Recap: Mountain Biking in the Estrella Mountains

Mountain biking in the Estrella Mountains near Phoenix is, for me, a lot like eating at one of the ubiquitous fast-food joints with “berto’s” in their name. A few years will go by and I’ll think “hey, why don’t I ever go to Filiberto’s/Aliberto’s/Philbertberto’s?”

Then I get myself berto’s quesadilla or carne asada burrito. Hours later, I’m on the toilet regretting every decision I ever made in my life.

So it is with Estrella Mountain Regional Park, which is about 30 minutes from my house. Drive another 10 minutes or so, and I’m at the fabulously fun Fantasy Island North Singletrack. That network is a bit compact, so any decently long ride will wind up repeating plenty of segments.

That’s what convinced me to return to Estrella.

Mountain Biking in the Estrella Mountains
This map kind of sucks.

My History of Mountain Biking in the Estrella Mountains

I first rode the Estrella Mountains back in about 1996, in the beginner racing class of the Mountain Bike Association of Arizona series. I remembered it was a pretty fun ride, but not one of the best around. That’s even less true now as the newer, better trail networks have popped up.

I visited the Estrellas a few more times between then and now, including a visit to the Competitive Track, which doesn’t get much love and doesn’t really deserve any. Unless you like sand.

Oddly enough, I didn’t recognize anything at all during my latest ride. It’s like all the trails I rode back in the day have been erased.

Relive ‘Accidentally Epic in the Estrellas’

Estrella Can’t Compare to McDowell Mountain

Estrella Mountain Regional Park and McDowell Mountain Regional Park are both owned and administered by Maricopa County. McDowell is a great example of outstanding mountain bike trails that have something for everyone.

Estrella is … an example of what happens when sadomasochistic dentists get into trail building.

I took the Rainbow Valley Trail (and I use that word loosely) until it met the Toothaker (yes, that’s the correct spelling) Trail. The early portions of Rainbow Valley were alright. At some point, they got steep and loose, with copious amounts of rubble making it hard to get any traction. These trails will involve some bike pushing, especially if you dig singlespeeds.

Mountain Biking in the Estrella Mountains
Way too much of the Rainbow Valley Trail looks like this.

I also spent a lot of time on the Gadsden Trail, which is fairly decent. It features some sandy bits, especially when it drops in and out of washes.

My major takeaway, though, is that the Pedersen Trail that connects with what appears to be some social trails over the park’s west border is the way to go.

The social trails appear to be built by the local developers rather than any sort of government entity. Had I more time and fluids, I would’ve scouted that area more to find some better mountain biking in the Estrella Mountains.

My Plan for future Mountain Biking in the Estrella Mountains

Next time, I probably won’t park at Estrella Mountain Regional Park. While the bathrooms are great, the water fountains were too weak to top off my bottles. So there’s no advantage to paying $7 to park there.

Also, the printed trail maps were not a huge help. It seems there are plenty of spurs that don’t feature on the map, which makes navigating hard. I think it would also be wise for Estrella to have a main named loop, and use it as a reference on signage (ie, This Way to the X Loop).

Mountain Biking in the Estrella Mountains
Here’s what I could get out of Trailforks after uploading a trail log.

I also lost a few miles to a sign pointing me to a parking lot. I whizzed by too fast to notice that it was the Comp Track parking lot rather than the main parking lot.

Next time, I’ll probably go further into the maze of red tile roofs to try accessing the trails on the west side to go mountain biking in the Estrella Mountains.

One Other Complaint – But About Trailforks.com

A pox upon Trailforks.com. Until recently, Trailforks would let you scout and plan rides just about anywhere.

Sure enough, they hopped on the “pay up” bandwagon right after Strava did.

I have no problem paying for good help. I think, though, that Trailforks isn’t a good value at $36 a year for global trail info.

I would happily buy my state’s info for $10 a year, and if they had an option to buy certain areas for a limited time, I’d be thrilled. For example, if I’m going to New Zealand for a few weeks and want to plan my rides, I’d shell out some $$$ in a second for limited access to that info when I need it.

This is why Trailforks was on my mind: I couldn’t plan my ride, and I also couldn’t use the app to see where I was during the ride. Trailforks gives users a free area – anything not in that area is grayed out on the app.

So if you’re lost during a ride, don’t count on Trailforks to help.

They also say you can change your free area once. I looked up the directions, and it mentions features that don’t appear on my app or in the online version.

Why Phoenix Councilman’s Stance on City Parks is Bogus

Phoenix City Councilman Sal DiCiccio has come out adamantly against a $2 a day parking fee for about 700 of 5,000 parking spaces at city trailhead parking lots. Here’s what he has to say in the latest newsletter he sent out (including to people like me who never signed up for it).

Let’s parse the massaged public relations quacking and uncover the truth, which will prove that DiCiccio’s stance is nothing more than a bush-league politician’s PR ploy:

1. The voice and presence of people who showed up, who contacted the council members, who passed out fliers and who talked with their friends and neighbors – that at least temporarily stopped the city from adding the $2 parking fee.

Right. So far, every single one of the opposition’s attempts to unite have been an abject failure. The NoFee2HikeAZ.com "protest hike" in August fizzled – according to its own Facebook photos, all of five people showed up. Its Twitter feed is followed by an avalanche of 12 people. And The Arizona Republic is reporting that "residents who spoke at the last parks board meeting Aug. 26 were 3-1 in favor of the fee."

2. First the Parks Board was convinced that if it didn’t produce revenue to kick into the general fund that pays normal city operating costs, cuts even harsher than the deep ones imposed in the current budget could be forthcoming. It considered a parking fee as high as $5 a day on hikers

Even at $5, the day fee is still less than the $6 day-use fees at Maricopa County Regional Parks. And I have yet to hear anyone who doesn’t consider that a bargain for excellent trail systems. Phoenix and its parks lag behind – they’re good, but they simply don’t equal the county’s offerings. A day-use fee for Phoenix might lessen the gap. Quality costs.

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How to Handle a Rattlesnake Bite – and Other Tips

WanderingJustin.com thanks the Maricopa County Park staff for providing this great information on how to handle a rattlesnake bite … or even just a regular encounter with a rattlesnake.

Over the weekend, I was out for a nice hike with my wife at Spur Cross Ranch, a conservation area that’s part of Maricopa County’s excellent system of parks. We wound up on a trail that took us outside the boundary and into some forest land.

There were signs posted at the Spur Cross trailhead reminding hikers to watch for rattlesnakes. It is that time of year to be on the lookout – the snakes are quite active throughout the middle of the day.

We finally had our rattlesnake encounter in a gully with a flowing stream on one side of the trail, and a sheer rock wall on the other. I’d actually been distracted by some bright yellow algae in the stream, and failed to notice the dusty brown snake (possibly a sidewinder) lounging at the water’s edge. I was about five feet away when I first spotted it. I told my wife to hang back, and I retreated so we could figure out how to avoid a rattlesnake bite.

rattlesnake bite
A sidewinder is a cool creature … but that doesn’t make this rattlesnake bite any less dangerous. (wikipedia)

I tried tossing a few pebbles its way. It didn’t care. Ditto for a gentle poke from a stick branch. I even banged a large river rock on the ground, hoping the vibrations would urge it to move. Nada. Zip. This was one stubborn snake. We eventually decided to skirt around it close to the rock wall. The snake was long enough to reach us, but he wasn’t cornered. We slipped past without incident.

This got me to thinking – what would an expert do? That led me to contact the Maricopa County Parks staff, who hooked me up with John Gunn, supervisor of Spur Cross. Here’s what he had to say.

rattlesnake bite

Tips for Avoiding a Rattlesnake Bite

1. Realize that every rattlesnake encounter is different.

2. Consider going back the way you came. That’s not always possible with certain loop hikes or point-to-point hikes.

3. Try throwing a handful of pebbles or some sand near the snake. Consider a gentle poke with a (long!) hiking stick. That’s often enough to encourage a rattler to move. “They have nothing to gain, but everything to lose in an encounter with a human,” Gunn said.

4. Stick to the center of the trail. Stay out of tall grass lining the trail, where rattlers wait for a tasty rodent meal. Bear in mind: Snakes realize “a human leg is not a suitable meal.” Often, you’ll pass them without realizing it – no rattle, no striking. The trouble comes if you don’t see a snake and you step on it. “Then, you get bit like a mouse trap,” Gunn said.

5. Carry a walking stick or trekking pole. Use it to gently fluff any weeds or tall growth alongside the trail. This can also help move a snake and provoke a warning rattle.

6. As the weather gets hotter, snakes will be more nocturnal. So they’ll be less active during daylight, and more active at dusk, night and dawn. Act accordingly.

7. Try not to kill the snake unless there’s no other choice.

8. Keep your brain engaged and realize that not every stick lying in the trail is a stick. Look for the eyes, diamond patterns and, of course, a rattle.

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Pass Mountain Trail at Usery Park

pass mountain trail
The view north about two miles from the Pass Mountain Trailhead.

Pass Mountain and many other county trails get overlooked often. And unless you live in the Phoenix area, the only time you’ve probably heard the phrase “Maricopa County” is in relation to its relentlessly self-promoting sheriff, Joe Arpaio. I’m not going to dive into that can of worms except to say that he doesn’t exactly do much to foster warm, fuzzy feelings for the county government.

That’s a shame for the Maricopa County Parks crew. This system of more than 10 parks isn’t perfect – but it is outstanding. I am constantly thankful for the county parks department, and all it has done to provide a lot of quality outdoor recreation for residents and visitors alike. I feel like it’s a bargain to hand over my $6 whenever I go into a county park (See a complete list of fees). Huge props to the county parks staff, especially for McDowell Mountain Regional Park. That one’s my favorite by a long shot.

Today, I’m focusing on Usery Mountain Regional Park in Mesa (we’ll get to McDowell in a future post) and the Pass Mountain Trail. This is getting you close to the famous Superstition Mountains, and within very nice sight of the Four Peaks Wilderness Area.

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