There’s a reason why pro teams for both road and mountain bikes choose Tucson, AZ, as a winter training destination. For starters, it’s a heckuva lot cheaper than some island paradise. But while you won’t have beaches as a recovery option, you will have warm sun, mild temps, fresh desert air, and great riding and food. And for those with the budgets, there are plenty of high end resort and spas to cater to your every need. Perhaps more importantly, there’s a ton of fun things to do off the bike, too!
Tucson is home to Saguaro National Park, in and of itself worth a visit. But there’s a lot more hiding here, like the world’s largest airplane boneyard. And Biosphere 2. And three observatories to take advantage of the high altitude and clear skies. But first, let’s talk riding.
Road Riding in Saguaro National Park’s Rincon District
Saguaro National Park is split into two areas that sandwich the city of Tucson. East of town is Saguaro National Park’s Rincon Disctrict, which is the one you want to ride in. Park at the Visitor’s Center and ride on the 7-mile roller coaster of a paved loop.
You can hammer it for laps (though, technically, you should watch your speed because A) a couple of the corners can surprise you, and B) the park rangers might be using radar). It’s as much of a workout as you want to make it, with a few sustained climbs to test your legs, and corners to test your skills (and courage). We don’t recommend riding from town to and from the park – the roads are kinda rough, and traffic can be rougher. Save the miles for the park and enjoy the ride and the scenery.
It’s a closed loop, so it’s safe for riders of all skill levels. Kids might struggle with some of the hills, but there are pull outs and and look outs that make it fun to take snack breaks.
If you’re up for a real challenge, climb the infamous Mt. Lemmon. Locals park at the Safeway (Tanque Verde Rd. and Catalina Hwy), then start the roughly 6,000 foot climb to the top. Not to 6,000 feet above sea level, but an actual 6,000+ feet of elevation gain, with options to increase that to more than 8,000 feet if you go all the way to the peak. For more details, check out this site.
Go for Gravel at Saguaro’s Mountain District
Or, head over to the western side of town and seek out the dirt roads looping in and out of Saguaro National Park’s Tucson Mountain District. Our route was only about 22.5 miles, there were plenty more gravel and dirt roads to explore all over this area. We parked at the Visitor’s Center, which allowed easy access to sections inside and out of park boundaries. There might be the occasional tumbleweed crossing the road, but mostly you need to watch for Javelinas and Road Runners!
Mountain biking in Tucson Mountain Park
The mountain biking is excellent, too. We rode out from the JW Marriott resort and were on the trails in minutes. Most trails are well marked and easy to follow, in part thanks to signage donated by REI, but it still helps to download Trailforks or similar to your smartphone.
Our route had us out for a couple hours thanks to photo stops and general goofing off, but you could ride this much quicker. Or add any of the many other loops and connectors in the area to string together miles and miles of singletrack. There’s plenty of smooth flowing stuff and rocky, technical areas, all of which can be ridden in either direction to keep it challenging. Pack some snacks and find the old house on the trail to stop for lunch!
No matter where or what you ride, be sure to bring plenty of water. This is the desert, after all, and having more than you need is a smart move. And extra tubes and patch kits for your tires, because the other thing to be aware of are the cacti, which are everywhere on the side of the road and trail in all shapes, sizes and varieties!
What else do I need to know?
Winter and the shoulder seasons are definitely the time to go. Summer can top 110ºF during the day, which is no fun and risks dehydration and heat stroke. Use this as your real world alternative to virtual world indoor cycling training and you may just run into a few pro cyclists while you’re there.
A big burrito is a great finish (or start?) to any ride, so be sure to hit up Martins Comida Chingona for incredible Mexican food for (their Instagram is way better than their website). The owner is a real character, and the decor is worth poking around in the various rooms. It’s a sit down experience, but if you need a quick burrito on the way to the trails, our Uber driver recommended Viva Burrito, which is a local chain, is open 24/7, and is very affordable.
There’s 15+ bike shops in Tucson, so you’re never too far from one. Several shops rent road and mountain bikes, and Tucson Bicycle Rentals will even deliver and pickup their fleet of higher end Trek and Specialized bicycles for you.
Bringing the family? Be sure to check out our complete travel guide for lots more fun stuff to do in Tucson on our sister site, AdventurousWayOfLife.com!