The Princess & The Pinarello - Italian Travels By Bicycle

by Emily Thursday, May 23rd 2013

This hill sucks. It sucks more than the last one, but less than the ones that will come after: the fifty shades of punishment that only the Tuscan countryside can deliver. I'm slumped in the saddle of my nimble little Pinarello race bike, shoving my feet against the pedals one at a time. At the opportune moment, Andy – blessed, curly-haired, Scot-accented Andy – leans over and whispers, “We're beating the Canadians!” To which I reply by standing up and cranking on the rest of this hill.

The hills and valleys of Tuscany frame a view of the Castle of Brolio

We're not racing. This is a vacation, with ultralight bikes, crazy fast roads, and five shots of espresso per day (followed by five glasses of wine per day). But Andy has raced – mostly in the mountain biking circuit – and I feel honored that he's joined on to Team Beat the Canadians. He's my coach, my navigator, and my jet pack, putting a hand on my back when I start to gas out and pushing me up the steep slopes. The tour company hosting us want you to feel like a pro racer even if, like me, you're an amateur just trying to keep up. There's a sticker on the top tube of my sleek little bike with my name and country flag on it. And on this hill, I'm trying to do the red-white-and-blue proud.

The Canadians are two spunky and tireless folks from Vancouver. Matt is a strong rider (he added a seven kilometer climb to our ride one day “for fun”) and Bobby pedals in his draft all day, the two of them darting around like dragonflies. Also in our little peloton are Steve and Lori from London, though Lori grew up in the States and also lived in Australia for a time; her dialect is a crazy chimera mix of all the places she's been. Steve is unassuming, quiet on the bike but grinding up every hill like another day at the office (an office with fresh air, vineyards and olive groves, and stone castles from medieval times perched on every hilltop). Lori is training for an Ironman. None of these strongmen wants help up anything, which leaves the support for me. Andy rides next to me when I've slid behind and gives me a strategic push to fling me in front of the Canadians.

Cyclists enjoy the open roads and fast descents of the Chianti countryside

We're here to play, and eat amazing food at hyper-local restaurants in tiny towns that you wouldn't think to stop at, and drink wine from the vineyards we pass on the road, and soar down the fastest slopes I've ever met. We take punishing rides to coffee shops, have espresso, and ride back. Our leader João Correia, who founded our tour company inGamba, knows everyone we meet from the days when he lived in this area training as a pro cyclist. For the first time, I understand the importance and the added joy of connecting with people on my travels. It was always fun to meet people on vacation before, but here in Italy as João told me, your connections give you access to experiences you can't buy with money. In context, he was referring to some of the really unique things he does, like setting up dinner in the million-dollar wine cellar in the basement of a restaurant in Siena, or showing us around the grounds of Castello di Ama, a castle turned winery and art installation with works from prominent artists from across the world.

The open central piazza of Siena hosts a neighborhood horse race twice a year

But this connection lends itself to simple pleasures too, like watching our B&B proprietress, Anna, describe the frenzied Palio horserace over breakfast in a mix of wild hand gestures and halting English. Or take Raul, the trip's Portuguese soigner who speaks the language of our sore leg muscles better than the common language of the group, who makes divine little polenta cakes and sweet pasta squares for our rides, and who dresses up in spiffy clothes on the nights that he Skypes with his beautiful wife and daughter back home. Or Luis, the Portuguese mechanic who asks, when presented with a saddle adjustment or a bottle of Limoncello, “one little more?”

It's these moments that have made this trip amazing. Moments when you feel heroic, moments when you feel crushed, moments when you laugh so hard you can't breathe. Or pedal so hard you can't breathe. Or go down a hill so fast it takes your breath away.

On the last day, I draft behind my boyfriend Logan; it's a little chilly and I'm hiding in the warm windless pocket behind him, conserving my energy because I need practice at it. To each side the hills just lay out, the quiet rows of gnarled grapevines budding with new leaves. Maybe there's only so much to say about the landscape, the subtleties between forest, grapevines, olive groves, stone towns; they just get repeated over and over. But I will say this: you can't touch the magic of this landscape in a car. A car pitches around, jittery, cage-like. On a bike the roads smooth out into sinuous curves, and the landscape unfolds one turn at a time. We ride just hard enough to feel it, how effortlessly the bikes do our bidding, how willfully our hearts follow along. I can feel mine pounding in my chest, saying its own goodbyes to Italy.


Emily will be hosting the free presentation "Travelling Off-The-Cuff" at Summit Hut (Speedway location) on Saturday, May 25th at 11am. She will be discussing ways to pack lighter and will share some tips for stress-free trip planning. She will highlight some key accessories to add light packing principles to any trip and explore how to select the right luggage for your trip. You’ll also learn ways to make your trip planning more flexible so that each day is its own adventure!


A Windmill to the West

by Charles Thursday, May 23rd 2013

This is part 2 in a series of posts on the Sky Island Traverse - previous post: Sky Island Dreaming, next post: Gates into the Green.

From Cochise Stronghold the Sky Island Traverse travels west to Highway 80 and then on to the San Pedro - for this section we departed from the published route and looked over maps, aerial imagery and land ownership information to come up with a different way to exit the Stronghold and arrive at Highway 80 near the Curtis Windmill...

Part 1 - Slavin Gulch Trailhead to Middlemarch Road along FR 687 - 2.8 Miles

Forest Road 687 - headed towards Middlemarch Road

I have been on this section of FR 687 a number of times to access the legendary climbing formations in the Stronghold - but never on foot - it is May and it is hotter than I would like - but looking left to the amazing jumbles of rock is amazing.

Classic Cochise - a ridge filled with complex boulders and rock formations - looking east from Forest Road 687

Part 2 - Middlemarch Road to Unnamed Road West - 4.1 Miles

Looking back on the junction of Forest Road 687 and Middlemarch road - Sheepshead in the background.

Fences, houses, animals and old buildings come into view that I have never noticed from the car. The subtle curves, drops and climbs - along with friendly waves from passing cars - break up the dusty miles - but eventually I am just ticking off dusty miles to Part 3.

The wide dusty dirt highway...

Part 3 - West on Old Roads to Highway 80 at the Curtis Windmill - 7.9 Miles

Gate into Arizona State Trust Land just west of Middlemarch Road

The miles on Middlemarch give us access to a swath of Arizona State Trust Land - permit required - where old dirt roads run west to Highway 80. The road I want is unmarked and a GPS waypoint helps me find the junction. My feet appreciate being off the wide dusty road and enjoy the rocks - a nice change from the uniform surface of Middlemarch Road.

A view of the Creosote - Arizona State Trust Land west of Middlemarch

This road appears to get very little use and I am alone amid a sea of Creosote - an occasional Juniper floats into view and Ocotillo break the skyline - white and green in the nearby wash - all I can hear is the wind. I watch my map carefully and eventually take a right turn along a fence, here the trail becomes more overgrown - a few careful steps over another fence - more overgrown road and then signs of cattle.

The road takes me to an area near a well and water tank that are obviously used for cattle - thankfully not here at the moment. 

Water tanks and well with Cochise Stronghold in the background

From here the roads show more signs of use but I am still alone as I pass under the power lines and eventually out to Highway 80 at the Curtis Windmill...

Curtis Windmill - just off the east side of Highway 80

Map 1 with comments - High Resolution JPEG (2.9 MB) or High Resolution PDF (3.4 MB)

Map 2 with comments - High Resolution JPEG (2.8 MB) or High Resolution PDF (3.4 MB)


-I did this in several smaller segments and originally thought this would be 2 sections, but later realized this made the most sense as the single section presented here.

-This route exits Cochise Stronghold at a different point and takes a different route over to Highway 80 than the published Sky Island Traverse route - but it arrives at Highway 80 at the same spot.

-As mentioned briefly above traveling across Arizona State Trust Land requires a permit - as far as I am aware permits are not available online and you will likely be obtaining your permit via US Mail (be prepared for the delay!).

Hiking Report

Sky Island Dreaming

by Charles Monday, May 6th 2013

The Sky Island Traverse is one of the most inspirational hiking routes that I have ever come across - Brett Tucker, the author of the route, described it this way in March of 2011:

"A route of my own making along ten of the region's standout ranges and across the adjoining valleys, with an eye toward finding a rewarding adventure, a workable travel corridor, and a "repeatable experience"...mile for mile arguably among the most scenic and biologically diverse long walks in the United States"

Since becoming aware of the route I have occasionally dreamed about hiking large sections of the traverse - or even a thru hike. But one morning while at work with my friends at the Summit Hut, still without solid plans to take time off and work out a long distance adventure, it occurred to me that with even the most distant parts of the traverse only a few hours drive from Tucson why not section hike this adventure with friends!?!

The Sky Island Traverse Page states that the Sky Island Traverse allows "for a way of experiencing the untamed beauty of the region in a more engrossing way, without the mind-affecting limitations that come with long road trips out from the city and a vehicle forever beckoning back at the trailhead" - certainly a section hike was not the original vision, inspiration or intent... But for us an excuse to adventure, visit old haunts and new locations, get a glimpse of the interconnected Sky Islands and do something now (rather than sometime in the nebulous future) was too much to pass up - two weeks later we coordinated days off and got started...


Section 1 - Cochise Stronghold East Campground to the Slavin Gulch Trailhead - Alison, Charles, Devin, Ryan, Traci

The East Cochise Stronghold Campground is our starting point - after a quick 'getting started' picture Ryan, Devin and I start across the Stronghold and Traci and Alison head to the Slavin Gulch Trailhead to hike in and meet us.

Starting in the East Stronghold Campground

We cross the bridge and start on the Stronghold Nature Trail (a right after the bridge) which quickly reaches a junction with the Cochise Trail. The day is a bit hotter than hoped for and we alternate hiking and running the gradual uphill of the Cochise Trail - a nice break at Halfmoon Tank - short pauses to admire the stunning Rockfellow Group - chatting about the chicken heads on the Cochise Dome - and then the Stronghold Divide.

Devin enjoying the break at Halfmoon Tank

On the Cochise Trail with the Rockfellow Group in the background.

Stronghold Divide

From the Stronghold Divide we pick up the pace, enjoy the plunge downhill to the end of Forest Road 687 and then continue running along FR 687. Years ago I would have been unhappy including a dirt road on this adventure, but I am smarter now - the scenery is beautiful!

Running on Forest Road 687

We have to backtrack a few minutes along the road to find a good entrance to the off-trail section - it will take us east of the Whitehouse Ruins and across the Council Rocks area. At first we find an encouraging path, but it soons disappears and steep wash sides alternate with patches of Cat's Claw that always seem to be easier to avoid 'just over there', but never actually are...

North of Council Rocks pondering the best route...

The shade of a boulder stops us for a few minutes - the terrain has slowed us and it is nice to get out of the sun - it looks like we are headed into the nastiest section of Cat's Claw yet but a small trail appears - faint at first we tease it's intention from the sand and as we pass thru first one parking area and then another it becomes better and better! None of us have ever been on this trail but as we come over a small ridge and into the drainage that will take us down to the Slavin Gulch Trail we are all smiling - beautiful trees push into and over the wash and the running is joyous!

The wash down to the Slavin Gulch Trail

We pause to take a break from running in the soft sand - minutes later we find Traci and Alison perfectly positioned on the trail to intercept us!

Alison on the Slavin Gulch Trail

All together at last we finish off the day under the hot sun on the Slavin Gulch trail. Great company and a fun adventure - what a great day!

Slavin Gulch Trail Head - our stopping spot for the day!

Map of the day with comments - High Resolution JPEG (3.62 mb) or High Resolution PDF (4.51 mb)


-The Sky Island Traverse is a route and an adventure - while some sections are on well traveled trails many sections are not - it is imperitative that you excercise caution and good judgement when following this route!

-DO NOT MISS the excellent resources on the the Sky Island Traverse Page - map information, databook, links to Brett's photo journal and more!

-We are taking the Sky Island Route as we believe it was intended - from the Sky Island Traverse Page - "We're not actively encouraging others to hike the exact route layout as described, and are less interested in fielding specific questions about planning and hiking it. On a route as undeveloped as this, your hike should be your decision and responsibility, and this information should only serve as a catalyst for having a rewarding and ultimately unique journey across this remarkable Sky Island region. Happy adventuring!" - for example, in the off-trail section we made no attempt to follow the exact route, and certainly would not encourage anyone to follow our exact route!

-Brett Tucker is also the creator of another incredibly inspiring journey - The Grand Enchantment Trail!

Hiking Report

Review: Salomon Skin Pro 10+3 Set

by Charles Sunday, April 21st 2013

I love the way the Salomon Advanced Skin S-Lab 5 Set Pack (our review) fits/feels/carries for faster on-trail adventures - but for longer (unsupported) journeys, especially where the weather demands extra layers or (frequently here in Tucson) extra water, I just need more room. The Salomon Skin Pro 10+3 Set is an interesting option that has a similar suspension/harness but with more storage space.

A snowy day in the Tucson Mountains - on the Sweetwater Trail on the way to Wasson Peak with the Salomon Skin Pro 10+3 Set

Fit: This pack comes in a single size with adjustable shoulder straps - there is a good range of adjustment but it will not fit everyone. Like the Advanced Skin S-Lab 5 Set Pack the shoulder straps wrap around your rib cage and the pack bag/weight is higher and closer to your center of gravity than it would be in a traditional pack. This combination helps the pack stay comfortable and stable when running. The stretch built into the pack harness is a great detail allowing the pack to hug your body without constraining your  breathing/movement.

Side view of the Salomon Skin Pro 10+3 Set showing the shoulder straps wrapping over the ribs. Also note the red and black zipper (closed in this picture) that can be used to adjust the volume of the main storage pocket.

Storage: A U shaped zipper gives good access into the main pocket and another zipper around the main pocket allows you to adjust the volume. This pocket provides quite a bit of space - in the 'less volume' configuration (pictured above) I can easily fit everything I can fit into the Advanced Skin S-Lab 5 plus an extra 1.5 liter reservoir and additional (thin) layering piece - see the pictures below for some details about what you can fit into the pack in the 'more volume' configuration.

The Salomon Skin Pro 10+3 Set - note that the red and black zipper is open adding more volume to the main pocket - quite a bit of space in this configuration!

Gear for my snowy Wasson Peak run/hike laid out on the summit - I didn't know what conditions would be like so I took advantage of the space in the Skin Pro 10+3 Set to take gear for pretty much anything I could imagine!

Other pockets include: Rear Zippered Pocket (this pocket has some stretch and is a great spot for small items you want quickly when you stop (not accessible without taking the pack off)), two open side pockets (slightly awkward to reach into on the run but great for holding items that you need occasionally and want access to without removing the pack - easily large enough for a wind jacket), two chest pockets (great spot for food or Salomon Soft Flasks for extra water) and a small inner pocket (nice spot for a 1-person Heatsheets Emergency Blanket).

Reaching into the side pockets is (for me anyway) slightly awkward but certainly possible - I like these pockets for items like gloves and headlamp that I want access to but that I am not going to be constantly getting in and out of the pocket.

The chest pockets - I often have a small camera in one and extra water in the other (two 8oz or one 16oz Salomon Soft Flask will fit).

Rear view of the pack - the longest white vertical zipper in the picture belongs to the smaller rear pocket, a great spot for items that you want to keep easy to find when you take your pack off.

Hydration: The pack comes with a 1.5 liter Salomon/Hydrapak reservoir in a lightly insulted sleeve. I like the Hydrapak reservoirs - large top opening for easy filling/cleaning, nice material and easy to seal securely . The hose runs from the bottom of the reservoir under your arm/along the shoulder strap. This configuration helps put the bite valve in a great 'ready-to-use' position. While it is not difficult to get the reservoir in and out of the pack it is not as quick/easy/convenient as it is with the Advanced Skin S-Lab 5 Set Pack.

The Salomon Skin Pro 10+3 Set Set does not carry/fit/feel quite as well as the Salomon Advanced Skin S-Lab 5 Set Pack does, but for some adventures having more space is critical and the Skin Pro 10+3 Set provides a nice way to have more storage space while still having a run friendly 'vest' style pack. For me the genius of this compromise was shown by a snowy run/hike to Wasson Peak in the Tucson Mountains - I don't spend many days in the snow, was unsure about what the conditions would be and was not sure how long it would take... So it was great to be able to load extra layers/gear into my Skin Pro 10+3 Set and head out knowing I had everything I could possibly need - and still get a decent carry when running!

Gear | Gear

The Authors

Dave BakerDave Baker

I'm Dave Baker, founder of Summit Hut, an independent outdoor retailer based in Tucson, Arizona since 1969. As an experienced and passionate hiker, climber and backpacker, my blog is intended to be an informative and interesting look into the outdoors and the outdoor industry.

Dana Davis

Dana Davis

I’m Dana Davis, co-owner of the Summit Hut. I mostly enjoy hiking and road biking though I often do other things to keep it interesting (mountaineering, motorcycling, backpacking, climbing, you name it!) My biggest challenge is sometimes finding the balance between career, family, and fun but it’s working out so far!

Dan Davis

Dan Davis

I'm Dan Davis, after retiring from the National Park Service as a Ranger and manager, I worked for the Summit Hut until 2009, then retired for good (maybe). I'm now spending my time traveling around the southwest writing and working on my nature and fine art photography business.

Emily Gindlesparger

Emily Gindlesparger

I’m Emily Gindlesparger, a member of the Summit Hut floor staff. Since moving here from the Midwest, I’ve been taking advantage of all possible adventures in Arizona: rock climbing, mountain biking, backpacking, whitewater kayaking, caving and trail running; I’m always excited to see what’s next!