The sun was dropping fast toward the western horizon, and the cacti had begun to glow. An immense valley filled with saguaro, the keystone species of the Sonoran Desert, surrounded with a carpet of a half-dozen species of cholla and a healthy peppering of barrel and prickly pear varieties; from a comfortable distance these spiny natives look almost velveteen. There's a softness that distance affords, a tricky illusion not too much different from the way mirages can cause desert heat waves to shimmer like water. The desert likes to seduce the eye, right before it stabs the unwitting straight in the heart. Especially at sunset, when all those cuddly cacti are glowing so warm and vibrant and spun with soft golden light that you just want to reach out across the landscape and caress them all.
Don't do that. DO NOT caress the cacti. Do not attempt to hug them; not even the softest, cutest, most inappropriately named teddy bear cholla. Things will go badly if you do.
This is a desert cliché, isn't it? Talking about cactus immediately at the onset of a story about mountain biking in Tucson, way to pick the low hanging fruit. Probably gonna follow that up with some tips about hydration and sun protection, right? Well, those are always good things to bear in mind, since you asked…
However, sitting there, watching the sun paint the desert on its way out for the day, I wasn't too concerned about sunscreen or hydration. It was late February, the temperatures had been in the mild '70s all day, and riding in shorts and lightweight clothing was a welcome relief from the winter full of layers and rain gear that I'd departed. Bruno Long, our photographer on this trip, was hooting with glee from across the ridge, jumping from rock to rock as the light showed off for his lens. He had been on an assignment a few days earlier outside of his home in Revelstoke, British Columbia, snow camping for three nights in -27-degree weather. Come to Tucson and ride some bikes in February, while the rest of the nation is being battered by the cold fists of winter? So, there's a chance of sunburn and some thorny plants, but no frostbite or wind chill advisories? No problem, see you there.
Right as the sun dipped below the range, the coyotes started up. Yipping and chittering and howling, a pack of them were singing in the evening just to our south, between us and the Tucson Estates neighborhood. Another group joined the chorus from the east, over in the direction of 36th Street. We were sampling the Starr Pass trails, a robust and still-growing network of singletrack that winds through the 22,000 acres of Tucson Mountain park, just west of downtown Tucson. From where we sat, as the coyotes called to each other and the glow faded from the sea of cacti, you'd be hard-pressed to imagine any town nearby, let alone a city of a million souls less than 10 minutes away to the east. You'd also be hard-pressed to find a trail network this big, this close to a major urban center anywhere. With more than 70 miles of singletrack carving through the rocks and thorns, Starr Pass offers almost instant relief from the city. We had been riding all afternoon on sinuous and fun trails, and aside from two guys on new Treks at one of the main trail intersections and a few runners just before sunset, we had seen nobody else. An occasional jet passed far overhead, silver dart at the head of a telltale contrail, but there were no other signs that we were so close to the second largest urban center in Arizona. Just coyotes howling and a cool evening breeze sighing among the rocks. The sun fully gone, we groped our way back to the trailhead in total darkness. Ten minutes later we were eating tacos and drinking palomas at Boca, heavy legs and full bellies pointing us toward sleep while the evening buzzed with ‘just getting started’ energy around us.
Evan Pilling is a burly redhead with broad hands and the conversational ease of a natural-born storyteller. He is also the executive director of the Sonoran Desert Mountain Bicyclists (SDMB), and has for the past two-and-a-half years overseen their work in enhancing and expanding the trail riding opportunities in and around Tucson. Having shown us around the Starr Pass trails, he met us at sunrise the next day a little north of there to take us on a tour of Sweetwater Preserve. Unlike the immersive size of Tucson Mountain Park, Sweetwater is a compact little gem, with about 12 miles of rolling XC trail packed into an 880-acre space. As we rode, Pilling told his Tucson story, interspersing the narrative at times with studied observations of the landscape and vegetation. "That's a cristate saguaro," he said, pointing to a massive cactus with what looked like a giant mutated crown at its top. "People call them ‘crested’ too, but cristate is the term. Some claim they grow that way because of genetic mutation, others say they get struck by lightning. They're pretty rare though, especially since there's no shortage of idiots who want to cut them down."
The trails at Sweetwater are good for conversation. They undulate through the landscape without getting out of hand. Sightlines are long, gradients are mellow. And, just like the trails at TMP, you can be rolling on dirt just a few minutes ride or drive from the heart of downtown Tucson. Riders here, trained mostly by the withering heat of summer, are habitually early to the dirt. Unlike the silence of Starr Pass the previous afternoon, dawn patrol at Sweetwater was downright busy. Get a quick hour in before work, before the mercury rises, try not to bring any cholla balls home embedded in your elbows and calves, and get on with the day … Not a bad way to go. Beyond the ever-present cactus threat, which exists everywhere around here, the trails at Sweetwater are decidedly XC-ish. Starr Pass offers a very slightly less-refined experience, features some more rocks and a few techy spots. It's fun. But if your tastes trend toward rougher terrain and protracted descents, you'll want to cast your eyes to the north and east of town.
Pilling and his wife moved to Tucson 12 years ago, from not too far north in Prescott. He has been an adventure guide and educator, an in-home therapist in the child welfare system, and a mediator in the family court system. It is fair to say that he is wholly invested in the health of his local community, and that now his investment and energies are directed at improving the mountain biking opportunities here. "I love Tucson," he says emphatically. "It's a funky, vibrant city surrounded by amazing, varied terrain. Where else can you spend your morning riding in the low desert among the saguaro and chollas, eat some of the best Mexican food in the U.S., then in the afternoon do a shuttle ride at 9,000 feet?"
It was on the heels of this admission, after a sublime late breakfast at 5 Points Market spent shoring up some details, that we went in search of some mountainous chunk.
Late February is a great time to visit Tucson. We already mentioned that. This is a place that does not get the weather that can shut down the rest of the country. Except that it snowed, on the ground, in downtown Tucson, the week before we arrived. And, statistically hot and dry and desert as the place may be, the surrounding mountains are legit. Mount Lemmon, the highest peak in the Santa Catalina range northeast of town, juts 9,157 feet above sea level. As such, it can get snowed in, and stay snowed in, for months. Our fledgling hopes for a 9,000-foot shuttle drop, known to riders as "The Lemmon Drop," were stillborn. But while the peak may have been blanketed in snow, the mountains about halfway down were clear, freshly rained on, and in reportedly amazing shape. So, with a truck ride up the Catalina Highway secured through Homegrown Mountain Bike Tours, we drew a target on the Molino Basin trailhead and a trail called La Milagrosa.
There's a video out there, featuring Jeff Lenosky, as he narrates his way through this ride. He references a hike-a-bike section at the outset and then proceeds to clean the the damn thing. Sure, maybe he stopped once or twice, but we don't know because video edit but it doesn't really matter anyway. He made the climb look pretty easy. This is not reflective of the experience most of us will have starting out on this ride. The climb up the AZ Trail to get to the top of the descent that leads into La Milagrosa is tough. Fortunately, it is also finite. Depending on how fast you hike/ride, it'll be over before you really have time to complain about life. And then? And then … And then, you will find yourself starting down one of those trails that are the reason mountain bikes were invented.
Fast, chunky, in places steep, in others loose, then fast again, against a backdrop so breathtaking that it begs you to rein it in and just take in the view for a minute, let the pulse cool, be thankful for bikes and friends and mountains and helmets and people with trucks and strangers who know what they are talking about when they tell you, "Dude, you HAVE to ride La Milagrosa," before pointing it downhill again, off the brakes, punching it over the rocks and laughing. There are several short and techy climbs along the rest of the trail, along with sections of descent that become increasingly rowdy, but rowdy in a good way. There are moments of mindless flow balanced almost perfectly with instances of straight-up "Oh shit" pucker. It's a beauty of a trail. When bike designers lay in bed sleepless at night thinking of how to make bikes better, dreaming up new tubeless tires and better disc brakes and suspension that works for pedaling as well as for eating up fist- to head-size rocks at speed, this trail is what I imagine they are thinking about. And, like so many trails around here, as the last sandstone slabs and chutes spike the adrenaline one final time before succumbing to dirt road, then pavement, the ride ends in very civilized surroundings. Broad streets and lots of parking. Air conditioning, table service, would you like some paper towels for that bleeding elbow?
Twenty minutes north of downtown, the Oro Valley stretches in manicured precision toward Oracle. It feels equestrian, rather than pedestrian; the kind of place where one might suspect every home hides a spare golf cart in the triple garage. Strolling the grounds of the El Conquistador Hilton only reinforces this suspicion. Nestled with surprising discretion against a flank of the Santa Catalinas, the carefully tended grounds, the multiple pools, the palm trees, the spa, the spacious lobby all speak to a class of guest that might be a little more accustomed to opulent creature comforts than a sunburned, gravel-rashed, cactus-stabbed mountain biker. But just a few short miles further north of the El Conquistador is Catalina State Park, entrance point to what could be the crown jewel of Tucson mountain biking: 50-Year Trail.
Our riding in Tucson had started in the more civilized terrain of Starr Pass and Sweetwater, which was perfect to shake the legs out of their winter torpor. We had all needed pliers at some point to remove cholla balls from limbs and tires, had managed to accrue some good light sunburn and dirt sampling before the riding ratcheted up significantly and very enjoyably in the pucker factor with La Milagrosa. Our time had begun to run out, and only Bruno Long and I were left for one final ride. Ty Hathaway is a relatively recent SoCal-to-Tucson transplant, having moved here two years ago to live with his girlfriend, lifelong Tucsonian Julia Concini. His day job could be loosely described as a roving Specialized Radventurer-er and all-around awesome human being. He had been our "dude who looks good on bikes" for the entire trip so far, and for our farewell ride, took Long and I on a tour of 50-Year's goodness.
God damn. That was some awesome trail. Fast, pedally sand wash to rock sections, gaining elevation without really realizing it, before starting into more earnest, more technical climbing up and through this rounded boulder terrain that was just challenging enough to keep the climbing fun. Then an open landscape of rock moves, fast flow that would choke up into steep rock rolls, snaking around and down through a sea of cactus, alternating between sinuous flow and pay-attention-now tech moments, sweating on the downs almost as much as the ups, before finally dropping back down into the fast ribbon of rock and sand wash as, once again, we raced darkness back to the vehicles.
What had started out as a cabin-fever dream, a desire to get out of a winter that was beginning to seem endless, had left us feeling like we had won the lottery but at the same time had just barely scratched the surface. We had managed to sample four diverse trail systems in as many days, but hadn't even poked our heads in on the trails at Fantasy Island south of town, or the Tortolita Preserve, or the West Desert Preserve, or some allegedly prime sections of the AZ Trail. And there was the dangling carrot of Mount Lemmon taunting us for when the snow melts off. Pilling, while recounting the 6 miles of newly built trail in Tucson Mountain Park as part of the Starr Pass trails, and pointing out the SDMB's ongoing maintenance and rehab of another 20 miles of trail there, as well as construction of 20 more miles of trail elsewhere around Pima County, stated: "As of the last official trail census, Pima County has more than 400 miles of non-wilderness trail. Most of that is centered around Tucson and within a 60-90-minute drive of downtown. At this point I would estimate that we have upward of 450 miles, but I couldn’t commit to that number."
The next morning, just before pointing the van westward back into a forecast stacked with foul weather, I dropped off a cooler that Pilling had loaned us. He was working at the site of the future 100-Acre Wood Bike Park, a grassroots and community-funded bike park situated immediately south of some of the more rugged neighborhoods in Tucson. Phase one of the development is focusing on building out a network of XC and flow trails, as well as some all-mountain/freeride skills-based trails. Depending on funding, that will be completed by 2020. Phase two, incorporating dirt jumps, pump tracks, a 90-car parking lot and an expo area, and a couple million-dollar budget, is hoped to be done by 2022. This notion of building trails smack dab in town is how Pilling is combining his love of mountain biking with his sense of community. "One of my favorite things about Tucson is its size," he said, gesturing to the buildings visible immediately to the north. "While the metro area has something like a million people, it feels like a small town in many ways and has a very tight community—at least the mountain bike, trails, outdoor recreation and environmental communities, you know, the ones that matter. Tucson is big enough to have art, music, food, and culture, but small enough that I can get out of it quickly and easily."
We were fortunate enough to sample Tucson at the perfect time, before the summer blast furnace kicked in and made the locals flee for the mountains. As a winter destination, Tucson's profile is rising swiftly in the cycling world. The wide roads and heavy percentage of paved bike paths have made the place popular with road cyclists looking to start their base mileage in a favorable climate, and word has been getting out about the mountain biking. With good reason. The riding is legit; it doesn't have the red-sandstone reputation of a Sedona or a Moab, but it does have a city chock full of amazing food, live music and things to do off the bike, affordable lodging, and dirt cheap gasoline.
I didn't want to get out of there quickly or easily. I didn't want to drive back into the grey and wet sludge of winter. I wanted to stay, to listen to coyotes sing a few more sunsets to sleep. I had my pliers, my sunscreen, an insulated hydration pack, and a bunch of cheap long sleeve snap-button Wrangler shirts. I could get used to this.