Mt. Lemmon – the extra hard way

There are still 3 trails on Mt. Lemmon where I haven’t carried my bike along: Samaniego, Sutherland, and Red Ridge. The latter interested me, partly because I had ridden the first 100 yards a month ago and was really tempted to find out where the trail spits you out at the bottom. It’s a one-way down in my opinion, but apparently some people go the other way, too. Scouring the internet for gpx tracks had me soon piecing the sections together: down Red Ridge, along Canada del Oro, then linking up with what is marked as 4×4 forest service road 736 heading NNE to Oracle.

I got Jbake and Aaron on the hook, and soon we are all piled in his minivan for the 5:10 am departure for Oracle. The old Mt. Lemmon highway is a good warm up for the first 20 miles, before it becomes progressively steeper and a 22×36 feels “just right”. We were riding at our own pace this last section and met up again at the Summerheaven convenience store. Burritos, pizzas, coffee, .. the works! Oh ja. Next stop: community center to pay a visit to their beautiful bathroom.

I thought we were still a bit undecided wether to take Oracle Ridge or Red Ridge down, but Aaron had his mind set on the latter, so we followed. The beginning was rocky, but 95% rideable (for me) single track. About 2.5k ft. elevation loss in the first 3 miles. I got a sidewall cut half-ways down. Plugging it didn’t help much, but with some fresh Stan’s and one of Aaron’s car-sized plugs that he tore in half, it did the trick. The fix held the rest of the way; though it’s time for me to buy a tougher rear tire.

At the intersection to the Catalina Camp trail #401, we briefly considered going up to Oracle Ridge, but I thought that’d be way too brutal. Aaron checked his email and got a message from Scott who warned us that this would be one tough route we had planned and gave us a few options to re-route. We nervously laughed, and since it wasn’t that bad so far, we felt like we can just keep going. Little did we know, that we were about to enter the sacred Catclaw forest! Aaron and Jbake’s legs were bleeding, blood running down their chins. Lucky for me, my recovery socks and arm coolers were taking the bite out of it. We soon lost the trail and bushwhacked / climbed around boulders looking for it. Soon enough, Jbake found the trail again and we were morally in better shape – not that it mattered much to be on / off the trail in terms of getting forward.

The trail finally turned to the promised 4×4 road at Coronado Camp. It was a rock garden  and the stream was flowing nicely. It’s amazing how much the 29er wheels help in rolling over dry and flowing river beds. As we kept going further, we realized we were about 2000 ft. shy of the day’s climbing, but with only 8 miles to go. After the first of what seemed like a steep hill, the real treat came into sight: a dirt road cut into a series of valleys without much consideration for countouring. Just up and over and down. Repeat. Then add a steep rock wall at the end of an already steep dirt road. I’ve never seen anything like this. Later on I found out, that someone overturned their 4×4 a couple weeks ago and people were injured. Personally, I wouldn’t be caught on anything less than my 2 shoes and a bike by my side to steady me!

After that rock-wall climb, we took a break to consider our options as we were running low on water. Aaron thought we should bail at the next creek and head towards Biosphere 2, which we could see in the not-too-far distance. We tentatively agreed, but upon arriving at the next (dry) wash, the “road” definitely looked like the better option. The clouds that had so far saved our brains from frying, were turning into a thunderstorm about 5 miles east of us. Lightning was getting nearer and the wind started to pick up with some rain drops. I was a getting a bit scared and nervous about the effort required to get back to Oracle with these weather conditions. Also, Aaron and myself ran out of water and we expected another 2 hours of the brutal hike & bike. Surprisingly, the weather calmed down and we were even able to ride the occasional section of down & uphill. The clouds and smell of cool-ish humid air with a hint of eucalyptus were such a treat.

In my effort to conserve water, I had forgotten to eat some carbs. So, with just under 2 miles to go, I bonked pretty hard. I sat down, took my helmet off, and sucked on a couple gels, which incidentally contained 3 doses of caffeine. Those brought me back to life and I felt in pretty good shape to ride out the lows and hike the highs on the forest service road, which at this point was not unbelievable steep anymore.

Just a block before Jbake’s house where we had parked the van, I looked to the right and saw a sweet little woodworking shop with the garage door open. As I am riding past the house, the owner, Chris, comes out and offers me water, then fills up my bottle for me, and gives me a quick a tour of his studio / workspace. Tiny, but all the right tools for making some very interesting wooden lamps. The only link to his work I could find is at the bottom of this page’s list of participant artists. Well, there we were, not quite back at 1 pm, or even 2 pm. Nope, almost 6 pm, and sure glad we made it that quickly. Maybe it was the caffeine, but I was ready for more!

Link to Jbake’s blog.

Stats: 46 miles, 8500 ft. elevation, 11:30 hours total time, GPX track

 An epic to do only once.

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