Gila Country

As the hectic week leading up to spring break wound down, a hastily planned trip emerged, with all parties frantically gathering gear and fixing bikes still on the morning of our departure. A few hours later than planned but with plenty of daylight remaining, we rolled away from the watchtowers and endless coils of razor wire of Florence under grey skies and misty rain. The southern edge of the Superstition Mountains were barely visible in the distance, but being the lone member of the group who had ridden through them, I think I was the only one to fully realize the treat that was to come.

We detoured through the welded tough slickrock jungle of so-called Area 52, enjoying the unique riding and abundant bike pushing. An hour passed and we had covered a scant two miles between the slow terrain and distracting views.

The spectacle continued, as did our slow pace. The rain picked up briefly, but none of us seemed to mind. Streams were flowing among the vertical rock faces, saturated soil squished beneath our tires, and I wondered why I was carrying as much water as I was. This part of the Sonoran Desert was as wet as I had ever seen it.

By late in the day, we emerged from the slickrock jungle and clawed our way up a series of sandy washes. The moisture worked in our favor, eliminating any need for hiking. The sun briefly aimed a few rays through a hole in the clouds to the west, illuminating the country to the north. I pointed out where the Arizona Trail traversed the range, but no one seemed willing to believe that the trail could cut its way through such rugged country.

Our second morning out delivered a blue sky stretching from the massive Santa Catalinas to the south all the way north as far as we could see. After a leisurely breakfast, we pedaled the last few miles to the Arizona Trail before turning south for a few hours of mellow riding on the Boulders Segment. The trail has become so much more worn in over the past couple years, and we added eight more tire tracks to the dirt. Fresh snow blanked the peaks of the Pinal Mountains to our east, but we felt far removed from winter as the warm spring sun fell on emerging wildflowers of all colors. In another couple weeks, the explosion of color is going to be incredible.

Reversing our course, it was but a few hours later that we found ourselves in Ripsey Wash with a series of switchbacks cut into the peak to our west. Kaitlyn and Mathieu seemed to be a bit nervous, being on singlespeeds, and Caroline was apprehensive about the steep, loose descent off the far side of the ridge.

The combination of stunning views and abundant yellow poppies distracted everyone enough that it was tough to be worried about anything at all. Our shadows grew longer, and I relished the lighting since I had only ever seen this area at mid-day.

We spent a peaceful night in the shadow of one of the largest copper mines in the state. The lights and steady din of the continuous operations continued incessantly, but for better or worse, these monstrosities are part of the modern Arizona experience. I slept poorly for the second night in a row in my marginally-appropriate sleeping bag, but it was cold appendages rather than the noisy mine that had me uncomfortable.

I awoke eager for 30 miles of perhaps the best singletrack I've ever ridden. And it did not disappoint. The scenery and trail alignment is so overwhelmingly consuming that the beast of a climb high into the mountains passes with seemingly minimal effort [yet it remains a rather difficult climb in and of itself]. More yellow poppies and brilliant green vegetation lined the trail as stoic saguaros stood tall above us, all the while, towering cliffs made us feel as insignificant as ever. 

Eventually, the trail tilted down for good, and we dropped down through a similarly brilliant landscape, our minds on a hot dinner.

Our last day took us back up through the mountains, first on singletrack, and then on well worn Jeep trails. A broken chain and a few broken spokes slowed us down early on, but we found ourselves at the high point for the day remarkably quickly. Kaitlyn stood in disbelief as we could once again survey many hundreds of square miles in all directions.

I had ridden all those Jeep roads several times in the past during the Arizona Trail 300. The first time was under the cover of darkness, and the second time I was pushing so hard that almost nothing was retained by my foggy mind. A more reasonable pace allowed me to take in everything, from the ruins of Ajax Mine, a deserted singletrack section of the subsequently rerouted Arizona Trail, to the exuberant green lichens on the walls of Box Canyon.

It was late afternoon when we returned to Florence. Luckily, despite parking next to a prison and leaving the cars filled with food, water, and changes of clothes, no one had absconded with our vehicles. The four of us were all glowing from an incredible ride. We covered ~160 miles of mostly singletrack through the unforgettable Gila country. I'm eager to get back there again, but I think another trip to the Mogollon Rim might have to come first...


This post first appeared on Kurt's blog Kurt's Going Nuts. There's a lot of great content there, so check it out.


This post filed under topics: Bikepacking Explore Kurt Refsnider Mountain Biking Spearfish Sponsored Riders Touring

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Kurt Refsnider

Kurt Refsnider

After growing up in Minnesota, I’ve been lured away by the rugged charm of the mountainous west. I relish every opportunity I find to spend a day (or days) on the bike, linking together unknown trails and forgotten routes through deserted country, enjoying the simplicity and unpredictability. When driven to race, I am growing ever fonder of pushing the limits of endurance and sanity. [url=][/url]


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