Tucson: Your Ride or Die
Explore Southern Arizona’s Sonoran Desert Landscapes by Bike - On or Off Road
If you’re a badass road cyclist, mountain biker or even gravel grinder, look no further than Tucson as your personal playground. Compared by some to biking Meccas such as Moab, Utah and stretches of the Rocky Mountains, the Tucson area has some of the most technically challenging and breathtaking trails in the world, sans the bottleneck found elsewhere. Add in the vast diversity of trails – both on and off road – that cater to all types of riders, and it’s a no brainer why greater Tucson is consistently ranked one of the top biking destinations in the country.
Mountain Biking Mania
If you’re the type of cyclist who views every mountain as a personal challenge, you’ll adore the five ranges that surround Tucson, making it a valley. It’s here in the steep cliffs encircling the city that Tucson has earned its reputation as a mountain biking hotbed.
Beginning do-it yourselfer mountain bikers, check out rides like Fantasy Island in southeast Tucson. The main loop, Lone Cactus, can be combined with a variety of shorter loops to customize your ride accordingly. Not to be forgotten, the Sweetwater Preserve is a favorite among locals because its well maintained, relatively flat trails border the picturesque Saguaro National Park West.
Intermediate riders consider the Starr Pass Main Loop trail in Tucson Mountain Park as a rite of passage. It’s the perfect combination of challenging, scenic and enjoyable, and the trail is conveniently located about a quarter mile from the entrance to JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort and Spa. Head northwest of Tucson to ride the 50 Year Trail System adjacent to Catalina State Park. There are seemingly endless scenic, single-track trails, including the popular Middlegate and The Chutes.
Tucson’s crown jewel of mountain biking, Mt. Lemmon, just an hour northeast of downtown in the towering Santa Catalina Mountains, is the perfect spot for advanced mountain bikers. Check out the undulated Bug Springs trail, which starts at about 5,800 feet above sea level, or challenge yourself even further on The Full Lemmon Drop. True to its name, the drop takes you from the top of mountain to the Tucson floor during a technical ride that’s euphoric for adrenaline seekers. Keep in mind you’ll need either a guide or a friend to accompany you for the latter trail, so you can leave one car at the top of the mountain and another at the bottom.
If you prefer to stay on pavement when biking, Tucson’s got you covered. Tucson’s road biking options offer the rare combination of well-maintained roads and diversity of routes that appeal to the novice to highly skilled rider.
The 137-mile long Chuck Huckelberry Loop encircles all of Tucson and the bedroom communities of Marana and Oro Valley. Voted the best recreational trail in USA Today, The Loop can be used to explore Tucson’s distinct neighborhoods found along the Santa Cruz River, Rillito Creek, and the Pantano, Julian and Canyon del Oro washes.
Capture a fiery sunset during the short, 8-mile loop through the highly acclaimed Saguaro National Park East. Few elevation gains plus mile-long vistas make this a popular option among road bikers of all skill levels.
Intermediate riders relish the ride out to Gates Pass, west of downtown. This route culminates at Saguaro National Park West after a big climb and descent through the scenic Tucson Mountain Park and past the renowned Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
Experienced road bikers who wish to test their limits can do so on the Mt. Lemmon Highway. The longest hill climb in Arizona, this punishing 30-mile route begins at 2,557 feet surrounded by saguaro cactuses and concludes at 8,198 feet in a dense pine forest.
The Next Frontier
It comes as no surprise that when the new discipline of gravel grinding began to emerge a few years ago, Tucson, already heralded as a premier destination for road and mountain biking, was at the center of the discussion. As the gravel explosion has given birth to a new category of bikes, purpose-built components, and some of the most popular events in the industry, Tucson and southern Arizona is clearly ahead of the pack. With rugged terrain and endless miles of dirt roads, gravel riders will find plenty of options when seeking their next adventure in the dirt.
One of Tucson’s most accessible gravel rides can be found at The Bajada Loop in Tucson’s Saguaro National Park West. This relatively easy 6-mile undulated route offers a healthy dose of Sonoran Desert scenery and history if you include a stop at Tucson’s Signal Hill Picnic Area, where 800-year-old Hohokam Indian petroglyphs are on full display.
Just south of Tucson is Box Canyon, home to a 33-mile gravel ride that starts and concludes at Highway 83. This route checks all the boxes for intermediate to advanced riders with nearly 4,000 feet of climbing in a lush, untouched desert setting that’s especially jaw-dropping after a summer monsoon rain. Add in a few extra miles on the pavement to experience the beautiful climb up to Madera Canyon.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Mount Lemmon’s infamous gravel grinding option. Up the back side of the mountain on the Control Road, you’ll find an especially challenging 13-mile ride with a 4,400 feet elevation gain.
Get a Guide
Taking on Tucson’s mountain, road and gravel biking scene can be daunting if you’re unfamiliar with the terrain or routes. For those of you who fall into this bucket, we’d suggest you work with one of our experienced partners, who can provide everything from specialized gear to customized tours.
If you’re just getting your start at mountain biking, consider simplifying your vacation by booking an all-inclusive package at Tanque Verde Ranch, home to more than 600 acres of single-track mountain biking trails. The ranch will supply you with all your riding equipment and can even take you on an off-site ride. Tucson’s two destination spas, Canyon Ranch and Miraval Arizona also offer mountain biking as one of many activities in their all-inclusive packages.
Book a completely customized mountain biking itinerary with the experts at Homegrown Mountain Biking Tours. Their team will arrange rides in and around Tucson that suit your skill level and accompany you every step of the way – from retrofitting you with the right gear to providing transportation to and from your hotel and skillfully guiding you on trails that lack signage.
The highly rated The Cycling House specializes in guided road and gravel biking tours of Tucson in the winter months. Their all-inclusive, several day tours include daily rides in and around Tucson, plus meals, ride support and accommodations.
Just one hour south of Tucson in a town called Patagonia, the Cyclist Menu offers all-inclusive stays at The Gravel House, home to two increasingly popular gravel grinding tracks, the Patagonia 30 – with elevation gains of 1,700 feet – and the incredibly arduous Patagonia 100 – with more than 7,000 feet of elevation gains.
Some of the nation’s premier cycling events occur in Tucson each year, attracting thousands of competitors looking to grind their gears. Get in on the fun and rigor during these events that will test your endurance and mental fortitude.
Serious road bikers can show what they’re made of during the annual El Tour de Tucson, which takes place in November. More than 7,000 cyclists converge on greater Tucson’s streets in this biking bonanza, which features a variety of races, including the intrepid 102-mile long Century ride and 62-mile long Metric Century.
Tucson's own Epic Rides presents 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo, one of the largest 24-hour endurance events of its kind in the world each February. This single-track mountain bike ride in Sonoran Desert terrain features outrageous costume-clad pedalers and DJ-spun tunes is so popular that registration sells out early every year.
Tucson’s newest biking event, the Mount Lemmon Gravel Grinder, takes place during the last weekend of October each year and boasts a 40-, 50- and 60-mile gravel ride up the backside of the mountain. It’s as much a spectator event as it is a serious competitive challenge with a Halloween costume contest, live music and vendor expo. The Spirit World 100, however, caters to the most elite gravel riders in the world. The most challenging course is a grueling 10-hour, 100-mile loop that begins in Patagonia with the mid-way point at the U.S. Mexico border.