Tucson Is Winter Cycling Heaven
With mild temps, blue skies, and exceptionally good road cycling and mountain biking, it’s the best place to ride all winter long
There’s no more reliable and varied winter cycling destination in the continental U.S. than Tucson. Nestled in the Sonoran Desert near the foot of Mount Lemmon, the city enjoys temperate, dry conditions when the rest of the country is buried under snow, and the roads and trails in the Catalina Mountains above town make it ideal for altitude training. The mountains, including the Rincons to the east, Tortolitas and Tucsons to the west, and Santa Ritas to the south, create a variety of ecozones and climates, making for exceptionally diverse riding. The annual influx of riders has created a rich cycling culture and an extensive network of trails and bike lanes, while city life continues to flourish, with hip cafés, breweries, and restaurants all making Tucson a great, warm, and sunny winter getaway for everyone from the casual rider to the aspiring Olympian.
In a testament to the quality of Tucson’s road riding, countless pro cycling teams travel here each year for early-season training camps. But the riding isn’t only for experts. There are excellent short loop rides in both ends of Saguaro National Park that bookend the town, but the closed-circuit ten-mile lap in the eastern branch of the park surely ranks as one of the finest rides of its length anywhere in the world. With silky pavement and one-way-only traffic, the loop dips and turns through forests of cacti like a self-powered amusement park ride. A little longer and no less scenic, the Picture Rocks Loop on the west side of town takes in 36 miles of sinuous pavement and an optional short stretch of gravel through West Saguaro National and Tucson Mountain parks. You also get to cross Gates Pass, a short and iconic climb with a few stinger pitches. For the committed, Tucson’s best-known road ride is the ascent of Mount Lemmon, a 22-mile monument of a climb (one way) that takes you from low desert to over 9,000 feet and the small ski resort at Summerhaven. The ride starts and finishes at Le Buzz, a café that’s always packed with cyclists—don’t forget to grab one (or more) of the shop’s eponymous cookies, packed with chocolate and walnuts, for your jersey pocket before you set off.
The diversity of top-notch trail riding is probably Tucson’s biggest appeal. There’s everything from flat and fast rippers you could take on even with a gravel bike to rock-strewn tech-fests that will challenge the hardiest riders. One tip: In addition to your standard repair kit, pack along a small comb and tweezers, which will come in handy should you need to extract cactus needles. (A corollary: Don’t lean too hard into corners or bump the flora.)
A great place to ease into Sonoran Desert riding is Fantasy Island, a veritable bike park stuffed into a three-by-one-mile swath of state and city trust lands in the southwest urban corridor. There’s at least 19 miles of singletrack, all of it Chutes and Ladders twists and berms that will have you grinning and shouting with satisfaction. This web of one-way trails always takes you back to the start, so pay attention to signage but don’t dismay if you feel lost—just keep on rolling and you’ll reach your car. The trails at Tucson Mountain Parks are rockier and pack in more elevation, with the highest concentration of high-quality riding at Starr Pass. The best access is from Richard Genser Trailhead, where numerous loops lead into the rolling hills of saguaro and prickly pear. The relatively new Fifth Avenue and Beer Garden are flowy blue singletrack, while the Explorer Trail, on the northern flanks of Cat Mountain, is probably the greatest slow-speed tech riding here.
Tucson also has a couple of blindingly difficult, full-day epics, both from the summit of Mount Lemmon. The Lemmon Drop is arguably the most famous, but with some truly exposed and demanding tech riding and 3,000 feet of climbing on the descent, it’s an all-day bear that should be attempted only by the fittest and most skilled riders. A (slightly) less challenging option is Cañada del Oro (CDO), which dumps off the northeastern flank of the mountain into some steep and very remote-feeling wilderness. It’s still a tough day, 21 miles of backcountry singletrack with a punchy 500-foot Jeep road climb in the middle, and it has the benefit of ending on the 50-Year Trail, another Tucson favorite. The only thing that makes the ride possible is Homegrown MTB, a locally owned and operated guide service that will take care of the three-hour shuttle for you (and rents bikes and guides if you need).
Tucson is host to events that draw cyclists from all over the country, including El Tour de Tucson, a century ride each November with up to 10,000 participants, and 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo, part race, part bike festival held in the desert north of town over Presidents’ Day weekend. (Mountain bikers searching for fun trails can ride the 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo course year round.) The city also puts on a vibrant Cyclovia every April and October, when many streets are closed to motorists and neighborhoods turn into rolling festivals celebrating two wheels.
To plan a trip to Tucson, Arizona, or one of Arizona’s other stunning destinations, go to UnRealAZ.com.