Cycle: Riding the Black Canyon Trail's Southern Leg

Categories: Bicycle Culture

BCT sign.jpg
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. Over the next three weeks, Cycle will explore 34 miles of the BCT in three sections, starting from the Emery Henderson Trailhead at the south end and working the hard way north to the Gloriana Mine off of Bumble Bee Road.

When it comes to mountain biking, Desert Classic Trail at South Mountain is the gold standard for cross-country riding bliss. Sure, it's not the most difficult (like say National or Hawes), but it provides just the right amount of technical and physical challenge to always be interesting and flat out smile-inducing.

With Desert Classic as a comparison, Cycle took to the southern leg of the Black Canyon Trail to see if it lived up to the hype that we'd been hearing since early spring. After this first ride...the jury's still out.

See Also:
- Cycle: 5 Great Arizona Rides
- Cycle: Get Dirty at McDowell Mountain Regional Park
- Cycle: Hawes Trail Loops Bring the Gnarly

BCT Rider.jpg
photo by Jason Franz
The most popular stretch of the Black Canyon Trail breaks down into four natural segments: Henderson to Table Mesa (11 miles one way), Table Mesa to Black Canyon City (13 miles), Black Canyon City to Gloriana Mine (10 miles), Gloriana to Hidden Treasure (11 miles). The trail technically does extend further to the north beyond Cordes Lakes, but for Phoenix area riding these are the primary segments.

By all accounts, the most visited section of the BCT is the middle section around Black Canyon City that includes the K-Mine Segment and Lollipop Loop. But we wanted to make an honest assessment of the trail and so we started from the Emery Henderson Trailhead.

The first impression about this trail was that it rarely was easy. That's not to say it was difficult, but it never rode easy. The trails have abundant loose rocks and sock sandy sections that meant that it was tough to ever get a good rhythm for any extended period. Even on the downhills, the ride always felt like work.

BCT Saguaro Alley.jpg
photo by Jason Franz
But the scenery... At almost every turn, the Arizona desert presented geologic and botanical treasures like gifts. The ground never ceased to transform because of the varied rocks and minerals, shifting from the basaltic blacks to reds and browns, to occasional greens and blues. And as soon as you move through a grove of cholla, a hill is crested and on the other side sits a forest of saguaro or ocotillo. The terrain is completely worth the effort.

Unfortunately, the glory of the setting is often disrupted by the sound of gunfire as these areas, just north of the Ben Avery Shooting Range, have become favored by folks looking to unload some ammo. It makes for some very unsettling and intimidating riding because you're never quite sure where the shooting is coming from and which way they're pointing.

BCT Henderson TH.jpg
photo by Jason Franz
The Emery Henderson Trailhead
Start out at the Emery Henderson Trailhead, just off of New River Road about three miles west of I-17 (exit 232). The trailhead has ample paved parking and toilets, but seems to get little to no visitors as the lot was all but empty on our visit.

Perhaps the greatest thing about the trail is how it is signed. It is very hard to get lost on this trail, even with the abundance of intersecting jeep roads and ATV trails because the BCT is regularly marked with one of three types of signs. In fact, if you ever follow a road or trail that's marked with anything but a BCT sign, you're on the wrong track.

The trail shoots north across some immediately unremarkable desert for nearly three miles before coming to a jeep road that the trail follows to the right. The singletrack picks up again to the left about a mile further up the road and quickly comes to a decision point: West Loop or East Loop around the Boy Scout Loop.

BCT Loop Sign.jpg
photo by Jason Franz
The Boy Scout Loop sign illustrating riders' options.
Both loop trails are 1.2 miles and go up. The West Loop follows a doubletrack jeep trail that passes an old pit mine and is the much easier option. The East Loop cuts along a wash ravine ledge and has some great scenery, but is much more technical with some sharp turns and rocky climbs. For this ride, without knowing what was what, we went up on the West side and returned on the East. Just after the loop comes back together is a last stretch of climbing to the top of Humphrey's Hill and the first great hilltop lookout across the Bradshaw Mountains and terrain north (don't look south, it'll only disappoint).

After this first hill comes the pot of gold section with the most rideable track winding through alleys of amazing saguaros and along super flowy trail before pitching up again to the second big hill on this segment. Enjoy this stretch as it's unmatched and as good as Desert Classic.

BCT Humphreys Hill.jpg
photo by Jason Franz
After the second hill, the trail drops to the one point that could be confusing. The BCT dumps into dirt road and fairly large cleared area and there aren't any immediately noticeable signs. Look to the left to see one hidden in a shrub and follow the road down a dip to where the trail continues on to the right. It's here that gunfire may begin to ring out once again.

The final half mile to Table Mesa Road cuts downhill through some chalky white trail and past a couple popular shooting areas littered with bullet casings, shattered clay pigeons, shredded targets and other debris. It never hurts to call out that you're riding through to alert any shooters as you make your way up to the Table Mesa and the next trail head.

BCT Bullets.jpg
photo by Jason Franz
Red, blue and yellow bullet casings decorate the hillside like ornaments on a Christmas tree.
If you're returning to Henderson, just remember the loose, rocky trail over the front half of the trip and get ready to absorb it going back. And don't forget to pack ample water, repair kit and first aid as there are no services and very little aid out on this track.

Next week Cycle checks out the Table Mesa to Black Canyon City segment, including the Little Pan Loop and a stop for pie in Rock Springs.

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