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  • Lisa Parsons

Just Outside Sedona Arizona

Miles of Trails in the Cottonwood Valley

What do you think of when you hear Cottonwood Arizona? Probably not great mountain biking. It wasn’t really on my radar as a place to visit our mountain bike. It doesn’t have the sheer number of trails that Sedona has but it is worth a stop on your way to or from Sedona.

We headed out of Prescott Arizona to Cottonwood that was at a lower elevation. as the temperatures across the U.S. were about to plummet up to 20 degrees over night there was the threat of snow in Prescott. We took the scenic mountain route on 89A that winds up and over the Mingus mountains. We passed through the old mining town of Jerome. A town perched on a mountain side and surrounded by defunct old mines and tailing piles. Now it is a funky artist town with lots of shops and restaurants as well as historic mining sights and tours.

The road drops from the forested mountains of Jerome to the valley town of Cottonwood at an elevation of 3500 ft. The Verde River runs through the valley. You can see it from Jerome because it is the only area of bright green in a desert landscape. Large Cottonwoods line the river valley. The surrounding hills are limestone and sandstone covered in Pinyon Pine, Yucca, and Chaparral.

We decided to camp at Dead Horse Ranch State Park. We tend to only stay in regular campgrounds when we need to take showers, get water, dump our trash bin, and do laundry. We were ready for showers. After five days of hiking, mountain biking, and 80 degree heat we needed one. Otherwise we wild camp somewhere in the middle of nowhere close to somewhere we want to go.

Dead Horse Ranch is located right on the Verde River next door to old town Cottonwood and the Tuzigoot National Monument. There is also a network of trails that leave right from camp called the Dead Horse Ranch Trail System. We were curious to see what kind of trails this lesser known area had to offer.

The next morning we got up at sunrise. Even through the temperature had dropped from 88 degrees to 49 degrees overnight we still wanted to get an early start because our dogs were staying in the van while we biked. (note. We are extremely careful when leaving our dogs in the van. It is super insulated and we have a great ventilation system that will keep the van cool for up to three hours in 70+ degree heat. We have an inside thermometer that lets us monitor the temperature. However, we still plan our longer rides in the early morning if we can't take them)

We followed the trail out of camp. It was a horse trail. Soft red sand filled a depression created by the repetition of horse hooves from the paddocks at the end of our overflow campsite. My first thought was “I hope the whole trail isn’t like this”. We surfed along the sand to the road. After we crossed, the Lime Kiln trail turned into hard pack with more bike tracks than hoof tracks.

David at the Top of the Climb

Fast and Flowing and Technical Trails

A Happy Face After Today's Ride!

I picked an eleven mile loop that was in the “routes” section on Trailforks. I added an additional two miles to include a small upper loop. We climbed up Lime Kiln. Immediately we had great views of the surrounding river valley and the town of Jerome perched on the mountainside.The trail was exceptionally built. Even the technical rocky uphills had sneak routes for climbing up the rock steps and shelves. We climbed up the trail and turned left on Thumper, which crossed over to a multi-trail intersection.

The wind was still bringing in the new weather and big fluffy clouds traveled quickly across the sky. Gusts occasionally hit us broad side and sometimes head on. At one point I hit a tricky section and while I had adjusted to navigate over the rock, a side gust hit me and pushed me off my line and I halted against a lime boulder on the side of the trail. The wind added an unpredictable element to our ride.

We climbed up Thumper, which was also a technical uphill built for riding both directions and arrived at the intersection. We rode the short loop up Upper Raptor to the top of Bones. I thought Bones would be a great downhill. The name sounded technical and it was longer than Lower Raptor.

Bones was a great trail but it was a flow trail. The downhill was fast and easy. No real technical sections just an occasional dip through a wash as the trail traversed over a mesa and then down along the edges of the hills. I realized later that we rode the loop in the wrong direction. I decided maybe I should take a closer look at the map before relying on the small Garmin screen. It is great for mapping the route but hard to pick out details on the small screen.

The last section of the trail was the most technical with a choice of a five foot drop or rocky steps bypassing the drop. We finished up on the horse trails back to camp just as the wind really started to pick up.

We both came away wanting to ride the route in the opposite direction but we also felt that the quality of the trails we rode were excellent and who ever built them knew what they were doing. I would definitely say that riding it clockwise is the best way to ride if you want more technical on your downhill. Either way it is a fun loop trail. We’d recommend this trail to anyone who is headed for Sedona. It is definitely worth a stop to check it out. Another option is to ride the fifteen mile Lime Kiln as a point to point that starts in Sedona and ends in Cottonwood.

Tomorrow we are riding the upper loop above our route today that is part of a seventeen mile loop listed below. I looked at the description and we are going down Upper Rooster and up Rust Bucket.

We’ve had our showers and are camping back in the wild with a view of the stunning red and cream cliffs that make up the Sedona landscape as the wind shakes the van and the clouds ebb and flow across the desert sky.

After Ride Food and Drinks

Old Town Red Rooster Cafe. We give it 5 stars.


Dead Horse Ranch State Park. It is busy so if you want a guaranteed site book ahead of time. We managed to get a simple site in the overflow loop. There was a bathroom, dishwashing sink, and covered picnic area. The overflow doesn’t have electric or water hookups.

Jerome Arizona. Old Facade with artist studio behind / Historic Brothel

Visit the Arizona State Park link for info on other activities in the area

Paddle the Verde River. It gets hot in the desert. Cool off by floating the local river.

Montezuma's Castle / Tuzigoot National Monuments

View from Our Wild Camp

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