When Al McWilliams invited me to tag along on a cycling trip to the Copper Canyon at Crusher in the Tushars, he was actually directing his question at Zabriskie. Dave said “maybe”. Al then turned to me and said “you’re welcome to come as well if you want.” I said “absolutely.” True, I hadn’t checked with the wife yet and was bound to face a litany of questions regarding drug cartels, food born illness, water, amoebas, hepatitis, shootings, but as it turns out, Mexico is way safer than the US. No shootings or hepatitis down there but quite a few incidents north of the border while I was riding through gravel paradise. Mexico 1 USA 0.
I don’t even know where to begin. If you ever get the opportunity to visit the Copper Canyon, do it. Don’t hesitate. Barrancas del Cobre or Copper Canyon lies in the northwest of Mexico, in the southwest corner of the state of Chihuahua, situated between the city of Chihuahua and Sinaloa. It’s four times larger and over one thousand feet deeper than the Grand Canyon and is actually a system of six canyons that resemble an open hand, the fingers comprising the mesas and the space in-between representing the canyons themselves. The climate and location proved to be strategic enough to the cartels operation that only in the last few years have the canyons seen peace again. Open war and bloodshed kept it off limits to outsiders for close to a decade in the mid-2000s, but all that was over now we were told. And we believed it. Sure, one of the two restaurants in Batopilas was off limits because of a surreptitious Narco meeting, men with AK-47s roamed the town streets and mountain trails in their pickup trucks and ATVs, and we abided our guide’s pleas to be off the mountain by dark because the “hills have eyes and walkie-talkies.” Still, we felt safe. Biking off campus during my undergraduate years at USC posed more risk than cycling the canyons of Mexico.
Al’s dad has a long history in the area. After following the Beatniks around Mexico City he ended up near Creel and fell in love with the area. Years later when he found out an old log hotel was up for sale in the mountains above Copper Canyon he jumped on it, purchasing the hotel and surround land, and eventually buying and restoring an old mansion at the bottom of the Canyon in Batopilas. The family spent years restoring the properties and ran a thriving Ecotourism business throughout the 90’s shuttling visitors between the cool pine forests of the hills and the steamy tropical village in canyon. Eventually the log hotel in the mountains was “borrowed” by the drug cartels and still remains off limits to the family and just about everyone who isn’t buddies with El Chapo. The Riverside Inn in Batopilas takes up an entire city block and is a charming estate filled with gorgeously decorated period rooms, courtyards, fruit trees, a Victorian room, and an incredible staff. It lies just off the town square and is, unfortunately, vacant most of the time due to the dearth of tourists willing to venture into the area. And the riding? That’s a story in itself.
Only recently have proper roads and electricity found their way into the towns in the canyon. Small terraced cornfields and self-sufficient Tarahumara huts dot the hillsides, thousands of feet above and a full days walk from the village of Unique. No power, no water, only a wisp of smoke divulging their location. We were an anomaly in the canyons. Children ran into the streets to watch the gringos in tight clothing speed by on bicycles. “Where are you going?” one would shout. “Batopilas” We’d reply. Silence. Then laughter. It was an unimaginable trip, especially by bike. The “road” from Unique to Batopilas was hardly six years old and had been installed to allow the Tarahumara to travel between canyons in several days rather than weeks. We were told we’d be the only people ever to make the trip by bike and the only outsiders to see the top. They doubted our athleticism. I don’t blame them.
Our second ride ride the day before had been rough pavement and smooth rolling gravel before the road plunged 7000 feet into Urique. A perfect gravel afternoon. Our first ride of the day was a morning shred session at the mountain bike park in Divisadero courtesy of our local Creel cycling guide, Enrique. Our Chihuahua Board of Tourism host, Rita, told him to show us the local riding but neglected to mention our terrain intentions. “Gravel” must not have had a direct translation. “You know Hans Rey?” Enrique asked us. “He rides here when he comes. Red Bull course!” He said proudly, giving us an enthusiastic thumbs up.
He shot down the narrow, loose, rocky, single track and disappeared instantly. One thousand foot exposure drained the color from our skin as we skidded down the trail. After “riding” for one hour and traveling only four miles he directed us to the beginner route, which was still on par with the hardest trails I’ve ridden in the San Gabriels… on an Anthem with a dropper post.
I guided the TCX down the drops and managed to stay upright; the only rider in the bunch to remain unscathed. The trail eventually dead-ended at a zip line, the worlds longest, with a run close to two miles and vertical drop of over one mile. Unfortunately due to our embarrassing performances we were too behind schedule to test it out. Rita was waiting anxiously for us and our riding credibility had been called into question. “Let’s just drive to Urique” she kept suggesting. Our driver Maclen nodded in agreement. It was clear they did not think we were capable enough to pedal thirty miles before dark. We attempted to explain that we’d be fine once we were on terrain that didn’t resemble a waterfall. Maclen tried to convey that the roads were not a place you wanted to be after dark. After a brief impasse we won. Our credibility dangling on the line.
Around 6,500 feet the humidity drops and the temperature begins to reach a comfortable level. We’d just hit 4000 feet. The Garmin was encrusted in sweat and barely legible but it assured us we’d only climbed 2500 feet above the canyon floor. Two hours. Eight miles. Forty left to go. We’d also been warned about the route. Our guide shared legends of ATVs toppling over backwards from the steep grade and loose terrain. “Impossible to ride” we were told. Stubborn and determined were sold. The only other option to get from Urique to Batopilas was a six hour drive, an option we didn’t even consider. We were riding. Men with radios and AK-47s hid in the hills. “Good or bad” we asked our guide. “Yes, both.” Should we succeed we’d also be the only cyclists to make the whole trek between Urique and Batopilas.
We rolled along the breathtaking north rim of the canyon and hit the switchbacked gravel descent to Urique just as the sun began to slip behind the mountains. The cool pine forest at the top quickly turned tropical as we dropped below a mile in elevation. Oak and fir trees transformed into acacia and plantain. Each rutted gravel turn presented a lesson in cornering. Sharp rocks littered every apex. One rider came in too hot and found himself sliding sideways on the rubble, slitting open his elbow and exposing the shiny white tip of his elbow; an injury that would later require stitches and a series of antibiotic injections and cost him two of the four days of riding. Again, I was thankful for my Thunderburt but wishing I’d brought a spare set of brake pads. We finished the rest of the descent unscathed but more importantly we arrived in Urique before dark, fully restoring our damaged credibility. It still wasn’t enough to fully convince Rita we could cover the distance to Batopilas the next day.
Our final day was the longest of the trip but thankfully it was all paved. Stomach ailments and a serious arm infection thinned our ranks but the pre-ride ritual started in the same way; a liter of water and electrolytes, chain lube, chamois cream, and a healthy application of Edge. We rolled out of Batopilas bright and early and followed the river as it meandered up into the mountains.
The canyon walls were already radiating heat. Smooth pedal strokes expedited our journey and I’d never been so excited to see asphalt, even if it was strewn with gravel and microwave sized rocks at every turn. Dozens of switchbacks guided us 6,000’ up the canyon wall in several miles. The air cooled and once again we were in pine forest. The legs responded. We pushed through herds of goat and cattle until we reached our pickup location in Samachique. Sweaty and hungry we piled into the van for the five hour drive back to Chihuahua and return to civilization…and a flight straight to an awaiting RV and a camping weekend at Grinduro, but that’s another story.
Logistically Copper Canyon is a little tricky to get to. We were fortunate enough to have a van hauling all of our gear and I’d highly recommend a guide. We flew into El Paso and drove south for about eleven hours to Divisedero, which made for a long day. Alternatively, you can fly in and out of Chihuahua, which is about a four to five hour drive to the canyon. Plan for plenty of curves and slow going, with cows, horses and other farm animals often taking up both lanes of the road. Creel is the closest city to the canyon and is a stop on the train. As such it has a touristy feel with shops and even a pizza/brew pub.