Video, Photography & Words: Tory Powers (Fulframe)
Riders: Mason Bond, Bruce Klein, Timmy Evens, + Bryan Pagel
The southwestern United States is home to one of the most unique environments and ecosystems in the entire country. Tucson is no exception, being extremely close to the US-Mexico border. Sedona was always my go-to for riding in this area, however, I may have found a new favorite place to shred.
With most of the destinations I’ve had the chance to cover for Pinkbike, we hit a few different locations in a state. However, Tucson was super unique and enough of a treasure to have its own entire piece.
Mount Lemmon is an absolute unit of a landmark in Tucson, with over 7,000 vertical feet of elevation in an area that’s accustomed to the 2389’ base. There are hardly any locations on the planet that compare to this spectacle.
A little background on the trails:
Mount Lemmon trails are managed by TORCA (Tucson Off-Road Cyclists and Activists)
. There are about 60 miles of trail to maintain on Mount Lemmon, which is under the jurisdiction of the Coronado National Forest.
Locally, in-town trails in Pima County are managed by SDMB (Sonoran Desert Mountain Bicyclists)
. There are a couple of hundred miles of trail in metro Tucson, including the famous Arizona Trail which includes 750 miles from the Mexico/US border to the top of the state, near Utah.
(Left)Tara + the Homegrown MTB team heading up Mount Lemmon passing some of the (right) amazing landscapes.
The riding is extraordinarily easy to access too. We were beyond thankful to have a personal shuttle system through Homegrown MTB. Tara and the crew we had the opportunity to work with made this experience beyond what we ever could have hoped for. Having this shuttle system was an absolute must so that you can get as much vertical as possible. Make sure to hit up Tara when you're in Tucson!
Tara was the best tour guide we could have possibly found. She has all the tools to get you where you need to go and to keep you as stoked as possible.
A little background on Mount Lemmon and why all of this riding exists in the first place. Back during WWII, the US created prison camps on this mountain, and there’s a lot of history still in place because of it. Multiple areas were dedicated to Japanese soldiers held in the camps and the beautiful roads that go all the way to the top now have a new purpose - easy access to some of the country’s best riding.
Some WWII memorial bits in the Bug Springs and Prison Camp areas.
We began our drive into the riding of Tucson about midway up Mount Lemmon at the Bug Springs trailhead at 5800’. There’s a pretty gnarly ascent right out of the gate - it definitely put us all in our place. Big stairs and loose dirt for about 500’ of elevation in less than half a mile is more than a good warmup. It would be interesting to see if anybody could clear this climb!
A few of these were no problem, but we quickly realized that 1-2ft stairs got pretty exhausting.
Once you reach the top of the ascent (or once you’ve hiked all the way up, like me), you get an amazing overlook into the valley you just climbed. The first descent begins here- a short 1.5-mile descent with about 500’ of elevation loss. Nothing too insanely steep, just really fast, flowy, and mildly technical riding. Loose dirt allows you to slash instead of using your brakes, and the pace feels extremely fast when you’re brushing past thick shrubs on either side.
(Left) Mason dropping into the first flowy section of Bug Springs + (Right) Bruce finding gaps in the craziest places.
After this quick descent, you have another tricky climb similar to the first - more huge stairs. This time, about 300’ in a quarter-mile. This view is what makes it all worth it though - an overlook into the entire city of Tucson as far as the eye can see. Being this high in elevation with not much else around really puts into perspective the true scale of Mount Lemmon.
The next descent is where it gets really fun, though. Over 1000’ of descent over a little more than two miles and holy moly is it a good time. Everything from huge rocks to ride on to tight switchbacks.
There’s a really cool mixture of slickrock style riding similar to Sedona and Moab with some chunky bits that you’d find somewhere like the Rocky Mountains.
We hung out at this rock roll for quite a while, it was probably the most beautiful part of the trail.
More fast, flowy loose trail with the occasional technical section to keep you on your toes.
On our last day of riding, since we had hit the go-to trails for the area already, we decided we wanted to ride Bug Springs again but this time in the evening light. We couldn’t get enough of the sunset light hitting all of the dust we were throwing up.
Who steezed it better, Mason (left) or Bruce (right)?.
After we got to the bottom of Bug Springs, we made one more trip back up the hill to one of the techiest public trails I’ve ever gotten a chance to ride - Incinerator Ridge. I’m not exaggerating when I say I couldn’t ride some of this with my camera bag on. If you want a seriously fun challenge, this trail is a must. 2 miles of mostly descent over about 1200’ that’s chock full of technical rock gardens, man-made technical switchbacks, natural rock rolls, and fast segments to connect it all.
Mason + Bruce each hitting their own line on the gnarliest segment of the trail - there were probably ten lines down this one short segment.
The boys shredding down an alternate line on Incinerator Ridge - a huge rock roll.
Now, you probably assumed this part of the US would have good Mexican food, and you definitely assumed right. Any time I travel to this part of the country, I find myself only eating Mexican food, just because it's so good here. We hit a bunch of different spots, and they were top-notch.
Our first night after riding we went to El Guero Canelo, a local favorite, where they’re known for their “Very Mucho” steak burrito. It was in fact, very mucho. Mucho good, mucho large.
Bruce's face for scale.
(Left) A crowd favorite, the Sonoran Hot Dog and (right) some outstanding steak tacos.
Most mornings we took a quick pit stop at Le Buzz, the go-to for cyclists of all disciplines. They have tons of really good breakfast sandwiches and pastries to keep you fueled up no matter how big your ride is. It’s right at the base too, so you aren’t going out of your way for anything.
The drive up Mount Lemmon would genuinely never get old. It seems like something out of a movie - saguaros as far as the eye can see. I felt like a kid in a candy store shooting photos out the window the whole way up.
Our second day was also our biggest, the mac daddy of the Mount Lemmon riding scene. If you like backcountry riding that’s more of an adventure than a ride, this is the ultimate one to check out. This one’s called CDO, or Canada del Oro, a shuttle to the very top of Mount Lemmon, all the way at nearly 9100’ of elevation. The total ride is 24 miles and 8300’ of descending.
The ride goes through so many different types of terrain. It’s like traveling around the world as you ride down.
The ride starts on Aspen Meadow, a blue, then merges into Samaniego Ridge. This was honestly my favorite part of the ride- absolutely gorgeous orange ferns and an overlook of the entirety of Tucson on this ridge. The riding was fast and flowy but simultaneously super loose in the best way possible. Talk about a jaw-dropping location.
Following the ridge, you drop into the trees and the riding feels a lot like Washington- but not overly wet. The rocks vanished and the trail got super fast.
After this, you have a dirt road trek to the beginning of CDO, a double black trail. Dropping into CDO is where it really becomes a unique backcountry experience. CDO truly has every type of terrain. It begins with a short descent into the aspen trees, full of tight turns and technical bits.
Bruce dropping into the aspens.
All smiles for Mason after getting sendy off this lip.
What was super cool about this trail was it constantly changed turn after turn. Immediately following the aspens it opened back up to nearly identical terrain to the very top- more burnt orange ferns that were so full you could barely see the trail. After a short climb, that’s where the true backcountry feel begins to show. The trail turns into true singletrack- the type where you’re constantly dodging bushes, trees, and rocks just to stay on the trail. This is how I picture true mountain biking. Nothing overly built, just raw riding.
Mason, the king of getting dirt off the ground.
We were extremely excited to find nice, tacky dirt in the middle of CDO.
Mason was a little more excited than the rest of us and was sure to get a taste.
Bruce leaning it over through the shrubs.
Bruce leading the crew off of a little backcountry rock wallride.
After the end of CDO, you’ve already gone about 12 miles and 4500’ down. The trail links up next with a double-track- Charouleau Gap, that’s about a 3-mile climb and only 500’ up. We got a little spoiled by Tara with Homegrown again... this time with some really cool toys!
Surprisingly enough, the ride down this double-track before linking up with the 50-year trail was ridiculously fun. You can HAUL going down this, constant water bars and jumps mixed with hopping into and out of different ruts was a hoot.
Once we linked up with the 50-year trail it was the exact kind of riding I expected to see out of Tucson but hadn’t experienced yet. It wasn’t overly fast or technical, but it was mesmerizing.
Constantly dodging cacti of all sorts - ocatillo, saguaros, and smaller cacti at your feet. It felt like you were riding through a children’s book’s representation of the desert. Honestly, it was such a unique experience getting to ride in such an area.
We were lucky enough to come across this beautiful tortoise on 50 Year Trail.
50-year trail would be a really cool ride on its own. Amongst the cacti you had to dodge, there were big rock slabs to ride on, fast flowy bits, and also sand. We even found a little over-under gap.
This ride took us all day (partly due to my massive camera bag and slow speeds) but it was such a good feeling when we made it to the trailhead.
The next day we took some time to recover and went to check out downtown Tucson. There are a ton of really cool murals all around town (and especially 4th, a must-see area full of restaurants and shops). Thankfully Tucson had tons of scooters available to ride so that we could get around easily.
(Left) Bruce getting ready for some edible donuts and (right) the beautiful Cathedral of St. Augustine.
After riding around for a couple of hours, we accidentally found ourselves at Holy Donuts. This is all genuine “holy canoli check this place out” mentality. This place was ridiculous, and the best recovery food for a huge backcountry day. They had everything from maple bacon eclairs to cereal donuts and everything in between. We even got a guava donut that was absolutely absurd and a must-get if you find yourself there.
Even after our huge day riding, we had to get back out since the riding was so good. Bruce was stoked to get outside to check out one more trail!
Mason was extremely excited and couldn't help but dance to show it.
We went up for an evening ride on Prison Camp. It’s a nice short ride that’s perfect to session in the evening. The drop off point is right off the road and it sets you back 2 miles lower right back at the road again for easy shuttling. The whole trail was super backlit in the evening light so visibility was perfect. This trail was super rad, think the type of trail that seems simple but has tons of little jumps on the side that make it a blast to goof off on with some friends.
This trail was FAST.
Homegrown always there to supply the rides + beers.
We had just enough time to squeeze in two laps on this trail before the full moon popped out.
A nice little gem of Tucson is actually a pull-of on the road up Mount Lemmon. There is some really amazing sightseeing overlooking all of downtown and the surrounding mountains. We spent a solid hour up here just hanging out and enjoying the view.
Have you ever heard of a Sonoran hot dog? Me neither, until this trip. Turns out it’s quite the delicacy in this area, and I found out that was the truest thing I’ve ever heard. Mason, being familiar with the area, knew where to find the best one. It’s a food truck on the southwest side of town, called Monster Sonoran Dogs. Parked in a dirt lot, you know that this is the real deal. A Mexican twist on an American classic that I never knew I needed in my life. If you don’t get one of these when you’re here, you did it wrong.
I cannot express enough how much I enjoyed it here. I realize this is presented by Tucson, but in all honesty, I was beyond impressed and had one of the best riding trips of my life here. The town is extremely welcoming, you have amazing people like Tara to watch your back, and the riding is world-class. Oh, and don't forget all of the outstanding food.
Local KnowledgeGetting here: The Climate & Wildlife:
Through the fall and winter months highs usually range between 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit and with an average of over 300 days of sunshine per year, these months are almost always dry and sunny. This is the prime time for lower elevation desert riding. In the summer months when temps at the desert floor can exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit, you can head up to Mt Lemmon for some cooler temps and serious descents. With some trails cut at well over 8,000 feet of elevation, it’s the perfect place for summer riding that makes Tucson a true year-round riding destination.
When it comes to wildlife, the Sonoran Desert is anything but deserted. There are plenty of animals that call this area home including bobcats, coyotes, and even bears and mountain lions. It’s extremely rare to see any of these while out riding as they tend to keep to themselves. The main thing to look out for is rattlesnakes. While they aren’t often encountered on or in the trail, always look before you sit down to take a break and admire the views.
Bike shop and repairs:
With a metro area population of nearly one million people, Tucson has plenty of shops all over the city. Check out Blue Dog Bikes
, Sonoran Cycles
, or Fairwheel Bikes
if you’re looking for a shop that’s centrally located. If you’re on the Northside check out Oro Valley Bikes
. No matter what you ride chances are there’s a certified dealer somewhere in town.
A tubeless setup is super necessary to keep you rolling amongst the thorny plants and sharp rocks that you’ll encounter on many of the local trails. If you’re heading up Mt Lemmon bring your mid to long-travel trail rig and coordinate a shuttle. We recommend Homegrown MTB
for guiding and shuttle services.Local Mountain Biking Clubs: TORCA
are the two main MTB groups in Tucson. They are both key to local trail building and maintenance efforts, from the more XC-oriented desert trails to the rowdy trails found on Mt Lemmon and in Coronado National Forest. Check out their websites for info on upcoming events and more local knowledge.Food and Drink:
Tucson has a little bit of everything but at the end of the day, it’s all about Mexican food
. With literally hundreds of different places, it’s not hard to find a deliciously authentic meal. Head down to South 12th Ave (aka La Doce) and check out places like Tacos Apson, El Güero Canelo or BK’s for incredible street tacos and multiple variations of the famous Sonoran Hot Dog (Hot Dog, wrapped in bacon with Mexican-style toppings).
For drinks be sure to check out one of Tucson’s many craft breweries. You won’t be disappointed with the selection or the attention to detail at places like Pueblo Vida or Dragoon Brewing. Looking for a broader selection of taps? Try Westbound, Tap + Bottle, or Ermanos. And if coffee is the mission, go to EXO or Presta for some locally roasted goodness.
Aside from grabbing some Southside Mexican Food and enjoying the Downtown nightlife on Congress Street and 4th Ave., be sure to check out some of the area attractions. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and Saguaro National Park both provide an immersive intro to Tucson’s unique natural surroundings. If you want to broaden your horizons, visit one of Tucson’s scientific wonders like Biosphere 2, Kitt Peak National Observatory, or the Pima Air & Space Museum. And history buffs will appreciate the tranquil beauty of Mission San Xavier del Bac and the stunning collection of Native American artifacts found at the Arizona State Museum, located on the campus of the University of Arizona.
For more things to do, see, and eat in Tucson go to visit Visit Tucson
Pinkbike would like to thank Visit Tucson, TORCA
, and Arizona Trail Association
This project has been presented by Visit Tucson
BUT an important error that warrants correction: the article (incorrectly) suggests the prison camps housed 'Japanese soldiers' during WWII, when in reality, these were minimum-security facilities (i.e., no fences) for conscientious objectors (e.g., Jehovah's Witnesses and Mennonites) and Japanese-American draft resisters from across the West (notably, Gordon Hirabayashi, for whom one of the USFS campgrounds on Mt Lemmon is named) who were protesting the government's illegal internment of Japanese-Americans during the war.
A sincere effort at summarizing the riding scene in Tucson would also cover the AZT, 50 Mile, Tucson Mountain Park, Sweetwater, Honeybee, loads of bikepacking opportunities, Arizona Endurance Series routes/events, etc, etc.
But yeah, if yer a shuttle bro that only wants to ride laps on Prison Camp, then this article is right up your alley. I'm not opposed to such an article, but label it what it is. Awesome Shuttle Rides on Mt Lemmon.
Side note: While staying at a shady motel in Cleveland for a Rays trip....randomly saw the movie Arizona and highly suggest it.
CDO > Lemmon Drop.