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Rolling Up the Rim – Arizona Backroads


The Yamaha XT 350 I bought several years ago to help me over-winter here in Phoenix, Arizona is a pretty good compromise for the things I do. It’s certainly light enough to control in the worst off-road conditions, tipping the scales at around 300 pounds including fuel and some gear. In town it has pretty good acceleration, sits high up for visibility, and is nimble enough to deal with traffic. Being only 21 cubes meant I wasn’t going to be street racing, but the six-speed gearbox helped with trailing and road riding.

As a firm believer in the KISS principle (especially when riding alone, you want the least amount of things to go wrong) I originally sought out an air-cooled bike preferably with electric and kick starting. But that’s a very rare combination indeed. Do you know how many kick/electric midsized bikes have been on the market in the last couple of decades? Apart from some Suzuki DRs, and the Yamaha TW 200, not many. And I wasn’t interested in a 600cc class bike—the places I’ve been on the 350 would have been near impossible for my five-foot four-inch 150-pound frame to deal with on a bike that was tall and heavy to boot.  


I settled on Yamaha’s venerable DOHC four-valve 350 because it had the right stuff for my plans: simple, reliable, light and available. Ideally a street legalized XR400 would have made a good alternate choice, but I simply didn’t have time to dig one up and do the Baja lighting kit thing. 

Where the XT falls short is droning along in heavy traffic at freeway speeds. With the gearing I have now (19/51) I’m pretty good at 55 mph turning 5,000 revs on an 8,500 rpm redline, but traffic around these parts flows a good 20-30 mph above that. 


As for comfort, well, I think being ridden out of town on a rail might be comparable.

Since then I’ve covered about 2,500 miles on the bike and ridden some pretty gnarly terrain, always alone. Problems: only a flat tire ended one trip early, and that could happen on anything. On that ride (Read, “Karma on the Apache Trail,” April 2013) I was delayed enough to miss much of the western end of the trail, which I rode in darkness. I decided I would re-visit the Apache Trail, but this time from west to east and once I’d connected to Arizona state Highway 188, I’d crisscross the Superstition Mountains with an overnight in Payson. 

The route I’d planned was pretty ambitious.  I’d be riding about 500 miles and half would be off road, some on rough and tumble “Jeep” trails. My planning is usually with military precision: suspension set, spare master link and tools, water and food both, and after my backcountry flat tire debacle as documented in “Karma,” I carry Slime and an air pump. The pump serves a secondary use when I head off road. I reduce air pressure for more traction and pump up when back on pavement. Generally I run about 20/16 psi front-rear off road and 24/22 when on the pavement.  

For the ride I chose a Thursday/Friday.  It was going into the Memorial Day weekend, and I knew the roads would be packed with travelers if I delayed. 

Heading out early morning, before the November heat was at its most intense, I laboured along the freeways for 90 minutes before I got to Apache Junction and the beginning of the trail. Fueling up in Mesa would give me about 180 miles of range on the 3.2 gallon tank. I knew there was fuel available in Roosevelt and again north on 188 at Jake’s Corner or Punkin Center if needed. 

It was turning into a great day, and as I’d guessed, I had missed much of the most beautiful scenery riding back on a deflating tire in the dark and cold two years before. I can’t tell you how much I love riding this country. People think Phoenix is flat but nothing could be further from the truth. 

The city is surrounded by mountains, deep canyons, dry washes, cacti, tumbleweeds, road runners, rattlesnakes, hairy tarantulas and many man-made lakes of the most intense blue greens you’ve ever seen.  Added to that, this trip I’d be climbing into high pine forest.

Apache Trail was well graded at both ends and though the holes were filled and deceptively smooth they were six inches of loose gravel. This area is chock full of recreational opportunities especially for boaters and is heavily traveled in the summer months. As a result the road is shoulder-to-shoulder washboard entering and exiting every single corner. Make a mistake, and your next stop is a face-plant into Saguaro cactus.

Once off pavement just beyond the nearly deserted village of Tortilla Flats, the last surviving stagecoach stop on the Apache Trail, cruiser traffic stops and the fun (for me) begins. 

Rounding the corner coming into Fish Creek from the west is the view of a lifetime. In the old days, when this was the only route from Payson to Apache Junction, stagecoach drivers would hook up a team of mules backwards to act as brakes going down into this deep and dark canyon. Often travelers were encouraged to walk the mile down (and up) the gulley which rises vertically about 1,000 feet. Even today, the single lane road has few turnouts where vehicles can pass one another.  Not a problem though for a guy on a small dirt bike.

I linger in the canyon at the mouth of a huge cave across one of many single lane bridges and observe sheer walls rising 2,000 feet. Surprisingly you can view this entire route, one of Arizona’s historic trails, on GoogleMaps. I pick up the two-lane pavement, cross over the Roosevelt Bridge with the lake to my right, and head the 20 miles up the highway on perfect blacktop, looking for the turnoff that will carry me cross country on the Four Peaks Jeep trail. 

At Indian Flats I locate Forestry Service Road 143 and begin the long climb up the mountainside, the switchbacks reminding me of the Swiss Alps, except for the gravel and washouts and lack of BMWs. I stop for a few photographs of Roosevelt Lake, shrinking with each passing mile. Before I get to the top, a pristine, late-model coal black Jeep rounds the corner and I have a brief chat with the two 50-something couples inside. Having had a TJ myself for years, I can relate to their luxurious mode of travel while they, on the other hand, are surprised I am here alone… on a bike.

Shortly after the tower, I reach the crest of the Superstitions. I’m right up around 6,000 feet at the junction of 143 and 422.  There is a road sign but again as often happens back here; it’s a wee bit confusing. Takes me a couple of minutes and a little detective work to figure out in which direction 143 is actually headed.

As predicted the downward leg is certainly rockier and loose with more washouts.  This would pose a very difficult if not impossible trip for a low clearance vehicle.  No problem for the Jeep crowd and certainly a piece of cake for myself. Eventually after a trek of 30 miles, I come out on the Beeline, highway number 87. Once again I find myself droning along at 50-55 mph with cars passing me in the left lane at speeds half again as fast. 

As the elevation increases, the air temperature drops and pretty soon I’m stopping to don the clothes I shed earlier in the morning. In the last bit of light, I get to Payson, fill up at 175 miles on the tripmeter and find a motel on Route 260.  It’s been a long day, a full 10 hours since I left my home in Glendale. A walk down the street for an extravagant ribs dinner in a local bar, followed by a long hot shower deposits me into Lala land.

The next day dawns bright but cool. I get my meager possessions loaded into the small saddlebags and after a lengthy warm up we’re off to ride the Mogollon Rim, famously the setting for Louis L’Amour’s The Sackett Brand. We’ve been climbing steadily since yesterday’s entry onto the Beeline Highway and now I am in high pine country with stunning views through the trees. The bike begins to stumble and my road speed comes down into the mid-40s in fourth gear. 

Bend after bend we climb until I pull off at the Mogollon Rim Ranger Station. We’re at 7,800 feet so it’s no wonder I’ve lost several horsepower getting here.  The thermometer outside the shack tells me its 44F, and I shiver involuntarily. Inside it’s warm and cozy though. Gene, a former motorcyclist himself gives me the local history and asks where I’m from, where I’m going. When he hears I am headed down 288 to Young and the Pleasant Valley, before hooking up in the Salt River basin with 188 again, he seems thrilled. 

Once again he reminds me that what I do is unusual. The fact I am on a 21-cubic-inch trail bike is even more astonishing to Gene. When he thinks of riding, it’s Harleys and Gold Wings. I spend nearly an hour pleasantly chatting while getting warmed up in the process. My turnoff is only two miles ahead and Gene wishes me well, before retreating back into the cabin.  

I do a bike check on the Tall Pines Scenic Byway. The first hour is decent gravel passing numerous deserted campgrounds. Eventually the road narrows, campgrounds become rare and we are once again on our own as if no one else exists on this planet.  

Some delicious curves, perfect for the 40-60 mph speed of my XT on a short stretch of pavement precede the village of Young in the infamous Pleasant Valley. Here I take a break, some photos and think a little of the history made in this beautiful and indeed pleasant valley.  

Eventually the engine breathes easier and I can coast for miles on the long downhill sections. Finally, Roosevelt Lake appears like an apparition in the distant haze. Deep gorges cut through solid rock lead me to a single lane bridge crossing the picturesque Salt River. I connect onto 188 and stop for fuel at Roosevelt’s only gas station.

It’s warmed up at these lower elevations and as I kick the 350 to life and head north a drop dead gorgeous blue lake appears to my right, with brown desert mountains rising abruptly to my left. I leave the highway and take the short access road to Tonto National Monument. Shade is scarce, so the XT parked next to a construction fence provides what little there is for my riding gear. Icon boots shoved under the engine, walking shoes on, bottle of water and both cameras in hand I take the steep, long walk up the mountain to the lower cliff dwellings where for several hundred years lived families of Salado natives. 

Throughout the southwest United States, dwellings such as this are carved into rock high up on mountainsides.  For hundreds of years, the river valley saw rudimentary farming facilitated by a still flowing nearby spring located a thousand foot trudge up an incline that would make a jet pilot nervous.  Like many of these locations, this one was abandoned for no apparent reason in the early 1400s. Some say the peaceful Salado were driven out by fierce tribes of Comanche or Apache, but there is no evidence of Apache here until decades later.

The Superstitions cast long shadows across the Roosevelt Valley as I stow my gear, mount the 350 and point her home once again via the Apache Trail. It’s been a long two days of riding, covering nearly 600 miles, half of which were on some grueling off road Jeep trails. By the time I reach home in Glendale, I will have been in the saddle for 20 hours in total, exploring some amazing countryside and history here in Arizona, which is still, in many ways, truly the Wild West.

by Frank Simon Canadian Biker Issue #307


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