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Santa Rita Loop

On New Years Day, we had a discussion about our goals for the year. One of those goals was to spend more time sleeping outside. Last year we participated in several races, but our non-race bikepacking outings were lacking. We mapped out a route to complete over that weekend.

We were staying in the Santa Rita Mountains near Kentucky Camp, right on the AZT. During the week we did some short rides in the area, scouting out some roads for our weekend route. This was valuable because a couple of the passes I was considering were private roads for mines. On one ride I peeked over a ridge to see Sycamore Canyon and really wanted to check it out, but didn’t have enough daylight to venture further. A few clicks on the map and our loop was now a little bigger.

Our route would circumnavigate the Mt Wrightson Wilderness and give us an opportunity for resupply in Patagonia, AZ. Water is usually scarce out there, but snow a week earlier meant that a few streams were flowing. There’s also water at the entrance to Madera Canyon. We carried 3L of water each, which was enough, but cutting it a little close the second day after we cooked dinner and breakfast. We used our water filter a couple times on the loop.

We loaded up our steel Senderos the night before and left our spinny 32×20 gears on for the chunky stuff and the few miles of singletrack that we’d follow. We packed our new sleeping bags (instead of our quilts), inflatable sleeping pads, minimal bivy sacks, puffy jackets, and some camp clothes. A small stove and pot made the cut, which isn’t always the case for us. πŸ™‚ We brought a small tarp and rain jackets even with a 0% chance of precipitation, because you really don’t want to be caught without them when you need them. Aside from that it was pretty much just food and water in our bags. It still took us too long in the morning to get food organized and packed on our bikes. We were rusty, it had been a while since our last overnighter.

We headed north towards through the foothills. Some smooth gravel roads, some rocky double track, and big smiles on our faces. There’s something so satisfying about the feeling of cruising on a loaded bike. We reached Sycamore Canyon and descended to the west side of the range. The descent was interrupted when the primitive road dipped down to join a wash and climbed back out several times.

At the bottom there was a “no trespassing, private road” sign as the road approached a gate and a house, but the road forked and wrapped around the fence line of the property and continued out into the public land beyond. There were a few route options for the next stretch, some of which crossed private land, so we elected to take a little longer route and stay on public land to avoid any backtracking due to closed gates. We found some shade and ate some lunch. Those next miles went quickly on smooth gravel roads and soon we were on the pavement approaching Madera Canyon.

There’s a toilet and water spigot at the entrance of the canyon where we filled up our 3L water bladders. Instead of going up the dead end road, we turned right and made our way to the Elephant Head Trail. I don’t think this trail gets ridden much, it’s kinda chunky and fun although usually a bit overgrown. The trail takes you right to the base of the Elephant Head rock formation and then hits Chino Spring double track to climb up a canyon. The trail is right on the border of the wilderness area. We rode this a couple times last year, this year there was a new sign preventing motos from entering the top half of the climb, presumably because they were riding up to an old mine and into the wilderness.

We hiked our bikes up the last of the climb and once we reached the saddle, the sunset view and singletrack descent had us stopping several times for pictures. With daylight dwindling, we scouted out potential camp spots on the gravel road, eventually settling on a pull out that seemed less windy than others.

We set up our sleeping pads and used our bivy sacks as ground sheets. The temperature dropped quickly after the sun went down, so we sat in our sleeping bags while cooking dinner. Ramen and instant mashed potatoes were on the menu, we hadn’t been thinking about bikepacking the last time we went grocery shopping so our choices were slim (no Jake – our cookpot wasn’t big enough for a ram-bomb). We fell asleep watching the stars, grateful for our fully enclosed mummy bags as the wind picked up.

I was up not long after first light, but Katie had her mummy bag cinched so tight she was basically blindfolded. We boiled some water for oatmeal and coffee and sat in our warm down bags until the sunlight reached us over Mt Hopkins.

Bags packed, our route continued southeast towards Patagonia. We found a small stream and filtered some questionable tasting water. It was warm in the sun and the steep climbs slowed us right down. We leapfrogged with an ATV that could climb faster than us, but couldn’t match our downhill speed. Eventually we were cruising wide gravel roads into town. Premium gravel, if you will.

First stop in Patagonia was the general store to buy some snacks and drinks. We spotted Patagonia Lumber Co (coffee shop/bar) across the way and reevaluated our plan to finish up the last 20ish miles that afternoon. Enjoying a coffee in town, buying dinner and breakfast food for a second night out, and taking our time getting back to the AZT sounded pretty appealing. We aren’t always good about chilling on these kind of rides, but I’d say we did well this time.

We sat and drank coffee and watched the mellow main street. As we readied our bikes, local rider TomΓ s approached us and commented on our Chumbas and his admiration for Alexandera. We talked bikes and then he informed us of a trail out of town that paralleled the highway we were planning to take. Sweet! We thanked him and rode the peaceful singletrack for a few miles instead of the shoulder of Hwy 82. We joined the AZT bike route on Hog Hollow Rd and pedaled up to the Temporal Gulch segment. I had a spot in mind right next to a stream that I’d noticed when riding the AZT. We got there right around sunset and set up camp less than 10 miles from the van. We enjoyed dinner with beer we carried from town and knew we’d made the right decision in staying out one more night. The stream was flowing, so Katie broke out the gravity filter we brought on a whim and we drank as much water as we wanted.

It was another chilly night, but we had warm bags plus hot coffee and homemade muffins for breakfast. We set out on some flowy AZT singletrack towards Kentucky Camp. I had seen some caves on my Gaia map so our route led us onto some dirt roads to check them out. Turns out they were both locked to prevent vandalism, but you can at least climb down into a small room in Cave of the Bells.

From there it was only a few miles back to the van. There was plenty of climbing on this loop, enough to wear us out and get us excited for more rides like this. More overnighters please!

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