The Cycling House makes its winter home Tucson, Arizona. Riding in Tucson satiates our ravenous hunger for warm weather riding that only winter can create. Average high temperatures in January and February hover around 70ºF and rain is virtually nonexistent. Tucson roadways have huge well maintained bike lanes- making it easy to escape into the desert and mountains beyond the city limits. Once out of town the road’s lanes are wide as they wind through ranches and desert lands colored in pastels. From this point one can ride for hours on rolling foothill roads or spin base miles under endless blue skies. Of course, the option to climb out of the desert and into pine forests and crisp mountain air also exists, as Tucson is bounded on all sides by mountains- providing both scenic backdrop and an destination for a cycling getaway.
Over the past 15 years, we’ve compiled a list of must-do rides in Tucson that rival almost any U.S. destination you can think of, and in the winter there truly is no place we’d rather be.
Climbing Mount Lemmon
The Catalina Mountains tower above town to the north with Mount Lemmon (9,157 feet) standing tall at the center of the range. The climb to the top of Mt Lemmon is one of the benchmark rides in North America, with a total elevation gain of 5,500 feet over 26 miles. The grade is moderate (average 5-7%), allowing athletes to manage their power output for training purposes, or challenge themselves at setting record time. With butter smooth pavement, countless sweeping turns, and huge shoulders, descending this gargantuan climb is a wonderful reward.
Climbing Madera Canyon
The Santa Rita mountains lie south of Tucson and Madera Canyon is the gateway. The approach rolls through high desert lands and passes copper mines before beginning the ascent to the base of Mount Wrightson. The climb starts out innocently enough, following a high desert ridge with sweeping vistas before ducking into the shade of sycamore and oak trees as the road enters thecanyon. At this point the grade increases dramatically and the final kilometers are a test of determination as the last few hundred meters approach a 15% grade. Again, the pavement is excellent and descending back to the pecan orchards that line the Santa Cruz River valley is very fast. View cycling routes here.
Cycling Saguaro National Park
The park is split into East and West locations. The Eastern jurisdiction has one the most fun roads a cyclist has ever pedaled. Cactus Forest Drive is a 13 kilometer one-way loop. There is no better way to describe the sensation you get when you ride this road than to say it’s like being on a rollercoaster. A ribbon of perfect pavement rises and plunges again and again over desert hills and washes as it undulates between huge Saguaro cacti and large boulders.
Riding Gates Pass
The Tucson Mountains are rocky, rugged, and steep. Gates Pass snakes a sinuous passage over these mountains before falling back to the desert floor. The west side of Gates Pass has a web of excellent roadways with lots of fast twisty rollers. These roads expose you to iconic images of the American Southwest at every turn with both Saguaro National Park West and its profligate cacti and Old Tucson Studios, the site of many a cowboy film, accessible in the same ride. Gates Pass also boasts expansive views stretching in all directions with numerous mountain ranges in the distance. Explore other Tucson, AZ routes.
Kitt Peak is off the beaten path, and is an effort to get there but it’s worth it. Three Points is an ideal starting point for this 56 mile ride. The first 16 miles is along Highway 86, but a big portion of this was just re-paved with a good shoulder. For the final 12 miles, you turn off the highway towards Kitt Peak observatory and top out at 6,880 feet. The Kitt Peak Observatory is one of the largest in the country and is used by many Universities throughout the country. The lack of light pollution make it an amazing place to view stars. The climb is desolate, challenging and very similar to some European climbs. The views are spectacular and the descent is very fun and fast!
Beyond the Bike
The City of Tucson is both Southwestern cliche, in a good way, and an enigmatic conflation of art, culture, college town, and wild west that’s impossible to describe. You can find amazing enchilidas and fajitas by following your nose, or you can delve deeper to find cutting edge menus with French, Thai, Italian, and American influence. The town hosts numerous winter conventions and museum exhibitions. The historic Hotel Congress downtown is where notorious gangster John Dilinger and his gang were apprehended. You can still rent a room there, get a drink in its dark bar, or see a show in the trendy Club Congress that now occupies its ground floor. The Tucson Symphony Orchestra is world class and Broadway shows make frequent stops to perform in Tucson. It’s an interesting town that deserves to be explored.
Some of our favorite restaurants Tucson, AZ
There are TONS of great places to eat out in Tucson and know that our suggestions below are only scratching the surface of what the Tucson food scene has to offer. These are a few of the places we enjoy.
Cafe Poca Cosa – One of the best dining experiences in Tucson. Call to make a reservation, it’s always busy.
La Cocina – Downtown. Eclectic menu. Very cool spot. Check for live music with outside dining.
1702 – Great pizza and huge beer selection.
Reilly Pizza – Neat spot, downtown scene.
Le Buzz Cafe. Great food, pastries and coffee on the East side of town and a good spot to start / finish a ride.
Martines Comida – Great spot for affordable, authentic mexican food on 4th Ave. This is a great lunch spot.
Time Market – This is a great spot for quick food, good salads, beer on tap, coffee and a great atmosphere.
Le Buzz Cafe.
Tap and Bottle (downtown, 6th.)
The New York Times did a neat piece on Tucson called “36 hours in Tucson”.
That’s it for now. We hope you enjoyed this piece. If you’re looking for more information on cycling in Tucson, read this post on what makes Tucson, Arizona a great cycling destination.