Monday, April 21, 2014

Arizona deserts on a BMW motorcycle

The last full day of our motorcycle trip was the exact opposite of the first two days. We started the trip with overcast skies, colder than usual weather, and even a hailstorm. Today, it was 70 degrees when we first got on the bikes, and 101 when we pulled into the hotel parking lot almost 7 hours later.

We headed north from Sierra Vista toward the outskirts of Tucson with a minimal plan:  skirt the city traffic and find out what the east side of Tucson is like. Wow - did we have fun!

Our route took us into Vail (Arizona, not the more famous Vail in Colorado), with the Rincon Mountains in front of us. When we turned off busy Interstate 10, we didn't realize we were heading into the Coronado National Forest, and were thrilled when we saw the sign for the Saguaro National Park. The park is home to not only the saguaro cactus, the largest cactus found in the US, but also desert scrub, desert grassland, oak woodland, pine-oak woodland, pine forest and mixed conifer forest.

We stopped in the visitor center for a cold drink and a map, and admired the variety of cactus in bloom at the entrance to the park. It amazes me that cactus bloom in such brilliant colors, even with very little rain - less than 1" so far this year in the Tucson area. The saguaro aren't blooming yet, but tiny buds are developing on the ends of the cactus 'arms'.

We rode the 9-mile loop road, passing cyclists and hikers but seeing no other motorcycles and very few cars. The elevation changed from 2,670' to the peaks at 8,666' as the one-land paved road wound through the Sonoran desert.

Once through the park, Tom and Christine took the lead with the aid of the rough map we received from the visitor center. Our goal was to avoid the interstates, and instead we followed busy side streets with views of canyons and mountains until we hooked up with Route 77 north and headed into the open countryside.

The temperature kept climbing even as we rode into the Santa Catalina Mountains. When we stopped for lunch in Oracle at the Oracle Inn, it was a cool 85 degrees, down from the mid-90's a few minutes earlier. We never know what type of meal we'll get in a small, out-of-the-way town, but the food at the Oracle Inn was superb:  they smoke their own chicken and pork and make delicious soups from scratch.

We rode together for another 40 miles, when Tom and Christine continued on to Globe, Show Low and Payson while we headed west toward Phoenix to meet our son for dinner. Route 177 is known as the  Copper Corridor Scenic Road because of several huge open pit copper mines and smelting facilities. Unlike the Lavender Pit we saw in Bisbee the day before, these are working mines.

Huge trucks that dwarfed our motorcycle looked to be the size of miniature toy trucks at the bottom of the pits. I couldn't decide which direction to look:  the peaks of the Spring, Mescal, and Pinal mountain ranges; the river gorges in the canyons, or the copper mining facilities. The road twisted up and around the highest point on El Capitan at 4983', then we rode sweepers down a 10% grade into the valley.

177 ends at busy Route 60 in Superior, and we ended our day riding the last 1.5 hours into Scottsdale and our hotel. The hot wind from the passing traffic did nothing to cool us down as the temperature rose over 100 degrees.

What a surreal day:  riding through the saguaro and other cactus in a national park with no signs of humans and only the mountains and desert for company; twisting through a commercial copper mining area with tiny towns of less than 1000 people; and finishing the day on 6 and 8 lane highways in metropolitan Phoenix, home to over 4 million.

Tomorrow we ride 90 miles north to Prescott, ending our first multi-day motorcycle trip of the year. We have three more trips in the works as we continue to explore the western US. Stay tuned for more adventures!

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