The Black Canyon trail is not only a National Recreation Trail, it’s also the only trail in Arizona that has been granted the “Epic” designation by the International Mountain Biking Association. This Sonoran Desert classic is located less than an hour north of the Phoenix metro area just off Interstate 17, the main through route to other popular cycling hotspots like Sedona and Flagstaff. Although popular with mountain bikers, this approximately 80 mile trail is frequented by backpackers, hikers and equestrians alike. The spectacular raw scenery of the open desert landscape provides a welcome dose of solitude, whether on two wheels, foot, or horseback.
Length: 80 miles (Official length from the Bureau of Land Management)
Best For: mountain biking, bikepacking, hiking, horseback riding
From Sky Harbor International Airport, the southern end of the Black Canyon trail is an easy 1-hour drive north from Phoenix. Although it’s possible to ride the entirety of the trail in one long vert challenging and exhausting day, most people explore it in segments starting at one of the many trailhead access points. The closest trailhead to Phoenix is the southern terminus of the trail at Bob Bentley trailhead on the north side of Carefree Highway near the Arizona Game and Fish headquarters.
Development of the Black Canyon Trail as we know it today began in the early 1990’s, and thanks to users, IMBA, and the Bureau of Land Management, the trail has continued to be well maintained. Ongoing trail work, coordinated in part by the Black Canyon Trail Coalition, has ensured that much of the 80 miles of singletrack is well marked with signs and informational kiosks. However, this is still a rugged backcountry trail characterized by rough rocky desert terrain, abundant cactus, and dynamic weather. There are places along the trail where intersections are not marked with signage and other spots where weather may have damaged the trail itself, making it difficult to determine the way forward. Most of the trail is singletrack, but some sections detour onto established doubletrack or dirt roads for the sake of efficiency.
The Black Canyon Trail has been known to eat up mountain bike tires and leave hikers legs scarred by overgrown catclaw acacia. The southern half of the trail crosses the Agua Fria River several times, where seasonal flow can necessitate wading through water up to your waist. Any time you head out for an adventure on the Black Canyon Trail, you should check current conditions with the Bureau of Land Management’s local Hassayampa field office.
While there is variation along the 80 miles of the Black Canyon Trail, most segments of the trail are considered challenging for hikers, mountain bikers, or equestrians. While the trail is well-known among mountain bikers, it is only recommended for advanced and expert level riders due to its rocky, rugged, and technical nature.
Most trail users explore portions of the Black Canyon trail at a time, though some intrepid adventurers do play point to point mountain bike rides or bikepacking adventures, and there’s even a popular ultramarathon trail race staged on the trail each winter.
Each segment of trail between trailheads/access points can make a great single-day outing whether on bike or foot. Some people choose to plan an “out-and-back” adventure, while others will stage a vehicle at the trailhead where they intend to end their adventure and drive a separate vehicle to the trailhead where they plan to start. The segments vary in length from about 13 miles to about 24 miles between trailheads. The southern half of the trail offers shorter segments (distances between trailheads) but is rockier and has more elevation change, making these sections more strenuous. The segments between Gloriana Access Point and Black Canyon City and Black Canyon City and Table Mesa Road are the most technically challenging for mountain bikers.
Long point-to-point trails like the Black Canyon Trail are often best enjoyed with either an out-and-back adventure that starts and ends at the same trailhead, or by arranging a shuttle to enable a longer exploration that starts at one trailhead and ends at another. Out-and-backs offer a logistically simple opportunity to get a taste of the trail with the freedom to turn around and head back to your car at any point. Adventurers on the Black Canyon trail should only plan a point-to-point adventure requiring a shuttle if they are advanced to expert cyclists, hikers, runners, or equestrians who are ready to take on a bigger challenge.
The Bureau of Land Management provides an official GIS map of the trail on their website as well as a printable .pdf map you can find here. It is always recommended that users carry a paper map while exploring an unfamiliar or backcountry trail.
There are several popular trail apps that contain information about and navigation tips for the Black Canyon Trail. All Trails is popular with hikers, while Trailforks and MTB Project are both popular with mountain bikers. The Bureau of Land Management recommends MTB Project on their Black Canyon Trail information page.
The Black Canyon Trail is a backcountry Sonoran Desert trail, because of the remote nature and sparse resupply points, preparing yourself with food, water, medical supplies, and simple bike repair gear will ensure you can focus on your day on the trail. It’s important to carry plenty of water and electrolytes. Many mountain bikers find themselves surprised at their slow pace of travel while riding the trail so it’s recommended that you carry more supplies than you think you may need. The trailheads along the trail do not have water spigots but during the spring you may be able to find enough water in the Agua Fria river to filter and resupply. If you’re planning on covering a long distance, you’d be wise to carry a water filter just in case.
For mountain bikers, new tires with fresh tread and a tubeless setup are a necessity on the Black Canyon Trail as are a well-stocked repair kit with all the fixins; tire plugs, a pump, spare tubes, chain links/tool, multi-tool, sealant, spare valves. The BCT has done damage to many riders, it’s worth it to come prepared.
The BCT in late fall months can be quite a bit colder than Phoenix. Although most trail users report low-trail usage normally, a weekday in late fall can be the best for unencumbered miles with no other interaction. While this is desirable for some, it underlines the need to be prepared to self-support your ride in the event of a mechanical failure.
Spring is typically the best time to explore the Black Canyon Trail as the weather is mild, the days are longer, and the scenery is at its best. Expect blooming wildflowers, active wildlife, and flowing water in the Agua Fria River. Although the trail is well marked and maintained, remember that winter rains will mean an abundance of desert flora that will crowd the trail on spring days. Catclaw acacia and cholla cactus are a constant companion and will take any opportunity to latch onto your clothes, bike, skin, or tires and join the ride.