Don't be discouraged by the title, our weekend road trips will never cease to exist, but in many ways this one felt like our last long adventure for a while.
I walked out of my last didactic class of my graduate degree mid week, and like any rational foreigner living in Phoenix, I got in the car and drove very far away.
When Justin and I first entered the trail running scene some years ago, we learned about Hardrock 100, denoted as the mother of all 100 mile races. The race runs from Silverton to Ouray through some of America's most beautiful mountains. Every year the race goes down, I find myself awe struck by every photo, lamenting that I can't reach my hand through and be there in the very moment. Our move to Arizona presented a stepping stone to the San Juan mountain range, and it was only a matter of time until we pulled the trigger.
Silverton is a solid 8 hour drive from Phoenix, so a long weekend is necessary to get the most out of the area. I was given a stack of maps and mountain biking books by a friend in Phoenix and spent time pouring over which trails were worth riding during our short stay. I know there were areas we missed, but I would highly recommend the same route we took if you're looking for a variety of terrain in all corners of the southern San Juans. Our itinerary was as follows:
Day 1 & 2: Camp at little Molas Lake (picture above) which is kitty corner to the Colorado Trail. Most of the Colorado trail is restricted to foot traffic, with the exception of this part.
Day 3: Durango, Horse Gulch trail system
Day 4: Mancos, Phil's World trail system
The drive from Durango to Silverton takes you over Molas pass, which sits at 11,000 ft so be ready for the altitude beyond Durango. The obvious should also be noted - you are in a massive mountain range, so every trail either goes straight up or straight down. But don't let the elevation gain deter you, because the trails are ridiculously smooth and ride-able. Colorado mountain bikers are spoiled!
Now that I'm back to 2-day weekends we'll be restricted to areas within Arizona. If we had more time in the area we would have added Pagosa Springs, Ouray, and Telluride to the list of areas to explore. It would be easy to spend an entire summer exploring the area without overlapping the same trail or peak twice. If you have the chance to see this area, you'd be a fool to miss out.
I always spend time on the recreation.gov website in search of new trails and wilderness areas. On the Arizona section there is a list of recreation cabins owned by the forest service in secluded areas of the state, usually sleeping 6-12 people with comfortable amenities in the middle of nowhere. Enticing to any outdoor adventure junkie, which is why they fill up months in advance. Horsetheif basin drew me in because Justin and I had never been to the area, which pulled at me because we have been to almost every corner of the state. Horsetheif basin also happens to be in the southern most tip of the Prescott National Forest, which boasts itself for high pine habitat, granite rock formations, and stellar mountain biking trails. After discovering the cabin last summer and realizing it was completely booked, I made sure to book it in advance and grab a few fellow mountain biking friends along for the ride.
Adventurer beware: The road to Horsetheif Basin is not for the faint of heart. After taking the Bumble Bee exit off highway I-17, you travel a well-groomed dirt road for a couple hours up to the town of Crown King. Any car should do fine on this road, but we had a stroke of bad luck and got a flat. We turned around and swapped our tire at Discount Tire and headed back up the mountain, because staying in Phoenix is never an option. Crown King is like the wild wild west. I'll let your imagination paint the picture, because I'm not sure how else to describe this rural, rustic, boot-stompin' town. It's a fun place to stop on the way home for a beverage at the saloon or a pulled pork sandwich next door.
We met up with a few of our friends and continued on the road past Crown King, which is when things got bumpy. We didn't go far since the sun was setting and we wanted to set up camp. It was a sweet view to wake up to of layered peaks and pinyon pines. The road was just passable for both cars to make it to camp.
After waking up and enjoying breakfast with a view, we were eager to go for a bike ride and get to the cabin. So we packed up and drove down the road, which became increasingly bumpy. A couple miles in we heard a honk from our friend's Prius behind us and pulled over. The Prius was not fit for the road that was obviously made for a high-clearance vehicle, and our Subaru was barely surviving. We got out of the car and were pressed to make a few decisions. The Prius was clearly staying put or turning around. We were only a couple miles from the cabin so everyone felt committed to get down, we just weren't sure how. Until the idea was proposed that we bike shuttle our supplies down.
Under the hot Arizona sun, we packed up our gear and biked to the cabin. There's a crappy photo below of the cabin, courtesy of the forest service, but it was an oasis! There were 2 beds and 2 bunks all with mattresses, clean running water, electricity, and a shower. Talk about five star "camping." Besides having paranoia that the Prius would fall off the side of the road or get broken into, the weekend was a blast.
The biking trails were not trails you find elsewhere in Prescott National Forest. Most of the biking was on dirt roads, but the benefit was the seclusion. There were a few side trails we explored, which were not maintained, but still bike-able. We hit most corners of the area on our bikes, but there were a few areas left unexplored that will likely bring us back one day.
Justin and I have made many trips to the Grand Canyon since moving to Arizona, but always to the south rim. The south rim is easily accessible compared to the north rim, and includes the Grand Canyon Village with a slew of lodging and eating options. The south rim is the quintessential tourist destination at the canyon, so for those wanting a more secluded experience that is off the beaten path, then it is worth it to commit to the longer drive north.
From Phoenix, the north rim is about 6 1/2 hours driving, and less for Flagstaff residents. After passing by Jacob Lake, you head south on highway 67 and then reach the north rim wilderness area via forest roads. There is a campground at the north rim at the end of highway 67, but if you like being at one with mother nature, I recommend going to one of the 6 main viewpoints. Once turning on to forest road 22 from highway 67, there will be signs at every junction leading you to your chosen viewpoint. In my opinion, all viewpoints are stunning, with the exception of Parrissawampits Point (yes, that's the real name), which essentially has no view. We camped at Timpf point and pulled off once we saw the rim and settled in for an early summer weekend of biking and sun-setting in the company of good friends.
Our primary motivation for going to the north rim was mountain biking the Rainbow Rim Trail. Mountain biking is not allowed in national parks, but this trail offers a unique perspective because it is just outside the park in a wilderness area. The trail is 18 miles round-trip with mild elevation gain and few passersby. Justin and I agreed this was our favorite trail we have traversed on our mountain bikes since moving to Arizona. You can see below that the trail is smooth, which is rare for Arizona riding. Most trails are riddled with cactus and shale rock along the edge that will ruin you if you fall. The Rainbow Rim Trail is hard to beat, with stretches of dense pine that pops out on the edge of the canyon with jaw-dropping views.
After a good huff on the trail, we spent each evening strolling the edge of the rim and taking in the sunset.
I am an outdoor and travel junkie who is currently completing my doctorate in occupational therapy overseas in rural Fiji. On Sweet World Travels you will find stories of my life with my husband, the communities we serve, and the many adventures we take.