AZT’s Babbitt Ranch section now singletrack-minded

Arizona Daily Sun (August 4, 2020) by Sam McManis

Out on the open range, so far north of Flagstaff that the San Francisco Peaks can barely be peeked at in the distance, a newly cut swath of singletrack trail 20 years in the making was unveiled over the weekend.

A 15-mile stretch of the Arizona Trail, the state’ outdoor recreational jewel, running through Babbitt Ranches property from the Tub Ranch area to the Kaibab National Forest boundary, replaces the dusty, rutting and altogether forgettable existing fire roads that the Babbitt Family gave permission for the AZT to use since the trail’s initial planning in the 1990s.

Representatives from the central partners in the effort — Coconino County, the AZT, Babbitt Ranches and Flagline Trails — met at high noon on Saturday at the junction where the new Babbitt Ranches singletrack ends and the Kaibab forest land picks up.

The informal ceremony almost had the feel of leaders meeting at a demilitarized zone, only much friendlier — or perhaps a modern-day “Golden Spike” ceremony. On the eastern side of the singletrack stood a freshly-cut six-foot wooden sign reading, “Arizona Trail Babbitt Ranch Passage.” Then, over a cattle guard, stood another new sign hailing the Kaibab National Forest boundary.

The principles, however, were partners, not rivals. And it took years of cooperation, fundraising, planning and land purchasing, not to mention sweat equity, to make the day possible. Were there times when some involved in the lengthy singletrack project through Babbitt Ranches and county-purchased small parcels thought it might not come to pass?

“No, I knew the day would eventually come, with perseverance and all the partners keeping it on their radar and acknowledging the value of this trail and the realignment,” said Cynthia Nemeth, of the Coconino County Parks and Recreation department. “The Arizona Trail is a huge benefit to our state, and this really speaks to partnerships. We’re talking a private property owner, the county, nonprofits and federal agencies working together.”

Matt Nelson, executive director of the Arizona Trail Association, said improving “user experience” on the Babbitt Ranches passage was one of his organization’s foremost goals. Though ATZ leadership had long praised Babbitt Ranches for allowing access onto its land — it’s the only private land on the entire 800-mile stretch — it had long wanted a more scenic and aesthetically pleasing route.

And once the Babbitt family gave the nod in 2018, and once all the bureaucratic tangles had been unwound, it took Flagline Trails, Arizona Conservation Corps, Amrican Conservation Experience, and scores of volunteers less than a year to build 15 miles of singletrack.

“We were committed to get it done because, well, it was 20 years in the making,” Nelson said. “There was all this pent-up excitement. We’d been looking forward to this for so long. Executive directors long before me had been wanting to see this happen.”

For years, thru-hikers and bikers and other frequent users of the trail that runs from the Mexican border to the Utah border have consistently rated Passage 35, through Babbitt Ranch to the Moqui Stage Station, as one their least favorite segments. (The only passage rated lower was a stretch through Temporal Gulch, near the Santa Rita Mountains, that included passing a landfill, an old mine and three miles of asphalt.)

Trail users, Nelson said, will notice a stark difference now.

“The difference between singletrack and doubletrack is that nature immersion experience,” Nelson said. “On a singletrack, you’re walking or biking with all your senses, whereas on a road, you’re just plodding along. Roads are designed for machines to get from point A and point B, and trails are more designed for a recreational trail experience.”

Billy Cordasco, president of Babbitt Ranches, said the delay in giving approval was a matter of timing. The Babbitt family, he said, was involved in the original plotting of the trail through this section of northern Arizona, so it was committed to eventually signing off on a realignment.

“Internally, at Babbitts, we’ve been off-the-charts supportive,” Cordasco said. “We now have a recreation program that’s being developed, so we’ve very interested in this. It’s been an evolution (of the trail) over time, and right from the start, when Dale Shewalter (AZT founder) came to Jim Babbitt (in the early ‘90s), it’s been a no-brainer.”

AZT’s Nelson said it took little convincing for Cordasco to agree to have part of his land carved into a real trail.

“Babbitt is very progressive in wanting to develop recreational resources on ranch properties,” Nelson said. “I said to Billy, ‘This is the perfect opportunity. You’re interested in recreation and here’s this conceptual line that we’ve been wanting to work on for two decades.’ He said yes.”

The new route, however, was not as easy as just having the Babbitts sign off. For years, Coconino County has been systematically buying small parcels of land skirting the Babbitt property so that the proposed singletrack could wind along without being interrupted.

“When you have checkerboard land, it’s always a challenge getting across the corners, on forest (land) or, in this case, Babbitt Ranches. The county, back in 2001, started buying 20-by-20-foot parcels, 10 of those, I think. It wasn’t super expensive. We spent a lot of time laying out the parcels. But things came up and (the project) dragged on. But those parcels, county-owned, have been sitting there waiting for this.”

At last, it has come to pass.

One aspect that hasn’t changed about the AZT section officially known as Passage 35 is that it’s mostly flat and goes through range land. Though it might not be as bucolic as other parts of the AZT, the singletrack figures to be a vast improvement on eroded roads.

“The whole area is fairly flat, so to make it sustainable, we were looking for side slope, for topography, to put the trail on so we could get good cross-trail drainage,” Flagline Trails’ Matthew Roberts said. “Any time we saw topography, we took the trail toward that to wind it around. The two keys to building a good trail: sustainability and (good user) experience. We’ve got that.”

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