Access Action: Arizona’s Black Canyon Trail

By Leslie Kehmeier

All great journeys start with thoughts of “I wonder if…” Great long-distance trails start with an even bigger wonder, the thought that it might be possible to create a way to get from here to there. Along the way, the trail dreamer needs to link bits and pieces of land and communities to make the journey a reality. This is more than a ride in the park; this is about building an experience. So start by grabbing your beverage of choice, lay out some topo maps and draw imaginary lines with your pointer finger, saying “I wonder if…”

Arizona’s Black Canyon Trail is several decades in the making. Designated in the 1960s for cooperative recreation, the southern portion of the trail began to appear in the early 1990s. Budget constraints delayed further construction until six years ago, when the BLM enlisted the services of IMBA Trail Solutions Specialist Joey Klein.

Perhaps the delay was a blessing in disguise. The vision for the Black Canyon Trail was revised to include mountain biking as an accepted use, a new school of thought from other, older long-distance trails. After seeing the potential for continuing the trail through an amazing landscape, Klein rallied the local community to come together to build a trail that is now more than 80 miles long. The Black Canyon Trail is a blueprint for the future of multi-use, long-distance trails.

“How do you feel about river crossings?” This was the first question asked when I made the call to get more information on the Black Canyon Trail. The voice went on to add “less than two weeks ago we had to carry our bikes over our heads while crossing the Agua Fria.” At the time, I remembered picturing a scenario that probably looked more like Alaska than Arizona. At least I only had to worry about flash floods in this scenario. The conversation went on to include visions of poisonous reptiles, dramatic scenery, and oodles of backcountry singletrack. As I hung up the phone I thought this would be more of an escapade, compared to run-of-the-mill road trips. I would soon find out that it was definitely worth the drive across three big, square states.

Somewhere between Flagstaff and Phoenix, along a lonely strip of Interstate 17, lies the Black Canyon Trail, more than 80 miles of singletrack that connects the Carefree and Prescott Highways. Commonly known as the “BCT,” the trail was developed through a 4,000-acre corridor of picturesque landscape, rivaling anything out of those classic Western picture shows. From the high elevations of the rugged Bradshaw Mountains to the iconic saguaros cactus of the Sonoran Desert, this part of the world is tough country for any creature—the perfect place for those who love a good old-fashioned, two-wheeled adventure.

That initial trip to the BCT two years ago was more than just an excuse to get away from the Colorado winter. The mission, which my husband and I eagerly chose to accept, was to ride the trail, use our GPS to create a map, and bring more exposure to the “next great place to ride.” Trails like this provide a remarkably different experience than the typical, local community trail system. Too often, however, these destinations do not get the recognition they deserve. As we planned the details of the initial trip we had two goals in mind: discover some relatively unknown, high-quality singletrack, and showcase it with a great map.

After our first trip was in the books it didn’t become another photo album on the bookshelf. We actually had very good reason to go back: to ride new trail segments as they were completed. At the time of our initial visit, only a third of the entire trail had been constructed. Since then, we’ve returned again and again, each time logging rides that include narrow, exposed singletrack, spring flowers in bloom, sweeping vistas, and crazy characters. In almost a dozen visits to the Black Canyon Trail I have never been disappointed.

The Black Canyon Trail is both old and new. An ancient trade route turned livestock driveway, the BCT has become a place for recreation over the last few decades. Managed through a partnership with the BLM, Yavapai and Maricopa Counties, and the Black Canyon Trail Coalition, it provides opportunities for both motorized and non-motorized users. In fact, these two groups have worked side by side throughout the development of the trail. Today, both user groups have their own trail; the original BCT 4×4 route caters to the fuel-propelled crew, and the singletrack invites the feet, hooves and tires of the self-powered crowd.

The BCT has remained relatively undiscovered since our first trip in 2009, not a surprise when you consider it’s sandwiched between the well-known destinations of Phoenix and the Golden Triangle (Sedona, Flagstaff, and up-and-coming Prescott). The good news is that it isn’t just more of the same kind of desert riding. It is truly a different experience, and without question, warrants getting in a car or on a plane to travel across the country.

Similar to the Kokopelli Trail in Colorado and Utah, the BCT has a definite remote, backcountry feel. It is the kind of place where you feel small in a big landscape. It is on par with the likes of other well-known long distance adventures like the Colorado Trail, Georgia’s Pinhoti Trail, and the Maah Daah Hey in North Dakota. As mountain biking becomes more popular and trails become more accessible, the BCT, like the others, still remain unique and special experiences—like a favorite beer you drink only on special occasions.

With more than 80 miles of trail to conquer, it’s a little overwhelming to know where to start a ride on the Black Canyon Trail. Whether you’re there for one day or many, one aspect that makes the BCT very attractive is an abundance of access points and dirt roads. It goes without saying that the crowd of weight conscious, gel consuming, ultra-endurance freaks will probably see the BCT as their next “been there, done that, drooled-along-the-way” challenge.

During our first foray to the BCT we based ourselves out of Black Canyon City. It served us well for riding different sections of the trail, both north and south. Over the course of three days we covered over 30 miles of trail from the Emery Henderson Trailhead to Arrastre Creek. Staging out of that location also gave us access to the best pie we’ve ever had. Yes, that’s right, there is pie.

Just off Interstate 17 at Exit 242 is the Rock Springs Café, home to burgers, fries, and yes, you guessed it, pie. Like all of the classic, long-distance trails, the BCT boasts its own, you-gotta-eat-here greasy spoon. Don’t expect anything like a bistro salad or a gourmet burrito here. We’re talking tortilla pizzas, charbroiled steaks, and mesquite barbeque. Beyond that, you will find more than 20 varieties of pie, advertised with the motto “Worth the drive from anywhere.”

Little did we know, when we were packing our car to venture south to Arizona, we were really just driving 700 miles for a delicious pastry. After the first bite we realized that the main part of the meal was purely a formality to get to a slice of Rhubarb Crumb or Jack Daniels Pecan. To do this day we keep our frequent pie card firmly secured in our glovebox.

Beyond the food, a stop at the Rock Springs Café will also give you a glimpse of true Western Americana. In other words, the BCT is the kind of place where you can find a lot of character (and characters) along the way.

When people think about the Wild West, they probably conjure up images of cowboys with six-shooters and big landscapes with red rock towers under bluebird skies. Surprisingly enough, this is exactly what you experience along any given part of the BCT.

And I’m not just talking the landscapes; it’s the cowboys too.

Since our first trip to the Black Canyon Trail in 2009 we have returned several times over to ride newly constructed segments or to share it with fellow mountain bikers and friends. On one such trip, we ran into a couple of colorful individuals, the kind that you might have to pinch yourself to believe. Pedaling out of the Black Canyon City trailhead we happened upon this fellow and his lady. He was wearing his ten-gallon hat, spurs, and side-arm, draped ever-so-slightly below his right hip. She boasted a similar ensemble, finished off with a fashionable floral bandana. They were out for a hike, enjoying the evening light, something that everyone should witness on a trip to Arizona. We chatted for a while about the weather and the difference between bicycles and horses. It was hard to remember anything else because I couldn’t get over the gentleman’s raspy, Sam Elliot-like voice. “You can’t make this stuff up,” I thought to myself. Just another day on the Black Canyon Trail.

In addition to cowboys, you’ll also find that agriculture and animal husbandry is still a very viable, and coveted, way of life. It’s not uncommon to pass livestock grazing alongside the trail or to have to navigate through the gates of barbed-wire fences of local rancher. No matter what section you ride, you’ll cer- tainly get a sense for the culture and history of the Desert Southwest.

On another ride, from the top of Maggie Mine Road back towards Black Canyon City, we descended the Old Stage section of the BCT, which back in the day, was part of the stagecoach route that traveled from Prescott to Phoenix. Aboard our full-suspension mountain bikes it was really hard to imagine someone having to endure a multi-day trip, riding in a box with wooden wheels. As we passed Two-Boots Junction we chuckled when we saw an antique pair of leather boots tucked into a mesquite bush on the side of the trail. Guess he didn’t survive the trip.

And the stories continue to stack up. Every time we hit the trail we add a new memory. There was the time we rode the day after Biblical floods, the giant rattlesnakes we saw, and the time our trip coincided with the desert in bloom. For those who are willing to make the trip and peel back the covers, they will discover much more than what is usually perceived as a desolate and uninteresting place.

With less than 10 miles yet to be built onthe Black Canyon Trail, the grand opening of this awesome route is likely less than a year away. When finished it will be a celebration of a fruitful partnership, a beautiful landscape, and a mountain bike experience like no other. Those who have already tasted the experience are eager to share it with everyone, and take you for pie at the end of the ride.