Why Your Winter Cycling Trip Should Be in Tucson

It’s not just the winding trails and desert vistas that make this an ideal winter cycling destination.

Why Your Winter Cycling Trip Should Be in Tucson

Road cyclists and mountain bikers alike love the cactus-covered terrain around Tucson, Arizona.

Courtesy of Shutterstock.com

Looking for a warm weather spot to cycle this winter? No need to follow the professional teams to Mallorca or southern Spain. Tucson, Arizona, also boasts January temps in the 70s, and the cactus-covered mountains that surround the city offer hundreds of miles of curved two-lane roads and swooping singletrack trail.

What’s more, for post-ride dining, the food in this UNESCO City of Gastronomy—designated in 2015 and the first in the United States—rivals that of those European destinations. Tucson’s restaurants serve the kind of creative, locally sourced cuisine that famished riders crave. Add in the area’s abundance of cultural diversion for post-ride recreation, and you’ll see why many bicycle travel companies offer annual itineraries to this standout southwestern city.

Saguaro National Park East contains routes for bikers of all types.

Saguaro National Park East contains routes for bikers of all types.

Courtesy of Shutterstock.com

Where to Ride in Tuscon

At Tucson’s northeast corner, Mount Lemmon is a dream ride for many serious road cyclists and has long been a training destination for Tour de France racers who need sustained two- to four-hour climbs at a 5 to 6 percent grade. A winding, 20-mile road rises 5,500 feet from the rocky cactus desert to a University of Arizona astronomical observatory surrounded by ponderosa pines. The reward for conquering that grind is a gripping 30-minute descent.

Perhaps an even better road ride is the 10-mile rollercoaster of a loop through Saguaro National Park East. The road is one-way for cars, meaning riders can focus on the sharp, curving descents rather than oncoming traffic. Also notable among dozens of other world-class rides in the area is the rolling, 40-mile out-and-back route to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which stretches up and over Gates Pass and features extensive views of the city. Trek Travel offers a five-day Tucson Ride Camp (from $1,299) that explores a handful of the region’s best road routes and culminates in an ascent of Mount Lemmon.

Mountain bikers love Mount Lemmon as well. The 31-mile Lemmon Drop trail, which descends from near the summit, is one of the country’s most continuously difficult trail rides, although it can be broken into sections for an easier experience. For something a little less spicy, pedal through saguaro forests and across hillsides bristling with ocotillo on the Starr Pass loop, which winds through the 20,000-acre city-owned Tucson Mountain Park. Newbies will love the gentler grades and short interlocking loops of the Sweetwater Trail System just northwest of town. The Cycling House offers a six-day all-inclusive wintertime Mountain Bike Camp (from $2,145) that includes coaching, brewery tours, and a daily massage.

Where to eat and refuel

One of the best things about riding hard for hours a day is recovering those burned calories.

The menu at Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails, owned by James Beard Award–winner Janos Wilder, is great at showcasing some of the heritage ingredients that contributed to Tucson’s UNESCO City of Gastronomy designation, like spicy peruana beans, heirloom carrots, roasted Anaheim chilies, and Pasilla chilies.

At Café Poca Cosa, an upscale take on chef-owner Suzana Davila’s native Mexican cuisine, the menu changes daily, but ordering the Plato Poca Cosa—a chef’s selection of one beef, one chicken, and one vegetarian entrée—is the best plan anyhow.

For brunch, fuel up at the hip, farm-to-table Welcome Diner—go for the Three Sisters Burrito, which is stuffed with tempura-battered squash, local tepary beans, roasted corn, and smoked pecan “cheese,” or try one of the three signature chicken biscuit sandwiches.

Cap off the day by watching the sunset at one of Tucson’s historic landmarks, like Mission San Xavier del Bac.

Cap off the day by watching the sunset at one of Tucson’s historic landmarks, like Mission San Xavier del Bac.

Courtesy of Shutterstock.com

Things to do in Tuscon off the bike

Tucson was officially founded by the Spanish in 1775, but the region has been inhabited for thousands of years, which means there is plenty to explore once you’ve dismounted from the bike. After your recovery massage or a quick dip in the pool, hop in the car and head out to the restored mission church of San Xavier del Bac, on the Tohono O’odham Nation San Xavier Indian Reservation. Founded in 1692, the Tucson landmark still ministers to the local population today. Sample the spicy red or green chili and beef that Tohono O’odham women grill over mesquite fires around the church.

If you didn’t stop at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum on the Gates Pass ride, by all means head out for a visit once you get back. Set on a hillside west of Tucson, the 98-acre natural history museum features 1,200 different species of cactus and other plants and 230 animal species. Docents are only too happy to trot out tortoises, tarantulas, hawks, and more for an arm’s-length look.

For birds of a different sort, land at the Pima Air & Space Museum. Wander through aviation history while viewing the 350 aircraft, which include President Johnson’s Air Force One and a SR-71 Blackbird spy plane—the world’s fastest aircraft. Be sure to reserve a tour through the museum of the surreal “boneyard” at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, which features more than 4,000 government aircraft in geometric rows that cover over 2,000 acres.

Bike-friendly places to stay in Tuscon

Road cyclists will especially appreciate Loew’s Ventana Canyon Resort, a swank property tucked up against the Catalina Mountain range that is located within riding distance of the prime cycling routes at Mount Lemmon and Saguaro National Park East. It also offers a pair of saltwater pools and a full-service spa to work out the post-ride kinks.

Mountain bikers should check out Tanque Verde Ranch. While a 60,000-acre dude ranch may seem a counterintuitive accommodation for cyclists, the property contains miles of bikeable trails and access to more in adjacent Saguaro National Park East. The pool, spa, and yoga classes aren’t there for the horses, either.

>>Next: How to Explore America’s Most Underrated Biking City

Frederick Reimers is a freelance writer who has written for Outside, Men’s Journal and more.
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