“If you had only one day to ride in Sedona which trails would you do?” I asked, not expecting a definitive reply since it’s rumored to be one of the world’s foremost mountain biking destinations. In the middle of an answer filled with qualifiers I interrupted, “How about the Big Friggin’ Loop?” to which eyes squinted, sizing me up, before deciding I might be the type who would try such a thing alone and then, answering, in decidedly non-qualified fashion “fuck yeah!”
I’d heard about The Big Friggin’ Loop earlier this year. Unfortunately I couldn’t get away to ride it with the group but I knew, from the first description, I was going to try it sometime. And, as long as it had approval from the locals, it seemed worth trying alone. It’s exactly the kind of ride I’d concoct on my own and, in fact, has similar ambitions to my Park City link-up; a circle around town with samples from each separate trail system.
The distance was tamer but the technicalities promised to be greater. As Big Jonny at The Drunk Cyclist so eloquently waxed:
At a “mere” 37 miles, a few hardened heads even bailed on the idea in wait for the longer distances of later events. But there’s an exception to this need given the Sedona area. Riding there isn’t the smooth roller singletrack one might anticipate for a long ride. It’s a hop-scotch full of premium obstacles on sublime singletrack for its entirety. A core workout if you will, will you? There’s no real significant place on the route where one can settle into the aero bars what with the ledges upon rocks upon curvy things with more rocks and abrupt turns with no flagman. Chutes and Ladders and Vortexes. Questionable drops and descents. Questionable traction on uphills. Herkenham by authority of Chad? River crossings and the like. That’s the gist, and the gist is good. By the time it was over, I didn’t want anymore.
The route finding seemed tricky, with or without a GPS (see above link), but, given you were always above town, if things get grim you can point your bike down hill and will back in civilization in a matter of minutes. I bought a map and studied it for a route, sans GPS, that would most likely be the BFL course. A few beers later and I was 100% certain I had it nailed. I’ve never been more certain of anything in my life. Below is the course I chose, where it went right and where it went wrong, in an attempt aid you in trying this adventure solo. That said, I highly recommend trying to make the race. It would have been nice to have some local knowledge out there.
Part I: Broken Arrow Trailhead to Bike & Bean
I began my ride on the system the organized event ended on for two reasons. First, I didn’t know how bad the river crossings were and wanted to ask someone and, second, I thought I’d get some miles in before having breakfast at the Bike & Bean.
Broken Arrow was tough for me out of the gate. It would have been nice to warm-up a little longer. It’s both climbed steadily and was technical and my slow pace had me slightly concerned. Very ride able in a downhill direction; I was off my bike too much going up. Regardless, it was a nice trail with gorgeous views. At Chicken Point I dropped into Little Horse and flew down it to Llama, which turned out to be one of my favorite trails of the day. After Llama I wanted more to get more riding in before breakfast so, instead of heading down the Bell Rock path I chose to ride Templeton out to Slim Shady and took it back. The latter might be my favorite trail of the day; it’s always technical but still flowy and fun.
slim shady follows a creek bed with a perfect blend of rocks, single track, and slick rock.
This first section was five star riding, with the only difficult place to navigate being the start of the unmarked Slim Shady trail. If you ride in from Llama via Bell Rock it’s easier to catch the Slim Shady start at the Bike & Bean, which I’d recommend.
a great shop with fantastic coffee. highly recommended pit stop in the middle of your ride.
Part II: Cathedral Rock system to Airport Loops to Euro Café
I was pretty confident, riding Templeton under the Cathedral Rocks on a fast flowy trail, that things were going to go without a hitch. It took me a little while to find Red Rock crossing, which seemed barely crossable so I can see how this bit can be dicey at times of the year (I think there’s a place to cross on the road but I didn’t find it). Then I hit my first sandbag of the day.
I asked a ranger where the Old Post trail started. She didn’t know but thought if I went up Ridge I could get there. My map showed something else but, as I was ahead of schedule I decided to give it a shot. This was probably a mistake.
don’t take this trail in this direction
It was pretty obvious right away that I was on a trail not ridden much and generally in the opposite direction I was going. Unlike the well marked paths I’d been on the soil was loose, steep, and lacked many tread marks. The trail leveled after a while and came to an intersection with trails not on my map so I kept climbing. At one point I made another mistake (I think) by taking a trail heading left up a ridge. This was very narrow, often without room to get between trees or rocks and a lot of exposure, and had very little wear. Certainly, this was a downhill trail. I was walking way too much of it, and getting a little irritated, but figured I’d be heading down soon enough.
steep, exposed, but mighty pretty
When I hit the top even the downhill was hard, and was made even harder when I saw my intended path, the Old Post Trail, far below. It looked fun and fast.
supposed to be down there
Eventually I connected back with the Ridge, which felt paved by comparison to whatever I was on. As much as I was irritated by this trail and my route finding skills I would ride it a lot if it were at home. I’d just do it in the other direction.
Then I got lost again. And again. I’d heard from Reed that his favorite trails were unmarked behind the airport, which is where I was. Being Reed’s favorite meant technical and down and, I figured, I’d probably just come up one of those. I decided my rule would be to follow the trail marked with the most tire tracks from now on. This didn’t help that much as I ended up doing some circles. There’s a lot of unmarked and well trodden riding in this area. Luckily, all of it was good so being lost was pretty much just fine. I finally popped out on route 89A, out of water, and went looking for somewhere to rehydrate.
Even though I got lost the riding in this section was almost all excellent. The ride was still getting 5 stars, assuming a 5-star scale.
how can a self-respecting cyclist not stop here?
Part III: Dry Creek to Jim Thompson
After lunch I headed into the Dry Creek trail system where I also knew was going to offer similar challenges as the airport area; a network of unmarked but fun, well-ridden trails. Well, some are marked but I was trying to avoid Girdner (the main trail) as much as possible, because I heard it was sandy this time of year, and was looking for a new trail the guy at the shop recommended. I didn’t find it and, after some time, found Lizard Head and began heading towards Chimney Rock.
Here things got a little ugly. I turned left onto the Chimney Rock trail (cause it made sense on the map), which was an often un-ride able climb to a Wilderness sign. Since you weren’t supposed to ride in designated wilderness I knew I was off route. But I kept going because, hell, I was walking at this point anyway so I wasn’t breaking any rules and according to my map I was very close to a trail junction. Luckily the trail began descending, quite steeply, back down towards the legal Thunder Mtn trail where I figured things would improve. Not so much.
Thunder Mtn doesn’t seem to get ridden a ton. It was hot, dusty, quite technical and very very slow. I’m pretty sure you could out run even a good cyclist on this section as it winds around up and down over rocks. It was uncomfortably consistently. I wanted it to end.
looking down on teacup
My map showed a skull and crossbones on the next trail, Teacup, but it felt sublime compared to Thunder Mtn. Teacup did end up throwing the techie stuff at me (along with exposure) but it’s a beautiful trail nonetheless.
there are a few sink holes around sedona. these are deep holes with abundant life but no way in. fascinating geography.
This was followed with the slightly less technical, but still engaging, Jordan Trail that finally (must have been getting tired) ended at the Jim Thompson trail head.
riding the delicate balance between alcohol and caffeine
Here is where this year’s BFL would end and, as the river crossings at Huckaby were still impassible, it’s where mine was slated to stop also. But the lure of the Jim Thompson Trail was strong as I’d assumed it was named after the pulp author who’d often written about the southwestern US. “Life is a delicate balance between alcohol and caffeine,” he famously penned, and with my coffee buzz well gone I was looking forward to a cold beer at the end of the ride. It just made sense to end on this trail. There was a road section back to the car either way but I could get there from both the beginning and the end of Jim Thompson, so on I went.
A few minutes later I began to have second thoughts. I couldn’t find any tire tracks on the trail and whenever this had happened today things went south. Big Jonny hadn’t sounded sorry to be missing this section of the original BFL so it got me wondering why the trail wasn’t ridden more. Then, perhaps in a dehydrated state, I began to second guess the trail name. Was I mixing Jim Thompson up with author Jim Harrison? And wasn’t the lobbyist, Presidential candidate and sometime actor Jim Thompson from Arizona? That guy’s an asshole. When my noir sentiments were replaced with “a Ruskie don’t take a dump without a plan,” the latter Thompson’s line from The Hunt For Red October, allure of Jim Thompson began to fade. I turned around, rode out to pavement, and headed towards the car. It was time to balance out the caffeine.
Overall, I’d say the BFL is one of the best rides I’ve ever done. Only the Lizard Head to Teapot section, and a little of Jim Thompson and a bit of the Ridge-ish line, was truly unpleasant and none of it was that bad. The rest was faaaaantastic. For sure with more experience in the area you could improve the loop but it’s not a ridiculous thing to try and on sight. Go do it.