Bikepacking Mount Lemmon

Words by: Brian Goldstone

Words by Sam Schultz. Photos by Locke Hassett

Often times, the best adventures begin with high-noon departures, loose planning, and biting off a bit more than you can chew.

It was my first bikepacking trip, and though I have backpacked and traveled by motorbike quite a lot, I was clueless about how to pack a bicycle–and I must say, quite skeptical of this trending form of travel. Who would want to ride a fully loaded bike on singletrack?, I had always thought. Visions of struggling up climbs, only to be rewarded by awkward flow-less descending had always come to mind.

Luckily, I had pushed these preconceived notions to the back of my mind and decided it was high time I give it a shot. It helped that I was able to talk my friend Locke, one of the most avid bikepackers I know, into holding my hand through my first trip and I was psyched. We threw all sorts of ideas out during the planning process, but ultimately settled on a route up Mount Lemmon, with a combination of trails I had never ridden off the back side, and the most technical trails in the area on the front.

I was excited by the ability to leave out the back door of my winter home with a completely different objective than I had ever set out with–one of the aspects of bikepacking that has piqued my interest the most. I might live out of a van for the majority of the year, but it sure is hard to beat setting off for fresh adventures right from the homefront.

Locke helped me figure out what went where on my bike, and I was very satisfied when I strapped my hand sewn Rogue Panda saddlebag to the rails. An old stuff sack and a stabilizing mount on my bar balanced things up out front. A medium sized hydration pack rounded out my gear. We had paired down to the bare necessities, taking advantage of the miniscule chance of rain in the desert by leaving our tents at home, but knowing by that same desert environment and significant elevation gain would make for hot days and and a frigid night. Clothing was going to be critical. I wanted to pack up every sweet piece of 7mesh gear I had just for the sake of testing it all out, but I was disciplined and knew that just the essentials would keep my packs small, and keep me perfectly comfy. Man is it nice to have cutting edge gear.

The initial driveway bike feel was tank-like, but not in a bad way. I tested it out by hitting rocks and ruts in the ditch on the way to the base of the climb. It felt as though the bike would tractor over anything. This was going to be good!

We worked our way up the 25 mile road climb to Summerhaven–a funny route for a couple of long travel trail bikes, but we were able to break it up with a couple sections of singletrack thrown in for good measure and we knew we would get our fix of trail by the end of the day. I was blown away by how well my loaded down Rocky Mountain Instinct handled the singletrack and I couldn’t wait for more. We reached the high point of Summerhaven a couple hours later than anticipated–my estimated climb time was a bit optimistic. We quickly got a few supplies at the mountain top market and dropped off into uncharted territory on the Oracle Ridge trail, racing the sun.

It was a cold and blustery evening, leaving us feeling small and exposed, but also incredibly alive and lucky, as we continued to dive down the ridge–still having no idea where we would bed down for the night. As the sun continued to drop, it fell below the band of dark clouds above us, lighting both the sky and the ridge in spectacular fashion. Our shared weakness for always wondering what’s-around-the-next-corner came on strong as we continued down, passing by several protected camp spots looking for the next great view. We found it, a slightly protected spot at a small saddle, dumped our bikes, and quickly scrambled to the high point to soak in the last rays of sun before settling into camp.

We awoke in the morning, deciding over coffee and oatmeal that our original route was a bit ambitious. We wanted to make sure we had time and energy to hit the rugged singletrack that would take us back home on the front side of the mountain, so we decided to ride back up the ridge trail and explore a bit more at the summit. It was the right call.

Loose, chunky rocks, awkward squeezes, and tight switchbacks were the name of the game on the way down. Once I got used to the top-heavy feel of the bike, my loaded machine pushed through wheel grabbing rocks, and hooked up on the tricky steep climbs that are thrown in for good measure better than I could have ever imagined. The added momentum and traction used every millimeter of suspension, and I was happy to have my Instinct set up “BC Edition”, with 155mm in the back and 160 up front. The reward of piecing the puzzle together correctly and smoothing out the impossibly rough and rocky trails was addictive and incredibly satisfying.

After a long day of working our way down and around the mountain, we topped off at a saddle that would drop us into the infamously nasty La Milagrosa trail about an hour before sunset. We were tired and it seemed like we had just enough time to split the cold (ok, lukewarm–but still delicious) beer that I had smuggled in my pack.

As Locke was pouring his half into his mug, I noticed something hanging out of his neck. My eyes got wide as I looked closer. In the calmest way I could, I informed him that it appeared as though he had a stick stuck in his neck. Unbelievably he didn’t feel a thing, but sure enough he had a pencil-sized stick lodged in there. We decided it would be best to leave it in until we got home and I suggested we turn around and take the road home. Locke wanted none of it. He calmly finished his beer and proceeded to shred his way down La Milagrosa, milking every last bit of another mind-blowing sunset. Rolling home in the dark; tired, content, and just in time for a feast of tacos with our friends at the Cycling House, after a little first aid, of course.