Stealth Camping at Blue Ridge Reservoir
Over a week ago, I ended the lease at my 2-bedroom apartment and moved into a larger house a few miles north. This time with two other bike aficionados. Part of the benefit of moving into a bigger space was having room for the bikes I already have, and potential to acquire the elusive n+1. However, moving in with two other cyclists also brings way more bikes into the equation. As it stands we have 13 bikes between the three of us, but more are likely to come.
To celebrate the new living situation, my new roommate, Scott, and I took off up north to escape the Phoenix heat and go bike camping. Per recommendation from that good old boy Noah, we were generally planning to ride somewhere around Blue Ridge Reservoir on the Mogollon Rim, but we didn’t know exactly where to camp or how far we would ride. Upon consulting the map, we decided to park at the top of the forest road turn-off for Blue Ridge Reservoir and then ride until we got there (about 6 miles, as we would find out) and camp wherever we could. Keep it simple, right?
Aside from a considerable bout with standstill traffic on the 87 (an experience to be expected during any summer holiday) getting up there was easy and a pleasant drive through the trees. We turned off at the beginning of the appropriate forest road and prepped the bikes for camping.
As far as AZ dirt roads go, this one was pretty nice to ride on. No severe washboard, and the elevation change was minimal until we started dropping into the reservoir. Traffic was surprisingly light, so we didn’t have dust in our eyes and mouths as we ripped down along the dirt with spectacular views of bright blue water to our right.
We reached the main parking lot and saw there was no camping, but the road continued to a large dip and back up into a second parking lot, as did we. From here a section of rutted jeep road continued on, winding along the ridge at a slow descent. It’s a good thing it was slow, too, as the road got increasingly rocky as we went. Though the sound of rattles and mug dangles were concerning, everything stayed well connected to the bikes. A few offroad vehicles continued to travel with us on this particular road, which ended at a last parking lot with basic vaulted bathrooms and a dumpster. At this point it seemed the main road ended, but for a section of doubletrack, obscured by a metal swing gate declaring No Motorized Vehicles, and a narrow opening at the left side. Scott and I wheeled our bikes up and through the opening, following the straight and narrow to see where it would lead us (something resembling a hammockable campsite, I hoped).
We continued along the gnarly trail, pleased with our bikes’ performance on this terrain. Every corner, we peered for potential spots to string up our beds, wondering if the road would lead us at a dead end, but continuing nonetheless. Eventually, our path took us right up to the dam, partially enclosed by ‘No Trespassing’ chain-link fence. On the fence there was a sign warning would-be campers not to set up beneath the spillway, for threat of death by flooding. The sign also denoted an Emergency Helipad, and also forbade camping there. Said helipad we assumed to be the large clearing on our left. Despite the sign’s recommendations otherwise, the appeal of camping there was far too great. Besides, by setting up our hammocks in the trees that lined the edge of the clearing, there was no way we would impede an emergency helicopter in the unlikely event it needed to land (I secretly hoped one would, as that would make a pretty great story).
After finding a good spot to set up the hammocks in the surrounding trees, we were already hungry enough to start cooking dinner. On the menu was boxed Cracker Barrel brand mac n cheese with some pre-cooked chicken sassage with spinach and feta. It may have been the camping bias, but the combo really hit the spot, along with a can of Stone Ripper Pale Ale.
It was still early enough in the evening so we decided to follow a small foot trail down below the dam to the trickle of East Clear Creek. The spillway itself is a magnificent spectacle of human industry merged with natural landscape, albeit a scar upon the beauty that was there before. The haphazard geometric steps sit up against a textured rock formation in aesthetic marriage. We followed the trail down to the creek and tooled around for a bit, and I stuck my leg straight into the water trying to traverse a log of flotsam, but it was totally worth it.
Hiking back up to camp, we had worked off enough of dinner to crack open a second beer and dig into the Lu Petit Ecolier cookies we brought. Pro-tip, if you don’t have the opportunity to light a fire, these cookies are a great s’more substitute. To our surprise, there was still plenty of light left, providing a chance to do some reading before an early bedtime.
The next morning came soon, not without a few shivers before dawn. Our relaxed schedule and short ride ahead afforded us a leisurely breakfast and #coffeeoutside via dueling pour-overs. A considerable benefit of hammock camping is the quick set up and tear down. It took just a few minutes to get fully packed and ready to head back up the hill to the car.
The hill-climb was not unpleasant and didn’t seem to take overly long, but the car was certainly a welcome sight. Here we split a lunch of rolled prosciutto mozzarella and basil (also, take note: this is a fantastic way to upscale a lunch from that dumb old summer sausage and cheddar combo) and polished off the six pack of Rippers under the shade of a tree.