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April 8, 2011

Phoenix: National Trail

Filed under: MTB Travel, Southwest United States, The List, Travel, United States — anotherheader @ 5:12 am

On the outskirts of Phoenix Arizona, South Mountain’s trail system has been on our mountain biking agenda for years.  When planning our yearly weeklong trip to Sedona, we’d always talk about driving the two hours south from Sedona to Phoenix to ride the legendary National Trail.  We never managed to make the trip.  South Mountain and the National Trail remained as an elusive goal.  This year our road trip route took us past the Phoenix’s largest park and the home of our trail ambition.  We stopped in for a short exploratory ride on National Trail before continuing down the road to Tucson.

Parking the Airstream alongside Pima Canyon road, we readied our bikes and stowed Gigi inside the well-ventilated aluminum orb.  It was time for the trails.

The South Mountain trail network is popular with both hikers and bikers.  This was a good thing for us as our pre-arrival route research was negligent.  We knew we wanted to ride the legendary National Trail, but we had not sorted out a reasonable route.  Fortunately, it was easy enough to ask the first mountain biker who happened by for route advice.

“Are you sure you know what the hell you are getting into?” queried the mountain biker after finding two geezers on full suspension bikes in front of him asking about National Trail.

OK, so that wasn’t the exact phrasing of his question but it is the gist.  We get this type of question all the time.  I suspect if we were twenty-five years old and riding a Huffy and a Schwinn in jeans and tee shirts we would never get this particular inquiry.  And, to be fair, I’m sure that we ask pretty much the same type of question to some riders also.  Perhaps Becky and I are just getting sensitive about our age.  The question is a reasonable one, after all.  In any event, as per the typical protocol, there was little resistance when we admit we don’t know what the hell we are getting into but were willing to give it a try anyway.

Our trailhead assistant advised us to ride the dirt road that leads into the park from the parking lot.  (This dirt road is simply labeled “Dirt Road” on the map.  I don’t know why this caught us by surprise.)  Dirt Road terminates near the intersection of National Trail, Mormon Loop Trail, and the Pima Wash Trail sandpit.  Our impromptu mountain biking consultant suggested that we climb the Mormon Loop until it intersects with National Trail.  We could then do an out and return on the upper section of National Trail, including the Waterfall section, if we wanted to, and return on National Trail to the Dirt Road.  This route seemed easy enough.  It would be simple enough to find, at least seemed.

On the trail it is straightforward to follow the recommended route.  What’s not easy is the climbing.  Perhaps relying on the untested beer and pretzel training protocol was again our downfall.  In any event, we were pegging the heart rate working our way up Mormon Loop’s burst climbs and rock ledge step-ups.  Generally the traction is good even in the decomposed granite sand and the lines don’t require super human skills.  In other words, we might have ridden up more of the stuff if we weren’t focusing on trying to breath out of our ear holes.  If the climb weren’t crushing our souls it might have been a fun challenge.

When Mormon Loop tees into National Trail we turned right and continued up the hill.  The character of the climb on this section of National Trail is similar the Mormon Loop suffer fest.  Indeed, it seemed that climbing all of National Trail is neither unreasonable nor that much different than using Mormon Loop for a portion of the ascent.  Many riders climb all of National Trail, either for expediency or for the masochistic challenge.

Truth in advertising: Becky pushes her way up a portion of the Mormom Loop

We stopped climbing National Trail when we reached the base of the technical Waterfall section.  With more time we would have continued on to the top.  But we had little time.  The upper portion of the National Trail will have to wait for another venture.  All we could manage to do was to walk up and inspect the Waterfall drop.

The Waterfall is a linked series of rock drops that staircase down the side of a wash.  The first several sections looked approachable and rideable, particularly if you had the line figured out ahead of time.  For the last section of the Waterfall, we never did figure out a comfortable path down though it is clear many ride this big boulder and ledge drop.  We’d expect to walk the last bit the first time we attempt to ride the Waterfall.

OK, that’s enough of the theoretical mountain biking.  As much as we were jonesing to drop the fall, we would not try it on this day.  Instead, we turned the bikes around and started descending National Trail.  We had left a young dog with a chewing fetish back in the Airstream.  There’s no telling what would be left.  It was time to punch the return ticket and enjoy the gravity revenue stream that we purchased on the climb.

National Trail is a great descent.  Those annoying or fun (depending on whether you are trying to breath through your ear holes) step-ups turn into quick drops.  First time down, quickly finding a reasonable line and keeping momentum was a challenge.  But, for the most part, the drops are easily roll-able.  Overall the trail is technical; you spend plenty of time focusing on the cleanable path through step-downs.  And though it’s not a rail-fest, there is plenty of flow.  A skilled rider with knowledge of the lines would have little problem bombing the descent, including the Waterfall, in one continuous motion.  (Of course we really don’t know what evils lurk above the Waterfall, do we?)  Without doubt, National Trail is an A+ descent.  Hey, I’m sure the climb is that good too, at least if you don’t rely on the pretzels and beer training regiment.

It didn’t take us too much time to reach the trailer from the base of the Waterfall.  When we opened up the metal hatch, we woke a sleeping dog.  Seems there was no real concern about a wall of hound teeth mowing through the primary colors of the modern interior decor of our Airstream.  Yes, Gigi is a good dog.  And now she was a well-rested good dog.  We’d pay for her tank full of energy later.

1 Comment »

  1. Glad you finally got to ride this. In the day, we used to loop back via Desert Classic, after National and other trails and sketchy descents. The easy Classic would just seem to go on forever, it would hammer us.

    Comment by surlypeach — April 8, 2011 @ 5:37 am

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