Aaron Johnson | AZTR750: Flagstaff to Utah

AZTR750: Flagstaff to Utah

March 06, 2015  •  1 Comment

May 18, 2014

In Flag, I had a decision to make. I had mailed my Grand Canyon hiking gear to the post office at the South Rim, so I was at the mercy of their operating hours.  I could either wake up super early (like 1am) to give myself enough time to ride the 105ish miles from Flag to the South Rim to make it to the post office before they close at 4pm on Friday, or I could sleep in, take it a bit easier, and hit the post office when they open at 11am on Saturday. I really wanted to start the GC hike at dawn so I could see the whole canyon during the day, so I was mighty tempted to push it hard and try to make it there by 4pm. But after taking stock of my state of being, I realized that would be very, very difficult, trying to ride over a hundred dirt miles on 3 hours of sleep in my battered state. Huge bummer to accept the fact I'd be hiking half the Grand Canyon in the dark, but I didn't have it in me to get there sooner.

Heading out of Flagstaff, towards Humphreys Peak Heading out of Flagstaff, towards Humphreys Peak

Now that I had a day and a half to get to the South Rim, I took a deliciously leisurely morning in Flag, stuffing my face at the hotel's continental breakfast and pedaling my way slowly through town. The day's main obstacle was up first - a 2,000 ft. ascent traversing around Humphreys Peak.

And wow, it was a treat. The trails were nicely built, smooth undulating singletrack, the gradient mellow. Hardly anyone out except for several groups of bikepackers - ran into a couple from Anchorage just touring the AZT for fun, as well as Eszter Horanyi and some buddies touring the Coconino Loop. Fun to chat with them and hear about their journeys.

Halfway up Humphreys. I look tired! Photo by Eszter Horanyi.

Halfway up Humphreys. I look tired! Photo by Eszter Horanyi.

I made it over the high point in what seemed like no time, starting to feel the pressure of Mike P. breathing down my neck a few miles back. Ain't no way I'm getting passed today! I was feeling good and starting to regret not getting up early and pushing for the South Rim.

Oh man, the trails descending off the back of Humphreys were perhaps the best of the trip. Fast, smooth, tacky dirt threading through groves of aspens, reminiscent of the Colorado Trail, the flow only broken by the annoying amount of downed trees I had to awkwardly climb over.

Looking back towards Humphreys Peak.

Looking back towards Humphreys Peak.

20 miles later, the descent ended and I found myself pedaling along dirt roads and doubletrack through rolling hills and farmland. I felt way, way out there - the only signs of human activity were the roads, fences, and cows everywhere, just hanging out, often blocking the road - it never fails to amuse me how fast a spooked cow can move!

Burrito break Burrito break

The day wore on and I realized I made the right choice by taking the extra rest and not rushing to get to the canyon - it was slow going, motivation was waning thanks to uninspiring terrain, a headwind whipped up, and I kept getting sprinkles of rain. The dirt roads gave way to singletrack, which I was both thankful for and annoyed by, since the roads were faster. My goal was to get to the Grandview lookout by dark, and then bomb down into Tusayan for dinner.

Darkness fell and I was still several miles from the lookout. Exhaustion was taking hold, I was desperate to end the suffering and almost decided to just stop and camp. No! Hot meals awaited in town and pulled me forward. For some reason my water cues were incorrect, leading me to believe Grandview had water, so I skipped Russell Tank and was crestfallen to find only an outhouse at the lookout. I was parched, but it was all downhill to Tusayan. I wish I could say I enjoyed the Tusayan bike trails but I was so tired and desperate that I just wanted it to be over. Finally - finally! - the lights of Tusayan appeared through the trees, around 10pm, and I rolled into town and collapsed on the sidewalk just outside a fancy steakhouse, prompting two employees to rush out and make sure I was ok (they thought I had crashed, haha). It was a bit surreal to suddenly be surrounded by $500-a-night hotels and fast food joints after such a desolate, long day. McDonalds was the only thing open but I didn't care, I inhaled 2 Bigmacs straight to my face. It was raining again, turning into snow as temps were right at freezing. I went to the cheapest looking hotel expecting astronomical prices, but the lady gave me a pretty decent rate for what turned out to be literally the last hotel room in town. Woohoo, time to rest up for the big final push!

Unpacking my hiking gear at the South Rim post office

Unpacking my hiking gear at the South Rim post office

Saturday morning was spent battling the hoards of tourists at the post office and general store in the South Rim village. I've never seen anything like it, the place was a zoo. I waited in long lines, finally got my package, got enough food to get me through the next 2 days to the finish, and got the hell out of there.


I got to the South Rim 2 hours later than planned thanks to the tourist delays, and converted my bike and gear into hiking mode while being pelted by hail and rain. Great. I couldn't even see down into the canyon because of the clouds. As I started hiking around 2pm, the clouds suddenly dissipated and the sun came out, revealing the views and scenery that had been my main motivation for doing this race in the first place. Wow. Unbelievable, I can't believe I'm actually hiking across the Grand Canyon with a damn bike on my back!

And neither could everyone else. The first few miles of the trail were clogged with tourists, each one gawking at me: "oh my GOD is that a bicycle? On your back? Why aren't you riding it? Can I take a picture?" Smile, nod, keep moving.

After a couple miles the herds of tourists thinned out and I had some peace and quiet to enjoy the scenery. The trail was steep, dropping 5,000 feet to the Colorado river over 6 miles, something my twiggy cycling legs weren't so happy about.

Crossing the Colorado River

Crossing the Colorado River

I crossed the river and reached Phantom Ranch around 6pm. Woah, this place is a village! Ranger stations, a general store, cabins, tons of camping spots, people everywhere. Kinda spoiled the adventure aspect but also made me want to come back and stay here someday - it was gorgeous. Chatted with a ranger for a while, who warned me that they had a water pipe break and none of the spigots worked at the North Rim - good to know, that would have sucked to get up there late at night and have no water. It also meant I'd have to carry even more weight than I was carrying - oh well.

Now began the long hike out - 14 miles, 6000 ft. towards the sky. The first 7 miles went quickly, relatively easy grades and smooth trail. Darkness fell and my world retreated into the small bubble of light of my headlamp, but I could sense the enormity of the canyons surrounding me. If only I could see it!

Topped off my water at the Roaring Springs ranger station, adding another 6 lbs to my 50lb load - ouch. And then the real struggles began. My stomach had been feeling a bit funny, and as the grades steepened for the final push to the rim, the intestinal situation went South...literally. Let me tell you, having to stop every 5 minutes, with an awkward heavy bike strapped to my pack, freezing cold wind, at 2am, along a narrow trail cut into a cliff face, to do my business.....zero fun. Not to mention the handful of solo rim-to-rim-to-rim crazies that kept passing me during the most inopportune moments...made for some hilarious encounters. Progress was slow, but I began to feel much better as I neared the rim.

My goal was topping out by 4am, and precisely at 4am, I made it! Bone chilling wind meant I needed shelter fast, and I beelined it for the parking lot outhouse. Never been so excited to sleep on a mouse turd covered bathroom floor in my life.

Hour nap, assemble bike, hit the road to Jacob Lake at sunup. Even with every piece of clothing on, rarely have I ever been that cold in my life. A couple miles of teeth chattering downhill led to a gradual climb, and I could finally generate some warmth. But something was wrong - I couldn't stand up in the pedals. My calves literally wouldn't fire, they were so fried from the canyon hike. It was all I could do to hit 10mph on flat pavement. Luckily the 41 miles to Jacob Lake were mostly downhill, otherwise I would have been in trouble - I've never felt anything like that sort of muscle fatigue and soreness.

Jacob Lake finally arrived around noon, and I was desperate for some coffee and food. Despite the soreness, I was elated - only 30 miles left! A BLT and 20 minute nap in the gift shop revived me a bit, and I got back on the trail with earnest. The elevation profile looked favorable, mostly downhill, and for once, it was actually correct! The last 30 miles of the Arizona Trail were awesome, quite a treat to end this huge journey on such fine trail. It ended with a 1,000 ft bomber descent, the red hills of Utah stretching out for miles and miles ahead. It was an emotional last couple miles, feelings of exhaustion, gratitude, excitement at being done and getting to see Megan, and a bit of sadness to be ending the journey and going back to real life.



I rolled into the Stateline Campground parking lot at precisely 5pm after 9 days, 10 hours on the Arizona Trail. The best part of the journey was seeing my girlfriend Megan and dog Mowgli waiting for me there - Meg, your love and support have been incredible, I couldn't have done this without you, thank you so much for everything you do and driving out from the Bay Area to find me in the desert!

Such incredible feelings of relief, accomplishment, and gratitude for my body letting me do things like this, for all of those who made this event possible, and for everyone in my life who supported me through the hardest thing I've ever done - Megan, my family, and my friends cheering me on. I love you all!

Now, a month after the race, my body is recovered, and I couldn't be more stoked to ride. I miss being out there and can't wait to strap those bags back onto my bike. Not sure what the next adventure will be but there are plenty more bikepacking races to suffer through! Thanks for reading!


melody johnson
Check out Aaron's video of the Arizona Trail Race 2014.
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