I’m in Arizona, about 23 miles northeast of Flagstaff, drifting my dual-sport over pellet-sized cinders as I work my way up the side of Merriam Crater, a dead volcano that erupted millennia ago.
About halfway up, I realize losing traction is not an option if I want to see the top.
Regaining momentum on this surface, at this incline, would be nearly impossible, especially with street tread.
Luckily, I get it figured out. The key is to keep the rear wheel spinning just enough to bite past the gravely surface but not so much it digs into the soft earth underneath.
At the crest, about 1,000 feet above the surrounding landscape, we’re greeted by gale-force winds. So I take a few moments to park the bike just right before turning my attention to the view, which is almost as exhilarating as the climb.
To the north, toward the Navajo Nation, is the Painted Desert. To the south, west and east, there are more volcanic craters, just a few of the 600 or so that dot this part of the world.
Taking it all in, I can only think of the word we often used earlier in the week to describe our road rides through Monument Valley, Sunset Crater and along the rim of the Grand Canyon: otherworldly.
However, celestial comparisons only begin to capture the unique features of where we started today’s ride, at the aptly named Cinder Hills OHV area in Central Arizona. The access road was typical enough, dirt, rough, winding, full of potholes. But then we arrived at the parking area, the trees opened up, and we saw where we would begin our ride.
We found ourselves on the edge of a seemingly endless field of deep, black volcanic cinders. From there, we explored the 13,500-acre OHV area on a series of trails that began as extended cinder whoop sections which eventually led to a power-line road. Although off-road vehicles are restricted to the OHV area, the license plates on our dual-sport bikes allowed us to continue until we reached paved Leupp Road, which we took west for a few miles to the pulloff for Merriam Crater.
After slipping and spinning my way to the top, it isn’t just the view that make me want to stick around for a while.
Looking down the trail off Merriam Crater is more intimidating than looking up, mainly because I now know how slick that surface is. At the bottom, we point our bikes north. This time, we’re in search of a geological oddity going in the opposite direction of the volcanic cone: down.
After several more miles of high-desert riding, we arrive at the turnoff for the Little Colorado River Canyon, about 13 miles northeast of Winona. Although the route we take in is a clearly marked road, it’s not well-suited to, say, a minivan. Of course, dual-sport bikes are perfect.
We suddenly discover a ragged gash in the lifeless red rock of the desert. And at the head of the canyon is Grand Falls, which is absolutely amazing.
When lava flowed across this region 100,000 years ago, some of it ended up here, filling in the upper part of the canyon and creating a 190-foot sheer rock face, since worn smooth by centuries of mud and water flow. The rerouted river arcs around the lava field that adjoins the canyon here, where chocolate-colored water splashes into a pool at the bottom before meandering its way northwest.
We enjoy the view for some time before all that water reminds us that our own supply is running short, thanks to several bottles bursting as they slammed together when I was bouncing through the cinder whoops that morning.
The 50 or so wandering miles back roll by without incident. By the time we reach the deep cinder trails, I’m actually looking forward to riding in the stuff.
Still, that doesn’t keep me from taking a few moments to enjoy one last view.
As part of our party continues to the parking area and the rest funnels out of the woods behind me, I defy a fast-approaching rainstorm and take a brief detour. Stopping on the top of a dune along the perimeter of the cinder field, I turn my gaze back toward the sunset. The distant raindrops look like illuminated pearls as they catch the light of the setting sun.
It may be the end of today’s adventure, but I’ll be back.