Underexposed is a series dedicated to showcasing trails around North America that fly under the proverbial radar for most riders. PEARL iZUMi athlete Brice Shirbach has seen firsthand what sweat equity can mean among mountain bikers and its impact on the places we call home, and this series will look to help open eyes and shift our attention to some of the brilliant riding that exists in places both unexpected and unheard of.
I popped my head into Pivot Cycles’ headquarters in Tempe, AZ, during my drive up to Sedona from Tucson, and asked for a suggestion. I wanted to find a trail to ride that I hadn’t before, and I wanted to avoid the popular Phoenix spots on South and McDowell mountains. A glimpse at Trailforks reveals an abundance of trail networks that surround the city on all sides and no sooner had the question left my mouth when everyone within earshot began to offer up their suggestions. The decision was starting to feel a bit overwhelming when Black Canyon Trail was mentioned. A hush seemed to fall over everyone, and it suddenly became clear that this was going to be where I would spend the day on my bike.
Black Canyon City is a 40-minute drive north of downtown Phoenix. Bisected by Interstate 17, which runs from Phoenix to Flagstaff, Black Canyon is close to the geographic center of Arizona. The landscape is reflective of what you might expect to find throughout much of the area, with towering saguaro cacti, beautiful rock formations, and jagged sawtooth peaks in every direction.
The aptly named Black Canyon Trail is an 80 mile-long trail that follows a Native American trade route through the Sonoran Desert. The trail system is overseen by the Black Canyon Trail Coalition (BCTC) following the combined efforts of BCTC, the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), and the Bureau of Land Management. Maricopa and Yavapai Counties also contribute to the trail system. This IMBA Epic is a point-to-point trail available for use by hikers and mountain bikers, and if ridden entirely from north to south, features 5,000+ feet of descending and 3,000+ feet of climbing.
While I’d love to dedicate the time to a full 80-mile adventure, I settled on checking out the 5-mile Skyline segment of the BCT. This portion of the trail starts at the Black Canyon Trailhead, about a mile north of the venerable Rock Springs Cafe (buy a pie or two and thank me later). From start to finish, the trail reveals a stunning landscape and brilliantly fun XC-ride. It was a mile in when I fully realized why everyone at Pivot seemed to hold this section of trail in such high regard as I crested a high point along the trail, and Horseshoe Bar was revealed below. It’s an unusually serpentine section of the Agua Fria River, which snakes its way through the Black Canyon. I stopped for more than a few moments to take it in and was pleased to see that the trail would eventually take me right to the water before working its way back up towards the canyon’s roof.
It’s strange to ride what is effectively a backcountry trail within a stone’s throw of a busy interstate, but the BLM has a special designation called “backyard to backcountry” which seems a perfect fit for the kind of opportunity BCT presents. I’ve always considered myself to be more of a “child of the forests” than a desert dweller, and truth be told, loam and trees and generally where I want to be. However, the more time I dedicate to exploring places like the Black Canyon Trail and other parts of the American Southwest, the more I realize just how good the desert can be for the soul.