"This is dicey," says Lee who asked me to join him on a scouting trip to relocate the Arizona Trail near Patagonia. He's describing anything from steep slopes to rock to canyon fins that end with no way down to the bottom. His friend Jay, who has US Forest Service trailbuilding experience, joinsus to find the perfect place for a relocated AZ Trail.
The trail currently travels seven boring miles on a fire service road out of Patagonia, then passes through the Mt. Wrightson Wilderness for a few miles. The section is extremely steep for through-hikers and mountain bikers aren't allowed on Wilderness trails. It's Passage #4 of the Arizona Trail in the eastern foothills of the Santa Rita Mountains. Our mission: find a route that is kind to both hikers and mountain bikers.
Jay and Lee ride mountain bikes along a cattle trail.
Lee laid a GPX track using Topofusion, and we're following it on his handheld GPS. From the Forest Service road, we drive about a mile down a jeep trail just west of the Patagonia landfill. We optimistically start on our bikes thinking the ATV trails Lee found on aerial maps will be suitable for riding. The ridable ATV track becomes a cattle track then devolves into off-camber loose dirt. We soon stash the bikes and continue on foot, along a barbed wire ridge line. It's all Coronado National Forest, but ranchers still like to put up fences to mark their grazing rights.
We walk above Stephens Canyon, searching for a good way to get north and west toward Tunnel Spring or the flume trail, both in Gardener Canyon.
"A Sweco could build this trail in no time, " says Lee. "Yes, but they're hard to find," agrees Jay. Sweco is trail building speak for a small bulldozer-like machine that can operate on mountain slopes. It's an agile trail-building machine, perfect for this rough ground.
"How about a 6," jokes Jay. He's talking about a Caterpillar 6 Bulldozer, that is far too big for this work. I learn all about Swecos and 6s and 9s during the course of the day--what they can do, how much they weigh.
"This is good," exclaims Lee when we come upon a jeep road. We follow the jeep road for awhile and check out an old CCC dam in the distance with a large pool of water behind it.
The jeep trail has lulled us off our GPX track and now we need to find a way down into Little Casa Blanca Canyon. Unfortunately, the direct path leads through an ocotillo and shindagger forest.
We cross the bottom of the canyon with its few small pools of water, and Lee heads up the other side.
We reach Casa Blanca Canyon and realize we're still over a mile from where Lee had hiked north from Gardener Canyon on a previous scouting trip. Time for lunch and time to rethink our goals for the day. I admit that my energy is waning. "Ok, we can go back and scout some other sections on the way back," agrees Lee.
Lee remarks that this section with its purple gray rock could be some fun slickrock for mountain bikers; however, it's fairly remote. After lunch, we push on a little bit farther north for a better sense of where the trail should go. Then we head back and I wonder if this will be another "hike a bike" section of the Arizona Trail--on the steep slopes in and out of Casa Blanca and Little Casa Blanca Canyons.
We hike out of one canyon along a horse and cattle route, and note that the Marlboro man has left his cigarette butt here. Jay teaches Lee how to use a Clinometer to determine the slope here, it's about 10% which is at the upper end of the standard slope for a hiking and biking trail.
We reach the top of the ridge and explore other possible trail connections to the forest service road. We walk down a slope, cross the sandy stream bottom, and head back up a rather steep slope. My calves, which have been asking me politely to stop for the past hour, now start screaming. "Only two more minutes," I tell them.
Lee and I reach the ridge line trail, Jay continues below, off-camber, searching for a perfect contour line for his dreamed of "bench trail." He reminds me of Spiderman, sticking to the side of the steep hill. As he remarked early in the day: "One mile of bench takes just as much time as 100 yards of switchback." Bench trails are also easier to ride.
We're all on top of the ridge line again, heading back to our bikes. We search the hills south for possible easy trail routes from the fire road. We spent almost all day scouting on foot, or "boots on the ground is the best," as Jay puts it. "We did some good work today," agrees Lee.
On our bikes, it takes us only ten minutes to get back to the car--smooth descending through the late afternoon sun, with 360 degree views of mountain ranges and hills. A glorious ending to a productive day.