Tucson cycling attracts some of the top riders from around the world to train in the cool, dry winters. However, with over 250 days of sunshine a year, you can always find a place to ride. You might be climbing up Mt Lemmon before the heat of the day, or taking a loop at Saguaro East at sunset, but you can bike Tucson year-round. Road biking Tucson lets you quickly escape suburbia and be rolling through the majestic Sonoran Desert for miles and miles. Allow me, a (formerly) local rider who has been cycling in Tucson for over 20 years, show you the best Tucson bike rides.
In presenting biking in Tucson, I created three personas for cyclists:
- Trail Rider: looking to ride for an hour or two on Tucson bike trails
- Road Rider: looking to ride up to 50 miles and is comfortable riding with cars and climbing hills.
- Mountain Biker: looking for technical rides off the pavement on single-track mountain bike trails.
I wrote this trail guide for the road rider who wants to bang out twenty or more miles at a time and isn’t afraid of hill climbing. I’ll start by describing the core route, and the best time to ride it, then I’ll present options if you want to extend or shorten your ride.
When God gives you a mountain of lemons, you make the world’s largest glass of lemonade. I don’t know what that has to do with the sky island north of Tucson spelled with two Ms and named after Sara Plummer Lemmon, the first white woman to climb that mountain, but I digress. What I do know is that biking up Mt Lemmon is AWESOME, and yes, I’m yelling at you.
You can tell a lot about a rider by where they start riding Mt Lemmon. I cheat a little and start from Molino Canyon Vista, the last parking area before the fee station. It’s an additional 1,500′ up the hill, and every little bit helps on a 40-mile ride with over 4,500′ of climbing. You still start in the saguaros and end up in pine forests, crossing as many ecological zones as driving from Mexico to Canada. Not bad for a day’s ride. Plus, with the town of Summerhaven at the summit, you can stop in for a sandwich or a fresh hot cookie. Best of all, there’s a wide shoulder all the way up the mountain on a smoothly paved road.
|Le Buzz||-9.1||2560||Ride the bike lane on the flats of Catalina Highway|
|Hairpin Turn||-4||3060||Parking area at the base of the mountain|
|Molino Canyon Vista||4120||Last free parking before the fee station|
|Fee Station||0.6||4280||$8 toll for park use, free for biker going to Summerhaven|
|Thimble Peak Vista||3.9||5270||Beautiful lookout on the Catalina front range|
|Middle Bear Pullout||6.9||5880||First pine trees (Chihuaha Pines)|
|Windy Point||9.3||6580||A premier climbing area, very congested|
|San Pedro Vista||12.8||7325||Beautiful lookout on the San Pedro Valley|
|Palisade Visitor Center||15||7940||SAG stop with water and restrooms|
|Butterfly Trailhead||17.9||200' rolling||rolling hills through the deepest forest on the mountain|
|Sawmill Run||20.2||200' rolling||Best restaurant in Summerhaven, a great end to the ride|
|Marshall Gulch Trailhead||21.4||7500||400' descent through a deep forest|
|Summit||+6.6 miles||9081||climb 1700' through the ski area to the true summit (no view)|
|Molino Canyon Vista||4120|
|Thimble Peak Vista||3.9||5270|
|Middle Bear Pullout||6.9||5880|
|San Pedro Vista||12.8||7325|
|Palisade Visitor Center||15||7940|
|Butterfly Trailhead||17.9||200' rolling|
|Sawmill Run||20.2||200' rolling|
|Marshall Gulch Trailhead||21.4||7500|
If You Want a Longer Ride
The purist will tell you a real trip up Mt Lemmon starts from Le Buzz and ends at the observatory, which nearly doubles your journey, adding over 30-miles and 3,000′ of climbing. A more conservative extension would be to start at the hairpin turn and ride to the summit. You could also ride through Summerhaven to the Marshal Gultch Trailhead, which adds almost as much mileage and climbing as summiting, but without the bragging rights.
If You Want a Shorter Ride
Drive-up Mt. Lemmon to the Palisade Visitor Station and ride the rollers through the pines into Summerhaven. It’s about a 12-mile round trip ride with 1,200′ of climbing over rolling hills. You cross over the 8,000′ elevation mark four times during this ride, which is the lower threshold for elevation sickness. Know that riding 12-miles at altitude is harder than the same ride down on the valley floor because you have 25% less oxygen. Keep in mind, you will not get the epic views from the saddle on this stretch of road, but you can always park and take pictures on the way back down.
Cycling in Sabino Canyon is one of the most incredible Tucson bike rides. The towering saguaros and flowing streams right at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains are picture-perfect, almost too perfect. The popularity of Sabino forced private vehicles to be banned since 1978. In their place is a tram system that runs continually from 8:00-5:00. As a result, bikes are prohibited from 7:00 am to 5:00 pm and all day Wednesday and Saturday. Instead of rushing my ride in the morning, I prefer to take a headlight and enjoy the sunset hours. Remember, Arizona doesn’t observe daylight savings, so sunset comes sooner than out of state visitors might expect.
If you ride every road in Sabino Canyon, you’re only at 10 miles. That’s a little short for my road riding persona, but I have a solution. I ride the beautiful bike lane on Sunrise-Skyline-Ina through the rolling hills of the Catalina Foothills. My go-to ride was to park at Sabino Canyon and take the 15-mile round trip to AJ’s Fine Foods on Skyline. Their cold chicken curry salad is bomb.com! I picked up a picnic dinner and return to Sabino Canyon after the trams stop running.
After entering the canyon, I would ride up Bear Canyon to the Sabino Lake Dam and eat my picnic while watching the sunset and the lights of Tucson fill the valley below. When I was ready, I would head up to the end of Sabino Canyon before returning to the car. In all, this was a 25-mile ride with 1,500′ of elevation gain.
|Frost Gelato||-10.5||2525||Riding Ina is better east of Oracle Road|
|AJ's Fine Foods||-7.1||2730||A great place to pick up a picnic|
|Loews Loop||+2 miles||300' rolling||A beautiful loop to the base of the mountains|
|Sabino Canyon Visitor Center||2730||Biking after 5:00 PM and before 7:00 except Wednesdays and Saturdays|
|Tram Stop 8||3.2||3130||Last Sabino Canyon tram stop with restrooms and water|
|Tram Stop 9||3.8||3333||End of the Sabino Canyon tram|
|Bear Canyon out and back||+3 miles||200' rolling||End of the Bear Canyon tram and back|
|AJ's Fine Foods||-7.1||2730|
|Loews Loop||+2 miles||300' rolling|
|Sabino Canyon Visitor Center||2730|
|Tram Stop 8||3.2||3130|
|Tram Stop 9||3.8||3333|
|Bear Canyon out and back||+3 miles||200' rolling|
If You Want a Longer Ride
The Bear Canyon Road does go for a little longer up to the Bear Canyon Overlook Picnic Area. That’s an easy way to add 1.5 miles to this ride, but you probably want more if you’re reading this. You can add two miles by taking an oxbow excursion on Craycroft/Kold by Loews Ventana Canyon. If that’s not enough, you can head arbitrarily out on Ina Road. My first suggestion would be to flip around at Ina, which adds another 6-miles. The Catalina Foothills end at Ina, and it’s an excuse to get gelato at Frost.
If You Want a Shorter Ride
Grab your food on the way in and arrive at Sabino Canyon after 5:00. You’ll still cycle on one of the best 10-mile bike routes Tucson offers without worrying about cars. I would definitely bring a headlight and stay for sunset. For what’s it’s worth, the picnic at Sabino Canyon Dam was my ‘closer date’ during my single POF (Plenty of Fish) days too, but we usually just hiked to the dam and back after a good meal, a contraband bottle of wine, and a little bit of hammock time.
Also of note, there’s an $8 day-use fee for Sabino Canyon. If you’re also going to do Mt Lemmon, I would consider getting a week pass for $10, but you have to show up before 4:30 to get one in person. Otherwise, you’ll need to pay the day rate at the dropbox (which also means you should bring $8 cash).
Saguaro National Park East / Old Spanish Trail / Colossal Cave
In many ways, biking Saguaro National Park East is similar to Sabino Canyon. The sweet marrow is at the park, but there’s plenty of meat on the bone to make it a spectacular ride. There’s no water, but the pavement is nicer, and it’s a true Tucson bike loop. The road riding along Old Spanish Trail features more open desert views and less high-end homes and shopping than riding Sunrise-Skyline-Ina, but it’s every bit as nice.
Another critical difference between Sabino Canyon and Saguaro National Park is that you can ride SNP at any time. During the day, a few cars might share the road with you. However, after dark, a rear reflector and headlight are required (they will check). A night loop during a full moon is something to behold…over and over and over.
Be wary of the midday heat and some traffic issues I’ll point out along the way with Camino Loma Alta and Pistol Hill. If you’re going in the morning, ride the 8-mile Cactus Forest Loop first. If you’re going in the evening, save it for last or ride it twice, once during the day and once at night.
When you’re ready to ride Old Spanish Trail, head southeast towards Colossal Cave (aka Colossal Cave Pistol Hill Bike Ride). On Saturday mornings, there’s a farmer’s market in the Rincon Valley. Otherwise, enjoy the desert views and nearly 10-miles of bike lanes out to the junction with Pistol Hill. Here, you have a choice to make. If Colossal Cave is open, you can ride a 3-mile out and back through the park to the cave entrance that’s very scenic with mature saguaros. If the cave is closed, there will be a gate blocking the most scenic portion of the ride.
If you’re on an early morning ride, you can form a loop down Pistol Hill to Camino Loma Alta, but there are no bike lanes along either section. I would definitely think twice before attempting this at dusk, where the cars will have difficulty seeing you over the rolling terrain. It’s also not a bad option to just flip it at Pistol Hill and head back in the bike lanes. If you decide to do the Camino Loma Alta loop and one lap on Cactus Forest, this is a 31-mile ride with about 1,500′ gain.
|Dan Yersavich Memorial Bikeway (22nd)||-5.8||2640||This end of Old Spanish Trail is only ok|
|Saguaro National Park - East||3064||Staging area with water and restrooms|
|Cactus Forest Loop||+ 8 miles||500' rolling||Ride anytime, night riders need lights and reflectors|
|Rincon Valley||4.1||2880||Saturday morning farmer's market|
|Jnct Pistol Hill Rd (&OST)||9.9||3415||A beautiful section of Old Spanish Trail|
|Colossal Cave (out and back)||+ 3 miles||3680||Out and back through pristine desert when the gate is open|
|Jnct Camino Loma Alta||13||3280||A great loop when the traffic is light|
|Jnct Pistol Hill (@CLA)||16||3280||Time to head back to Saguaro East|
|Return to SNP||23.1||3064||Are you up for another lap on Cactus Forest?|
|Dan Yersavich Memorial Bikeway (22nd)||-5.8||2640|
|Saguaro National Park - East||3064|
|Cactus Forest Loop||+ 8 miles||500' rolling|
|Jnct Pistol Hill Rd (&OST)||9.9||3415|
|Colossal Cave (out and back)||+ 3 miles||3680|
|Jnct Camino Loma Alta||13||3280|
|Jnct Pistol Hill (@CLA)||16||3280|
|Return to SNP||23.1||3064|
If You Want a Longer Ride
The Dan Yersavich Memorial Bikeway parallels Old Spanish Trail as it heads back into town. The bikeway isn’t in great shape, and I would usually just ride the bike lanes on Old Spanish Trail. However, neither option is spectacular. A better choice is to repeat the 8-mile loop on Cactus Forest Drive a second time at the end of the ride if you have any gas left in your tank. If you think 39-miles isn’t enough, add the 3-mile out and back to Colossal Cave to round out the ride. 42 is the answer to life, the universe, and everything.
If You Want a Shorter Ride
There’s no shame in your game if you only want to ride Cactus Forest Drive. Just pay your $15/person entrance fee and enjoy the ride. You can even go a day or two before a full moon, ride one lap at sunset, and one lap under the moonlight. If you’re not too sweaty, stop in at Saguaro Corners across the road from the park and enjoy a dinner with a view to complete the evening.
Saguaro National Park West / Gates Pass / McCain Loop
Cycling the Tucson Mountains is a wild and untamed ride. It has the longest route through the pristine desert of any of our Tucson bike rides. Make sure you’re ready for the journey before you head out, including fixing a flat on the roadside. At times, you’ll be 5-10 miles from the nearest civilization with sketchy cell coverage and few, if any, cars passing by. This ride also the tightest roads in this guide, which is why I only ride this early in the morning before traffic ticks up. Oh, and it’s a true 37-mile bike loop, so you’re committed once you drop into Arva Valley on the west side of the mountains. In return for your sweat (and hopefully not blood and tears), you’ll see miles and miles of unspoiled desert. Mt Lemmon might be the epic climb, but it’s the Sonoran Desert that makes Tucson unique in all the world.
I start my rides from Ted Walker Park, which isn’t more than a parking lot with restrooms, but it does access the Santa Cruz River Trail, aka The Loop. You work your way north on the loop and take Ina to Wade to Picture Rocks. Climbing up and over Contzen Pass, climbing about 250′. Take a moment to check yourself at the summit. This is the last good place to flip it and head home. Maybe you’d rather ride the River Trail today.
Dropping down from Contzen Pass, you reach a small hamlet of Arva. Google Maps might try to bypass the outpost on Rudasill, but the pavement there is sketchy, and this is the last outpost before entering Saguaro National Park West. Take Sandario to Kinney, deciding if you need to stop at Red Hills Visitor Center for a SAG stop. You can take Kinney all the way to Gates Pass Road, but bypass the Desert Museum on McCain Loop is more scenic with less traffic. Take Gates Pass up and over its namesake pass and descend back into the Tucson Valley. You could take Gates Pass / Speedway all the way to the river, but it’s a nicer ride on Camino De Oeste at the base of the mountains.
|Ted Walker Park||flat||Parking area with restrooms|
|Jnct Wade Rd||3.9||flat||Leaving civiliazation|
|Jnct Sandario Rd||11.6||350' rolling||Small town with shops|
|Red Hills Visitor Center||17||350' down||SAG stop with incredible views|
|Jnct McCain Loop||18.2||Flat||McCain Loop is better than Kenny|
|Jnct Gates Pass||22.6||Flat||Best segment of the ride|
|Jnct Camino De Oeste||27.4||500' rolling||Ride the western foothills|
|Starr Pass Loop||+ 8.7 miles||+200' rolling||Alternative way home to add miles|
|Christopher Columbus Park||32.3||400' downhill||Enter the park, SAG stop|
|Jnct The Loop||32.9||Flat||Rejoin the Loop Trail|
|Return to Ted Walker||37.1||Flat||man, what a ride!|
|Ted Walker Park||flat|
|Jnct Wade Rd||3.9||flat|
|Jnct Sandario Rd||11.6||350' rolling|
|Red Hills Visitor Center||17||350' down|
|Jnct McCain Loop||18.2||Flat|
|Jnct Gates Pass||22.6||Flat|
|Jnct Camino De Oeste||27.4||500' rolling|
|Starr Pass Loop||+ 8.7 miles||+200' rolling|
|Christopher Columbus Park||32.3||400' downhill|
|Jnct The Loop||32.9||Flat|
|Return to Ted Walker||37.1||Flat|
If You Want a Longer Ride
The best option to extend this ride is to go through the golf resorts at Starr Pass. This adds another 8 miles to the trip and 200′ more climbing. In return, you get mountain and golf course views and a long ride on the Santa Cruz River Trail. There’s a lot to do on this section of The Loop, which we wrote all about in our Tucson Bike Trails piece in the link above. There are also bike lanes through the entire Starr Pass community, which you will not find on Camino De Oeste or Sweetwater.
If You Want A Shorter Ride
Biking McCain Loop or Gates Pass are the highlights of this section. McCain Loop is 4.5 miles beautiful roadway that you can ride as an out and back or form a loop with Kinney Road. A McCain Loop at sunset would go perfectly with a trip to the Cool Summer Nights program at the Desert Museum.
If you just want to climb Gates Pass, you can do that too. Park anywhere and head up the hill, usually from the Tuson side. A perfect little ride would be the Starr Pass Marriott to Gates Pass, it’s about a 13-mile round trip with a 1000′ of climbing and beautiful views.
Dove Mountain / Twin Peaks
If Gate’s Pass is the wild wild west, Dove Mountain is where you choose pleasure and comfort. It’s a 20-mile round trip ride on smooth pavement with wide bike lanes and only 1000′ of elevation gain. Plus, there’s are fabulous restaurants for you at the Ritz-Carlton resort to replace all the calories you lost (and more 🙂 )
This ride is best in the mornings (paired with breakfast at Core Kitchen) or in the evening (paired with the sunset serenade played on a Native American flute). You park at the Tucson Premium Outlet Mall and work your way up Twin Peaks Road. The farther up the mountain you go, the more beautiful everything gets. The final mile from the roundabout to the Ritz is as good as Tucson cycling gets.
|Tucson Premium Outlets||2150||The ride has to start somewhere|
|Jnct Tangerine||4.2||2550||SAG Stop with stores and food|
|roundabout||8.8||2800||First right goes to the Ritz|
|Dove Mountain Ritz-Carlton||9.9||2880||Wave to the guard on the way by|
|Dove Mountain West Park||+3 miles||2800||More miles through nice houses|
|Old Ranch Tunnel||+6 miles||+150'||Tucson's tunnel to nowhere|
|Tucson Premium Outlets||2150|
|Dove Mountain Ritz-Carlton||9.9||2880|
|Dove Mountain West Park||+3 miles||2800|
|Old Ranch Tunnel||+6 miles||+150'|
If You Want a Longer Ride
If you want to extend your ride a little bit, you can continue past the roundabout to Dove Mountain West Park. It’s a 3-mile out and back through an upscale community on the ridgeline. If you’re looking for something truly unique, work your way over on Moore / Thornydale / Tangerine to the Old Ranch House Tunnel. The tunnel goes to a subdivision that seems like it will never be finished on the other side of the hill.
If You Want a Shorter Ride
Instead of starting at the Outlet Mall off I-10, drive up Tangerine and start from the parking lot of the small strip mall there. That will cut your mileage (and climbing) nearly in half, but you still get to enjoy the ritzy views. If you are doing this ride in the evening and are not too grungy from the cycle, stop by Dove Mountain Brewing Company for a pint and a bite. If you are feeling carb deficient, one of our absolute favorite Tucson Italian restaurants, Vero Amore, is also there. Both places are a bit upscale, Dove Mountain is upscale in general, but they both have lovely patios. You can’t go wrong with their Chicken Mimosa and Chicken Marsala, yum!!
Rancho Vistoso / Saddlebrooke
North of Tucson is a town called Oro Valley, known for sweeping views, speed traps, and vast expanses of suburbia. You never quite reach the mountains, but you can certainly see them. Two of Oro Valley’s premier master-planned communities are are Rancho Vistoso and Saddlebrooke. Connecting them is Oracle Road, which is busy but has a decent shoulder.
With all the storefronts, it’s easy to find a parking space, but I like to park behind the Children’s Museum because of the easy access to the Canada Del Oro River Park trail. I start my ride going through Rancho Vistoso counter-clockwise. The route goes CDO River Trail – Tangerine- Innovation Park Drive – Rancho Vistoso – 1st Ave – CDO River Trail in a big loop with either bike lanes or dedicated trail the entire way. Much like Oro Valley, it’s safe and reasonably decent.
Once you return to the Children’s Museum, the ‘fifty shades of beige tour’ continues with a loop through Saddlebrooke. There is a trail connector that runs under Oracle Road .7 miles away from the parking lot that turns off as soon as you cross over the CDO wash. This will make your northbound trip a little more fun. From there, you have 8-miles of riding Oracle Road, which has a nasty reputation of being a tire eater. I got in the habit of riding 700×25 Gatorskin Tires for roads like this one. The shoulder is wide enough to be safe, but have a patch kit for sure.
You get a break from the highway when you turn onto Saddlebrooke, which is about 9-miles through quiet suburbia. In all, the Saddlebrooke Loop is 26.6 miles, which is kind of ironic because this is where they host the Tucson Marathon. An ok ride, but 2/3rds of distance is pedaling along Highway 77 (Oracle Rd).
|Magee Road||-4.3||Flat||Preride warmup|
|Children's Museum||Flat||Parking and trail access behind museum|
|Rancho Vistoso||+11.3 mile loop||+430'||Loop ride from the Children's Museum|
|Saddlebrooke||+26.6 mile loop||+1120||Loop ride from the Children's Museum|
|Rancho Vistoso||+11.3 mile loop||+430'|
|Saddlebrooke||+26.6 mile loop||+1120|
If You Want a Longer Ride
There’s a variation of this ride that leaves from Ina Road and travels to the town of Oracle called the Cody Loop. It’s about a 65-mile round trip with 2850′ of gain. The last 15-miles past Oracle Junction and Biosphere 2 are legitimately good riding, and the 3 miles actually on Cody Loop are superb. However, I’m still not sold on the approach up Oracle Rd / Highway 77.
If You Want a Shorter Ride
The obvious way to shorten this ride is don’t travel up Oracle. Just ride the loop at Rancho Vistoso and as much of the CDO trail as you want. This lets you explore Oro Valley without losing tires or breathing exhaust.
Other Tucson Cycling Routes to Try
I spilled the beans on my favorite rides. However, there are a couple of other Tucson bike rides that you might try, but didn’t make the article:
- The Shootout Ride: Every Saturday morning, a large group of 100+ riders leaves out of the University of Arizona to bike down Helmet Peak. You don’t quite pass San Xavier Mission, but you do get 40-60 miles of fast-paced, aggressive riding. If you love group rides, this one’s for you. If you’re a bit intimidated, there’s a kinder, gentler “pre-shootout” ride that leaves 15 minutes before the main group. Also, you’re probably going to be dropped anyway one the peloton cross Valencia so you can just flip it on Helmet Peak Road whenever you want.
- The Loop: The premier Tucson bike loop is the Chuck Huckelberry Loop. 53.9 miles of bike paths encircle metro Tucson, creating a unique riding experience. It’s one of Tucson’s most popular bike routes and well worth riding, but I have covered it in detail in my Tucson bike trail guide.
- Madera Canyon: A 12-mile out and back (24-miles round trip) and about 3000′ of climbing. You don’t have the cactus to forest journey nor the views of Mt Lemmon, but it’s a great ride through the oaks. Ironically, Mt Wrightstown is taller the Mt Lemmon, it just doesn’t have a road to the top.
- Kitt Peak: Much like Madera Canyon, it’s a 12-mile out and back (24-miles round trip) and about 3500′ of climbing. Other than that, the feel is completely different. Instead of climbing in the valley under a canopy of trees, you snake up the mountain with views that stretch for miles.
Some Tucson Cycling Routes to Avoid
Even in a city as bike-friendly as Tucson, there are some stinkers out there. Certain roads or routes start making lists, and sometimes I can’t figure out why. Here are a couple of cycling routes to avoid
- El Tour de Tucson Route: There’s a connection to Snyder Road over Bear Creek on private land that’s only built for the tour if you look on old maps. Finally, there are roads that you should only ride when they are closed for El Tour. The road closures and connections are part of what makes El Tour so special, and why it can’t (or shouldn’t) be repeated the other 364 days of the year.
- Hwy 83 to Sonoita: Highway 83 is one of the most beautiful rides in Arizona, but I wouldn’t ride there unless there’s a SAG van behind me blocking traffic. There’s not enough shoulder and too many cars to do this ride safely.
- Marsh Station Rd: I last rode Marsh Station over a decade ago, and it was all I could do to dodge the potholes. Apparently, it’s only gotten worse with age. If they ever fix the pavement, it would be a great addition to the Pistol Hill / Colossal Cave ride.
Wrapping up Road Riding in Tucson
With the Tucson Cycling Routes in this article, you’re ready to plan a cycling vacation to Tucson (which is a great getaway for adventurous couples, BTW). If you’re a local rider, these routes will help you stay in shape and give you goals to aspire to.
I hope you enjoyed reading this piece as much as I enjoyed writing it. Maybe I’m a homer, but I love cycling in Tucson. Between the climbs and the climate, there’s nothing quite like it. Where else can you hear the desert wake up around you in Saguaro National Park, watch the sunset from Sabino Canyon, or climb from cactus to pine trees to have lunch at the southernmost ski resort in America? Ride safe and strong, Tucson!
A big thank you to Visit Tucson for allowing us to utilize their photo resources to help us complete this post 🙂
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