Driving west on Interstate 40 towards Flagstaff, my anticipation seems to double with every passing mile. After three weeks of driving, my car-cramped body craves a weekend of mountain biking like never before. And I know from past experience that my stiff joints will be rewarded -- Mount Elden, towering on the outskirts of Flagstaff, harbors some of the best single-track in Arizona. As the miles disappear, my thoughts turn to one trail in particular: the Sunset. It's one of my favorite trails in the state, and it's been entirely too long since I've been on it.
When my wife, Jennifer, and I arrive in Flagstaff we check into the Birch Tree Inn. After our rough road trip, we've opted for a bed and breakfast over the usual camp and cook routine. We pry ourselves out of the car and owner Donna Pettinger greets us with lemonade and a smile. It's after 4 p.m., but the cheerful welcome helps ease the fatigue in my muscles.
Schultz Creek Trail
There's enough light left for an evening ride, so I quickly change into my riding clothes and take off. I'm not ready for the Sunset Trail today, but a cruise up Schultz Creek sounds like just what my stiff legs need.
Flagstaff's trails are close to town so I start pedaling right from the front door. A few minutes later I reach the top of San Francisco Street and head across what locals call the "Meadow" -- a shortcut to the Schultz Creek Trail. The noisy hum of my tires disappears when I abandon the pavement and start rolling over the chalky dirt. I start climbing the gentle grade and, thankfully, my recently useless lungs don't fail in the high altitude (the terrain here ranges between 7,000 and 9,300 feet). The trail parallels Schultz Pass Road, so bikers who aren't ashamed of hitching a ride to the top can avoid the uphill half of this route.
About halfway up, with my legs getting warm and the forest air pleasantly cool, I realize why so many of my friends still live in this mountain biking Mecca. The maze of single-track in the Mount Elden/Dry Lake Hills Trail System must be some of the best fat tire terrain in the state.
At the top of Schultz Creek I take a hard right onto Dry Lake Hills Trail. A couple more miles of huffing and puffing and the climbing will be over for the day. When I reach the top my jersey is soaked with sweat and I-40 seems like a part of the distant past. I find a place to rest, watching the sun start its descent behind Mount Humphreys.
With dusk approaching, I get back on my bike for the downhill return to Flagstaff. I turn onto the lower section of Brookbank, one more in a series of great single-track trails that criss-cross the slopes of Mount Elden. I've barely started when I run into an old friend, Aaron, who is riding uphill. After a brief period of catching up, I convince Aaron that he should join me on the Sunset Trail tomorrow (it doesn't take a lot of arm twisting). We decide to meet at 9 a.m. and then continue on our separate ways. The remainder of Brookbank flashes by. This portion of the trail is only a few miles long and I waste no time on it, applying the brakes only when absolutely necessary (to ensure a safe landing at the bottom). The end of Brookbank takes me to the lower section of the Oldham Trail, a "twisty-turny descent through burly big boulders," according to Cosmic Ray, author of Fat Tire Tales and Trails and Flagstaff's resident expert on all of the area's mountain bike routes.
I find myself in Buffalo Park a few moments later (there's an easy loop through here for those who want a shorter, more relaxing ride). Buffalo Park, at the edge of town, signals the end of today's ride.
A Grueling Climb
At nine sharp Aaron and friends Doug and Dave show up. We load the bikes into Dave's truck (no, we're not cheating -- just designing a route that Doug says will be more exciting than the usual).
Taking advantage of Schultz Pass Road, we drive up the mountain and dump the bikes out at Schultz Tank. From here we can ride down Schultz Creek for today's warm-up. After riding up it yesterday, I figure this is a fine plan. The four of us hit the trail, with Aaron taking the lead and showing us what kind of pace to expect. I can tell that I'm going to be an oxygen-challenged individual for most the day.
At the bottom of Schultz Creek, we tackle our first ascent of the morning, the Rocky Ridge Trail. As we start up this technical trail, I think of Cosmic Ray's cryptic description of this route: "Good as heck rocky tech." The rocks are everywhere as we slowly climb the ridge (it's possible to avoid this technical route by pedaling or driving -- don't tell your friends -- up Mount Elden Road).
We stop for a break and I check the pressure in my tires, making sure they're hard enough for the real climbing ahead. We continue up, passing the turn-off for Brookbank, on past the upper Oldham Trail, slowly rising toward the top of Mount Elden. The grueling climb to Mount Elden's 9,300-foot summit takes nearly an hour, and I'm proud to make it without losing sight of my friends (though I am at a loss for air). Friends or not, I'm sure they would have dropped me like a rock if I couldn't keep up.
Finally at the top, my lungs get a chance to recover. While I catch my breath, my eyes feast on the incredible view. To the east, Sunset Crater is visible in the distance, and the Colorado Plateau disappears on the horizon.
The Sunset Trail is 12 miles long and 2,000 feet down, and nearly every last foot of it is amazing single-track -- or, as Cosmic Ray puts it, "Machin' down Sunset at warp speed will make your pants dance."
We fly down the hill, taking turns leading and eating dust. There's something about a nose full of dirt that I just can't get enough of. Near the top, we roll through the remnants of a 1978 fire, the burn still scarring the mountain's top. We slow down when we reach the Hobbit Forest, an area named by locals for its hobbit-like fern and boulder atmosphere.
The miles disappear under our tires as we speed down, banking off turns and hopping the occasional obstacle. Thinking back to the days of being confined to the car, I know this trail is all that I'd hoped for. And even before reaching the bottom, it seems, I'm already looking forward to the next time I can ride into -- or down -- the Sunset.
Distance from the Phoenix area: 160 miles
Getting there: Drive north on I-17 to Flagstaff. Take Highway 180 north out of town two miles (towards the Grand Canyon) and turn right on Forest Road 420 (the Schultz Pass/Mount Elden roads). The roads split after half a mile; park here and start riding, or continue higher on either of the roads (Mount Elden Road is also called FR 557). A variety of routes can be created using these two roads and the many Mount Elden trails.
Maps: The USGS topos are Flagstaff East, Flagstaff West, Humphreys Peak and Sunset Crater. A Mount Elden/Dry Lake Hills Trail System map is available from the Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce; phone (520) 774-9541.
Season: spring, summer and fall.
Further reading: Fat Tire Tales and Trails, by Cosmic Ray, available in most Valley bike shops.
For more information: Coconino National Forest, Peaks Ranger District, 5075 N. Highway 89, Flagstaff, Ariz. 86004; phone (520) 527-3630.