A local favorite of Arizona residents, the Black Canyon Trail is quickly being discovered by outdoor enthusiasts from across the United States. The multi-use trail has been designated as a National Recreation Trail, which by definition means it contributes to health, conservation, and recreation goals in the United States. The Black Canyon trail is frequented by hikers, runners, equestrians, and mountain bikers, and the International Mountain Biking Association even granted it the honor of including it on their international list of “Epic” trails. The trail measures 80 miles long and offers seemingly infinite ways to explore, but it’s often broken down into manageable segments to make it easier to plan and organize adventures. These unofficial segments are ordered from north to south, which is generally how most users think of the trail.
The Big Bug trailhead is often thought of as the northernmost trailhead on the Black Canyon trail. There is in fact a little-known section of the trail that stretches north of Big Bug trailhead, we’re calling that Segment 0, but due to its popularity in the public view this stretch of trail from Big Bug trailhead south to the “town” of Bumble Bee is being referred to as Segment 1. This 24 mile stretch of trail descends steadily through chaparral scrub forest and upper Sonoran Desert landscape. This section of trail is less rocky and technical than some southern portions, however it still covers fairly challenging terrain. There are a number of dirt forest roads that cross this section of trail, creating a number of opportunities to exit the main route should you need to.
Mountain Bikers: This segment is only suitable for advanced riders. Heading south from Big Bug trailhead, you’ll have the chance to warm up the legs with some climbing before the route levels off in the transition zone between the Bradshaw Mountains and the Sonoran Desert. Soon, the route drops off a mesa and contours along the steep sides of Antelope Canyon before opening up onto the sometimes-rocky bajadas leading downslope to Bumble Bee. The elevation loss makes this section of the trail a fun and exhilarating ride that’s slightly more approachable than other segments, but despite the net elevation loss it’s no leisurely ride and is recommended for advanced riders only.
Hikers/Trail Runners: This segment of trail has become popularized with trail runners by the annual “Black Canyon Ultras” trail race organized by local company Aravaipa Running. There are several points where the trail crosses dirt roads and it is possible to create a shorter point-to-point run or hike with the use of two vehicles but for the sake of simplicity, most foot traffic is in the form of out-and-back adventures. Whether you plan an out-and-back from Big Bug or Bumble Bee, both create a classic “climb first, descend second” style of trail adventure.
Beyond Bumble Bee, the Black Canyon trail continues through rolling desert terrain. The trail surface of Segment 2 is characterized by rocks, sand, overgrown brush, wide vistas, occasional dramatic switchbacks, and several potential water crossings that keep the route interesting. The changing terrain and several lush riparian zones create more opportunities than Segment 1 to duck into a shady corner for a snack or water break. The trail crosses one or two remote and rugged dirt roads along the course of this segment.
Mountain Bikers: This segment is only suitable for advanced riders. This segment of the Black Canyon trail is progressively more difficult and rockier than the first. Though the trail continues its net descent as you travel north to south, the final miles of this stretch of trail offer some difficult climbs before descending to the trailhead at Black Canyon City. This section of trail crosses several major washes that can contain flowing water depending on the season and recent weather patterns.
Hikers/Trail Runners: The thirteen mile Segment 2 is a favorite for many trail runners or hikers looking for a long and satisfying point-to-point day. Runners should practice extra caution as they pick their way along the rocky route and encounter hazards such as exposed descents and loose rock. The potential water crossings offer a unique appeal on this trail segment, providing opportunities to get wet when there is water to speak of, or to cool off beneath the shade of a mesquite tree. This is a challenging section, not for casual hikers/runners or the faint of heart.
Segment 3 of the Black Canyon trail from Black Canyon City to Table Mesa Road features two crossings of the Agua Fria River, over 2,000 feet of elevation loss, and a net elevation gain over the course of 13 miles. This segment of the Black Canyon Trail is the most demanding and technically challenging portion of the entire trail. There are no points where this segment of trail crosses accessible dirt roads so there are no emergency “bail out” points available.
Mountain Bikers: This segment is only suitable for expert riders. This is the most challenging segment of the BCT. Be prepared for big tiring climbs and a few loose, rocky, white-knuckle descents. The multiple crossings of the Agua Fria River can pose a challenge depending on season and recent weather patterns. Winter and spring rains can cause the river level to swell to waist-depth and make it necessary to carry your bike across. Characterized by technical bedrock sections and big descents, this segment of the Black Canyon Trail kicks it up a notch, the combination of desert sun, obstacles, technical trail, loose sand, and prickly overgrowth challenges even expert riders.
Hikers/Trail Runners: On-foot trail users will need to take especial care on this section of the Black Canyon trail. The big climbs, steep loose descents and the remote nature of this segment require even a sure-footed runner to take caution. Many hikers and trail runners plan out-and-back adventures beginning at the Black Canyon City trailhead and exploring a portion of this segment. Enjoyed this way, Segment 3 of the Black Canyon trail can provide a fun “choose your own adventure” challenge where you determine the turn around point.
Segment 4 covers 16 miles of scenic Black Canyon trail before delivering you to the Emery Henderson trailhead. This is not the southern terminus of the trail, but it is commonly the most used trailhead on the southern end. This segment features more rugged landscape of trail chunk, cactus, and sand to keep hikers, bikers, and equestrians on their toes, but the grades are more forgiving than Segment 3 and the trail crosses several roads popular with motorized recreationists.
Mountain Bikers: Before leveling out into the Salt River Basin, mountain bikers enjoy 16 final miles of stunning singletrack on their way to the Emery Henderson trailhead. The BCT continues south for a few more miles, but this trailhead is widely known as the last noteworthy section for mountain bikers, especially if you’re used to the terrain north of Table Mesa road. If time permits, don’t miss the afternoon sun breaking ahead of you from the final plateau before coasting down into the flats.
Hikers/Trail Runners: The southern segment of the BCT means more descent for runners and hikers, but with less elevation change overall of any of the previous segments. Longer plateaus followed by gravely descents set the tone for the duration of these 16 miles. The more moderate grade lends itself to foot traffic, and provides a more forgiving experience on the knees.
This lesser traveled segment is technically the first segment of the Black Canyon Trail going north to south. This 13-mile section precedes the northernmost starting point listed above, partially because the trail north of Big Bug Trailhead is lesser-used and more overgrown with desert flora than the remaining segments. Still worth exploring, this segment will take some extra planning for the added distance to the BCT. The trail can be faint in some places, so GPS is recommended to ensure you stay on trail.
Mountain Bikers: The “Russian Well” section of the BCT is typically overgrown with catclaw. Mountain bikers should be equipped with protective pants at the least, and some suggest shin guards to make sure you make it out of this section unscathed. Because of the heavy equestrian use in comparison to wheel traffic, riders should beware of deep hoof indents along the trail. Trail hazards and overgrown brush add to the difficulty already presented by about 1600 feet of elevation gain over the course of 13 miles.
Hikers/Trail Runners: Hikers and trail runners will find this section lesser used than the rest. The catclaw present on trail is easier managed by foot-traffic, and should present a lesser problem to hikers and runners. Although easier to manage, the brush can still daunting in some places, so protective clothing is recommended for anyone passing through the Russian Well section in route to Big Bug Trailhead.
Looking for more? Learn more about the Black Canyon Trail, or explore your options for a shuttle service provided by Arizona’s REI Adventure Center.