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A Weekend in the Chiricahua Range

By Chris Gould - March 11th, 2004

We spend the next several hours sitting around the campfire telling mountain bike horror stories. Until now, I never realized how frightening these tales could be -- getting lost, stranded in the desert, chased by wild dogs, flying head over handlebars into the cholla. Of course, Keith has the most recent horror story to relate. Eventually, we all turn in for the night and I shrug off the horror stories, dreaming instead of tomorrow's promising ride.

The next morning we load our bikes on the van and drive back up toward Onion Saddle for our final foray in this single-track wonderland. Today, we'll ride the Shaw Peak and the Pinery-Horse Fall trails through the heart of the Chiricahuas and over to the west side of the range. Since Keith is still feeling the effects of yesterday's fall, he's offered to be the shuttle driver and pick us up at the end of the ride.

Once again, we push off from Onion Saddle and begin to shred down the Shaw Peak Trail on what proves to be an amazing stretch of single-track. The path continues in a downward spiral for several miles to the junction with the Pinery-Horse Fall Trail. Despite the fact that there are five of us cruising single file down the path, not a sound can be heard; a smooth, thick carpet of decaying pine needles covers the trail and absorbs all noise. After several miles of soothing silence, we are back on FR 42, listening to the familiar sound of dirt crunching under our tires.

We cruise reluctantly down the last section of road to our prearranged meeting place with Keith near Chiricahua National Monument. Within a few moments, all bikes and wheels are mounted securely on the roof and we are ready to head for home. Driving back, we talk about what a great success the weekend was -- of all the great fat tire trails we've discovered in one of the most spectacular places on Earth. We would be back soon. Even Keith is looking forward to our next mountain biking adventure in the Chiricahuas.

We arrive at the Portal general store just as it is opening and are greeted by a friendly group of dogs on the front porch. Inside, we find the hot coffee we've been longing for, as well as some helpful trail maps and brochures on the Chiricahuas. Maybe it's the jolt from the coffee, but I find the return ride (which is modestly uphill) just as enjoyable the cruise to town.

By mid-morning, temperatures have warmed considerably and we are ready to roll. Our planned route is a 15-mile loop: first retracing yesterday's ride part way up to Onion Saddle on FR 42, then indulging in the single-track Green House Trail and the connecting Basin Trail, and back on FR 42 for a short jaunt down to the campground.

The morning's shivering becomes a distant memory as we dig into the climb. The six of us stagger along the road and settle into a slow and steady rhythm. I marvel at the deep blue of the sky and scan the forest for wildlife. We pass more deer, four coatimundi, a family of javelinas and numerous colorful birds that I can't identify. Occasionally, a passing car kicks up a cloud of dust.

After about 40 minutes of hard pedaling, we arrive -- dripping with sweat -- at the Basin/Green House Road Trailhead. Now we'll really enjoy the mountains. No more dust from passing cars, just the wild, sweet single-track we've been longing for. After climbing a short, rocky section, we arrive at a small creek and decide to take a break next to the trickling water.

Back on the bikes, we continue our way around a series of folded ridges into the heart of the range. Eventually, our route heads downhill and we revel in anticipation of another thrilling descent. However, what we encounter is something closer to an obstacle course; the trail is scattered with large boulders. I feel like a slalom skier as I weave back and forth, thankfully dodging many rim-wrecking rocks. But the obstacle course lasts for only a mile and then we're back on the smooth, graded surface of FR 42, speeding toward the campground and lunch.

After taking a post-lunch siesta, we're ready to ride again. This time, however, we unanimously decide that an easy, all-downhill route is in order. So we load the van with our bikes, and Craig (who has agreed to stay behind and make a gourmet masterpiece for dinner) shuttles us back up the mountain toward Onion Saddle. For our afternoon ride we'll pedal the Silver Peak Loop on FR 42B.

It's late afternoon by the time we unload our bikes and push off down FR 42B. Racing against what's left of the daylight, Rob and I are out front, dueling for the lead position. That is, until an unexpected rock gets the best of Rob's rear tire. While Rob replaces his tube, the rest of the group catches up to us -- everyone except my cousin Keith. We wait for a few minutes and when Keith (who's new to the sport of mountain biking) doesn't show up, I tell the others to continue on while I go back and look for my cousin.

A short distance ahead, I see him pedaling gingerly downhill and I get the feeling that something is amiss. When we meet he tells me of his high-speed crash, and how he went flying off the side of the road into the trees. Fortunately, it appears his worst injuries are scrapes and bruises -- including a bruised ego.

When Keith and I arrive back at the campground, it's completely dark and the cool temperatures have returned. Dinner is ready and waiting, and the food gives Keith the necessary distraction from his physical maladies. Craig has produced a backcountry culinary masterpiece: lasagna, baked to perfection in a Dutch oven, along with Caesar salad and garlic bread.

Trip Planner

Distance from Phoenix: 230 miles

Getting there: From Phoenix, take I-10 south to Tucson and continue on I-10 east for another 139 miles (crossing briefly into New Mexico) to the intersection with Highway 80. Turn right on Highway 80 and drive south for 28 miles to Portal Road. Turn right, driving through the town of Portal and continue heading west for several miles on Forest Road 42 to the sign for the Sunny Flat campground. (There are several other campgrounds located along this road in Cave Creek Canyon.) To reach the various trailheads mentioned in the story, continue driving up FR 42 toward Onion Saddle.

Season: Year-round, although higher elevations in the Chiricahuas are often under snow during winter months. Summer is the best time to enjoy mild temperatures and take advantage of birdwatching opportunities.

Camping: Sunny Flat campground has 11 sites with picnic tables, grills and toilet facilities. Sites are first come, first served; there is a per vehicle fee. There are 15 other established campgrounds spread throughout the Chiricahuas; contact the Douglas Ranger District (listed below) for information on these sites.

Caution: Due to high fire danger, no campfires are allowed anywhere in the national forest, including developed campgrounds. No camping outside the campgrounds is allowed. Mountain biking is not permitted within the boundaries of the Chiricahua Wilderness Area. Bears are prevalent in the Chiricahuas; store food well away from your campsite, and use the campground's bear-proof containers for disposing of garbage.

More information: Coronado National Forest, Douglas Ranger District, RR 1, Box 228-R, Douglas, AZ 85607; phone (520) 364-3468.


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