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An old ranch road that cuts across Observatory Mesa makes for a flat and scenic detour.

“Beat the rush – bike a Flagstaff forest road in April.”

That’s been our family motto for nearly two decades in Flagstaff, and timing is everything. Go too soon, and the roads are still too muddy, even for bicycles. Too late, and the gates are unlocked and the motocross and ATV riders are spitting gravel in our faces.

This spring, what little snow fell melted early and the roads started firming up in late March. In fact, some were never gated to motorized vehicles – the Forest Service says roads south of Flagstaff never really muddied up. After seeing the foot-deep ruts atop Anderson Mesa near the Interferometer, I’d dispute that, but I wrote that column last month.

The view of the Peaks from the rim of the cinder pit at Wing Mountain is spectacular.

Our first outing behind the locked gates was to Wing Mountain – the commercial snowplay operation at the cinder pits was closed this winter as was the access road, FR222, so I was curious to see how the area fared. To my surprise, the plastic sled shards and other detritus of previous winters were nearly gone and there were few, if any, tire tracks in the pits. The outer slopes, however, were deeply grooved by motocrossers who had carved out their own challenge course, complete with jumps and hairpin turns. I’d encountered these illegal trails farther up the slopes of the mountain in previous years, but these appeared to be relatively self-contained.

On this Saturday, we had the roads that circumnavigate the mountain all to ourselves – even the cattle that graze the lower slopes weren’t out yet. The tanks were low and the grassy meadows were already brown and dry, foretelling an early fire season without some April and May rains.

Most tanks atop Observatory Mesa in late March were nearly out of water.

The next Saturday, it was up to Observatory Mesa, coming in from the western end at A1 Mountain. The city has recently acquired the state trust parcels and converted them to a nonmotorized conservation area, and locked gates closer to Lowell Observatory appear to have done the trick. The only vehicles we saw were green Forest Service trucks – we assumed the drivers had keys to the locks.

The city has done a good job of signing the intersections with “No Motorized Vehicles” messages and helpful maps. We stuck mainly to the forest roads, with occasional detours to stock tanks over discontinued tracks. The tanks were even lower than at Wing Mountain, and elk and deer tracks sank deep into the muddy bottoms. We interrupted a gray fox at one of them at high noon – a rare sighting.

The trail from Little America required a stream crossing at the Rio de Flag before connecting to the FUTS, which was dry.

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Finally, on a third outing we looked to access Sandys and Fay canyons via the maze of old forest roads from the unincorporated Herold Ranch Road subdivision southeast of Little America. There’s a locked gate at an old forest road at the end of Cottonwood Drive, but the neighbors this year put up signs claiming private parking rights all around, so we used the trailhead at Little America instead.

This trail took us down to the FUTS south of the Rio de Flag Wastewater Treatment Plant, where a month before the mud was too deep to ride. But this time, the track had firmed up, and we were treated to a smooth ride and a spectacular lenticular cloud hovering over Mount Elden on the northeast horizon.

We turned around at Hoffman Tank, which was completely dry, a disturbing sign for so early in spring. It had apparently been dry for some time, as there were no fresh animal tracks or scat anywhere.

By this weekend, all of the Forest Service gates likely will have been unlocked. But if you’re lucky, the Phoenician day-trippers won’t have discovered Hart Prairie Road or FR 245 to the lava tube. Get out and enjoy the forest roads on your bike while you can, although the way the fire season is going, they may be closed again to motorized vehicles well before the monsoon arrives.

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