot of mouse and squirrel waste, so I would not recommend sleeping in the cabin unless it is thoroughly swept out.

The old claw-foot stove.

While trapping may seem distasteful to some, it was a source of revenue for First Nations and immigrants during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Indeed, there is a small handful of people that still trap this region today.

The spiral-ringed journal from the 1970s found in the rafters.
Another Journals from the 1980s.

The wetland adjacent to the cabin.

Cultural features such as this trapper’s cabin are an important source of data on Tabor Mountain’s environmental history. I find it interesting that there were trout–or perhaps there still are–in this wetland, begging the question: how did they get there?

With hundreds of kilometers of multi-use trails, the Tabor Mountain Recreation Area is an outdoor adventure person’s paradise. For more info about riding this area, check out my other posts, Fatbiking Tabor Mountain and Tabor Mountain Recreation Area: Prince George’s Best Kept Mountain Biking Secret.

Riding into History: The Telegraph Trail

 Just an hour west of Prince George is a fantastic ridgetop roller coaster ride through gnarly Douglas fir overlooking scenic lakes and wetlands called the Telegraph Trail. Built in 1865 by the Western Union Telegraph Company, this trail was supposed to connect North America to Russia  via thousands of kms of poles, copper wire and ceramic insulators. Abandoned in 1936, this route is now an ideal multi-use outdoor adventure trail.

A Telegraph Machine (Smithsonian Magazine)

History

In 1865, the Western Union Telegraph Company  began building a telegraph line that would connect  North America to Russia. Called the Collin’s Overland Telegraph, this  primitive electrical communication system would run from the United States, through British Columbia and Alaska, across the Behring Strait, terminating at the mouth of the Amoor River, in Eastern Russia where it would connect to St. Petersburg  via 7000 miles of  existing line.

Sadly, this ambitious project was abandoned not long after it started because in September 1866, WUTC’s competitor completed a Transatlantic Telegraph. North America could now speed dial Europe, but not on Collin’s line. Thousands of kilometers of poles, copper wire and insulators lay dormant until 1902 when the Yukon Telegraph Company took over the line. Radio communication ended the use of telegraphs in 1936.

Access

This trail can be accessed at the Hogsback Lake Forest Service Recreation Site, 20 km south of Vanderhoof. From Prince George follow HWY 16 West, turning west on Mapes rd., then southeast on the Blackwater rd. and lastly south on Hogsback Lake rd. Follow the gravel road east until the last campsite (with outhouse). The trailhead is just to the east of the picnic table.

Hogsback Lake Forest Service Rec Site
Telegraph Trail Marker
The Telegraph Trail

This trail runs along a steep sided ridge on the north and east side of Hogsback and McKay lakes. It is characterized by steep, short gravelly/sandy climbs and descents and flowy flat sections. There are great viewpoints looking south across the Nechako plateau towards the Telegraph Mt. range. Old Douglas fir, dead lodgepole pine and trembling aspen line the trail, clinging precariously to the steep slopes. Red stem feather moss, Kinickinic, juniper and birch leaved spirea cover the sandy forest floor.

A flowey flat section with fine sand
A super steep loose gravel ascent
McKay Lake

McKay lake has a great campsite that could easily fit several tents.

Image Courtesy of UNBC Archives

The Telegraph Route

Construction of the British Columbia section of the  telegraph, from  New Westminster to Quesnel, began in 1863. Two years later, a thirty-man survey team lead by  Major Frank L. Pope began surveying the Quesnel to Tatla Lake section travelling by foot, mule and canoe. The construction team, lead by Edward Conway, followed Pope’s crew brushing out the trail, selecting suitable trees for poles and hanging insulators and wire. Telegraph stations were constructed along the 365 mile line including one at Bobtail Lake, Blackwater Crossing and Bulkley House (Tatla Lake).

Pope estimated distances, measured elevations and angles along the entire route, producing elaborate reports and maps that were sent to Colonel Charles P. Bulkley, the Chief Engineer. He also recorded details about First Nations, animals and plants as well as geographic features. Pope recommended that the line be built alongside lakeshores when possible. He reasoned that these areas were more accessible, the trees more windfirm and the line easier to construct.

F.L. Pope’s 1866 report describing the Lake Babine area (UNBC Archives 1682_no4_03)
The Blackwater Crossing Telegraph Station (J.C. White, 1866)
A ceramic insulator c. 1866 or 1902

While many of the telegraph poles have fallen over and rotted, you can still find some artifacts such as this white ceramic insulator. Keep your eyes up, you may see a veteran Douglas fir with some copper wire still clinging to it.

The remains of a small forest fire overlooking a pasture
A flowy flat section with fine sand.
An interesting cattle guard
A small creek crossing just north of the Telegraph Trail.

If you looking for some two-wheeled or legged adventure then check out the Telegraph Trail at Hogsback Lake. Pack a lunch, plenty of water and be prepared for some short, tough climbs: the ridge top views are worth the effort!

If your a beginner mountain biker then check out these must-know tips from one of Canada’s top outdoor adventure bloggers, Leigh McAdam Mountain Bike Tips for Beginners.

“In wildness is the preservation of the World”

(H.D. Thoreau)