This piece is the third in my series of local guides to biking Tucson, divided into three personas:
- Trail Rider: looking to ride for an hour or two on Tucson bike trails. They like to ride a little, walk a little, and make the day a social event.
- Road Rider: looking to ride up to 50 miles and is comfortable riding with cars and climbing hills while cycling Tucson.
- Mountain Biker: looking for technical rides off the pavement on single-track.
Tucson Mountain Biking Map
Below is my map for the primary parking areas for Tucson Mountain biking. Be aware that other entrances may exist. Also, be considerate parking in neighborhoods. The best way to ensure the future of riding is good relationships with neighbors (and hikers too!).
If you don’t see the map below, be sure to refresh your browser 🙂
Ironwood Picnic Area (Tucson Mountain Park)
I’m starting my ride guide with a real hidden gem. I used to live outta-this-a-way, and my kids went to Laura Banks Elementary, so this was my home turf’ for a couple of years.
The trails around Ironwood Picnic Area are often overlooked for hiking because they’re basically flat and loop through the Arva Valley Floodplain, making them perfect for introductory mountain biking. There are miles and miles of riding out here, but some of the less-used trails are too soft and sandy for riding. The three primary loops from Ironwood are:
Sweetwater is a beautiful and easy trail to start riding in Tucson. There aren’t too many rocks, drops, sand traps, or climbs to challenge beginner riders. Plus, you’re riding through mature saguaros, which is what you’ve traveled (or moved) to Tucson for.
New riders will want to start on Saguaro Vista Trail (1.1 miles) and take it to Black Rock Loop (1.6 miles). If you’re still feeling good, tack on Sun Loop Circle (.5 miles) (note: it customary, and kind, to ride these loops clockwise). New riders can lather-rinse-repeat these sections until they feel the burn.
When you’re ready to level up, take the steady climb up the Lost Arrow Trail (.6 miles). Then take the Homestead Trail (.9 miles) into the southern part of the park and return via Red Tail Ridge (1.2 miles) – Oxbow (.4 miles) – Wildflower Ridge (.4 mile). This route is intermediate, but not sustained, so you can hike a bike over the obstacles. The other side loops and spurs here are fun to explore too, but be careful of the top of The Spine, because it’s a fast and sustained rocky downhill. Be sure to load the Sonoran Desert Mountain Bike map onto your phone before leaving to keep from getting lost.
Climbing Boulder Parking Area (Tucson Mountain Park)
For some reason, Google Maps didn’t have this parking area or the climbing boulders marked. That should tell you something – that this is a lightly trafficked trail. It’s going to be a little tight and prickly in places, but the trail itself isn’t too technical. Plus, you’re up on the rocks a bit and free from the sand traps that plague the western expanses of Tucson Mountain Park. Google does mark Golden Gate and Yetman Trailheads, but the riding from there is decidedly more technical, so it’s better to start lower.
The best ride out here is the Golden Gate – Ironwood Loop (3.3 miles), which is pretty spectacular during the spring bloom. You can cut the ride short with the Prickly Pear Loop (1.9 miles). What else… bring your phone and run your GPS in case you get lost and bring your full cactus kit, including puncture-proof tires, a comb, and tweezers for this one.
Golder Ranch / 50-Year-Trail
Accessing Golder Ranch requires a State Trust Land Permit, but it’s worth it for the views of the Catalina Mountains alone. It’s easy riding to The Chutes, but it gets more technical as you keep riding on the 50-Year-Trail to the Jem Trail and Middle Gate. The Chutes features packed white clay hills that were a motorcycle playground in the 70s. Beginners can ride The Chutes with caution, but they are more fun and flowy as your skill and confidence increase.
To reach The Chutes, head northeast out of the parking area and look for the trail markers. Head north on the 50-Year-Trail, and you’ll get to the Chutes in about 3.5 miles. Play in The Chutes for a bit and head back on the 50-year-trail. The Mountain Bike Project has an excellent map of the area and other ride options.
24 Hour Course
For one day of the year, this trail is the center of Tucson Mountain biking when Epic Rides hosts 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo. For 24 hours, teams of riders (or a single crazy rider who likes to suffer) make lap after lap around this course. It’s one heck of a biking party and good clean fun. Unless it raining and you have the 3 am lap. Actually, there’s always a chance of a suffer-fest, but it’s type two fun for sure.
The rest of the year, it’s a trail mellow enough for sleep-deprived riders to tackle in the dark and newer riders in the daytime. But it’s a long way to drive unless you’re prepping for the race. If you’re itching to go, make sure you get a State Land permit and check out the Mountain Bike Project route map. An entire loop is 17-miles, but it’s easy to split in half. I liked the upper half of the trail better than the lower half, and I would definitely take the singletrack Gasline bypass to ‘skip the bitches’ aka the rolling and rutted out Gasline road if I was riding the lower half. I would also look into the Bones Loop and Painter Boy because I like my mountain biking with a little elevation change.
Fantasy Island is a fun, flowy trail system in southeast Tucson. This is far from pristine desert, but it’s a good enough ride to make up for it. Plus, the kitsch trash art along the way is always entertaining. All loops at Fantasy Island are ridden counter-clockwise without exception.
A State Trust Land permit is required to ride at Fantasy Island, but not strictly enforced. It’s good for other trails too, like Golder Ranch and 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo, so it’s not bad to pick up if you ride often, have fears of getting tickets or believe in trail karma.
On the subject of trail karma, Fantasy Island is undergoing development and changes. The Tucson bike community needs your support to preserve as much of the trail as possible to build a long term management plan.
Trail loops at Fantasy Island include:
- Lone Cactus (6.6 miles): All loops branch off Lone Cactus. There are a few steep downhill sections to watch out for along the way. Also, it’s a one-way loop, so there is a minimum skill level to start riding at Fantasy Island.
- Christmas Tree (1.5 miles): Flat, fast, and fun
- Burro (2.3 miles): The most technical route – home of the over/under
- Bo’s (1.5 miles): Bonus points if you can drop into the halfpipe
Starr Pass (Tucson Mountain Park)
I love Starr Pass. I rode here every Tuesday night for about 5-years, and even moved to Starr Pass for a year before I left Tucson. What makes this trail great is how accessible it is, but once you get into the upper valley, it feels like you’re in the wild. Another feature of Starr Pass is bike rentals through Southwest Trekking, conveniently located in the Starr Pass Marriott.
The basic route through the park is the Starr Pass / Yetman Trail Loop (8.6 miles). The knock on Starr pass is that it gets loose (and steep) in places, and there’s nothing you can do about it other than ride it out. Dropping down Yetman Trail past the 4-Way Junction is a right of passage to intermediate bike riding. Climbing up Goat Hill without putting your foot down earns you expert status, and biking the Yetman Wash is just a sufferfest. I like taking this route clockwise, so I go up Goat Hill (usually walking) and down Yetman Wash (every little bit helps).
I typically add some mileage looping around the base of Golden Gate Mountain and take an alternate route back to the trailhead via the lower road to see the year round flowing water Anklam Wash. Other rides include connecting through to Robles Trails or taking the long way to the Marriott by the Stone House. Just be careful of any ridge trail because they get super technical super quick.
Robles Trails are the cousins of the Starr Pass Trail system. You know, that cousin that drinks too much at weddings? They’re kind of wrong, but kind of cute… Yeah, that cousin. To access Starr Pass, you drive through the golf course and resorts. To access Robles, you can bike through the culverts under Ajo Highway. There are also small dirt lots at Cascabel Trailhead, Creosote Trailhead, and Robles Trailhead. Much like that crazy cousin, Robles is a ton of fun, once you get past the quirks.
Robles’ best ride is to form a mega loop on Sunset Pass, Bittersweet, and Camaro Loop. (~5 miles). I always took the long way around on Camaro Loop to get the most riding I could. It’s hard enough to get into Robles, that you need to make the good stuff last.
Last Words on Tucson Mountain Biking
I hope these descriptions were good enough to get off the couch and get you excited to go mountain biking in Tucson. Here are a couple of tips to help keep you safe and get you riding in Old Pueblo:
- Overestimating your fitness and skill will make the ride unpleasant and even dangerous.
- Wear your helmet. A mind is a terrible thing to waste (or smash on a rock).
- Take sufficient water for your ride. Roughly speaking, that’s one liter/hour of riding with a reserve to get you off the trail if your bike brakes.
- Ride with “Slime” tubes in your tires or tubeless tires with Stan’s type sealant. There is always something poky on every mountain bike ride in Tucson.
- Carry a spare tube and pump and the tools to change a flat. Note, you might have to spend a little time picking out all the thorns from your tire that caused your slimed/tubeless tire to go flat in the first place.
- Pack it in / pack it out, even if it’s not your trash.
- If you’re looking for more trail information, especially more challenging trails, the Sonoran Desert Mountain Bicyclists have a terrific trail guide.
- If you’re looking for someone to show you trails in Southern Arizona, contact SDMB for a hookup too.
- “snake season” runs roughly April through October. It’s very common to see snakes, especially in the evening. In general, if you don’t bother them, they will not bother you. The vast majority of bites to riders occur when you fall a snake.
- Finally -be safe, ride fast, take chances…and check out our Bike Disclaimer 😉
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