How to Plan a Bikepacking Trip on the Black Canyon Trail in Arizona

Female mountain biker on singletrack trail with tall saguaro cactus blocking sun in front

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The Black Canyon Trail in Arizona is a 60+ mile mostly singletrack route through the beautiful Sonoran Desert between Prescott and Phoenix. While some crazies do this trail in a day, most people take 2-3 days to complete it as a bikepacking adventure, which is exactly what a friend and I did.

The route is known for its epic views, ‘mostly’ downhill trending terrain (spoiler alert: there are some soul-sucking climbs), delicious pie at Rock Springs Cafe, and a good dose of fast, flowy descending.

It’s a great trip for any rider looking for a quick getaway in the desert and in this post, I share a recap of our trip and give a few pointers on how to plan your BCT Arizona bikepacking adventure.

Learn everything you need to know about bikepacking the Black Canyon Trail in Arizona including where to start, water sources, what to pack, and more!

About the Black Canyon Trail

The allure of the Black Canyon Trail is dynamic: the stunning views, the rugged backcountry feel, the mostly singletrack ‘downhill trending’ routing, river crossings, and the relatively short amount of time needed to complete the ride.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s easy. There are definitely some sufferfest moments along the way (be prepared for tough climbing on loose rocks!) and the potential for several deep river crossings. But for the most part, the Black Canyon Trail is a super fun and rewarding adventure for anyone up for a few days in the desert.

The BCT in Arizona is actually a great choice for newer bikepackers, although you will need decent mountain biking skills. You’re never too far from 1-17 or civilization in case anything goes awry or you want to bail and there are relatively consistent sources of water along the way.

Female mountain biker on Black Canyon Trail in Arizona with large backpack on for overnight camping. Many tall saguaro cacti surrounding her.
Enjoy lots of saguaro cacti during the second half of the BCT

Black Canyon Trail Map & Facts

Before we dive into stats, it’s important to note that there is quite a bit of discrepancy when it comes to the total mileage of the BCT. The actual total mileage is about 76 miles, but most people really only ride about 61 miles of it.

After completing this ride myself, I recommend starting at the Big Bug Trailhead and ending at the Emery Henderson Trailhead, which ends up being just over 61 miles if you take the detour into Rock Springs for pie (a must!).

You can start at the northernmost BCT trailhead off of Orme Rd. which would add about 15 miles and 1,300 ft of climbing, but I have heard that this section of trail is quite overgrown and doesn’t add much to the route. (That being said, supposedly there is trail work happening here, so it may be much improved in the near future).

For finishing the BCT, a great place to stop (and park your shuttle car) is the Emery Henderson Trailhead off of New River Road. The riding past this trailhead is flat, rocky, horse-trodden, and not very scenic.

BCT Arizona Route Statistics

Big Bug Trailhead to Emery Henderson Trailhead

  • Total mileage: 61.2 miles
  • Elevation gain: 5,318 ft
  • Elevation loss: -7,458
  • Elevation high: 4,197 ft
  • Number of days: 2 nights / 3 days
  • Resupply points: Black Canyon City/Rock Springs

Black Canyon Trail Map

This map shows the full BCT trail.

As I mentioned above, I recommend starting at Big Bug Trailhead and ending at the Emery Henderson Trailhead

Get the GPX file here.


Best time of year to ride the BCT

The Black Canyon Trail has a pretty narrow window for when it can (and should) be ridden. Winter is the best time of year to ride it since the temps are cooler. Attempting the BCT in the summer months without vehicle support can be dangerous due to super high temps (it can get well over 100° in the summer!).

I rode the BCT in late January and the days were in the 60s and the nights in the 40s, which felt perfect.

I’d recommend planning your trip between December and February.

Another thing to keep in mind is water availability. The route does cross the Agua Fria river several times, but when we rode it, there was barely any water in the river – only small pools of cow-flavored tea.

Be sure to check water levels before heading out and keep an eye on the forecast. The Agua Fria river can also get pretty deep in places, so if there is a big storm before your trip, the river may be unpassable.

Landscape view of green desert landscape with mountains and a river below. Tall cacti poking up out of vegetation.
The desert landscape can actually be quite lush and green during the winter!

My 3-Day Black Canyon Trail Route & Itinerary

There are numerous ways to plan out a bikepacking trip on the BCT. Below is what our trip ended up looking like. We initially planned on staying at Bumblebee Ranch on the first day, but it’s located only 20 miles from the start which felt a little too light for day 1.

Day 1

The night before we started our ride, we stayed at the Hampton Inn in Anthem. We left my car there, although if I did this trip again, I’d leave a car at the Emery Henderson Trailhead instead. It was about a 50-minute drive from the hotel to the Big Bug Trailhead and we started riding around 9am.

There’s an initial climb out of the parking area, but then the first dozen or so miles are flowy and downhill-trending with a super cool section through Antelope Canyon.

If you plan on staying at Bumblebee Ranch, it’s at around mile 20. (See more about Bumblebee Ranch in the camping & lodging section below).

We decided to keep moving and rode another 9 miles to Black Canyon Creek, a big wash that had a bit of water and some nice green grass to camp on. I’m hesitant to recommend camping here because there’s no guarantee there will be water. You could fill up at Bumblebee Ranch first, though. It’s another 15 miles from Black Canyon Creek to the first Agua Fria river crossing.

Day 1 stats

  • Mileage: 28.7 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1,949 ft
  • Elevation loss: 3,812 ft
  • Moving time: 3h 53m
  • Water source: Black Canyon Creek
Our first campsite in Black Canyon Creek had a nice grassy area and shallow pools of water

Day 2

Day 2 was a big day with quite a bit of climbing. We did the mandatory detour into Rock Springs for some pie at Rock Springs Cafe (the food is meh, but the pie is really good). Keep in mind, though, that you have a five-mile climb post-meal! We also encountered some crazy wind that bordered on ridiculous. Thankfully, it died down in the afternoon.

Once you make it to the top of the climb outside of Rock Springs, you’re in for some fun, flowy, well-earned descending.

We decided to camp on the banks of the Agua Fria River, about 14 miles past Rock Springs. There were a few pools of water, but no ‘river’ crossing.

Day 2 stats

  • Mileage: 23 miles
  • Elevation gain: 3,045 ft
  • Elevation loss: 3,205 ft
  • Moving time: 4h 7m
  • Water source: Rock Springs Cafe and Agua Fria River
Female mountain biker with bikepacking setup in front of history Rock Springs Cafe in Arizona
Pie at Rock Springs Cafe is a must!

Day 3

The final day had some of the worst riding of the whole trail, but also some of the best. You have to pass through a shooting range area near Table Mesa, which is quite unnerving. We rode through on a Saturday morning. A weekday would probably be a bit less ‘hot’. I’m sure there are signs and precautions to prevent people from shooting in the direction of the trail, but it still honestly felt unsafe.

After passing through the shooting area, you are rewarded with a s*&@#% final big climb up a horse-trodden trail full of loose rocks. It’s truly terrible. But know that the trail does get better and there are flowier miles ahead of you!

Then it’s the final push to the Emery Henderson Trailhead.

Day 3 stats

  • Mileage: 17.3 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1,644 ft
  • Elevation loss: 1,467 ft
  • Moving time: 3h 2m
  • Water source: Agua Fria River
Female mountain biker with bikepacking set up in the desert riding over narrow metal ladder bridge, which acts as a cattle guard.
There are a lot of cattle gates to go over and through

Black Canyon Trail Logistics and Planning Info

Like any bikepacking trip, the BCT requires a bit of planning and thinking ahead to make sure you aren’t left for the vultures out in the desert.

Water availability

Hidden Treasure Mine

I didn’t learn about this stop until after riding the BCT, but a fellow bikepacker noted that there is water at Hidden Treasure Mine, which is about 12.5 miles into the ride. I can’t confirm this, though.

Bumblebee Ranch

Bumblebee Ranch is located about 19.5 miles into the Black Canyon Trail and some bikepackers choose to stay here for their first night.

If you want to use Bumblebee as a fill-up stop and not stay overnight, I still recommend reaching out to them to let them know you’ll be rolling through and would like to fill up on water. Keep in mind that it’s a working ranch.

Black Canyon Creek

Black Canyon Creek may have water in it. There were a few pools of water when we rode in January when water levels were way below-average. If you ride after a storm or during a year with lots of rain, there will most likely be water here.

Black Canyon Creek is at mile 29.

Agua Fria River

The BCT in Arizona crosses the Agua Fria river three times, however, you must check water levels ahead of time to make sure there will actually be water in the river. We rode the BCT in January and there were just a few small pockets of brown water in most of the river beds.

  • The first Agua Fria river crossing is at roughly mile 35 just before the detour into Rock Springs for pie!
  • The second river crossing comes shortly after leaving Rock Springs (about mile 41.75).
  • The third river crossing comes at about mile 49
Female mountain biker crossing dry, sandy river bed in Arizona with vegetation-covered hill in the background.
Believe it or not, this is the Agua Fria River(bed)

Black Canyon City/Rock Springs

It’s about a 2-mile (4-mile roundtrip) detour into the small town of Rock Springs where you can get a meal at Rock Springs Cafe, fill up on water, and grab extra supplies at the gas station or Rock Springs Cafe. The food at the cafe isn’t great, but the pie is delicious!

Caching water

If you’re concerned about water, it’s very easy to cache water along the route since there are lots of back roads to access the trail. Just remember to mark where you stashed your water jugs!

Camping & lodging options

There are numerous places to camp and stay along the Black Canyon Trail in Arizona:

  • Camping – there is dispersed camping all along the BCT. I like to camp by water, so we chose to camp at Black Canyon Creek (mile 29) and the third Agua Fria river crossing (mile 49).
  • Bumblebee Ranch – Bumblebee Ranch is a working ranch along the BCT that allows bikepackers to camp or you can reserve one of their cabins. We intially planned to stay at Bumblebee Ranch for our first night, but then we realized that it’s only 19.5 miles into the route and most of that is downhill. If you want to stay at Bumblebee Ranch, I recommend starting your ride around 11 or 12pm. Know that this will make days 2 and 3 very long with a lot of climbing.
  • Hotels/Motels – If you don’t want to carry all your camping gear, there are several hotel and motel options in Black Canyon City and Rock Springs. You could spend your first night in a Bumblebee Ranch cabin and second night in Black Canyon City or Rock Springs.

For the most part, the Black Canyon Trail is pretty well marked with signs and bike tire tracks. However, there are a few unmarked turns and I was definitely glad to have my Garmin Edge 830. The battery lasted the whole trip, so I didn’t have to drain my phone battery.

I also found TrailForks to be helpful, especially when looking at elevation gain.

Where to start

The ‘official’ start of the Black Canyon Trail is off of Orme Road, but I’ve heard that this 15-mile section of trail is pretty overgrown and rugged. I recommend starting at the Big Bug Trailhead off of Route 69.

Where to end

We left a car at the Hampton Inn in Anthem since we stayed there the night before we started. However, if I did the BCT again, I would leave a car at the Emery Henderson Trailhead instead.


What to pack for the BCT

For a complete bikepacking gear list, head over to my post Bikepacking Gear: What To Pack For A Multi-Day Adventure.

Here are a few recommendations specific to the BCT in Arizona:

A full-suspension bike

The Black Canyon Trail is a mountain bike route with lots of rocks and bumps. I highly recommend doing this on a full-suspension mountain bike or a hardtail at the least. It would be very uncomfortable/miserable on a fully rigid bike.

Female mountain biker adjusting straps on colorful bikepacking bags attached to mountain bike with some camping gear still on the ground.

Wide tires

Opt for wider tires like 2.4’s-2.6’s. There are some sandy stretches and wider tires will be more comfortable on the many (many) rocky sections.

Tubeless tires!

You’ll be riding through the desert and there are lots of sharp, pointy things. Tubeless tires are a must.

Windbreaker

We encountered some really strong winds on our second day and I was super glad to have my Patagonia Houdini jacket. It’s very lightweight (only 3.2 oz) and packs down small, so it’s kind of a no-brainer.

Bikepacking bags

Every bikepacker has their own set-up, but here’s what I used for two nights on the Black Canyon Trail

  • A handlebar roll that contained my sleeping bag, tent, tent fly, and puffy jacket.
  • My Osprey Mira 32 L backpack with a 2.5 L hydration reservoir. This also fit my tent poles, cookstove, food, tools, clothes to sleep in, and other odds and ends.
  • A small top tube bag for snacks. Lots of snacks.
I really love the Osprey Mira 32 for shorter bikepacking trips. It’s super comfortable and holds a lot of stuff!

BCT Trip Planning Resources


What questions do you still have about bikepacking the Black Canyon Trail in Arizona? Does this sound like a trip you’d be into? Have you completed it already? Let us know in the comments!

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Learn everything you need to know about bikepacking the Black Canyon Trail in Arizona including where to camp, water sources, & what to pack.

2 Comments

  1. I camped at Bumblebee Ranch once after a shuttle day on the BCT and it was very enjoyable – worth mentioning that it has hot showers (free and included if you camp) which was VERY nice.

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