Press Release

Underexposed: Mount Graham, AZ 3

Safford? What's in Safford?

Underexposed is a self-shot and produced series of mini-documentaries by Pivot Cycles athlete Brice Shirbach. The series is dedicated to showcasing mountain bike advocacy and stewardship while exploring trails across the globe. Join Brice as he explores the reciprocity between community and trails.


“Safford? What’s in Safford?”

That was the refrain during my visit at Pivot Cycles HQ in Tempe. Whenever I’m in Arizona, I make sure to build some time in for a visit to my longtime sponsor and the presenter of this very series. 

“Oh man, that’s way out there,” was another.

Mount Graham stands tall above the Gila Valley
Mount Graham stands tall above the Gila Valley photo: Brice Shirbach

Most people might raise an eyebrow or two when you mention that you’re headed to a large desert at the beginning of the summer, but many assume I’m headed to places such as Sedona, or Tucson, or Prescott, or even Flagstaff. It’s a state with no shortage of brilliant and well established places to ride, and clearly I was heading to a part of Arizona that wasn’t on a whole lot of radars. Truth be told, I kind of like it that way. Adventure is what you make of it, but I find that it’s a bit more vibrant when you find yourself in a place that not a lot of others have ever really considered. 

Main Street in Safford gets quiet in evening.
Main Street in Safford gets quiet in evening. photo: Brice Shirbach

Safford lies 165 miles to the southeast of the state’s capital city of Phoenix, and 130 miles northeast of its second largest city, Tucson. Mining and agriculture are two of the larger industries in the town of just over 10,000, with Freeport-McMoRan Copper and Gold serving as the largest employer for the community. Main Street is lined with small businesses ranging from retail to restaurants, and there’s even an historic theater that is currently being renovated with hopes of reopening later this year. It’s a categorically quiet town, but there’s no shortage of energy being put into it. And then, of course, there’s the massive wall of granite overlooking Safford and the rest of Graham County: the sky island of Mount Graham.

Mount Graham’s summit is at 10,724 feet above sea level, making it the contiguous United States’ southernmost peak above 10,000 feet and the tallest of the Pinaleño Mountains. The term “sky island” refers to a mountain or mountain range separated from other ranges and surrounded by a completely different environment. In most cases, the term is pretty specific to mountains and ranges found in the southwestern United States and throughout the Mexican Plateau, but it can occasionally refer to other isolated, high-elevation forests.

Mount Graham’s imposing summit sits nearly 8,000 feet above the town of Safford, making it one of the country’s most prominent peaks and the most prominent in Arizona. On the way up to the top of the mountain, you’ll pass through a number of biomes from desert scrubland, to grassland, to mixed conifer forest, Oak woodland, and Spruce-fir forests. Several Aspen groves can be found among the higher elevations of the Graham and the surrounding Pinaleños. It is a place that has long been seen as sacred by the Apache people who have called this region home since time immemorial. The mountain’s incredible biodiversity is held in high regard by biologists, and the high elevation and dark skies make it appealing to those with celestial pursuits with the University of Arizona as well as The Vatican utilizing the summit’s observatory that houses 3 different telescopes. 

Noon Creek trail is low on the mountain but easily the highest on speeds.
Noon Creek trail is low on the mountain but easily the highest on speeds. photo: Brice Shirbach
Heliograph starts things off at over 10,000 above sea level with plenty of technical sections and amazing views.
Heliograph starts things off at over 10,000 above sea level with plenty of technical sections and amazing views. photo: Brice Shirbach

Clearly the mountain holds a lot of value for a number of people, and its pull reaches well beyond the boundaries of Safford and the rest of Graham County. The mountain is also home to several miles of multi-use backcountry trails, but with no real organized group of stewards or advocates for the trails nearby, a contingent of mountain bikers 2 hours to the south of the mountain in Tucson have taken it upon themselves to keep things rolling.

“Mount Graham first popped onto my radar around 2018 when I was considering a move to Tucson,” Nathaniel Graham remarks. “I asked if there was a local trail group up in Safford and folks told me that there wasn’t  and that a bad fire in 2017 had pretty much decimated the trails.”

Nathaniel did end up moving to Tucson and promptly joined the Sonoran Desert Mountain Bicyclists, or SDMB, a 501c3 dedicated to the “promoting, protecting, and enhancing mountain bike opportunities” throughout the Tucson region. In 2020, Nat and fellow SDMB member Evan Pilling co-founded a restoration project on Mount Graham, and the group has been plugging away at it ever since.

“The volunteer agreement went into place in November of 2020, and the work on the trails began a month later. We started with Arcadia trail and moved on to Ladybug trail,” he continues.  “In 2021, Evan-who was leading the project at that time-was able to unlock some resources from the Fort Grant Fire Crew-based out of Fort Grant Prison, and we saw a lot of success from that effort. In late 2021, those crews were reallocated. For a while we only had volunteer resources, which was great, but the 17-19 miles of trail which we call The Graham Cracker that needed clearing required more. In mid 2023 we were fortunate to get the Fort Grant Fire Crew back and that’s been really helpful for us.”

The views from 7,000 feet above the desert floor will not disapoint.
The views from 7,000 feet above the desert floor will not disapoint. photo: Brice Shirbach
Ladybug Trail comes about midway down the Graham Cracker route and is arguably the most technical bit of the descent.
Ladybug Trail comes about midway down the Graham Cracker route and is arguably the most technical bit of the descent. photo: Brice Shirbach

The aforementioned Graham Cracker route is a massive and remote backcountry descent that begins at above 10,000 feet and finishes up nearly 5,000 vertical feet and 17-19 miles later depending on the specific route you decide to take. It involves 5 different trails from the top down: Heliograph, Arcadia, Ladybug, Round the Mountain, and Noon Creek. It’s primarily a shuttle ride and despite that still involves a few thousand feet of climbing, but all told it’s without a doubt on the scale a. It is obviously quite remote, but rewards all of the effort you put into it and then some, with jaw dropping views of the Gila Valley and beyond, plenty of exposure, technical sections galore, a smattering of very high speeds, and the rare opportunity to experience several different climate zones from sub-alpine to low desert. It is a truly rare experience and offers the kind of scale that is hard to come by these days.

“We’re super grateful for everyone that’s been involved with this project, starting with the volunteers,” Nat says of the coordinated effort to get the trails to where they are today. “The Coronado National Forest has been super helpful by allowing us to work on their land. The Fort Grant Fire Crew have been incredible. They are the ones who have done the heavy lifting. We’ve also had another crew involved called Wild Arizona which has been really helpful. We’re really grateful for the support of the Graham County Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development group as well. Thanks to all of those folks for getting us to a point where we can say that the Graham Cracker route is now open end-to-end.”

Graham's summit offers up a stark contrast to the vast desert below.
Graham's summit offers up a stark contrast to the vast desert below. photo: Brice Shirbach

Safford and the rest of Graham County are not what many would consider to be "outdoorsy" communities, despite the incredible natural resources that exist throughout the region. This is a mining community through and through, so extraction is the name of the game. For now. That won't last forever, and of course my hope as well as the hopes of groups of SDMB is that it won't be long before more mellow and beginner-friendly trails begin to pop up in town so that locals can begin to get a taste for life on the trail and begin the shift away from their reliance on mining. For now, the rest of us are free to daydream about that massive mountain looming large in the background of virtually every image that comes from Safford. In a part of the world where the hunt for precious metals reigns supreme, it's worth noting that a very different kind of gold awaits those who are looking for adventure up on Mount Graham.

photo: Brice Shirbach

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