Tucson trail tips: Riding in Arizona


05.04.23 at 11:45 am

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Regular contributor to the Draft, Tim Wild spent three days shredding through the mountains of Tucson, Arizona – here’s what he learned.

Don’t mess with the cacti

All the plant life on these trails wants to hurt you. The needle-like spines of the prickly pears. The fine, densely-packed spikes of the deceptively fluffy-looking teddy bear cholla. The barrel cacti that lurk on trail corners, tempting the unwary. And, of course, the giant saguaros, straight from Wile E Coyote, that tower above the landscape like bouncers, ready to turf out anyone foolish enough to consider straying from the path. I’m lucky, after a couple of falls, not to be riddled with holes. Trail guide Matt tells sobering tales of misadventure, complete with unfortunate riders having spines slowly extracted, trailside, from their very tenderest parts, as scores of gawking hikers stroll past. 

Photo credit: Corie Sprull

Beef head tacos are a thing

The Mexican food here is absolutely fantastic. We’re just an hour or so from the Mexican border, so the kind of stuff you’re never going to get at Wahaca – tripe, birria, beef head – is everywhere, and at great prices. The beef head is literally a portion of a whole cow’s head, stewed until the meat from the cheeks and jaw is meltingly tender, and served up like a stew on fresh corn tortillas. Pairs very well with a Tamarind Jarritos soda, pulled straight from a giant cooler, in a dusty parking lot decorated with abandoned cars. 


Go see Dane

This is a city – over a million people total – but it feels like a small town. The riding scene here is humming, with road, gravel and MTB trails everywhere you turn, and everyone I talked to was proud to big up their city. Local suspension wizard and bike shop owner Dane invites me over to his new Guru Bikes store for a chat, produces a charged light, and insists I join him and his buddies for an amazing couple of hours night-riding on the trails at Sweetwater Preserve, complete with the brightest night sky I’ve ever seen within city limits and a fat full moon to complete the backdrop. Thanks, Dane. 

Photo credit: Corie Sprull

Never say no to an uplift

Mt. Lemmon towers above the north-eastern edge of Tucson. You can, if you want, reach its legendary Bug Springs and Prison Camp downhill trails by riding nearly nine miles up a steep road climb, or riding all the way around to the back and tackling a gruelling gravel climb. I, however, am delighted to be given a shuttle ride up by Eric and Matt from Homegrown MTB, before plummeting right back down the local downhill classic, ‘Bug Springs’ trail. It’s nearly 8k of technical, challenging singletrack, with huge rocks, sharp turns, deep chutes and some stunning views over the city. We complete one of the most exciting days I’ve ever had on a bike by doing Prison Camp, another trail slightly further down the mountain, which is faster and less technical but no less fun, finishing up with beers, chips and salsa at the bottom. All less than 30 minutes drive from my nice hotel, bars,restaurants, and other good city stuff.

Roadies make mistakes too

We’re approached by a couple of hyper fit-looking road riders at our van stop on Mt. Lemmon, who both turn out to be local pro riders. Despite their pristine matching pro kit and remarkably well-maintained bikes, they have underestimated how much water they’ll need, and gratefully accept a top-up from our van stash before heading off to keep climbing. Stay humble folks, it’ll do you good in the long run. 


Granite is interesting

In the UK, I sometimes ride over rocks. Or off them. Very occasionally, they’re big enough for me to ride down them. But they’re nothing compared to the slabs of the ‘50 Year’ trail in Tucson. These house-high granite monsters are a total lung-buster to climb – the grip is so absolute that, despite them being steep enough to warrant ropes and belays, you can turn one agonising pedal stroke at a time and kind of crawl up. Madness. Then there’s the adrenaline-bath of riding down. It feels like riding off a cliff, but with enough front brake and steadiness of nerve, you can hold off the plummet until the last second, measuring every inch, until you turn back and laugh in disbelief at what you just did. So. Much. Fun. 

Photo credit: Corie Sprull

Keep your pedals level

It always happens when you least expect it. A moment’s inattention to the trail while admiring the vastness of the Southwestern landscape, and I’m suddenly and firmly mashed into the ground, taking a layer of skin off my palm and narrowly avoiding multiple impalements from the leaves of a prickly pear bush. My pedal clipped a rock, is all, but it’s enough to warrant some trailside triage from Matt, who binds the graze with enough tape to prevent it being dislodged by the rest of the day’s riding. All of this could have been prevented if I’d just worn my gloves, which I mistakenly assumed were back in my hotel room, but turned out to be in my backpack all along. Prepare in haste, bleed at leisure. 

Photo credit: Corie Sprull

Do not mention your wedding to my photographer

Pro MTB snapper Corie, like most people in the mountain bike business, needs another job on top to make ends meet – you can’t live on free Clif bars forever. In Corie’s case, that’s wedding and elopement photography in the stunning landscapes of her home in Utah, or occasionally beyond. When a pair of riders we meet happen to mention they’re engaged, the rest of us have to stand around for 15 minutes while she enthusiastically pitches her (admittedly formidable) skills to the happy couple, who perhaps weren’t expecting it. We wish them all the best. 

You can put tortilla chips in scrambled eggs

We don’t eat a bad mouthful for the entire trip, but special mention has to go to the Chaquiles Tradicional from Seis Kitchen. Three scrambled eggs, with a huge portion of tortilla chips folded into them, served with a bowl of refried beans topped with queso cheese, and served with enough fried potatoes to stun an elephant. All happily washed down with a pint of iced coffee, flavoured with cinnamon. If you ate this and didn’t then go on a five-hour mountain bike ride, you’d be in serious calorific trouble. 

Three days is never enough

I only got to spend half a week in Tucson, and sample some of the greatest hits, but there’s so much more to ride, and eat, and talk about over beers with the righteously friendly locals. And it’s only a 90 min drive from Phoenix airport. So if you like your adventure cycling with a substantial helping of unique culture, excellent food and extremely hostile plant life, make your way to Tucson as soon as you can. I’ll be back myself the first chance I get. 

Photo credit: Corie Sprull


If you’re inspired by Tim’s trip or  an enduro riding adventure abroad sounds appealing to you, it’s crucial that you have adequate insurance in place. Yellow Jersey’s comprehensive mountain bike travel insurance will cover emergency medical expenses, trip cancellation, trip curtailment and trip abandonment whilst riding or racing.  If you want to cover your bicycle against damage whilst in the hands of the airline and also whilst out on the trails, Yellow Jersey offer mountain bike insurance which offers worldwide cover. If you need some assistance, just give our friendly support staff a call on 0333 003 0046.

Follow Tim here:

Instagram- @timnwild


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