I don't know about you, but I'm not sure of too many times in my life when 7,000 vertical feet of prominence was staring me in the face. It's massive. It's so tall, that even 30 miles from the mountaintop in downtown Tucson, I can't quite make out the summit of Mount Lemmon because of the rows of jagged ridges that stand between the highest point in the Santa Catalina mountains and the 5 feet, 11 inches of me on a sidewalk. That might be as much a function of the mass of the mountain as its height. Regardless, for a little perspective, it's got nearly 2,000 vertical feet on Whistler. It ain't small. It's often called a "Sky Island", which refers to the massive temperature swing on the mountain compared to Tucson and the surrounding Sonoran Desert at its base, with a 30-40 degree difference at the 9,157 foot tall summit. It is also a nod to the varying landscapes that populate the slopes of the enormous mountain. Saguaro cacti dominate the landscape surrounding Tucson, as well as the desert floor along the base of Mount Lemmon, with many 30-40 foot tall specimens visible right up to roughly 4,000 feet in altitude. By the time you reach the summit a vertical mile after your last glimpse of the iconic cactus, the surrounding landscape is comprised of oaks, aspens, and maples, with amazing dirt, roots, and rocks throughout the summit trails. The Santa Catalina Ranger District is well aware of all of this, and is also keenly aware of Lemmon's real value to visitors and locals alike, as staffers no doubt must have their heads on swivels in order to properly manage such a breathtaking piece of land. There are a lot of people who represent a lot of special interest groups who want a lot from this mountain, and while it's without question one of America's most impressive places to ride a bike, equally impressive is the work being done by the area's mountain bike advocates to ensure riders have a prominent seat at the table when it comes to the care and exploration of Mount Lemmon.
I had my reservations in the weeks leading up to this trip. Southern Arizona in August is a tricky proposition. It's a "dry heat" they said. Well, so is the heat coming out of my oven, but that blast of hot air to the face whenever I open the door to it still hurts. Watching the thermometer while driving southwest across New Mexico from Amarillo was oddly suspenseful, as the oh-so-slow increase in temps was occasionally interrupted by sudden upward trends of altitude on the highway, or by an occasional downburst of rain that frequents this part of the country during monsoon season. Still the temperatures climbed, and once I crossed over the state line in Arizona, I would not see a daytime high below 100 degrees Fahrenheit until I was in the Great Lakes region of the midwest 8 days later. The thermometer on my dash might have held my attention for a few moments initially, but as interstate 10 continued its western traverse of the American southwest, something else would eventually catch my eye and hold my attention for the entirety of my trip to Tucson.
My initial glimpse of Mount Lemmon would prove to be one of the only opportunities I would have to see the summit of the mountain other than the moments I would eventually spend at the actual top of it. I know I already waxed a touch poetic about how impressive the highest peak in the Santa Catalina range is, but it's hard to overstate. I've been hearing about Mount Lemmon from friends for years, people whose opinion I trust a great deal, and all I have ever heard were really, really good things. I have also always kind of lumped riding in the desert southwest together in one red rocked, cactus-filled, bone dry amalgamation of sorts in my head, and as unfair as that may be, truth be told I've kind of been writing this place off for a while. I would quickly learn the error of my ways, and that first glimpse of Lemmon would prove quite a shock to the system.
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Pivot Cycles, Maxxis Tires, Stans No Tubes, Kali Protectives, MRP, Julbo, Deity Components, EVOC, Shimano, 9point8, TopeakInstagram: @bricyclesFavorite Trail Mount Lemmon:
Aspen DrawRiding Style:
Being 50 miles north of the Mexican-American border affects far more than the daytime highs. Tucson draws an immense inspiration from our neighbors to the south, from the architecture, the art, and of course the amazing food. For 7 days, I ate nothing for dinner but tacos save for one night when I went with pizza, and for 7 days my pallet was buzzing. Tucson is one of those places that truly feels like another world, whether it's the city itself, the landscape, the wildlife, or the riding. The area is loaded with trails, with several networks in and around town, many of those geared for beginner to intermediate riders, and managed by 1 of the 2 regional advocacy groups, the Sonoran Desert Mountain Bicyclists. Those trails see usage pick up considerably once daytime temps stop hurting, and have proven to be quite the winter training commodity for many professional bicycle riders, for both those who play on the mountain and those who play in the road. But it's August, it's really hot at 2,300 feet, and I can't stop staring at that big, beautiful, and vast mountain.
Mount Lemmon is not only the ceiling of the Santa Catalina mountains, it also holds 26 miles of some of the American southwest's finest trails. TORCA, or Tucson Off Road Cyclists and Activists, is the group who have taken responsibility of these trails, and the progress they've made is without a doubt one of the most clear cut examples I can remember of the value mountain bikers bring to communities as trail stewards.
"And when TORCA first started," Tara is telling me one our way to a downed tree on Aspen Draw, a stunning and technical downhill that trail drops 1,200 feet from the summit over the course of 2 deciduous, rooty, and evergreen miles. "That was sort of our first mission was to restore the relationship with hikers and bikers on the mountain."
Tara Alcantara is the president of TORCA, and is also co-owner of Homegrown MTB Tours alongside her husband and the previous TORCA president Art. Tara is describing the history of conflict between hikers and riders on Mount Lemmon, with Aspen Draw at the center of it. The summit of Mount Lemmon is, for obvious reasons, quite a draw in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, particularly during the sweltering months of the summer. Aspen Draw in particular begin just below the University of Arizona observatory and ends in the quaint village of Summer Haven, where multi-use and multi-directional traffic is commonplace, particularly during weekends. Tara and the rest of TORCA knew early on that they would need to be hands on in the efforts to mitigate trail conflict between user groups.
"We did some kind of education," she continued. "And community outreach to try and get mountain bikers to follow the rules. We would spend a day up here at the top of the mountain talking to bikers and hikers as they were getting ready to drop into the trail. We were educating them on who has the right of way. It was important for us to let hikers know that this is a multi-use trail, because a lot of them don't expect to see bikes coming down the trail. On the other hand, we made sure that mountain bikers were being respectful to the fact that not only are there a lot of hikers on this trail, but this trail is tight. It is hard to hear and see, so you usually don't see someone coming up the trail until you're right on them. It can be a recipe for disaster."
The trail work day came at the end of my week in town, and this anecdote from Tara only confirmed what I had come to appreciate about this collective: they were fully dedicated to doing whatever it took to advocate for mountain biking respectfully and responsibly, while never losing sight of their sensibilities as riders who liked to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Further to the point, it seems that while trail user conflict has gone down considerably, the trail is still in danger of closing do to another unfortunate set of circumstances that is a bit more out of their control.
"The Mexican Spotted Owl," Tara tells me while we wait our turn on the cross cut saw. "Is an endangered species and pretty much drives every decision the forest service makes regarding this mountain. Under the endangered species act, the forest service would have the right to limit use on this trail. There are definitely some exceptions and stipulations on what that would look like, but there's a very real chance that mountain bikers could lose this trail. Of course, TORCA's going to fight to keep the trail, but we're going to need to be ready for a couple of different options. Fortunately, I met with a wildlife biologist and he was able to show me several other areas up here that we might be able to build on."
In that moment, unbeknownst to Tara, a whole lot of insight into this community's approach to stewardship had been revealed. Aspen Draw is a world-class trail, and it would be an absolute shame if it were to go away. Necessary perhaps, but a shame nonetheless. Of course, TORCA is going to work to keep it open, but the key here is that while many of us might panic and let our frustrations get in the way of problem solving, Tara and the rest of the crew here are prepared put in the work required to grow. Grow their trails, grow their value to the Forest Service, and grow their presence among community members on and off of the bike.
I've often felt that mountain bike advocates not only have to educate land managers on how mountain bikers are generally some of the planet's greatest stewards of the forest, but also have to fight the stigma among
mountain bikers who might worry that the riding sensibilities of their local mountain bike association might not align with their own. A large chunk of my professional existence is spent discussing big picture implications with various mountain bike communities and the advocates who are helping shape them. For whatever reason, it seems that those among us who are dedicated to the cultivation of strong communities and access to land are often perceived as a bit out of touch as riders. I know that's often very far from the reality of a situation, and TORCA would prove to be a shining example of the symbiosis of rad riding and mountain bike advocacy. There is nothing on Mount Lemmon for beginners. That is in part due to the fact that there hasn't been a single new trail on the mountain for nearly 20 years, which means that everything available to ride down is decidedly un-purpose built. The resulting ride is often fast, loose, jarring, technical, and riddled with consequence. It's a style of trail that breeds fast, strong, and fit riders. You might wonder, "Well, if they're not building new trails, what in the hell are they doing on that mountain?"
"Well, we start by being good stewards out on the mountain." Tara tells me. "The forest service doesn't get to come up here very often. A lot of them work at a desk at the ranger station, so we do our best to be a good partner to them and that's what we've spent the last 6 years doing. Number 1, we're trying to show the forest service that we are not going anywhere. Number 2, we are going to put in the hard work that a lot of other people don't want to do. You don't see other advocacy groups up doing this kind of stuff. We bring a lot of value to the forest service with upwards of 2,000 volunteer hours per year. We've been through numerous rangers just in the 6 years of TORCA's existence, and so far we've been able kind of wedge ourselves in enough so that we have a seat at the table."
No need to pack a snack on Aspen Draw, wild raspberries are aplenty.
Stewardship and advocacy aren't as sexy a subject on Pinkbike as shredding and trail building, but it is without question as equally important to embrace.
I asked Tara what she felt the next step was for TORCA on Lemmon.
"Now comes the asks." she replied immediately. "This is where the rubber meets the road. We have a huge challenge ahead of us. In order to even consider building a new trail, having mountain bike only trails, we need to do the work. We need to GPS it all. We need to tell them how we're gonna fund it and we need to go out and write those grants to fund. We need to put proposals together, timelines. We need to pay for the environmental studies that are gonna need to be done. It's a big project. I've been at this for 6 years. I've been a part of it since the beginning. It could be 20 years before all of it's fully realized."
I then mentioned to her that in 20 years, she might not want to ride everything that they're looking to add to the mountain. She thought about it for a moment, then shrugged and nodded in acknowledgment. TORCA is in it for the long game, which is about as pure a form of advocacy as you'll find anywhere.
TORCA's very story was born out of a desire to be more actionable on Mount Lemmon from two people who were admittedly on opposite sides of the mountain bike spectrum. Both Art Alcantara and Vernie Aikens were members of the Sonoran Desert Mountain Bicyclists association for several years, but both decided to take a break and think about their own ambitions for the Tucson region and Mount Lemmon specifically.
"I think Vern was probably more of a cross country guy," Art tells me over dinner after a full day of riding on Mount Lemmon. "I was more of a downhill guy, but we saw that we had a common ground and that more needed to be done as it relates to trails. We both had a lot of love for the mountain itself."
Vernie picked it up. "We just didn't feel like we had the backing and the support there," he continued. "We took a break for a little while - about a year - and on a trip back from Angel Fire we discussed it for ten hours and came to the conclusion that we wanted to give it a go. We thought we could do it better; do it the way we thought it should be done."
"We just wanted to take an active approach," Art explains. "And we decided that early on that if you wanted to be a board member you had milestones that you had to meet. You had to be present at 75% of the meetings. We do one a month. You had to lead either a trail work day or a group ride once a year. That was the only pre-qualification to be a board member. We wanted to ensure that anybody who came on board was of the same mindset, and that we all held each other accountable to that."
Art and Vernie left SDMB when it had only 12 members in total. They both admit that the other trail association in town has stepped up its efforts considerably in the time since then, both in terms of trail building down near the city and fundraising. But TORCA came from a need to be more proactive, and to cement the area mountain bikers as an asset to Tucson. That starts with trail work. I had my questions about what trail building entails on a mountain comprised primarily of decomposed granite. Higher up on the mountain, it can mean clearing the trails of fallen trees and mitigating erosion. Down low it can mean pruning, re-routes, and simply sweeping the trail of debris. In the desert, everything seems to have spikes - including the wildlife, so even the simplest of tasks can have its risks. Both Vernie and Art began riding on Mount Lemmon back in 2005, and while no new trails have technically been built in the time since then, they have certainly worked to re-open preexisting trails and adhere themselves as primary caretakers of the mountain. It's hard to quantify the role of these people on this mountain, but Lemmon is massive and their efforts are no less so.
I could, in fact, spend a lot of time gushing on and on about the rubber-to-dirt experience of riding on Mount Lemmon, and how a single mountain may very well contain 2 or 3 of my 10 favorite trails ever. I can very easily gush over how Tucson has single handedly changed my perception of mountain biking in the American Southwest. Hell, if I could just get someone to pay me for it, I'd write a dining guide for mountain bike destinations, and give Tucson 12 out of 10 stars. Those are all viable subjects that might elicit some strong responses and reactions from readers, and they're things I'm happy to talk about if you ever feel compelled to ask me. But I cannot pretend that the most profoundly affecting dynamic that I experienced personally was anything other than the sense of ownership and responsibilities TORCA has taken over their roles Mount Lemmon. I don't mean for that to be in an audacious sense either. It's not that they feel like they "own" the trails or the mountain per se, but there is a strong sense of pride in the reputation TORCA has developed as stewards of the mountain, and ultimately as assets to the Forest Service who have learned to lean on Tara, Art, Vernie, and the rest of the 200+ member strong collective.
We spend a lot of time patting exceptional athletes and trail builders on the back for what they do, and for the record I'm all for it. While advocacy might lack the sex appeal of other dynamics in mountain biking, the reality is that our sport's unsung heroes are the ones attending board meetings, and filling out 501c3 forms, and are often the ones answering to the questions and demands of various other trail user groups. A peak behind the curtain of a prolific mountain bike association reveals responsibilities and duties that, quite frankly, kind of suck, especially when considering that it's done on a volunteer basis. Advocacy and stewardship is very hard work but it's not without its rewards, and TORCA's recognition of that is leading to some exciting developments.
"We've gotten nothing in the way of new trails in 6 years," Art tells me as the remains of our meals are being swept away by staff at Risky Business restaurant following the afternoon of shuttles on the Prison Camp trail. "But we just got to see the vision. You asked us earlier what drives us. It's our vision of Mount Lemmon. I think we see what it can be. Now, I think the challenge is is passing the baton and encouraging younger
people to step up. You know, we're all in our late 30's and in our early 40's and we're beat up, we're tired, and so we have to engage the younger folks and hopefully pass on the baton so that they can see it through. We've laid the groundwork. Now it's just a matter of pulling it through."
There's nothing purpose built on Mount Lemmon, which is exactly what I love so much about it.
Mountain biking in the American Southwest: I finally get it. Thank you, Tucson.
Tucson mountain biking trails
Local KnowledgeBike Shops:
There are several bikes shops throughout Tucson. The folks at Arizona Cyclist were especially helpful to me all week. My hotel was right next to Sabino Cycles, which is just a few miles from the Mount Lemmon highway. Honestly, you're never more than a stone's throw from a quality local bike shop.Favorite Eats:
Where to begin? There wasn't a meal I didn't absolutely love. My favorite spot for breakfast and coffee was at Le Buzz. Great coffee, tasty pastries, and their oatmeal (yes, oatmeal) was a great way to start each morning there. You're 50 miles north of the Mexican border, so guess what? The Mexican food here is as good as it gets north of that ill-advised wall. Have at it. I had pizza one night at Bear Canyon Pizza, and it was also really good, as was their beer and wine selection. The guacamole at Taco Giro is proper. Area Digs:
There are no shortages of lodging options here. If you're visiting during the summer months, you'll obviously want to make sure the AC is reliable. I stayed at the Comfort Suites at Sabino Canyon. It was affordable, had great internet, was bike friendly, and just a few minutes from the Mount Lemmon Highway. Local Mountain Bike Club:
There are two primary associations in town: TORCA
. They have divided and conquered the region, and both are doing great work for Tucson and Mount Lemmon. TORCA organizes an annual festival on Mount Lemmon called Pachanga
. This year it'll be held from October 19-21, and is a great opportunity to check out all trails high and low on the mountain!Brice's Key Tips:
1: Tucson is absolutely a year-round riding destination. Don't be afraid of it in the summer. When it's hot in town, it'll be considerably cooler up on the mountain. Case in point: When it was 108 degrees in town, it was 70 degrees at the summit on the day I rode Aspen Draw. During the winter months, the summit trails might actually be snowed it, but the trails down low are going to be full tilt.
2: Bike choice: There is enough terrain here for all bikes. You can bring the DH rig down Aspen Draw, and most of Mount Lemmon can be ridden on a mid to long travel trail bike. Roadies love it here too, and you'll pass scores of them making the 27 mile, 7,000 vertical foot climb as you drive up Lemmon to ride trail.
3: Mount Lemmon is massive, and there are several true backcountry opportunities on the mountain. Consider using Homegrown MTB
as a shuttle or guide service if you've never been. Tara, Art and the rest of the team will make your trip that much better for it. They even offer bike rentals.