The Sonoran Desert, especially in the springtime, is a magical landscape filled with vibrant life! Here, you'll encounter almost every type of cactus imaginable, in all shapes and sizes and formations. In the spring, the cacti are covered with colorful blooms and the buds of new growth, and in between, wildflowers sprout in vast, colorful carpets from the desert floor. Birds flit from bush to tree to cactus, bees buzz amongst the flowers, roadrunners zip across the trail, and larger wildlife like javelina, coyotes, jackrabbits, deer, and more can be spotted at the right time of day. While yes, the desert is a harsh environment and every living thing fights hard to survive, life flourishes here in the rocky, rugged landscape around the city of Tucson.
Rising above the desert on both sides of town are impressive mountain ranges. To the west, the Tucson Mountains are a minor range that rises a few thousand feet above the city. The desert landscape climbs these low mountains all the way to their summits. But to the northeast, the Santa Catalina mountains positively soar above the outskirts of the city.
Tucson lies at a mere 2,400 feet above sea level, but the Catalinas soar to 9,157 feet at the top of Mount Lemmon! With almost 7,000 vertical feet of prominence above the city, the Catalinas strike an impressive profile on the horizon, inspiring the poetic mind with their beauty and the adventurous mind with the desire to explore. The mountains rise so high that the desert environment is left far below, with the ecosystem transitioning to alpine forests and meadows at the summit. Mount Lemmon receives enough snow in the winter that it's even home to a small ski area.
The Catalinas are riddled with trails for hiking, biking, and trail running. Mountain bikers even have the opportunity to ride two different shuttle runs of massive proportions that drop off the top of Mount Lemmon and descend all the way to the valley floor. Both runs—the Full Lemmon Drop and the CDO Shuttle—are formidable routes that should only be undertaken by advanced and expert-level riders.
But this guidebook covers the breadth of Tucson mountain biking here in the Sonoran Desert, and in the valley around the city, you'll find endless miles of flowy cross country trails, techy slickrock slab riding, burly rock gardens, and more. And on nearly every trail, you'll enjoy gorgeous views of towering saguaro cacti and the vibrant life of the Sonoran Desert.
Top trail hits include Sweetwater Preserve and the iconic the 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo Race Course for flowy cross country riding. Golder Ranch offers highly-acclaimed technical rock riding. And Starr Pass embodies all the characteristics you'd expect in a generally well-rounded mountain bike ride, with rewarding views of the region to boot.
My advice? If you're coming from out of town to ride in the Sonoran Desert, skip straight over Phoenix and drive another couple of hours south to get to Tucson. Yeah, sure, Phoenix has tons of trails that are objectively pretty damn good, but Tucson is a real jewel. An absolute gem. The vast expanses of open space, the miles and miles of singletrack, the beauty of the desert, and the impressive stature of the mountains are nearly impossible to rival.