I’ve done a lot of bikepacking in my day. I’ve ridden the endless dirt roads of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route where covering 100-plus miles per day was no big deal. I’ve done days on the Continental Divide Trail where a dawn to dusk effort yielded 19 miles. I’ve ridden the sands of the Stagecoach 400, climbed over the endless downed trees of the Dixie 200, the rocks of the AZT 300, and the endless, high-altitude climbs of the Colorado Trail.
I’ve often posed the question of: What makes a good bikepacking route? What would a perfect one entail? While everyone has different priorities, I’d like to make a case for mine, and why the figure-eight ‘Ice Cream Loop’ version of the Gila River Ramble, set in the Gila Canyons southeast of Phoenix, along the Arizona Trail, is as close to perfection as a route can get…at least in the month of March.
Long bikepacks require a lot of planning. Short ones may not be worth the drive. At a nice 100 miles, the Gila River Ramble Ice Cream Loop (GRR-ICL) can be done as a fairly straightforward two-and-a-half-day-er. Leave work early Friday, ride for a few hours from the semi-town of Kelvin along the Arizona Trail following the Gila River, and set up camp either at a conveniently located water seep for a wet camp or a little farther up the trail. The trail is straightforward, short climbs, short descents, and boasts a high enjoyment factor for the effort needed, especially if there’s a tailwind involved.
For a worthy bikepack, there have to be views. Amazing ones. As the AZT climbs away from the river, it enters the Gila Canyons. This newly built section of trail was designed and constructed with mountain bikes in mind and, with reasonable grades, climbs from river level at 1,300 feet up to over 3,000 feet. The highpoint is an ideal place to camp if you’re willing to endure a little bit of relative cold.
Views of Dale’s Butte will give way to the Inner Canyons and breathtaking scenery before exiting on the other side with views of Stripped Butte.
No bikepacking trip in Arizona is complete without cheap Mexican food. Dos Hermanos in Superior is the key to making this loop a classic. After dropping down from the Gila Canyons, a detour off of the Arizona Trail on a chunky dirt road takes the route directly into town. The Huevos Rancheros will not disappoint. This also allows for a food resupply for the next day and a half of riding.
This stop is what gives the route the Ice Cream Loop name, as a long-closed Dairy Queen used to be the stop to make. Now, there’s a local ice cream shop, but it only takes cash. Come prepared!
With a belly full of food, riders can either take the Legends of Superior Trail (LOST) from town to the Picketpost trailhead or ride the wide shoulder along the highway to save a little bit of time. From here, eight miles southbound on the Arizona trail completes the top of the figure eight of the loop. Dirt roads, which made up the old AZT 300 route followed southbound, take the route through Box Canyon, a geologic marvel with towering walls that provide copious amounts of shade.
The Gila River is dam-controlled and in early March, is kept at crossable levels. It’s always a mystery as to when water levels will rise from knee-deep to thigh-deep to un-crossable. There is always an out-of-the-way river-fording bypass, but getting wet is always a welcome break.
After crossing the river and wandering around on some sandy ATV trails, the route gains a ridge overlooking the rocky Gila Canyons. The rarely used road offers easier riding and big views. It also provides ample campsites for a second night of camping before the final push back.
Back on the AZT, the route finished with Ripsey Mountain. The switchbacks up the face of the hill can be seen from miles away, seemingly daunting, but surprisingly rideable with just a little bit of energy. The ridgeline at the top provides some of the best trail and views of the whole route, 360 degrees around. A set of challenging switchbacks down the backside and down to the trailhead will challenge even the most technically adept rider.
At the trailhead, a rider is given two options. Turn right down the dirt Florence-Kelvin “highway” and coast for 30 seconds back to the car, or ride an extra section of Arizona Trail, commonly referred to as “the stupid section.” If the flowers are blooming, the “stupid section” can be renamed the “not-to-miss” section.
One might ask if we eat to ride or ride to eat. Having food near the finish is always critical for a good bikepacking route in my book. Luckily, Kearney just a few miles down the road and boasts a quality pizza shop and diner and Mammoth just a few more miles past there has the famed La Casita where you can eat cheese crisps, burritos, and soft-serve ice cream to your hearts content.
At a low elevation, the Gila River boasts warm weather before much of the rest of the state and country. March is wildflower season, has long days, and for most bikepackers in Arizona, is considered Gila Bikepacking Season. I highly recommend you check it out.
The route is a challenging one but should exist on any bikepacker’s bucket list. Pack light to fully enjoy the trails, bring some suspension, and get ready to climb. Amazing trails, big views, delicious food, warmer-than-average weather and a chance to watch Arizona sunsets from high places make this route a classic and not to be missed.
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When Eszter Horanyi was in second grade, living in Tucson, Ariz., her dad bought the entire family Schwinn mountain bikes; she’s been riding ever since, dabbling in racing disciplines from road, to cross, to track and mountain biking. Most recently she’s loving adventurous long rides, bikepacking and exploring the world from two wheels. zenondirt.wordpress.com