Bikepacking the Craters and Cinder Cones Loop

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Saturday May 5 6 AM, Williams Arizona


We circled the block on Historic Route 66 trying to find a restaurant that was open.  It was just after dawn so we got to experience the quaint, quiet charm of Route 66 without the normal hustle and bustle from cross country tourists.  We parked our bikes outside of  the Grand Canyon Coffee & Cafe walked inside eager to warm up. Looking forward to the cool temperatures of the high country we both failed to remember how cold the early mornings are in late spring.  As a result we had a cold night at Dogtown Lake and I was currently pedaling in my long underwear – along with every other piece of clothing I had packed.
When we walked into the restaurant, peeling off our layers of clothing, we were greeted by a welcoming smile from our waitress.  She was a young Hispanic woman and the only other person working the front was her mom, who was busy enjoying breakfast with her mija (granddaughter).  There was only one other customer inside, he was just finishing his breakfast and gave the granddaughter a pat on the head when he left – clearly a regular.  We wrapped our hands tightly around our coffee mugs while waiting for our huge omelettes. In addition to hastily packing my clothing for the trip, I also decided to try a new dehydrated dinner on Friday night and failed to realize the meal had only  two hundred calories – not even close to enough after six hours of bikepacking. I was starving!
We took our time enjoying our breakfast, waiting for the temperatures to warm up a bit before heading back out.  While we were eating some more regulars walked in. Our waitress and her mom were happy to see the two older gentlemen dressed in cowboy hats and starched jeans, they all exchanged pleasantries like old friends.  During the course of their conversation I learned that our waitress also worked at the Western wear store in town. They started discussing different brands of jeans the store carried and how most of them are made in China these days.  This seemed to bother the men who began talking about how everything should be made in a America, and furthermore “we should put up a wall around all four sides to keep all the bad people out.” Our waitress politely smiled throughout the entire conversation, while the men cackled.  From there the conversation got even weirder as one of the men, who was probably pushing 70 bragged about his recent trip to Vegas and how he’s always talking to ten different girlfriends at a time. America.
Saturday May 5 10 AM, Coconino National Forest
As usual, it didn’t take long to warm up and by now we were back to our shorts and t-shirts making our way back towards Flagstaff.  Friday we had covered 58 miles on smooth fast forest roads. The only thing difficult about the riding was getting acclimated to the elevation.  The first climb to Lowell Observatory and Observatory Mesa got my lungs working, but after that it was flat and fast miles. However, 27 miles into day two we were now tackling a much different type of terrain.  I guess the route name (Craters and Cinder Cones) and the fact that we were riding through volcanic fields should have made it obvious that there would be rocky segments. We picked our way through boulder strewn two track as we steadily climbed back towards Kendrick Mountain.  I found this part of the route to be extremely engaging, and it was a nice confidence boost for me to see that all of my work on technical bike handling skills was paying off. There were several small sections that required short bursts or attention to line choice and I was happy to see that I was able to ride everything without getting off to hike.  Always my worst critic, it’s rare that I’m able to reflect in the moment and appreciate how far I’ve come. And to give credit to where credit is due, this is in large part due to Ryan’s and my coach Dave’s patience, encouragement and willingness to deal with me as they continually help me push past my comfort zone. Disclaimer: there was one very short section that I had to walk where the grade got very steep and I made a poor line choice – luckily it was only a few steps to push up the hill and jump back on my bike.
By now we were approaching one of the longest climbs in the route.  I hadn’t spent much time looking at the route before we left, but knowing enough about the general area and seeing the elevation profile I had a feeling we were going to be climbing a long hill steep hill that would put us onto the Barn Burner course (except going in reverse).  I had some experience with this particular hill because when I was training for Barn Burner in 2016 I blew past the sharp left turn to the rocky downhill in one of my training rides, I was having too much fun flying down a steep hill and then painfully realized I passed my turn and had to climb back up.  Sure enough, this was the hill in the Craters and Cinder Cones Loop. It’s not a particularly fun climb and took a lot of me on this occasion. Luckily the top of the hill marked was less than ten miles from our resupply water tank where we agreed to take a short break to eat and refill our water.


Saturday May 5 4 PM, Spring Fed Stock Tank
Our weekend trip on the Craters and Cinder Cones Loop was serving as a dress rehearsal for our upcoming trip to Mongolia.  One last trip to test out all our gear and assess any last lessons learned (such as bring warmer clothes and make sure dinner is calorie dense).  We were also testing out our new water filtration kit. The Craters and Cinder Cones Loop has a long stretch without reliable water. There are several stock tanks along the way, but they are often dry and stagnant.  This was supposedly the most reliable water source on this section of the route, and luckily had plenty of relatively clean water. Our mini sawyer filtration pouches were a pain to fill up because the water wasn’t flowing and the water level wasn’t very high so it was difficult to submerge the pouches deep enough so they would fill up quickly.  When we arrived the tank, Ryan immediately got to filtering while I started eating. This was becoming a trend, on Friday night while he was setting up the tent I prioritized eating candy and sending my Mom selfies to let her know we were doing OK.
After getting some food down I asked Ryan how I could help, my first job was to use the steripen to sterilize the water Ryan had already filtered.  I accidentally dropped the entire device into the bottle and a bunch splashed out. Luckily there was no damage the steripen. I kept sterilizing the water, but eventually outpaced Ryan because the water pouch took so long to fill up.  So I started to help filter the water while Ryan kept collecting it. After roughly thirty minutes, we filtered two and half liters of water. It was then that Ryan realized I didn’t close his bladder securely and over half of the water had spilled on the ground!  Without skipping a beat, Ryan resumed collecting more water and I stumbled around aimlessly asking him what I should do to help, to which he replied “I hear you’re good at using the Steripen!” In dramatic fashion I responded by asking Ryan why he even brings me on these trips since I can’t help him with anything, “What am I good for companionship?” I asked and without hesitation Ryan gave a resounding “No!”  A reference to my introverted and independent nature. A few days after we got back Ryan posted a seeming sentimental Instagram post in which he bragged that I’m the best adventure companion a guy could ask for. Wink wink.
After we’d successfully collected five liters of clean water we started riding away from the Kendrick area towards SP Crater to the East.  We were headed downhill now, but the terrain was not getting any easier. We rode through rocky sections and small rock gardens as we descended from Kendrick.  This was the only portion of the ride where I was longing for my hardtail mountain bike instead of the rigid drop bar bike I was riding. Luckily it only lasted for about ten miles and I was practically overjoyed when we got to a graded dirt road (FR 417) near the AZT.  My body was getting beat up after thirty slow and chunky miles, making mindless pedaling on a smooth dirt road a welcome relieve. Unfortunately, it didn’t last very long because as soon as we made it to Cedar Ranch the road became extremely washboarded and we were riding into a fierce headwind.  This type of riding is not very physically demanding, but I find it hard to stay mentally engaged. I found myself battling my inner voice because it kept telling me to stop, which always results in slower and slower pedaling if I’m not focused and intentional. Luckily I remembered some of the tricks I learned at Dirty Kanza and thought about Rebecca Rusch’s advice when she said, you can either run over hot coals or walk over hot coals, but you still have to go over hot coals.  In this case the hot coals were annoying washboards.


Fortunately, we kept getting different views of Mt. Humphrey in the distance, which was still snow covered and beautiful.  We were still riding through a ranching area and rode past a few pairs of mares and tiny foals. The young horses were all legs and so cute.  There were also cows everywhere, and they were quite skittish. These cows weren’t very smart, because they kept running in the direction we were going, which was frightening because inevitably they’d always choose to cross the road in front of us without any warning.  There were several calves too, which were cute and there was always one straggler that wasn’t paying attention when the rest of his group ran off. I tried to stop and get a picture of one tiny guy running right across the road in front of Ryan and when I lingered because I couldn’t get my phone back in its case this seemed to upset all of the cows.  We were surrounded by easily a hundred cows in all directions and now all the ones in close proximity were mooing at us, “let’s keep moving, they aren’t happy!” Ryan shouted to me. A few miles later we were through the cow fields unscathed.
One of the best parts of the Craters and Cinder Cones loop is how much the landscape varies in the short 185 mile route.  Up to this point we had ridden through typical alpine forests you expect in the high country, expansive meadows and rocky mountainous terrain.  Now we were entering lava fields and a crater strewn landscape. It’s hard to describe the scene, but it was other worldly. As we got closer to SP crater it felt more and more remote.  We hadn’t seen anyone in hours. Eventually we were tired of cycling and ready to eat dinner so we decided to stop. We’d ridden close to 90 miles for the day, our longest fully loaded distance to date.  We set up camp on the side of the road, just a few paces in, tucked between some bushes and trees so that if anyone (or thing) did travel by we wouldn’t be bothered. We quickly set up camp and ate dinner in the remaining hour of daylight.  It was silent. When the sun went down we got inside the tent ready to get some sleep as we still had a significant amount of climbing ahead of us to finish the route. As soon as our heads hit our inflatable pillows we both heard footsteps. We looked at each other and Ryan asked “What was that?!”  At that point I realized I left my knife on my bike and was feeling quite vulnerable, even though I’m not too confident that I can better protect myself with said knife in hand. I made Ryan poke his head out both sides of the tent. He shimmed his head out the small doors, still laying inside his sleeping bag – if there was anything out there, neither one of us were in the attack position.  Ryan didn’t see anything. We laid back down and started looking at a few pictures on the camera only to hear the footsteps again. Now we were getting freaked out, but again could not figure out where the noise was coming from. Was it our imagination or the sound of our own breathing?


Sunday May 6 7 AM, Sunset Crater National Monument
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASunday morning we cleaned up camp and pressed on toward Sunset Crater National Monument.  We had a big climb ahead of us, and in the route description this was one of the areas that riders are warned about potential hike a bike, as the route goes uphill through soft, deep cinders.  This turned out to be fairly similar to riding through sand. While the climbing was not swift we never had a to hike and slowly made our way up to the visitors center. The ground was so soft that it was super quiet riding and we both were in awe of our surroundings.  Most inspiring was the fact that trees were growing and thriving on a cinder covered landscape. For some sick reason I get a significant amount of pleasure from grinding up a steep (non-technical) incline, I think it’s because this is where my strength in endurance and pacing really shines. I was pedaling along thinking about the fact that the ground was so soft that it was almost like we were riding on a carpet, a magic carpet…I broke out into song doing my best rendition of Jasmine and Aladdin.  When we got to the Sunset Crater visitor center we refilled our water, which luckily did not need to be filtered and I enjoyed the Baby Ruth bar I’d been carrying around since we left a gas station in Williams.
The Craters and Cinder Cones loop ends with a real crescendo, with a seven mile climb gaining two thousand feet.  As we climbed upwards we both commented on how the first segment of the route was by no means an indication of the difficulty of the rest of the route.  However, the mix in scenery and variable difficulty make the route really enjoyable, because eventually, it always changes. When we got to Lockett Meadow we had a choice to take a rocky side road or the Inner Basin trail up to Waterline Road.  We decided to take the single track, which was an amazing trail that wove through a dense Aspen grove. We were both too tired and mentally fried to ride up Inner Basin, but a one-and-a-half mile hike was actually a welcome relief after so much riding the past few days.  Surprisingly we were pushing our bikes faster than some people were hiking despite our heavy load and clipless carbon soled mountain biking shoes. The Aspen were so dense that at times when I looked up too quickly I became dizzy and it felt like I was in some kind of psychedelic Alice and Wonderland scene.  After the Inner Basin trail we rode down Waterline and back to our car which was parked at the Schultz Trailhead area. Waterline was littered with downed trees and we had to stop and get off our bikes multiple times to lift them up and around the debris. It was slow going, but when we finally got to Schultz we could let it rip and quickly got back to our car in time to enjoy a pint at Mother Road before driving back down to the valley.  All in all it was a great weekend, with my favorite adventure companion.


To learn more about this route check out bikepacking roots, huge thanks to Kurt Refsnider for creating and sharing this epic route!



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