Guidebook

Ride the Sonoran Desert on Tucson’s 10 Best MTB Trails

Experience the magic of the Sonoran Desert while pedaling the best mountain bike trails in Tucson, Arizona.

Description

When you hear the word "desert," you might envision a desolate landscape of blowing sand and rocky outcroppings, completely devoid of life. That mental image couldn't be further from the reality found in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona.

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.

The Full Lemmon Drop
The best Adventures on FATMAP, hand-picked by FATMAP’s Editorial team.

The Full Lemmon Drop

46.9 km
1,125 m
3,046 m
One of the most epic and brutally-gnarly shuttle runs in the USA!
Extreme
Private
CDO Shuttle / Canada Del Oro Trail
The best Adventures on FATMAP, hand-picked by FATMAP’s Editorial team.

CDO Shuttle / Canada Del Oro Trail

34.9 km
459 m
2,255 m
An epic backcountry shuttle dropping from the top of Mount Lemmon into Golder Ranch.
Extreme
Private
Best of Golder Ranch
The best Adventures on FATMAP, hand-picked by FATMAP’s Editorial team.

Best of Golder Ranch

21.7 km
476 m
476 m
This route links up the most entertaining segments in the Golder Ranch trail system for advanced or adventurous intermediate riders.
Severe
Private
Sweetwater Preserve Trail System
The best Adventures on FATMAP, hand-picked by FATMAP’s Editorial team.

Sweetwater Preserve Trail System

16.2 km
207 m
207 m
A classic, scenic desert mountain bike trail with challenging rock sections.
Moderate
Private
Honeybee-X Trails
The best Adventures on FATMAP, hand-picked by FATMAP’s Editorial team.

Honeybee-X Trails

45.5 km
483 m
483 m
A classic, scenic desert mountain bike trail that is just plain fun to ride for all skill levels.
Easy
Private
Fantasy Island
The best Adventures on FATMAP, hand-picked by FATMAP’s Editorial team.

Fantasy Island

18.9 km
169 m
169 m
A classic cross country ride on the southern edge of Tucson
Easy
Private
Arizona Trail Race: Saguaro National Park to Oracle State Park
The best Adventures on FATMAP, hand-picked by FATMAP’s Editorial team.

Arizona Trail Race: Saguaro National Park to Oracle State Park

136.3 km
3,308 m
3,024 m
The Arizona Trail Race route, running from Saguaro National Park past Mount Lemmon and culminating at Oracle State Park.
Difficult
Private
Starr Pass Loop
The best Adventures on FATMAP, hand-picked by FATMAP’s Editorial team.

Starr Pass Loop

13.6 km
235 m
235 m
A well-rounded mountain bike ride through the gorgeous Tucson Mountains.
Difficult
Private
Brown Mountain
The best Adventures on FATMAP, hand-picked by FATMAP’s Editorial team.

Brown Mountain

7.5 km
228 m
228 m
Enjoy stupendous views of the Tucson Mountains and Saguaro National Park.
Severe
Private
24 Hours in the Old Pueblo Race Course
The best Adventures on FATMAP, hand-picked by FATMAP’s Editorial team.

24 Hours in the Old Pueblo Race Course

26.4 km
337 m
337 m
One of the oldest and largest 24-hour races still in existence.
Moderate
Private