Broken Bones, Spikey Plants, and Desert Chunk: A Return to Touring in the Kofa Refuge

After a string of injury, Denver Luttrell rediscovers the freedom of bike touring and the mysticism of natural spaces with a multi-sport trip through the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Arizona. Read on for his reflections on lessons learned through injury alongside his thoughts and film photos from the trip!

On Injuries: Making Lemonade While Accepting the Sour Parts

I’ve lived in mountain towns my whole life and have participated in a wide variety of high risk sports, but only got into riding bikes on dirt about four years ago. My first big dirt road tour was a three-month horseshoe of the Great Divide and Western Wildlands route back in 2019, and I have been hooked on bikepacking ever since. While I’ve generally grown to prefer mountain biking and singletrack heavy routes over the years, I still very much enjoy the occasional dirt road tour like my recent Kofa trip. Still, as many of you may know from experience, injuries are simply a part of these types of endurance activities. I made it a long time without sustaining many, but I suppose luck catches up with all of us someday. In the last two years I’ve had two serious injuries that each forced me off the bike for about six months. In April 2021, I obliterated my wrist while mountain biking, which required two surgeries and quite a bit of titanium to get back to the semi-functional state it’s in today. About exactly a year later, I developed severe and debilitating tendonitis in my knee on a bikepacking trip, a condition that is still affecting me well into 2023.

The last few years have taught me that injuries are both a blessing and a curse. I went through some really dark times and struggled to find joy and contentment without my bike, but I learned quite a few things, too. First off, being injured sucks. I would love to share a magic formula for dealing with injury, but it just doesn’t exist. It’s going to be hard, you’re going to get sad, and it’s going to take a lot of work to recover and stay positive. Having said that, I did learn a few skills that helped me: accepting help from others, living in the present, diversifying my hobbies, and focusing on what I can control. All of these things have led me to a richer life that gives me more flexibility in what I do and allows me to more positively react to negative events in my life. I also learned a lot about myself in the process of healing and developed a deeper respect and gratitude for the times when I am healthy. I’m so grateful for all the people that have helped me through my injuries. I would not be here without their love and support.

All of this leads to the most recent bikepacking trip I went on once my knee was ready for some bigger miles. I took a lot of the things I learned from the past two years and approached this trip as an opportunity to deeply observe the landscape I was moving through. I felt like I was using the bike and my own two feet to experience the world in a more mindful manner than I’ve done on previous trips. What followed was a beautiful and intentional journey through an amazing area of the world.

The Kofa National Wildlife Refuge

The Kofa National Wildlife Refuge in the Sonoran desert of southwest Arizona is a place that I would have never heard about without seeing an article here on The Radavist last spring. Kurt Refsnider shared a beautiful set of photos from the 200-mile route he put together and rode in December of 2021. Well, it just so happened that last fall I was looking for a short trip to squeeze in before ski season. This route quickly rose to the top of my list for a few reasons: the pleasant weather, the craggy desert peaks, the remoteness, and the flora and fauna along the route. I started planning and packing for the trip while enjoying my last few rides on the high mountain trails here in Santa Fe, NM before winter set in.

I worked my way over to Kofa in mid-November, and was stunned by the mountainous landscape littered with incredible desert plants. I’ve been loosely interested in ecology for a while now, but only recently became seriously interested in plants when I worked part-time at a local nursery last summer but an unexpected joy of this trip to Kofa was trying to identify the plants and learn as much as I could about them.

I got ready for the trip by putting on my full frame bag, rack, and most of the bags I own. I’d need hiking gear, six days worth of food, and six liters of water capacity. I’ve somehow never had to carry more shit on my bike, but I eventually managed to fit it all on my trusty Myth and start pedaling. I had a wonderful first day on beautiful and seldom used 4WD roads that were rocky and sandy in all the right ways, all the while passing by a whole slew of incredible Sonoran desert plants. I slowly made it to the base of the peaks I was planning to climb the next day, and I hit the hay.

The hike up Signal and Ten Ewe peaks—the two highest summits in the Kofa Mountains—was amazing. The views were absolutely stunning, but even more breathtaking was the incredible biodiversity in the valley below and on the slopes leading up to the peaks. I found myself stopping to take pictures and inspect plants the whole way up and down. I also saw quite a few majestic Desert Bighorn Sheep frolicking around. I know they would be much closer to extinction without places like Kofa. After the hike, I filtered some pretty stale water from a bedrock pool, and quickly made my way to the base of Palm Canyon while watching a beautiful sunset unfold.

Palm Canyon is a narrow and shaded box canyon that is home to the only known stand of native palm trees in Arizona, California Fan Palms, which are believed to be holdovers from the last ice age. It was the last place they could survive after retreating there thousands of years ago before the area succumbed to desertification. Walking among those ancient trees is a unique experience that I would recommend to anyone. After a morning of exploring the canyon, I started biking across the La Posa plains to the base of Castle Dome Peak, an imposing monolith of rock that towers above the plains below. I followed some more maintained dirt roads that eventually led me back to the sandy 4WD roads I prefer. I made it to the top of McPherson Pass and bombed down the road to find a nice wash with a beautiful view of Castle Dome in the evening light. I found a nice sandy spot and slept.

I woke up and followed the wash up to the base of Castle Dome to find a trail up the shaded north slopes. The small valley that you hike up is so lush and alive compared to the sun-baked desert slopes surrounding it. I saw many beautiful cacti, shrubs, and other small flowering plants. The real climbing begins near the top, and it’s all really fun scrambling on solid rock. Once you make it to the top, the views are out of this world! I especially loved seeing the California Barrel Cactus up there, which has a plump body with curly red spines that contrast beautifully with the stark landscape. I spent a long time enjoying the views of the huge desert plains below and the peaks I had just climbed. Then I slowly worked my way down while savoring the last hike of the trip.

I had expected the last two days to be relatively easy, but I quickly realized that there were multiple stretches of horrendous sand and a lot of steep and rocky roads to contend with. I tried to enjoy the slow movement by looking around me. I saw a lot of larger trees and flowering bushes in the sandy washes, crossed paths with a few tarantulas, and biked right past a protected Sonoran Pronghorn breeding ground. Eventually, I made it to a nice spot next to some Ocotillo where I spent my final night out. I enjoyed the warm and breezeless night under the Milky Way even though my sleeping pad had stopped holding air days before.

The next morning, I passed by an abandoned ranching cabin that was originally a line cabin for the Crowder/Weisser Cattle Company that was built in the 1940s. It has been restored by the refuge staff, and anyone is allowed to spend the night there. The reason I bring it up is that the plaque in front mentioned something like this, “By staying here, you can experience what the desolation of life in the area was like in the 1940s.” Someone had scratched the word “desolation” out, and replaced it with “beautiful solitude”. This is certainly a good example of the opposing views that have developed over time regarding wilderness and other protected wild places. Some people appreciate the beauty and potential of these places for how they exist in their natural state, while others view them as unused and desolate areas that can only be valued by their potential for resource extraction and development. I’m sure glad that this refuge was recognized for its value as a protected wild place!

From the cabin, I chose to take a shorter route up and over Red Rock pass back to my truck because my troublesome knee was starting to protest. I slowly rolled back to the truck trying to savor the last few miles of the trip. I was overwhelmed by the experience I just had while moving my body through this amazing place. I couldn’t begin to appreciate all the things I had seen, and I was already plotting different routes I could take and peaks that I could climb. While this was far from the longest ride I’ve done, it still encompassed a lot of firsts for me. I had never done a tour on 100% dirt. In almost 200 miles, I didn’t even cross a paved road. I had never carried six days of food on my bike. I had never done a bikepacking trip with planned summit hikes which turned out to be such an incredible way to interact with a place. Biking, especially on rough dirt roads and singletrack, is already an immersive experience, but combining that with foot travel creates an even deeper level of immersion. These two modes of travel throughout the trip helped me to really connect to the landscape and gain such a deep appreciation for all the variations in flora and fauna that I encountered as I changed elevation, aspect, and terrain. I have never felt more immersed in a landscape than on this trip, and I know that it will forever impact the way I view the world around me.

You See More When You Look Closer

Modern society is so disconnected from the natural world, and I think it’s important for all of us to do what we can to take a look around us. If we all learn a little bit more about the place we live, then we can be more in tune to what is happening to the ecosystem as it changes. The more we know, the better basis we have to fight for the places we care about. Hopefully, by learning more about the natural interactions happening outside my door everyday—ones I have largely ignored most of my life—I can become a better steward of my home.

I am filled with gratitude for many reasons: that I was physically able to go on this trip after another long summer of being injured. That the refuge was set aside in the first place, and that the species it was designed to protect seem to still be on the rise. That my loving partner and family are always so supportive of me. I could keep going for a while, but the last person I’d like to thank here is Kurt Refsnider for putting this route together and being kind enough to share it with the world. He has done so much for the bikepacking community, and I can only hope to give back a small fraction of what he has in my lifetime. I’m already excited for the next trip to Kofa, and similar expedition and ecology-focused trips close to home and in other areas of the Southwest.