ARIZONA: FLAGSTAFF TO SEDONA
BY: CHAD DE ALVA
You have to appreciate the folks throughout history who have stared out at an expanse of country and thought, “I’m going to build a road through this.” From the great way-finders of the past like Otto-Mears, to the modern day crews who put in roads for utilities, fire fighting, or so many other purposes, their efforts make for some great riding opportunities. Northern Arizona is one such place that is laced with awesome roads that thread their way through the highly contoured parts of the state. There are multiple routes that link the ponderosa pine forests around Flagstaff to the red rocks and desert of Sedona, which means that awesome dual sport riding can be had by anyone who can identify these routes on a map. Thousands of feet of elevation change and hundreds and hundreds of miles of dirt tracks can be enjoyed on such a ride – the only limiting factor is fuel range and hours in the day. My good friend Kenny needed to do some range testing on his new desert tank for his 300, so we mapped out a route that started in Flagstaff, and by way of Sedona made its way back to Flagstaff more than 100 miles later.
Clouds raced across the sky, their darkened bellies threatening to make liars out of the weather forecasters who called for no rain, as Kenny and I started our 300s on a cool Flagstaff morning. The wind was busy redistributing leaves in all of the colors of fall around us as we layered up and set off. The first 30-odd miles of our ride were cruiser miles down some of the old logging railroad grades that branch off into the forests around Flagstaff, and on familiar ground we set the pace and started to eat up the miles.
Settling into our ride, we watched the clouds as they continued to race overhead, causing the sunlight to burst through in brilliant rays of light. The deciduous trees we passed were all starting down the backside of peak fall color, yet the golden leaves that had yet to fall seemed to glow in contrast to the dark timber on this morning that literally had fall in the air. The railroad grade we were on was a major artery through this part of the forest, and its well graded and graveled surface allowed for all of the speed we wanted. However, we held back from race pace, knowing full well that side by sides and other traffic frequent this road on most weekends. Instead, we kept things at a cruising pace and were rewarded for our slower speed by seeing all kinds of wildlife, and other forest oddities like someone’s random fort or deer blind. Where it was convenient, we ducked onto a couple of quick sections of single track as we closed the distance on the Mogollon Rim where we would drop into Sedona.
Two things let you know you’re getting close to the Rim and its four digit elevation change that separates the pine forests from the desert. First, the trees start to change, and pinion and juniper trees start to show up in the woodwork. Secondly, the road surface goes from having a few rocks in it, to being completely made up of rocks. Time to wake up and pay attention to where you’re riding. At the Rim, Kenny and I took a minute to take in the expansive views of Sedona’s red rock country and the Verde Valley beyond. The morning’s cloud cover had all but disappeared, which meant our immediate forecast was looking to be warm and sunny. We didn’t dally at the overlook for too long, for we knew that slick rock riding awaited us once we had dropped into Sedona.
The entrance to the Slickrock trail we were looking for isn’t marked in any formal way, and if you didn’t know better you would think that you had taken a wrong turn into some random neighborhood. Yet at the back of the houses, the road turns to dirt and Sedona’s “mini Moab” trail begins. The trail is short and sweet, but it’s got plenty of fun surfaces and obstacles to ride on, which makes it a worthy part of any ride through Sedona. We skipped several sections of the trail to focus on the slick rock play areas which can entertain riders of any skill level. Just as in real Moab, the trail is marked by a black swath from all of the four wheel drive vehicles, so as long as you stay on the trail, anything you can point your bike at is fair game. Kenny and I sessioned all of the play areas until we had our slickrock fix and our desire for monster burritos was our driving factor. Lunch and more fuel awaited.
With both our bikes and bodies topped off, we set back out onto the dirt. We sampled some of the more recently designated OHV trails outside of Sedona as we worked our way across the Verde Valley to the west. The trails weren’t too busy, which meant that we could enjoy all of the berms and bar ditches of these two track trails at a good rate of speed. These newer OHV trails made for a great way to transition across the valley to the trail that would eventually switchback us up to the top of the Mogollon Rim.
With one final right turn we found ourselves pointed directly at the trail that would climb well over a thousand feet in just a couple of miles. Remember how I said the roads that climb and descend the Mogollon Rim are made entirely of rocks? Well the surface of this trail is normally comprised of loose chunks of rock ranging in size from oranges to watermelons that like to roll and move in other unpredictable ways at the slightest touch from a tire. Riding on such a surface is always an adventure. Once you get to the top, the rocks keep going, just because they can. Kenny and I were ready for a nice long session of playing in the rocks, so we were surprised when we found dozer tracks at the gate that marked the start of the trail.
Much to our surprise, the trail had recently been worked on – extensively. The utility company that uses this road was evidently planning to so some serious work, and as such the trail needed to be turned back into a road. Our rolling rock, ball bearing, bike balancing climb had been turned into a very loose, rutted, “road” that was now full of random craters that would stop a bike cold if a front tire fell into one. Technical climbing had been traded for crazy loose, which meant that our throttle stops would be well utilized. We shot up the climb, grinning like little kids on Christmas morning who just found all of the presents under the tree. Carrying speed and prolonged wheelies were the ticket on some of the steeper pitches as we raced toward the sky. We soon topped out and were rewarded with an awesome view of the country below.
Smoke from countless wildfires burning all across the southwest added depth to the landscape, and the clouds diffused the harshness out of the mid-afternoon sun, which made for killer views. We stopped and took in the awesome views in every direction before continuing on our way. We still had dozens of miles to go, and we were about to get into some of the coolest sections of road. After topping out, the road is delicately laced along a ridgeline, and in several places, the road is the ridgeline. To either side, expansive views stretch on for miles. The experience feels like you’re on a high pass in Colorado, riding a rocky narrow track with a cut bank on one side, and plenty of room to fall off of on the other. Yet here, you’re gazing down into the high desert, and it’s a unique experience. Again, the dozer had been at work, and what was a narrow shelf road when I had last been on this road in July, had been considerably widened. The impact of no real rain to speak of was evident too. What should have been soil had been turned to deep silt in places, which is not something you usually find at this time of year.
Far too soon, the road started to flatten out and disappear into endless stands of Ponderosa trees. As if on cue, the cloud cover had started increasing just in time to make sure the timber felt nice and dark. Kenny and I had one more spot we wanted to visit before we pointed our bikes for home, so we picked up the pace to cover the miles before dark. Riding through the endless forest is something that never gets old. The road weaves through stands of trees, up and down the gentle hills and valleys. The weather was obviously keeping other folks out of the woods, and we nearly had the place to ourselves. After following a series of turns that led down roads which saw progressively less and less use, we reached the spot we searching for.
An old cabin materialized out of the endless tree trunks. Built on stumps and surrounded by old water tanks and a couple of outbuildings, the cabin has been in the woods for many moons, but information on the history of the building is apparently hard to come by – so I’ll just say it’s the quintessential type of cool old stuff you find when you’re out poking around. The wind howling through the trees caused the occasional pine bough or branch to fall around us, which made me think of what it would have been like to live out here – dozens of miles from Flagstaff.
Home was starting to sound like a winning idea as the wind continued to pick up and the temperature kept dropping. Maybe we would actually see snow tonight, as forecasted. Not wanting to wait and see if any snow would fall at the cabin, Kenny and I layered up and started following the track for home. We had dozens of miles to cover, but thankfully modern dirt bikes can cover ground faster than what I’m assuming the folks who lived in the cabin used to get around on – so we knew our ride home wouldn’t take too long. From a clearing in the trees at the top of a hill, we could see rain falling off in the distance as the storm marched across Northern Arizona. Our final miles were easy, on well maintained dirt roads that thanks to some rain we had just missed, were much less dusty than what we had dealt with earlier in the day. Back in Flagstaff just before the sun set, I took stock of the day’s ride.
Kenny and I had covered well over 100 miles on our ride. More than 95% of the ride was dirt, starting at 7,000 feet above sea level (ASL) in Flagstaff, and dropping down to just over 4,000 ft ASL in Sedona. The only time we were on pavement was in Sedona, and a mile or so in Flagstaff. We rode all of the rocks, sampled singletrack lined in the colors of fall, played on Slickrock, and rode some of the coolest dirt roads around. Thanks to some awesome topography and folks who have established and continued to maintain roads through these places, we got to see some awesome country and have a great ride. And the crazy part is, there’s still so much left to explore.
There is no shortage of cool roads out there – you just have to point your bike down one and commit to seeing what is around the bend. Even if you’re riding down a track that you’ve been down countless times before, you’re eventually bound to find new things or find that the road has been changed to provide a completely different riding experience than what you were expecting. A good map and a big tank of gas are all you need to get out and explore and have a great time on your motorcycle. Don’t let the changing cooler weather keep you at home, just pack a layer and go. In our case, the weather definitely cut down the number of folks in the woods and there’s nothing quite like having so much public land nearly all to yourself.