By: Kim Mills
With sun, citrus, and miles of road to ride, Tucson, AZ, is one of the best escapes I can think of to get a start on spring bike training. I crave the heat and like to sleep in, but if you’re an early riser like the locals, you’ll enjoy the desert morning breeze and save the Ramada room for the 85-95 degree afternoons.
I’ve made the 20-hour drive to Tucson for about 15 years now—there’s just something fun about a road trip that screams spring break to me. The jackets are shed in Cedar City. The shorts come out about an hour south of Flagstaff. I’m officially on vacation when the first saguaros appear on a hillside north of Phoenix.
Why Tucson? Lots of reasons: Hills and rollers, great food, fun rest days, and cold cocktails on the deck. Want to check it out? Here are a few of my favorite things to do:
Mt Lemmon: The 25 mile climb to Summerhaven, the community at the top of the highest point in the Catalinas, is a great way to wake the legs up after two days in the car. Park at McDonald’s off Tanque Verde Road and warm up on the flats for approximately four miles before the road turns up. With quality asphalt and good shoulders, the road climbs from sweltering saguaro desert to cool alpine forest. Water can be nonexistent so hydrate well before you go. In the past, there has been a working faucet near mile 19, but don’t count on it. There’s a café in Summerhaven.
Arivaca Road: Park in Amado near the Cow Palace and Longhorn Grill and ride 25 miles on Arivaca Road to the town of Arivaca. Rolling ranch land and desert make for a scenic ride, hence all the Harleys, but traffic is minimal, the shoulder is plenty wide, and there’s a shady café with local color just before you descend into the town. If you’re interested in more mileage, continue past Arivaca to the lonely junction with HWY 286.
Gates Pass to Saguaro National Park East: A nice morning climb up and over this small pass is a great way to start the day. The shoulder is minimal and there’s traffic, but lots of bikers ride here so in my experience drivers are mostly courteous. Park at the Richard E. Genser trailhead in Tucson Mountain Park near the Marriott Starr Pass Resort for an approximately 27 mile out and back ride.
Saguaro National Park West: One of the prettiest rides in Tucson, the Sunset Loop is a 9-mile roller coaster of steep hills and curves, and a perfect spot to see blooming saguaros and ocotillo up close. Extend the ride with an out and back to Colossal Cave.
After a hot day in the saddle, eating is my favorite thing to do. Tucson doesn’t disappoint when it comes to a wide variety of food.
Frost: Don’t miss the dreamiest gelato you’ll eat this side of Italy. There’s a shop conveniently located just down the road from where you park for the Mt. Lemmon ride.
Miss Saigon: They serve one of the best bowls of pho I’ve had outside of Vietnam.
Pollo Feliz: I don’t normally endorse fast food but their charcoal grilled chicken is ridiculously cheap and as good as any you’ll ever eat.
Tucson Tamale: Yummy tamales and an overwhelming number of choices.
Zemams: A good selection of Ethiopian dishes at excellent prices.
Contigo: Creative Latin flavors, stylish decor, and it’s fun to watch the chefs at work.
Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum: An outdoor museum with native flora and fauna, as well as a hummingbird aviary.
Trail Running/Hiking: There are miles of great trail to explore. Check out Tucson Mountain Park, Sabino Canyon, and Saguaro National Park. Mountain biking can be done in Tucson Mountain Park and on trails in Mt. Lemmon and in town at Fantasy Island.
Pima Air & Space Museum: 150 planes indoors, but the real fun is exploring all the planes in the outdoor graveyard.
Kitt Peak National Observatory: Approximately 90 minutes from Tucson, Kitt Peak is well worth the drive. Make reservations well in advance for their night viewing program and you’ll see galaxies, globular clusters, nebulae, planets, and more. If you’re feeling adventurous, go early and take your bike for a lap or two on the 12-mile climb to the top. And don’t forget a down jacket. It’s freezing up there after dark.
Best Drink for Hot Tucson Happy Hours: The Salty Dog
Shot of gin
Fresh squeezed ruby red grapefruit juice
Not only is this the perfect refreshing cocktail, but it’s medicinal, too. All that vitamin C will keep you healthy when you come back to Jackson and discover there’s still rain and snow for the foreseeable future.