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Cycle: Why the Black Canyon Trail is NOT Arizona's Best Ride

A bullet-riddled trail marker, a no dumping sign and a pile of horse crap are all too appropriate indicators of the Black Canyon Trail experience.
A bullet-riddled trail marker, a no dumping sign and a pile of horse crap are all too appropriate indicators of the Black Canyon Trail experience.
photo by Jason Franz

This past summer, Bicycling Magazine named the Black Canyon Trail as Arizona's best bike ride. While the Cycle editorial board (of one) took some issue with that designation, we did so having never ridden the fabled BCT. That's now changed as we began riding from the southern end heading north.

How does one set criteria to decide a singular "best" ride anywhere, much less an entire state with the geographic and climate diversity of Arizona?

Well, just for starters we here at Cycle have to say that at the very least the ride must be able to be enjoyed by most cyclists and it should be fun, among other things. So imagine our chagrin whilst in the middle of another section of the Black Canyon Trail when we came to the conclusion that Bicycling Magazine was just plain wrong - the BCT is in no way Arizona's best ride, at least not all of it.

See Also: - Cycle: Riding the Black Canyon Trail's Southern Leg - Cycle: 5 Great Arizona Rides - Cycle: Phoenix's Trails for Every Rider

This is not to say that the BCT is not one of Arizona's top trails. And there absolutely is something amazing about a single 60-plus mile stretch of singletrack. But it just isn't the cat's pajamas that so many have proclaimed.

This realization set it while we embarked on the Table Mesa Road to Black Canyon City Trailhead section of the BCT, the upper line of track in the trail's southern half. This approximately 12 mile section travels through some of the region's more rugged country, crossing the Agua Fria River(bed) and climbing past several mines.

In the effort of full disclosure, we did not complete this leg to Black Canyon City due a mid-ride injury that left our right shin gashed, bloodied and welted, opting to return to the car via dirt roads at the midway point than press on along some of the more challenging trails we have seen.

We at Cycle fully acknowledge that the northern sections of the BCT are the more popular and liked, and we will get to those sections after the post-holiday thaw, but just based on our experiences on the southern half, here are four reasons why the BCT just isn't tops in our book.

The remote Black Canyon trail often has stretches filled with loose rocks and mini boulders.
The remote Black Canyon trail often has stretches filled with loose rocks and mini boulders.
photo by Jason Franz

The BCT is not close
Granted, a little travel time never ruined a good ride. But if you have to drive about an hour just to get to the trailhead the ride better be damn well worth it. Unfortunately this one isn't unless you like a little punishment during a ride in the dirt or are one of those freaks who can make a bike do whatever they want.

But even worse is that if something should happen, either a mechanical or - bike gods forbid - an injury, you are out in the middle of nowhere often without easy access back. The BCT really is a trail best ridden with others just to ensure that there is some support should the worst happen, but even with that someone there, if it's mid-ride between two canyons this long trip could turn super ugly super fast.

The BCT feels like a war zone
All along the BCT but especially around Table Mesa Road, there is a never ending hailstorm of gun fire that would make the ghost of Charlton Heston nervous. Everything from regular action pistols to semi and fully automatic rifles to small explosives are constantly discharged throughout the area making it feel as close to a Middle Eastern war zone as we ever care to get.

The trail cuts through an area littered by shredded targets, bullet casings and shattered clay pigeons.
The trail cuts through an area littered by shredded targets, bullet casings and shattered clay pigeons.
photo by Jason Franz

The problem is, there is no rhyme or reason as to where people set up to shoot in relation to the trail. The BCT meanders about and people just look for a place where they can get some range on their shots, with the shots echoing throughout the small canyons, gullies and ravines so that cyclists can never get a real sense of where it's coming from.  It is totally unnerving.

The BCT is technically hard
Every cyclist craves a challenge. There is something in us that wants to conquer an obstacle or get over a climb faster. But no ride should be so consistently challenging that you can never relax and enjoy the trail and surrounding beauty without fear that you'll lose it and crash and burn in the ugliest of ways. The state's best ride should be for everyone, not only a select number of supreme bike handlers

One of a never ending number of sharp, dangerous switchback turns that either requires a dismount, insane skills or a blood sacrifice.
One of a never ending number of sharp, dangerous switchback turns that either requires a dismount, insane skills or a blood sacrifice.
photo by Jason Franz

The BCT is filled with loose rock, pinched trail points and super sharp switchbacks that can make cyclists spend as much time dismounting and remounting their rig's as they actually spend in the saddle. This can be a very intimidating trail and if your bike handling confidence waivers even a smidgeon the BCT will wreck you fast. The best ride in the state should not make you feel as if the slightest mistake could send you hurtling into a forest of cactus or down a canyon side.

The BCT is not fun
Again, this is riding with reference only of the southern 20-plus miles, but how can any ride be considered the "best" if you can't ever relax, be in awe of the surroundings, and challenge yourself to your personal ability, not be dictated the level of challenge by the trail itself?

Just one of about 15 cactus thorns pulled from the tires along the Black Canyon Trail.
Just one of about 15 cactus thorns pulled from the tires along the Black Canyon Trail.
photo by Jason Franz

Every ride can throw its fair share of nasty curveballs. After two consecutive weekends on the BCT we walked away with a gashed shin, bruised inner knees and thighs, two flat tires and a severely unadjusted rear derailleur. But these things happen.

It was that sense of having to travel far and then be intimidated by constant gun fire and trail hurdles that left such a sour taste with both BCT riding experience thus far. The trails on South Mountain, the McDowell Mountains, Phoenix Mountain Preserve, Estrella or even Papago offer just as much challenge but with more pleasure while being a heck of a lot closer.

But the scenery out on the BCT is amazingly awesome. Maybe it's the north sections that will bail it out?

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