The Fool’s Loop is a four or five day, 234-mile circuit that leaves from downtown Phoenix, Arizona, and takes riders on an incredibly diverse tour of Tonto National Forest, Agua Fria National Monument, and the Black Canyon Trail.
The Black Canyon Trail has long been a must-ride route for bikepackers on the hunt for uninterrupted singletrack. Logistically speaking, the BCT is typically done via shuttle; and shuttling is generally convenient from Phoenix’s city centre, as well as from Flagstaff. However, for those looking for a longer trip, or to ride the BCT without the challenges of organizing a shuttle, this is it. The Fools Loop starts and finishes in downtown Phoenix, close to amenities and the airport for those flying in. Made up of urban paths, flowy singletrack, and rugged forest service roads, the loop takes in some other excellent trails and sights along the way.
Following chunky and unforgiving service roads through Tonto National Forest and singletrack along the BCT, this route passes through countless saguaro forests, rugged canyons, and rolling desert plains that are sure to impress visitors and Arizona locals alike.
The Fool’s Loop starts off by navigating through the sprawling city of Phoenix, following urban pathways and corridors, passing through city green spaces like the Phoenix Mountain Preserve and the Central Arizona Canal. After a quick stop in North Scottsdale for a late breakfast or lunch, the route quickly changes directions by introducing the popular singletrack within Brown’s Ranch Trailhead and a section of the newly developed Maricopa Trail. Within this trail system, there are endless options to tag on a longer day of trail riding if you so desire.
The eastern edge of the Fool’s Loop travels through the beautiful Tonto National Forest following rough gravel service roads lined with saguaro cacti. After leaving Tonto, the route traverses across to the northern end of the infamous Black Canyon Trail; one of the longest continuous singletrack trails in Arizona. The trail leads South past Black Canyon City and New River before meandering back into the city of Phoenix, which likely involves the taste of cold beer and a good meal for most.
Route Difficulty: The loop was assigned a 6 out of 10 based on the amount of rough forest service roads and the somewhat inconsistent availability of water. There isn’t much technical riding along the route, but there are very long stretches with scattered fist-sized rocks, sand, and unforgivable washboard that can be rough on your body and gear. There are also a few longer stretches that are pretty remote, so riders must be confident with tire repair, flats, and other basic repairs.
Route Development: The Fool’s Loop was stitched together with help from Ray Hemmele of the Arizona Bikepacking community and Erick at the Bicycle Nomad Café in Phoenix. The goal was to create a challenging gravel bike friendly route that could be completed in 4-6 days. The “Tonto” of Tonto National Forest translates to “stupid” or “crazy”, which describes some of the looks passersby gave me on some of the more remote sections. The conditions are most often very rugged, loose and rocky and could be comfortably ridden on a hardtail mountain bike as well.
Map & GPS
- Tonto National Forest is home to a wealth of remote and rugged forest service roads that provide fantastic views of valleys and mountains in the distance.
- Start and finish in downtown Phoenix with access to Sky Harbour Airport, airbnb’s, warmshower hosts, bike shops, and great food.
- A great mix of paved roads, rough gravel, big climbs, and huge sections of flowy singletrack.
- A loop that integrates the Black Canyon Trail which can be comfortably ridden on a hardtail or gravel bike with decent sized tires.
- Brown’s Ranch Trailhead and Cathedral Rock make for a fantastic day of mellow singletrack leaving the city.
- Massive vibrant murals of downtown Phoenix scattered through the Art’s District and Roosevelt Row.
When To go
- Similar to other routes in the area, the Fools Trail can be ridden all year long but the winter months will offer more reasonable daily highs and chilly nights.
- Locals also suggest not riding the route from June to September due to lack of water and potentially dangerous daytime temperatures.
- I rode the loop in November and felt this would be one of the most ideal times to ride. Early spring (February/March/April, depending on the winter) would be rewarding too, with a dazzling show of desert blooms.
- The route passes through an Arizona State Land Trust (section by the Cave Buttes rec area) which requires a permit to travel through. Permits can be purchased online here for $15.
- The Bicycle Nomad Café in Phoenix is the start and finish point of the route. They also have a good connection with the local cycling / bikepacking community, and will provide some assistance if they can.
- There isn’t much in Tonto National Forest besides cacti and a few water sources, you’ll want to have at least 2 days of food, plenty of water storage, and a way to purify dirty water.
- The Western side of the loop, heading South, is less remote than the Tonto side and there are nicely spaced resupply points listed on the map.
- Levels along the Agua Fria have posed an issue to riders during periods of high water, but provide a source of water. On the other hand, these water sources were completely dry when I rode it so crossing wasn’t an issue…but finding water was. Do some research before you go.
- Bring bright colored clothes and a blinkie light for the bits on the road and in the city.
- Check out AirBnb.com and WarmShowers.org for cheap accommodations in Phoenix.
- Horseshoe Campground in Tonto National Forest by the Horseshoe Lake Reservoir.
- Sheeps Crossing Campground is just 22km North of Horseshoe.
- Dispersed camping options between Sheeps Crossing and Cordes Junction.
- 50’s Diner & Motel in Cordes Junction.
- Bumble Bee Ranch and plenty of other dispersed camping options along the Black Canyon Trail.
- Lodging in Black Canyon City.
- Plenty of stores on the ride out of Phoenix, but North Scottsdale is one of the last resupply points before entering Tonto. There is a grocery store, great lunch spots, and a bike shop here.
- Water access at both Horseshoe Campground and Sheeps Crossing but will need treatment.
- No reliable water or food between Sheeps Crossing and Cordes Junction… plan accordingly.
- Big breakfast at the 50’s Diner & Motel in Cordes Junction. Also a 24/7 McDonalds if you show up late.
- Gas Station in Spring Valley is well stocked.
- Market in Black Canyon City as well as the Rock Springs Café just down the road for lunch, baked goods, and pie.
- Yes, there is a good chunk of pavement and some city riding, but in the case of this loop, it adds to the experience and makes it a great loop for drop bar all-road bikes with decent sized tires, I recommend 45mm and up.
- Camp relatively near water when possible (but not too close). Even in the winter months some of the water sources can be dried up, so some flexibility along the route will keep you out of potentially sticky situations.
- Tubeless is a must. The area is known for being riddled with cacti and therefore stray thorns are hard to see and will cause flats all day long, check out this article on traveling tubeless.
- Expect some long climbs and maybe a bit of pushing out of Bloody Basin, I was very close to running out of water along this stretch.
- Black Canyon Trail is a super fun ride, but there are also plenty of gravel service roads that run parallel to it should the riding be a bit much for your drop-bar bike.