A subtle change of seasons
By Roseann Hanson
Outside Online correspondent
awn is an hour old as we ride hard down the well-packed two-track, charged up by the cold morning air that is a welcome change after the sizzling Sonoran Desert summer.
Pedal-high golden grasses sweep all around us and across the vast Altar Valley to the faraway slopes of the Baboquivari Mountains where the sun paints a magenta backdrop. The massive 8,000-foot granite monolith, Baboquivari Peak, said to be home to the creator of the O'odham People, has watched over us for the past two days while we explored the 200-plus miles of mountain biking at the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge on the Arizona-Mexico border.
We come here often, especially this time of year. Here in the grasslands of the Southwest desert, fall is the premiere time to explore by bike. The season comes not in blazing reds and oranges, but in the soft yellow of rabbitbrush and goldeneye blooms, the tawny gold of seeding grasses, the gentle amber sunlight, and in the soft, silent wingbeats of the hawks of fall and winter--northern harriers, black-shouldered kites, merlins, kestrels, prairie falcons, and rough-legged and red-tailed hawks.
The 117,000-acre Buenos Aires refuge is 70 miles southwest of Tucson. Our favorite rides are south of the headquarters, along Antelope Drive (yes, you are very likely to see pronghorns along this route) and along some of the spur roads that head toward the San Luis hills to the east. We've heard there are large rock faces with petroglyphs up in the hills, and although we've ridden the trails up there many times we still can't find them. But at least it's a great incentive to climb some killer hills.
Several other loops are possible, from just a few miles to 20 miles or more. There is a parking lot a few miles south of the headquarters along Antelope Drive and spurs offering easy to moderately difficult technical riding head out here. One of the great things about this area is that it's really hard to get lost with the massive Baboquivari Peak as a landmark and the wide-open, sweeping views for orientation.
There are more than 180 primitive campsites on the refuge, many of which are marked on the free information map. This is very remote, dry country, so be prepared to take care of yourself in terms of repairs, food, water, maps, and clothing. This is also prime drug-smuggling country, so just keep to yourself if you see suspicious activity (that means not wandering up to people and asking, "Whatcha doing with all those wrapped packages?"). And be nice to the ever-present U.S. Border Patrol. Expect pleasant days (mid-70s) and cold mornings and evenings (40s or 50s).
The USGS Arivaca and Oro Blanco 15-inch are the best maps to snag; the refuge headquarters are marked as "Buenos Aires Ranch," and Antelope Drive is the road heading due south from there. Most of the other spurs are not marked on the maps, but are easy to find and negotiate.
Travel tip: head over to the nearby town of Arivaca (about 30 miles northeast of refuge headquarters, on Arivaca Road) for fantastic fare at La Gitana Cafe (great turkey burgers), even more fantastic locally roasted organic coffees at the Gadsden Coffee Company, and heavenly fresh breads and sweets at the Arivaca Bakery. The Arivaca Mercantile is well-stocked with supplies.
For information, call U.S. Fish and Wildlife's Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge at 520-823-4251. To get to the headquarters, take Ajo Way west from I-19 25 miles to Robles Junction, then take Highway 286 south about 45 miles to the refuge headquarters turnoff. Headquarters are staffed Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; it's a good idea to stop and pick up a map, as well as tips on road conditions and possible closures.
Roseann Hanson, a Tucson native, is a freelance magazine writer, author of several nature and outdoor books, and a naturalist for the Buenos Aires refuge.