Copper Canyon - Riding Above The Clouds

Ride report from my jaunt through Copper Canyon in Chihuahua, Mexico.

The Route

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  • 408 Miles
  • 2 Days
  • 140+ Dirt Miles
  • <100 between="" gas="" li="" miles="">

San Carlos to Alamos

Phil was having more bike and trailer problems when we stopped in Guyamas and made a post on Advrider. A fellow advrider, John, responded saying that he was living in a little town just north of Guyamas called San Carlos. He said it was a nicer place to make camp and that it was a "a little drinking town with a fishing problem". After two days of relaxing in San Carlos waiting on Phil's trailer to be competed at the welders I decided I needed to ride. Originally, the plan was to head to Mazatlan but seeing as we weren't able to do Baja we found ourselves further north in the mainland so I decided to check out Copper Canyon. The plan was for me to go on ahead to Alamos, a little mountain town at the start of the dirt road into the canyon. We would get a motel there and then head into the canyon the next day.

John and Dana were nice enough to put us up for two nights in San Carlos. John also showed us the town and introduced us to the welder. These guys are awesome!
That morning I found myself awake at 5:30 am due to my 3 hr siesta the day before so I decided to load up and head out. I was packed, gassed, aired up and on the road out of town before 7am. The rain the night before was substantial and there was standing water in San Carlos on the way out.
I blasted highway to Alamos and the ride was mostly uneventful except that I saw some tarantulas crossing the street. There was also some random roadblock of semi-trucks that I was able to squeeze through. Some sort of impromptu military checkpoint. When I found myself at the front they waved me through.
I also got my first taste of "topes". Everyone warns of topes as being hard to see and violent bumps to get you to stop in the towns and buy stuff. I didn't find them to be all that aggressive. I could take them at speed and the KTM's suspension did the rest. If there were kids around sometimes I'd wheelie over/off them or jump them and they seemed to really like that.

The further I got inland the windier the road got. Also, much to my delight, it got way cooler and less humid as well. Temps dropped from 90's and humid to 70's and dry. The road went from straight and boring to twisty and fun. The flora went from brown and desolate to lush and green. It was a much welcome change from riding through deserts for the previous 5000 miles. I was raised on the water but I'm starting to think I'm more of a mountain man.

The miles fell off on the very pleasant ride and I found myself in Alamos before 11am. Alamos is a beautiful old stone city in the mountains with a really quaint town square and a great view from atop a winding stone road with grass growing beneath the stones and lines with blooming shrubs.
I scoped out the town, talked to some locals about the canyon and found wifi to check in with Phil. Completely unsurprised to find that the trailer wouldn't be ready and that Phil didn't have the time to ride the canyon because he was meeting more parts further south in Culican. I would be doing the Canyon alone. Actually, I was quite relieved to be going on ahead alone as the heavily loaded beemer with the trailer has struggled to get through some stuff already and with the tight timeline and lots of dirt miles I'd want to travel light and fast.

The general consensus from the locals at the gas station was that it was too dangerous right now. Apparently, 11 people were killed in the last month. I asked if they were gringo tourists on motorcycles and they said that they were cartel...which eased my mind a bit.

I then stopped at an upscale bed and breakfast on the outskirts of town. It was completely empty and I talked with the couple that ran the place. They spoke enough english so between my spanish and their english we were able to have a pretty detailed conversation about the canyon. The man told me that some of his business associates did the drive the month before and were able to get through on a 4x4 and didn't run into any problems. They didn't like that I'd be going alone but the man seemed pretty sure I'd be ok from a safety point of few. They told me not to stop for anyone or trust anyone. But they also told me to stop at the villages and get updates on the route I was taking and where not to go.
The couple told me that they don't believe the cartels actually have any interest in increasing their profile by killing/kidnapping tourists...that's not their core competency. Instead they said it was the "banditos" you have to be careful of. They wear military looking outfits and setup road blocks and rob people. There's a train that runs through the's they way most people travel through it to see it. There's stories of that train being robbed.

I was less concerned with the banditos and more about where to find gas. They said there was gas everywhere and it may be in barrels in someones barn but I'd find it. It also sounded like I should be able to make it through from a terrain standpoint. My only concern was with all the rain recently if there would be some big wash outs.

I felt I had enough information to go on and that the danger risk was manageable so I headed off for the canyon.

Alamos to Chinipas

I would spend the night in Chinipas. I had no choice but to make it all the way there as there'd be no [safe] spot to camp. It was under 100 miles but I didn't know how rough the road would be and if there would be any set backs. It was about 12:30 when I got on the road for Chinipas...I'd have just about 6 hrs of light left to make the journey.

The road started off paved. Then it went to well groomed gravel road. Then pretty good dirt road. But when it started climbing it got worse and worse. There were exposed loose rocks, washouts and streams everywhere, giant ruts and channels along the side of the road that the rain had cut int the road.

There were lots of animals along the way. Horses, donkeys, mules, cows, bulls, roadrunners, crows, hawks, goats, dogs and on and on. They were really cool but also quite hazardous. Most of them just ignored you and slowly moved out of the way but there were a few times were I was staring at a bull and wasn't quite sure if he was cool and I'd have to pass him with only feet in between us.
In addition to the animals were the butterflies. You wouldn't believe me if I told you how many butterflies I saw. It was like it was raining butterflies. I am pretty sure that to the butterflies I am their biggest enemy and mass murderer.

The donkeys were super cute. I had a funny experience with one in particular. As I mentioned, usually they just ignore you or move more off the road slowly. One time I came around a corner on this donkey and he was chill for a second and not in the way so I moved on to the next obstacle. All was good except that when I got along side of him he had a delayed startled reaction. Which then startled me. I was already by him so it wasn't a big deal but I flinched hard. I chuckled to myself and thought, "me and that donkey just startled each other!"
I also saw a donkey without a tail. He was lying down and was clearly in pain. It looked like it was a new wound. I don't know how or who would take off his tail but it was sad to see.

In the first couple miles where the road was still in decent shape there was a mine. I accidentally turned off the road onto the mining road (because it was in better shape) and ended up right smack in the mine with all the excavation equipment. The workers made it clear I was in the wrong place and ripped around and back out to the road. A side effect of this mine were big dump trucks ripping down the road. I'd come around a turn and there'd be a truck taking up the entire thing. It was quite hazardous...definitely had to leave outs when coming around the switchbacks and blind turns.

As I got higher up there were so many vistas with amazing views but I couldn't stop because I knew time would be tight and there are no turn outs and often they were not in safe spots to stop. I feel like my pictures don't do it justice at all. It was the kind of scene that make the hairs stand on the back of your neck. I also didn't get many shots of the terrain. There were at least 30 water crossing and another 50 little streams crossing the trail. There were loose rocky climbs and descents. Tons of elevation change. Lots of mud. Some fast flowing hard pack. Some gravely bits. Some big rocks. And a few obstacles like trees and washouts on the unused road.
At some point I looked down and I was off the road according to my GPS. But I didn't remember seeing any turnouts. I decided to double back and make sure before I got too far along. When I got back to the deviation spot I noticed there was another road but the turn off was almost completely blocked. I didn't give it much thought although I should have and I just headed down it. It quickly became clear that there were no other tracks and this road hadn't been used in a long time. However I was descending the difficult terrain and didn't want to go back up it. Instead, I decided that a little adventure was in order and that hopefully this would meet back up with the traveled road and that it wouldn't be completely washed out. The fear on roads like this is that if there was a problem no one would find you because no one travels on that path. So I wanted to be extra careful to keep the bike upright. I was on that path for what seemed like too much time when I came around a bend and saw 4 guys with shovels and picks and whatnot on foot. There was no vehicle and that had me very concerned. I think they were surveying the road...I didn't stop...they were very surprised to see me there. The further down I got it became clear that there'd be no way to get a truck up the road but my moto could fit by the washouts and obstructions and eventually it met back up with the other path.
Then I got hit with a thunderstorm. For riding through deserts I really got rained on a lot this trip. Lighting struck right near me and I decided it was time to put it into high gear and get out of there.

Finally I saw Chinipas in the distance. However, I also saw a huge raging river (they told me it was "full") and no way around. Leading up to it were deep, aggressive, long mud puddles. They took all my concentration to navigate which also made it hard to look around for a turn off for a bridge or a ferry or something. There was over 3km of mud....and one particular section got the best of me and took the wind out of me as I crashed pretty hard. My usual blast through it strategy backfired.
Finally I found myself heading north away from the town and had to turn around. Not wanting to do the mud again I stopped and asked some villagers if there was a bridge. They said they'd take me there. They hopped on their bike and quad and rode me over to the bridge. The rain stopped and we were greeted with a rainbow.
The locals told me not to stop or trust anyone and to keep going. I didn't want to take a long break with my helmet off on the road and leave myself vulnerable so I rode the whole way with only two quick stops and a couple slows for photos. Still took me over 4 hrs to go 75 miles! But I finally made it and I found gas and a nice cheap hotel as well.
The hotel room was an entire was least twice as big as my San Francisco apartment. They charged me about $28 for the night. I also was able to bring my bike inside the fence. And hose it and my gear down as well!
After I cleaned my gear, myself and straightened everything after the crash in the mud I went out looking for food. I got a lot of funny looks in the town. I don't think they see very many gringos. I got a nice plate of food...if not expensive.
That evening there was another thunderstorm which would not improve the mud situation for leaving tomorrow.
Bed at 8.

Chinipas to Parral

Up at 5am. Back on the road after I finagled my bike out which got parked in. Another advantage to a small bike.
Tons of fog in the morning. When it broke I could see the cloud around the mountain I'd be climbing. An hour or so later I had punched through the cloud and was above it. It made for some magical views.
After another long stint of dirt, easier dirt, but it was very pretty.
Eventually I came to a town with the turn off to head south through Urique to El Fuerte in the southwest. I stopped to talk to some villagers to confirm I could sleep and gas up in Urique. It was about 100km to Urique and over 300km to El Fuerte. I was pretty sure I wouldn't make it all the way to El Fuerte that afternoon and certainly didn't have the gas for it.
I was having trouble talking with the villagers. They talk very fast and with thick accents. I was asking if it was possible to pass through that way and if the road went all the way through. They kept saying yes and then saying many more words. I kept asking for a yes or no answer. Eventually the guy says that yes I could pass and then says but and he puts his fingers to his head and says, "pew pew pew". I finally got the message! I decided to heed this warning and confirmed I could get to Creel from the same road I was on.

This new route would take me northeast to Creel and then back southwest to Parral via mostly paved but beautiful and twisty roads.

In Creel I found a great torta shack where I got the Mar y Tierra torta!
I rode the rest of the day; countless hours on empty, gorgeously paved, twisty roads through this amazing canyon. Any moto rider would have been jealous. It rivals the canyon roads in NorCal but just never ending and completely empty. Along the way there were small old villages and farms where the woman wore traditional brightly colored skirts and the kids all looked at me with wonder. Not sure they see too many orange thumpers ripping through there.
Some of the turns were pretty sharp with steep drop offs where the pavement ends. I saw two trucks trying to pass each other and one ended up falling half off the road. I was afraid it would tip over but he got it stopped and it didn't tip over but I'm sure he didn't go anywhere for awhile.
I made it to Parral in early evening. Completely caked with mud again I found a self carwash and power washed my bike. The little girls at the car wash were really curious about the bike...they kept spying on was really cute. Lubed up my chain and found a cheap motel to spend the night.
Overall, it was a pretty epic couple of days and just the type of adventure riding I am looking for on this trip. I think a good mix of adventure riding, cities with culture and history and chilling in beach towns will make for a great trip. The last 3 days has shown me plenty of all three!


Copper Canyon
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  1. Awesome! i have a KTM 690R and dream of this trip.