Bikepacking the Coconino Loop (while thinking about the beach)

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By Patrick Walsh — Remembering back to my first bike tour around 15 years ago, I had relationship issues and wanted to start the trip a month early… a week early… a day early… and then finally we were off. That ride took us toward the Grand Canyon along the Mogollon Rim on probably the heaviest and most overloaded bike I have ever ridden. It was before I really learned the beauty of “less is more”. I did not make it to the Canyon due to an Achilles tendon strain, my first and only non-crash related bike injury; that is before this ride – the Coconino Loop, Arizona. I decided to cut it 16 miles short due to sharp knee pain that fortunately healed quickly afterward. I anticipated many bike tours in much the same way, yearning to escape work stress, escape relationship stress, escape…

Patrick and Geoff - ready to ride, starting at the Broken Arrow Trailhead in Sedona. The trailhead is shared by hikers, bikers, motorcycles, and ATVs. On the Coconino Loop. Photo by Patrick Walsh
Patrick and Geoff – ready to ride, starting at the Broken Arrow Trailhead in Sedona. The trailhead is shared by hikers, bikers, motorcycles, and ATVs. On the Coconino Loop. Photo by Patrick Walsh

The fact is, we (almost) always choose great routes with goals of reconnecting with an old friend, seeing new places, and riding some fun roads and trails. But, I have almost always planned each tour at least partly to get away. Planning this tour a few months in advance I was again longing for escape. With a week of mixed single track, dirt road, slick rock, and pavement, we would circle the mountain bike meccas of Flagstaff and Sedona.

Templeton Trail is one of my favorite sections from the trip, capturing the feel of slick rock riding through healthy Ocotillo stands. On the Coconino Loop. Photo by Patrick Walsh
Templeton Trail is one of my favorite sections from the trip, capturing the feel of slick rock riding through healthy Ocotillo stands. On the Coconino Loop. Photo by Patrick Walsh

At planning time, I did not know of the oncoming life changes that resulted in divorce and then a new relationship – one that I did not want to escape. I did not know how this turbulence would impact my mentality and on the ride. All of a sudden, close proximity to civilization – something I would usually avoid – was a surprising bonus. I could text or talk in the evenings from camp; yes I really just wrote that about a bike tour. My recurring desire for life hiatus turned inside out, and if I am to be completely honest I was looking forward to the tour ending, really every day.

The first section interweaved with ATV routes. We were a little apprehensive about parking in the popular lot, but we happily returned to an intact vehicle. On the Coconino Loop. Photo by Patrick Walsh
The first section interweaved with ATV routes. We were a little apprehensive about parking in the popular lot, but we happily returned to an intact vehicle. On the Coconino Loop. Photo by Patrick Walsh

Conversations with Geoff during the days touched on our careers, what went wrong with my marriage, memories of prior escape tours, and as always some route finding. The trip was fun, the riding was great, but my mixed feeling brought a little tension. Geoff once impatiently pushed me to get off a brief call when we had stopped to pick up beer at dusk, and I told him to go on to the next campsite. I don’t think he even knew where the campsite was. Geoff put up with a more-distracted version of my usual distracted self. I considered writing this article as a semi-apology to Geoff. At least twice I overshot turns, Geoff patiently waiting for me to realize it and return, once waiting nearly an hour. Nonetheless, he has already talked about another tour, a longer tour. So I know our long friendship survived, and I took some lessons away that might help future tours. Perhaps like any relationship, reflecting on and communicating expectations can go a long way to making a good trip great.

Walnut Canyon section was perhaps the most desolate of riding – not another person for a few hours. On the Coconino Loop. Photo by Patrick Walsh
Walnut Canyon section was perhaps the most desolate of riding – not another person for a few hours. On the Coconino Loop. Photo by Patrick Walsh

Conversations in the evenings were not the normal banter and recollections from the day’s ride. Some time after dinner I was on the phone with my new partner Jacquie, talking about how we missed each other, all of the little things we enjoy, and our evolving life plans together. As a side note – at the last minute before the ride started, I bookended the bike tour with a short beach getaway with her. On one memorable night, she and I talked about walking on the beach, and it very much made we want to escape our dry, cow pasture camp. I really did not know these things when I planned nor even when I departed for the tour, but the tensions grew pretty quickly over the first 2 days.

Bikepacking always has some degree of uncertainty – where will you find water and food? Will the trails be rideable? Weather, equipment, etc. Taking someone else’s route adds a little more uncertainty, especially about their thinking or goals. Were they trying to have fun, cover certain distances and/or elevation gain, see specific features, embrace suffering and achieve enlightenment…? I added life turbulence and a new relationship, and I was surprised to find a strong desire to the escape the tour.

Wide, nicely graded roads between Williams and Parks, AZ. We enjoyed the pine forest and occasional views of Williams Peak above Flagstaff. On the Coconino Loop. Photo by Patrick Walsh
Wide, nicely graded roads between Williams and Parks, AZ. We enjoyed the pine forest and occasional views of Williams Peak above Flagstaff. On the Coconino Loop. Photo by Patrick Walsh

My companion Geoff was great as always, excellent ride quality, mostly perfect weather, and scenery that covered red slick rocks, alpine vistas, and extinct volcanoes. Really the tour had it all, save any real planning on my part. Without careful route review, we had embarked on the Coconino Loop, written up for bikepacking.com by Cass Gilbert. Bikepacking.com is a great resource with gear reviews, photos, route plans, everything you need to dream about riding and plan some adventure.

Spring is perfect for flower blooms. Sedona summer will wilt you. On the Coconino Loop. Photo by Patrick Walsh
Spring is perfect for flower blooms. Sedona summer will wilt you. On the Coconino Loop. Photo by Patrick Walsh

The terrain held a little of everything from moderately technical trails, gravel roads, pavement, burgers and beer…always a must for me on these rides. There were a few places that the route felt like it was intended for a race with requisite per diem distance or elevation in mind. We skipped one of those sections and rode another, resulting in riding a loose, wandering motorcycle track. But really, the route is great, easy to find food and water, and close to civilization in case you want to call or text.

Twin Buttes and Two Nuns rock formations. Slick rock riding near Sedona is similar to Moab but the vegetation is more dense and lush. On the Coconino Loop. Photo by Patrick Walsh
Twin Buttes and Two Nuns rock formations. Slick rock riding near Sedona is similar to Moab but the vegetation is more dense and lush. On the Coconino Loop. Photo by Patrick Walsh

We elected to start from Sedona after ominous rainstorms muddied the high country around Flagstaff. This turned out to be perfect, putting the actual mountain bike highlights at the start and then near the finish of the ride. Not that the middle is not good, but the trails in and between Sedona and Flagstaff are what we came for. Sedona’s sometimes technical slickrock contrasts with Flagstaff’s hardpack, rocks, and roots.

Riding in and out of slick rock canyons, with towering red rock views. On the Coconino Loop. Photo by Patrick Walsh

Within the first mile, any stress and aggravation from life, work, travel, bike repair, etc. melted away. Sedona trails on this route were moderate but still provided some challenges on loaded bikes. We chose campsites in the Coconino National Forest, usually with expansive views in mind but not always a flat spot for a tent. Water is scarce but manageable between some of the towns. One day we woke up to hot air balloons above. Another there were elk passing through camp. We chatted with a construction worker who was backpacking for his bucket list while eating at an historic former gas station.

Portions of the ride were sublime, but my mind was back at home or on the beach. We talked in the evenings about vulnerability and commitment. I hoped that we would avoid implosion. We have, we are now engaged, and I am still working on convincing Jacquie that she might like to bikepack – or maybe set up a central camp and ride mountain loops to avoid carrying all that gear and water. Setting those expectations will be critical for success as with any tour. I had a lot going on, and I should have better warned Geoff. Maybe he already knew. He was certainly forgiving, and I appreciate it.

A map of the Coconino Bikepacking Loop. Map credit Google Maps
A map of the Coconino Bikepacking Loop. Map credit Google Maps

If You Go:

The Ride – We rode a modified version of Cass Gilbert’s Coconino Loop.

The ride circumnavigates a large portion of the Coconino National Forest. Distributed camping is easy, and there are not many people around. We saw riders close to Flagstaff and Sedona, but more than 20 miles from those city centers felt relatively desolate.

Route Description – ~90% off pavement with grand vistas and moderately technical single track riding. Minimal pushing in a few spots. Lots of meditative graded gravel roads. Friendly locals. Easy navigation.

Start and finish – We chose Sedona’s Broken Arrow Trailhead, which was perfect. Flagstaff or Williams would work fine. Cottonwood would work too, but you would start with a steep, uphill climb.

Number of days – 5. It could be done in more or less. There are some great more-technical rides in Flagstaff and Sedona if you spend an extra night in each place.

Approximate mileage – Our version worked out to 234 miles. Cass’s is 250.

Know before you go – Weather can be really variable. Sedona can be very hot. Flagstaff can be snowing. They actually had heavy rain near the start of our ride and a few inches of snow the week after. Watch the weather, and you might plan the logistics just right.

Food and Water – The marked towns on the map all have food and water – Sedona, Cottonwood, Williams, and Flagstaff. There are both groceries and restaurants in each. There are a few water crossings and lakes for additional water filtering; and we rode along a few lakes. High county between towns might have snow to melt in spring.

Terrain – We rode a little bit of everything. Almost every day had at least 1 big climb. The climb out of Cottonwood was particulary long, and we did it on a hot day. Sedona was wonderful with grippy slickrock and a few small drops. The western side of the loop was mostly nicely graded wide gravel roads with a memorable descent into the Verde River Valley before a long climb toward Williams. Flagstaff area has narrow single track through pine forest as well as some graded gravel roads. There are really no bad parts. Great ride with views

Bikes – We both rode hardtail mountain bikes with bikepacking gear but with pretty different setups. Geoff rode a Surly Krampus, and Patrick rode a Lynskey MT 29. Goeff had wider tires and an extra bag – more comfort and more weight. Both reasonable choices, but the lighter weight Lynskey was definitely easier to lift over 2 or 3 locked gates we (legally) had to cross.

 

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