Rattle & Roll

When mountain biking this swath of border country, you hope that all the snake bites is your derailleur

Jan 1, 2002
Outside Magazine

SONORAN > IN BRIEF Classic desert full of 50-foot-tall saguaro cacti and endless small mesquite, paloverde, and ironwood trees. Its seven subdivisions, including California's Colorado Desert, cover 120,000 square miles that are the hottest and driest in North America.

Dodging rattlesnakes on a mountain bike is easy. Here's the scene: It's just after daybreak on Puerto Blanco Drive, a 53-mile dirt road that loops through Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in southwestern Arizona. Cacti and ocotillos throw confusing shadows across the track. I'm cranking along at good speed when a strip of shade suddenly turns three-dimensional. A microsecond for the brain to register yup, snake; a fraction more for yikes, rattlesnake! It recoils into a defensive loop, and as I skim past I lift both legs high. Nine times out of ten the snake just rattles, and if it strikes, all it usually gets is a mouthful of Shimano. This one just glares.

If Puerto Blanco Drive were a video game, it would be called something like "Bike or Die." The loop is doable in a day, but on this April trip I stop halfway. Camping is allowed anywhere except within a half-mile of the road, so I hide the bike and lug the panniers between two volcanic outcroppings, where I lay out a pad and sleeping bag. The view makes one wonder why we call it desert: It's a tawny jungle of ironwood and paloverde trees, bur sage, the park's eponymous cacti, and brittlebush.
For the last dozen miles of Puerto Blanco Drive, the road parallels a sagging barbed-wire fence and a highway sprinkled with tire-repair shops and taquerias that mark the border. A platoon of Mexican army troops on patrol waves. A mile farther on I risk dire punishment by hopping the fence to buy an orange Fanta. At last there's but one hazard left en route to my truck: the four miles of Arizona 85, where hordes of motor homes careen southward. I feel like a spawning salmon in grizzly country, but there's cold beer in the truck. Bike or Die.

Details: Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument [520-387-6849; www.nps.gov/orpi] is about 150 miles west of Tucson. There's no water on Puerto Blanco Drive, which starts about a quarter-mile from the visitor center.

More Sonoran Adventures

Backpacking the Superstition Mountains
Countless treasure seekers have failed to find the fabled Lost Dutchman Gold Mine in this wilderness 40 miles east of Phoenix, and it's unlikely you'll do better. So skip the crowds near Weaver's Needle and enjoy the less-traveled nine-mile Reavis Ranch Trail, which winds from desert into oak woodland. Near the abandoned ranch house at trail's end, set up camp alongside Reavis Creek and explore the side canyons. Season: Spring and fall. Distance: 18 miles round-trip. Do-It-Yourself: From Phoenix, head east on U.S. 60 and then north on Arizona 88 about 30 miles to Forest Service Road 212. Guided Trips: Apache Trail Tours runs customized backpacking trips into the Superstitions (all-inclusive three-day trips, $499 per person; 480-982-7661).

Sea Kayaking Isla del Tiburón
Two miles off mainland Mexico in the Gulf of California, Tiburón is a pristine, 435-square-mile desert refugio—with beaches. The island's interior harbors bighorn sheep and coyotes, while dolphins and sea lions frolic offshore. From Punta Chueca, a Seri Indian village, paddle the channel and then head south to explore the island's cliffs and rock islets. Season: Fall, winter, and spring. Distance: 30 miles round-trip. Do-It-Yourself: Punta Chueca is about 315 miles south of Tucson. Ask in the village for naturalist Ernesto Molina, who will collect a camping fee (about $5 per night). Guided Trips: Maine Island Kayaks leads trips to Tiburón in February and March ($1,200-$1,500 per person; 800-796-2373; www.maineislandkayak.com).

Backpacking Aravaipa Canyon
The 11-mile hike up Arizona's Aravaipa Canyon is one long bushwhack. You'll wade through the creek (a lot), hop boulders, and push through mesquite. Watch for bighorn sheep and mountain lions on the 1,000-foot canyon walls. A strong hiker can make it in a day, but it's better to backpack in for two or three—camp halfway up at Horse Camp Canyon—and explore some of the nine side canyons. Season: Fall, winter, and spring. Distance: 11 miles one way. Do-It-Yourself: The West Trailhead is 70 miles northeast of Tucson; exit at the East Trailhead or do the 22-mile out-and-back hike. Permits cost $5 per day; call for reservations (928-348-4400). Information: www.az.blm.gov. There's car camping at both trailheads.