It was my final morning in town. The sun was out, the temps a perfect 65 degrees Fahrenheit, and I had one more thing to do before starting my drive home across the country. My trip to Prescott came on the heels of a whirlwind stretch that saw me drive from the east coast to BC to produce a Local Flavours on the Sunshine Coast, before heading south to the pajama party on wheels known otherwise as the Sea Otter Classic, then across the desert to this Yavapai County gem I had spent the last 6 days exploring. The miles had most certainly been adding up, on my car as well as my legs. The amount of names that come and go on trips like this can be overwhelming, and the juggling act of managing multiple stories and the hundreds of gigs of digital media is probably comical when you're not in the thick of it. The truth is, I often feel like a punching bag at the end of trips like this, I just happen to have a smile on my face more often than not because, well, it's just bikes.
This time things were a bit different. I woke up on that final morning in town feeling rather good, as if I was just kicking things off. I was energized, had all of my mental faculties in order, and was very much looking forward to my ride that morning. It wasn't for a lack of trying either. I put in dozens of high altitude miles every day I had been there. Maybe it was the peace and quiet, or the incredibly clean air. Maybe it was the bed at The Motor Lodge.
It didn't really matter in the end. I got my head on straight, enjoyed the company of a lot of passionate and friendly people, and got to see a side of Arizona mountain biking I didn't know existed. Between the alpine adventures along Wolverton Mountain, or the beautiful and challenging landscape throughout the Granite Dells, or bombing down dusty and loose singletrack in the shadow of Thumb Butte, Prescott opened my eyes a bit.
My final ride in town could have been over in less than an hour. I only need to record a trail for the video guide embedded above this very introduction and then head out. 3 hours later, fully exhausted and with a smile on my face, I packed my gear and finally began my journey east. What's a couple of hours' delay when you've got The Dells as an excuse?
Brice Shirbach // Local Flavours Age: 37 Location: Wilmington, DE, USA Industry affiliations: Pivot Cycles, Maxxis Tires, Pearl Izumi, 9point8, Julbo, MRP, Deity Components, EVOC, Shimano, Dialed Health, Stan's No Tubes, Topeak, Leatt, Cane Creek Cycling Components Instagram:@bricycles Favorite Trail in Prescott: Dino Canyon in the Granite Dells Riding Style: Whatever's Clever
The Granite Dells is just one of many surprises found in Prescott.
Granite Mountain oversees Prescott and the Chino Valley below.
Native American petroglyphs are an awesome reminder of who was here first, and how important the preservation of these cultural symbols are for future generations.
The high desert landscape is staggeringly beautiful in its harshness.
A Bit About the Region
Arizona was created as a US territory in 1863 as a means of helping mitigate the costs of what was turning out to be a rather expensive proposition otherwise known as the American Civil War. Prescott was born of a hankering for gold in them hills early on, and actually served as the state's capital for a few years before Phoenix took those duties on in 1889. While the restored facades of many of the businesses allude to a "wild west" sensibility that Prescott hangs it brand on, the reality is that this place epitomized the wild west culture around the turn of the 20th century.
Today Prescott still holds on to those sensibilities, at least as far as their storefronts along Montezuma Street go. Cowboy boots, spurs, false front architecture; it's all there and is definitely one of the charms of the city. Add to it a landscape surrounding town in Prescott National Forest that begs to be explored, a surprisingly diverse food and drink scene with pretty stellar year-round weather and you have yourself the perfect southwest getaway that you probably haven't heard of before.
Getting to Prescott
Prescott is kind of in the middle of nowhere, which on one hand is a big part of the appeal to this place: it's a rad town with loads of space and top-notch trails to ride. On the other hand, getting here takes a bit more work than many other mountain bike destinations, even those found in Arizona. The nearest major airport is Phoenix's Sky Harbor International. It's a huge airport and flights are often pretty cheap there. You can get to Prescott from the airport via Interstate 17 in a little over an hour and a half. If you're not in a hurry, I'd suggest the scenic route via Route 60.
Prescott is a fairly small town, and in truth if you're okay with walking or pedaling everywhere, you can catch a shuttle from the airport to town via a handful of services, including Fly-U and Groome Transportation. If you decide to go this route, a few of the more remote trails might require a shuttle service as well, which are available through some bike shops.
Trail users of all stripes work well together here.
There are more than enough rocks to play on in these parts.
Scott Countryman, from nearby Flagstaff, enjoying a last light rip down Wolverton.
Local legend and primary caretaker of the trails, Chris Hosking leads Chloe Woodruff, Bonnie Couch, and Yuri Howard up a punch in the Granite Dells.
There's a lot of green throughout the area for a town in the middle of Arizona.
Chloe and Bonnie find their flow and zen in The Dells.
The Best Trails to Ride in Prescott
Prescott presents an incredibly wide variety of riding options to those who pay this high altitude town a visit. Yes, it is Arizona so you should certainly expect to find dry and loose conditions throughout much of the area, but because of the mile high elevation there is a diversity to the terrain that you won't find in nearby regions of the state such as Sedona or Phoenix. Prescott is home to the venerable early season race, The Whiskey Off-Road, where you can choose between a 15, 30 or 50 mile route to compete in. As you might imagine, the home to one of the country's most popular XC races is in fact very popular with the XC crowd, and while there are some shuttling opportunities, you should be prepared to do a bit of heavy pedaling in Prescott. The Prescott Circle Trail is a non-motorized, 54 mile loop that connects several trail networks throughout town. Management of the Prescott Circle Trail is split between Prescott National Forest and the City of Prescott. While 54 miles is a lot of ground to cover on two wheels, the truth is that there are several hundred miles of trail to ride in and around Prescott, and I'll break some of the key areas down for you below.
THE GRANITE DELLS This pocket of granite slabs situated to the east of Watson Lake are easily my favorite area to play in throughout Prescott. I typically favor steep and rough riding over just about everything, but there was something about this place that has stuck with me. It's a physical ride no matter how you slice it, and finding your flow here can be a challenge, but that's also the real appeal to this place: it was easily one of the most rewarding rides of my year, and that was due to the fact that I had to work hard to flow this place. Expect punchy climbs, steep slab descents, and keep your eyes out for the white dots scattered throughout the trails as those will help you stay on line when the trail becomes difficult to distinguish.
Key trail - Black Canyon to Boulder Creek: This route will take you from the northeast corner of "The Dells" to the northwest corner. Expect excellent grip on all slabs, and loose terrain between them as the decomposed granite tends to collect between all of the massive boulders strewn about. There will be several power moves, some of which are optional, others required in order to complete this route. One of my favorite rides all year; it belongs on your to-do list.
Key trail - Lakeshore: Lakeshore is the closest technical trail to the main trailhead, but that doesn't mean it's to be overlooked. It offers up several lovely views of Watson Lake (no swimming as it's downstream from an old mercury strip mine), and it doesn't skimp of the technical and burly features. Many of the moves here involve rippled granite slabs, so be ready to bring the watts.
PIONEER PARK Pioneer is full of beginner and intermediate oriented trails. Situated along the northern edge of Prescott, the park is home to 280 acres of rolling hills and sweeping views with Prescott to the south, and Chino Valley to the north. There are a handful of technical bits, but by and large the trails are fairly mellow compared to what you'll find in The Dells. You can connect Pioneer Park with nearby Constellation Trails if you want to add miles and difficulty to your ride. Shout out to the Over the Hill Gang, a group of retirees who just want to build trail, for their tireless efforts at Pioneer and other places around town. They've cleared trail, built trail, and improved drainages simply because it keeps them active and is good for the community.
Key trail - Embry Riddle to Jan Alfano: This is the connection between Pioneer and Constellation. It was also one of the final bit of the Prescott Circle Trail to be completed. It's a scenic cruise through low brush, and offers up beautiful views of Thumb Butte, Mingus Mountain, and Granite Mountain.
SPENCE BASIN/THUMB BUTTE If you were to look at a Trailforks map of Prescott, you'd see that these two networks are distinguished on the map, but are connected via several trails which also makes them indistinguishable. Rides here feature trails that range from beginner to advanced, taking you through ponderosa forests, decomposed granite beds, loads of rock formations to play on, and almost always within view of Thumb Butte, the area's most iconic natural landmark. It would be easy to devote several days to exploring all of the trails in between Spence and Thumb Butte, and that's not a bad idea, especially if you're looking to build fitness. There are plenty of ripping downhills and a handful of technical features and drops throughout, in addition to some technical climbs and punchy moves up and over things. It's also worth noting that the locals have worked hard to build a level of respect among various trail user groups, so be sure to keep an eye out for hikers and equestrians.
Key trail: West Trail Two miles long with an elevation profile that drops two feet for every foot climbed, West Trail can be enjoyed equally in either direction. It features a handful of punchy climbs and ripping descents throughout, and has several rock outcrops with multiple line choices and a few prickly pears to hop over.
Key trail: Firewater What was once an old social trail is not a rerouted gem that connects the Thumb Butte trails with Spence Basin. It's best ridden downhill (captain obvious reporting for duty), although if you're a glutton for punishment, I suppose you might enjoy punching up the mile long trail. There are a lot of rock features to play on from top to bottom, including some really creative natural steps and features at the very bottom of the trail.
WHITE SPAR CAMPGROUND Head south on State Road 89 from Prescott toward the National Forest boundary. White Spar is just a minute or two past the entrance to Prescott National Forest, and is where you will find many of the area's best shuttling options. These are big rides by and large, and many of the trails offer stunning panoramas of the mountains that surround town. There's great camping as well, and loads of wildlife in these parts.
Key trail: Wolverton Mountain Wolverton drops close to 1,300 feet over the course of 5 miles. It's a beautiful ride, with virtually endless views from start to finish, and several fun and high speed sections throughout. It's a popular trail for hikers and riders alike, so be sure to keep your chin up and always be respectful of folks on foot.
Key trail: East Copper This is a 4 mile-long descent that drops riders 2,000 vertical feet. It has plenty of chunky and loose bits, with a touch of flow midway down. If you need some deathgrip in your life, this is your trail.
The Over the Hill Gang are an inspiration.
My personal spirit animal.
Wolverton provides a few opportunities to get loose over the course of 5 miles of descending.
It's safe to assume that a punchy climb at The Dells will be followed by a steep descent.
The Motor Lodge provides the perfect space to gather your thoughts and recover after some big days on the trail.
Prescott's elevation is at a mile high, which means a few things when planning a trip here. First, if you've never ridden at a high altitude, then expect some shortness of breath on your first few rides. It's not like Angel Fire where you can hammer on trails at above 11,000 feet, but the air is still a bit thinner here compared to sea level, so it's something to keep in mind. More importantly, the weather here is pretty damn pleasant year-round. Mid-summer average temps typically stay in the upper 80's, while the coldest months of the year still manage to hang around in the low 50's. Snow in late winter is not unheard of, but generally speaking, Prescott is a great spot for year-round mountain biking. It's the desert, so remember that even if the daytime highs are up there, it'l cool significantly overnight, so be sure to pack some warm layers.
I had both my Firebird and my Switchblade with me, and while I rode the big bike once or twice on some of the bigger descents, that decision was made not knowing exactly what to expect prior to hitting the trail. By and large, a short to mid-travel trail bike is all you need for a good time here. I've heard whispers of some properly gnarly terrain out on Mingus Mountain which is close to an hour outside of town, but for everything in and around Prescott, you'll want something that will handle some lengthy climbs and descents, and most modern short travel trail bikes will manage your needs well.
Local Clubs and Advocates:
The Prescott Mountain Bike Alliance aims to "preserve, protect and promote mountain biking, trail access and diverse riding opportunities on Prescott area public lands through community education, tourism, advocacy and unified action."
Do you see what I see?
A meeting of the minds featuring some of Prescott's finest advocates and mountain bike pioneers.
Chris Hosking works tirelessly to help Prescott realize its potential as a mountain bike mecca as the Trail Coordinator for the City of Prescott.
Thumb Butte and the mountains that surround town make for easy eye candy from virtually any trail.
I spent my entire week in town at The Motor Lodge, a perfectly restored vintage motor lodge that has all of the modern amenities you could ask for, with outdoor fire pits, a garage attached to each unit, super comfortable rooms, a kitchen, and quick wifi. The staff their was incredibly helpful, and they offer up a beer upon check in as well, an offer I gladly accepted. Let's go back to the garage thing for a second. Simply put: it's awesome. For whatever reason, most motels and hotels have done away with this concept over the decades since it was more prevalent, and while ultimately it's a space eater that takes away from additional rooms, I loved it. I was able to secure my bikes every evening and keep them out of the rain that never fell, and it left me with more space in my room.
There are plenty of additional hotels and motels in and around Prescott, and a VRBO or Airbnb search will yield dozens of results as well.
You can eat very well in town, and very cleanly - something that I was pleasantly surprised by. Much of Prescott's charm lies in the old-timey aesthetic that has been carefully restored throughout much of town, and while the brothels might be a thing of the past, the turn of the century saloon facades that pepper downtown are in fact still saloons to this day. Here are a few of my favorites from my week in town.
Breakfast: The Raven Cafe has great espresso, and a top notch breakfast menu. It was my go to all week. I love breakfast food, but typically don't do big breakfasts, especially before a ride and photo shoot. However, if you love to shovel food into your face first thing in the morning then The Lone Spur Cafe is your style. Endless coffee refills and hearty breakfast options aplenty in this throwback eatery.
Lunch: The Local is a great breakfast or lunch stop, with locally sourced menu options, with clean and tasty food throughout the menu. Bill's Grill is right down the street from the Motor Lodge with great burgers and a solid beer selection.
Dinner: The Barley Hound is dog friendly, with an awesome menu and loads of tasty drinks. Park Plaza Liquor Store & Deli is a surprisingly great place to grab a bite out on a patio with friends. El Gato Azul is a laid back, comfy restaurant offering up tasty margaritas and southwest inspired tapas and cuisine.
1. Make Prescott Your Northern Arizona MTB Hub. Prescott has enough trail available to fill your week by itself. But what is great about this place is that it provides you with a fantastic opportunity to explore nearby regions including Sedona, Flagstaff, Phoenix and Mingus Mountain from a more affordable location. 2. Check out Jerome. Once an Arizona boom town, Jerome was, at its peak, the largest producer of copper, gold, and silver in the state before seeing all of its mines dry and eventually becoming the largest ghost town in the western United States. It was revitalized in the 1960's as an art community, and has since been declared a National Historic Landmark and offers up staggering views of Sedona below and the massive San Fransisco peaks above Flagstaff. 3. Pay Respect to the Granite Mountain Hotshots. On June 30, 2013, 19 men lost their lives battling one of the deadliest wildfires in American history about 20 miles southwest of Prescott, in the town of Yarnell. The Granite Mountain Hotshots have had a movie made about them (it's called "Only the Brave", and is a great watch), and also have a learning and tribute center in Prescott. The GMIHC Learning and Tribute Center aims to educate the public about wildfires and prevention, while honoring those who fell protecting their community.