A little over a month ago, Outside took a test crew of almost two dozen cyclists to Sedona, Arizona, for our annual bike test. After a decade of running this two-week test in Tucson, there was some anxiety about the new locale, especially when heavy, wet snow spilled from the sky the afternoon we pulled into town.
But then the storm cleared, making for one of the most stunning vistas we’ve possibly ever encountered, with clouds rising out of the valley like wood smoke to reveal sandstone towers in a confectioner’s sugar dusting of snow. It was like that Monty Python Holy Grail moment when the clouds magically part and a message booms down: "Get ready for some seriously heavenly riding, mate."
Sedona, we discovered, is possibly one of the finest riding destinations in the country. It definitely provided the best bike test in the 11-year history of the event.
Of course the mountain bike trails are ridiculously fun and extremely varied. If you thought that Moab has a corner on red-rock desert riding, think again. Trails here range from Chutes and Ladders-style twists and turns on dusty singletrack through loose piñon pine and junipers, to nonstop rollercoaster ups and downs with blocky sandstone step-ups and step-downs, with big basins and swells of slick rock to play in at every turn. There’s loose and chunky stuff, nicely constructed flow trails, high-consequence technical challenges, and even cruisey riding in the ponderosas if you’re willing to pedal for it.
“One of the best things about Sedona is the variety,” says Matt Mcfee, whose company Hermosa Tours guides visiting riders. “There’s trail for everyone, and you can’t call any of it, even the easy stuff, boring.”
Another big bonus is the proximity to riding. “Here, you don’t have to drive at all. The trails are all close enough to ride to, and the network can connect to everything else in town,” says Mike Raney, co-owner of Thunder Mountain Bikes (formerly Over The Edge Sports Sedona). There’s 239 miles of bike-friendly trails, most of which is well signed and mapped and strung over town like a giant spider web. During the time we spent testing in Sedona, we drove to ride only twice.
The area isn’t as well known for it’s pavement, but we found lots of great road rides, too, which is what finally won us over to testing here. Half of the 75 bikes we put through the paces each year are road machines, so some good blacktop is a must. Last year, the city of Sedona finished paving a two mile stretch of dirt road on the west side of town down by Oak Creek, which turned the Red Rock Loop into the perfect 10-mile test circuit. And though it’s a 20-minute drive, if you’re a roadie, it’s worth the time to head west to Cottonwood, as the 4,000-foot climb up over Mingus Mountain to Prescott Valley surely ranks among some of the best climbs in the country (and makes for a nice, 60-mile return trip).
But really what sets Sedona apart is its attitude. The city wants cyclists to come ride. In Sedona, the Forest Service has actually collaborated with the mountain bike community to retrofit old trails to better suit cyclists needs (think: banked turns, no switchbacks, rock armor instead of steps). They also worked with riders and the city to build 60 miles of new trails to accommodate the increase in riders.
“Trails are a natural way to protect the land,” says Jennifer Burns, who worked as the recreation staff officer for Sedona’s district of the Coconino National Forest from 2009 until her retirement earlier this year. “The policy here has been to reach out and build back relationships with mountain bikers. It’s the surest way we have to fulfill our charge to protect the land.”
More trails are also in the works, including a 13-acre bike park in the middle of town that’s set to open late this spring. And the Sedona Mountain Bike Festival, now in its second year, is bringing in more and more riders to enjoy the trails.
“The place is really going crazy, I think because people are coming here and beginning to realize just how good it is,” Raney says. “We’ve finally hit a point where there are enough great trails that you can ride for a week and never do the same stuff. I’d put Sedona up against pretty much any other destination in the country.”
When to Go
Right now. The Sedona Mountain Bike Festival is happening this weekend, with group rides, clinics, nearly 50 bike industry exhibitors (including demos), and live music at the beer garden. Otherwise, the riding is good year round, though it’s hot in summer and probably best from October through March or April.
What to Ride
There are so many good trails that it’s hard to nail down just one as the best. However, Hi Line, on the south side of town, combines a well-constructed, technical climb with a run along a high mesa with jaw-dropping views and then heads down a steep chute drop to Oak Creek. It’s also worth checking out Hangover, with interesting slickrock passages as well as a picky, traverse along the edge of a desert tower—though it’s high-consequence stuff, so beware. For a full run-down of the best riding in town, guided day trips, and top-notch shuttle service, Hermosa Tours is professional, affordable, and dialed-in to the local scene.
Where to Shop
There are plenty of good shops in town, but Thunder Mountain Bikes, with its laidback vibe, solid wrenching, and excellent rental fleet, is the place to go. Owners Mike Raney and Jason First have been huge advocates for trail building and cooperation with the city, which is maybe the best reason to support them.
Where to Eat
Tortas de Fuego has inexpensive, hearty, and authentic tacos, and might be the best post-ride recovery there is. Spoke & Wheel is run by cyclists and serves up healthy-ish bar food and a full range of beers on tap. Cress on Oak Creek is the top choice for a splurge, with an excellent wine list, food as good as you could get in any major city, and impeccable service.
Where to Stay
There are several pay campgrounds in town and plenty of primitive camping on BLM and Forest Service land outside of town. But if you don’t feel like roughing it, Sedona Real Inn and Suites is a local, family-run operation with nice, affordable rooms. The owners are friendly to cyclists and often run specials geared toward riders, and the location is right around the corner from some of the best trailheads in town.