A Complete Guide To Tucson Mountain Biking: The Best Trails & More!

Tucson, Arizona is home to countless outdoor adventures like hiking among the giant saguaro cacti in Saguaro National Park, skiing at the southernmost ski resort in the US on Mt. Lemmon, world-class road cycling along the city’s 100+ miles of paved trail, and – my favorite – mountain biking in Tucson’s beautiful desert landscapes.

There’s a good chance that affiliate links are scattered throughout this post. If you click on one I may receive a small commission at no extra charge to you and I’ll definitely be using it to buy bike gear.

Tucson mountain biking is still a bit under the radar for visitors, but the singletrack in and around the city is some of the best in the state. You’ll find trails for every rider from plenty of flowy singletrack, gnarly downhill descents, epic backcountry rides, and lots of technical climbs to hone your trials skills. So if you’re itching for a winter mountain bike getaway, consider heading south to Tucson.

Learn everything you need to know about all the best mountain biking in Tucson, Arizona


Why mountain bike in Tucson?

Mountain biking in Tucson is a pretty unique experience. You can get the best of both worlds of long cross-country pedals as well as big, technical downhill descents and everything in between. There is a ton of variety in Tucson and if you’re a road biker, the road cycling community is huge as well.

What also sets Tucson apart from a lot of other desert destinations are the tall Saguaro cacti (among other cacti species) that line the trails. Phoenix has Saguaro as well, but not to the extent that Tucson does and it’s a pretty cool experience riding among these ancient giants.

Mountain bike leaning against trail sign surrounded by tall Saguaro cacti in Tucson, Arizona
The Saguaro cacti are one reason mountain biking in Tucson is so unique

Important things to know before mountain biking in Tucson

Do NOT underestimate the heat

Depending on what time of year you visit Tucson, the temperatures can be dangerously hot. Summer temps can easily top 100° and there is very little shade. If you do visit during the warmer months, I highly recommend getting an early start to your ride – like 6am on the trail. See below for the best time of year to visit Tucson for mountain biking.

Water, water, water

Even if the temps aren’t blazing hot, the desert still sucks all the moisture from your body so it’s imperative to stay hydrated. Take at least 2-3L of water with you on each ride and be sure to hydrate throughout the day.

Tubeless tires will save you from many flats

Most mountain bikers ride with tubeless tires these days, but if you don’t, consider swapping to a tubeless setup before you head to Tucson. The trails are littered with cacti and thorns and punctures are pretty much inevitable. Tubeless tires will save you from many trailside mechanicals.

Rattlesnakes live here

I didn’t see any rattlesnakes the several times I’ve ridden in Tucson, but they do live in Tucson and it’s something to be aware of. Rattlesnakes do not want to bite you, but if they feel threatened they will strike. Watch where you step off-trail and always check where you sit!

Bring tweezers on every ride

Tucson is full of cacti. They’re beautiful to look at, but they are nasty if you come in contact with their spines! I’ve discovered needles in my hand when I didn’t even touch a cactus. Bring some tweezers with you just in case. In the very unfortunate event that you find yourself off your bike and in a cactus, you’ll want them 100%.


5 Mountain Bike Networks to check out in Tucson

The mountain bike trails in Tucson are spread out far and wide, although the majority of the trail networks are situated to the west and north of the city. Below are some of the best mountain networks to explore in Tucson. In the next section, I include a few favorite route recommendations and must-ride trails.

  1. Sweetwater Preserve
  2. Catalina State Park/50 Year Trails
  3. McKenzie Ranch
  4. Marana Trails
  5. Mt. Lemmon
  6. Tucson Mountain Park & Enchanted Hills
  7. Fantasy Island

1. Sweetwater Preserve

Sweetwater Preserve is a beautiful park on the western edge of Tucson. It’s a popular area, so expect hikers, runners, mountain bikers, and even equestrians. There are lots of different cacti species here including saguaro, barrel cactus, chollas, and more. Many were blooming when I rode in May, making the landscape even more spectacular.

Most of the trails at Sweetwater Preserve have great flow and the pedaling is mostly casual. Some of the trails do have lots of rocks and chunder and a few of the blue-rated trails like Wildflower Ridge and Lost Arrow have difficult features that may need to be walked. There is minimal sustained elevation gain/loss, so it’s a great place to get a lot of miles in. The descent down Desperado is a must! These trails are also very well marked with maps at each intersection, so it’s easy to navigate.

Mountain bike trail in Sweetwater Preserve in Tucson, Arizona
Desert singletrack in Sweetwater Preserve

2. Catalina State Park/50 Year

Catalina State Park and the 50 Year Trail make up a stunning network at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains. This area is characterized by lots of rocks – big and small. It’s one of the more popular areas in Tucson for mountain bikers and it’s also one of the most challenging. You can seriously hurt yourself here. A full-face helmet is highly recommended for the upper trails.

The trails at Catalina are not well marked at all with signs, so you need some sort of GPS app like TrailForks or MTB Project. You can also expect some hike-a-biking, but the descents are worth it and there are tons of alt-lines to session if you want to work on your trials and slow-speed skills.

Desert mountain biking sinlgetrack in Catalina State Park outside of Tucson, Arizona
Flowy singletrack section in Catalina State Park

3. McKenzie Ranch

McKenzie Ranch is the ultimate new-school cross-country trail network. It’s a mountain bike competition course and there is no tech – it’s all smooth, buff trail with great flow.

There are some fun, fast downhills, mellow climbs, and great views of the desert and surrounding mountains. It is a bit of a trek to get out there from the city, but I think it’s worth it for families, beginners, or cross-country diehards.

If you only want to do one loop, do the Lozen loop. Also, as I mentioned above, this is a racecourse so it might be smart to avoid it on weekends, or else you may drive all the way out there and not be able to ride.

Desert singletrack mountain bike trail at McKenzie Ranch outside of Tucson, Arizona
The trails at McKenzie Ranch are smooth, buff, and great for fast cross-country riding

4. Marana Trails

The Marana Trails are located north of Tucson and offer amazing views out over the city and surrounding mountain ranges. This area is kind of out in the middle of nowhere, except the trailhead is situated within the gates of the Ritz-Carlton.

There aren’t many mountain bike trails here, but if you have the stamina and patience to do the Tour de Tortolitas route I recommend below, I think it’s one of the most beautiful areas for riding around Tucson. You can also enter the Marana Trails through Honeybee Canyon to the east, which I haven’t done.

Desert ridgeline singletrack for mountain biking above Tucson, Arizona
The Tour de Tortolitas in the Marana network is a beautiful ride with great views out over the city

5. Mt. Lemmon

Mt. Lemmon is the highest peak in the Santa Catalina Mountains at 9,159 feet. It’s also home to the most technical and rowdy mountain biking in Tucson. Most people shuttle Mt. Lemmon, but you can access the trails by riding up the road. Expect challenging rock gardens, steep and technical climbs, incredible views out over the city, and sections of awesome flow.

One of the most iconic rides to do in Tucson for advanced riders is The Full Lemmon Drop.

6. Tucson Mountain Park & Enchanted Hills

I haven’t made it to Tucson Mountain Park or Enchanted Hills during my visits to Tucson, but it is one of the more popular places to ride around the city. From the research I’ve done, I can tell that there’s a mix of easy, cross-country pedaling, fun flow, and old-school tech, some of which require trials skills (or a hike-a-biking).

If you’ve ridden Tucson Mountain Park or Enchanted Hills, please chime in below and let us know your favorite trails and loops.

7. Fantasy Island

Fantasy Island is a small network of trails on the southeast side of the city and it’s a great place for entry-level mountain bikers or families. I haven’t (yet) biked at Fantasy Island (there’s so much mountain biking to cover in Tucson!), but I have heard that Fantasy Island is made up of pretty mellow cross-country terrain with well-signed trails and not a lot of tech. The trails are well marked and there is one main loop with several optional side loops.

The loops are ONE-WAY, so be sure you follow the signs. You can learn more about Fantasy Island here. You also need a permit to ride at Fantasy Island, which can be purchased on this page. I have heard that the trails close or change frequently, so be sure to check conditions before you grab the permit.

Discover more fun activities to do in Tucson


The Best Of Tucson, Arizona Mountain Biking

7 Best route recommendations

1. Tour de Sweetwater

ROUTE STATS

  • Route difficulty: Intermediate with a few expert features
  • Trail network: Sweetwater Preserve
  • Highlight trails: Desperado
  • Mileage: 13.4 miles
  • Elevation gain/loss: 860 ft +/-
  • Route directions: Sweetwater Preserve Parking > Saguaro Vista > Black Rock Loop > Sun Circle Loop > Lost Arrow > The Spine > Ocotillo Hill > Red Canyon via Homestead > Homestead > The Spine > Ocotillo Hill > Redtail Ridge > Night Hawk > Desparado S and N > Wildflower Ridge > Roller Coaster
  • Map/GPS: TrailForks
Screenshot of map of Tour de Sweetwater mountain biking route in Tucson, Arizona
Tour de Sweetwater Loop

This loop links up the best trails in Sweetwater Preserve. There is some technical climbing, especially on Lost Arrow, that may be a challenge for some riders and the descent down Wildflower Ridge is also surprisingly technical for a blue, but super fun!

There are multiple options to modify this route and the trails very well marked with maps so you can choose your own adventure. If you want to make it shorter, I would cut off the Black Rock Loop. Definitely descend down Desperado, though!

Make it shorter

Skip the Black Rock Loop which will cut off about 2 miles. You can also skip the descent down Red Canyon, which cuts off a second climb back up The Spine and Ocotillo Hill.

2. Catalina Wine Mixer

ROUTE STATS

  • Route difficulty: Beginner+/Intermediate
  • Trail network: Catalina State Park
  • Highlight trails: The Chutes, 50-Year Trail
  • Mileage: 7.5 miles
  • Elevation gain/loss: 450 ft +/-
  • Route directions: Golder Parking > 50 Year Trail > The Chutes (or Chutes Alternate) > Chutes Acc > Connector > 50 Year Trail
  • Map/GPS: TrailForks
Screenshot of map of Catalina Wine Mixer mountain biking route in Tucson, Arizona
Catalina Wine Mixer

This loop links up the most approachable trails at Catalina State Park. Start off with a mellow pedal along the 50 Year Trail and then drop into The Chutes which has some fun roller coaster-like berms and turns. Return via 50 Year Trail.

Make it harder

There are lots of ways to make this route harder. See 50 Year/Middle Gate Loop below.

3. 50 Year/Middle Gate Loop

ROUTE STATS

  • Route difficulty: Advanced
  • Trail network: Catalina State Park
  • Highlight trails: Upper Fifty Year, Middle Gate
  • Mileage: 6.7 miles
  • Elevation gain/loss: 450 ft +/-
  • Route directions: Golder Parking > Chutes Acc (or 50 Year Trail) > Upper Fifty Year > Middle Gate > 50 Year (optional: climb up 50 Year to The Chutes)
  • Map/GPS: TrailForks
Screenshot of map of 50 Year/Middle Gap mountain biking route in Tucson, Arizona
50 Year/Middle Gap Loop

If you’re looking for some more adventure and a challenge in Catalina State Park, this loop definitely steps it up a notch from the Catalina Wine Mixer route above.

Even though it’s only 6.7 miles, don’t underestimate this ride. There’s some techy climbing, a few hike-a-bikes, and plenty of high-consequence rock features, especially if you take the A-lines (aka the harder lines).

You will need some sort of navigation on this route as the trails are not marked.

Make it longer

Option 1: Climb back up 50-Year Trail and do The Chutes

Option 2: If you want to make your ride even longer, continue climbing up Around The Mountain to Rattlesnake and drop down into Cowboy Slickrock, which is really fun. This will add about 2.5 miles to the loop.

4. McKenzie Ranch Loop

ROUTE STATS

  • Route difficulty: Beginner
  • Trail network: McKenzie Ranch
  • Highlight trails: Lozen Loop
  • Mileage: 9.7 miles
  • Elevation gain/loss: 727 ft +/-
  • Route directions: Red Hill Ranch Parking > Lozen Loop > Daheste Loop
  • Map/GPS: TrailForks
Screenshot of map of McKenzie Ranch mountain biking route in Tucson, Arizona

There are two loops that make up McKenzie Ranch: the Lozen Loop and the Daheste Loop and they are both directional, so you need to ride them clockwise.

You can combine them to make one big 9.7-mile loop, which is this route. If you only want to do one loop, I thought the Lozen Loop is the better of the two. This ride is very cross-country with no technical features, but it’s fast and flowy and built well for mountain bikers. It’s also very well marked with maps at each intersection.

5. Tour de Tortolitas

ROUTE STATS

  • Route difficulty: Advanced with some suffering
  • Trail network: Marana
  • Highlight trails: Wild Burro, Ridgeline Trail
  • Mileage: 15.6 miles
  • Elevation gain/loss: 2,600 ft +/-
  • Route directions: Ritz-Carlton parking (go through the entrance gate) > Lower Wild Burro > Alamo Springs (hike-a-bike) > Wild Burro > Loop Trail > Ridgeline > Wild Burro > Wild Mustang > Javelina
  • Map/GPS: TrailForks
Screenshot of map of Tour de Tortolitas mountain biking route in Tucson, Arizona
Tour de Tortolitas

This is a tough ride and it’s definitely not for everyone. Don’t attempt it in warmer months because it could be dangerous due to the heat. All that being said, it’s one of the most beautiful and remote rides around Tucson and one of my favorite routes.

The ride starts with a mellow pedal up Wild Burro and then you get into a serious hike-a-bike up Alamo Springs. I’m not sure even the 1% of pro riders could do it. (Make sure you take the hike-a-bike trail on the right of the canyon, not the left).

After the hike-a-bike, there’s still a bit more climbing, but at least it’s rideable. The loop around upper Wild Burro and Ridgeline is some of the best singletrack in Tucson with amazing desert views and a lookout over the city followed by a ripping descent.

You can finish your ride by hiking back down the Alamo Springs hike-a-bike section or continue on to Wild Mustang. The climb up to the top of Wild Mustang is burly and awful, but then you get into a technical descent with a bit of everything including lots of expert rock features and some flow. If you’re feeling worked after Ridgeline, consider taking the hike-a-bike back down or else Wild Mustang isn’t going to be enjoyable.

Have TrailForks or MTB Project downloaded to your phone and bring at least 3L of water as this area is very remote!

Make it shorter

If you get down Ridgeline Trail and are feeling done, you can exit the way you came in via Alamo Spring (it’s not rideable downhill either…)

6. Bug Springs to Molina Basin or La Milagrosa

ROUTE STATS

  • Route difficulty: Intermediate (Molina Basin) or Expert (La Milagrosa)
  • Trail network: Mt. Lemmon
  • Highlight trails: Bug Springs
  • Mileage: 9.5 miles (Molina Basin), 14 miles (La Milagrosa)
  • Elevation gain: 988 ft+ (Molina Basin), 1,504 ft+ (La Milagrosa)
  • Route directions: Shuttle to Bug Springs Parking > Bug Springs > Prison Camp > Molino Basin > AZT – Bellota > La Milagrosa
  • Map/GPS: TrailForks
Screenshot of map of Bug Springs Shuttle mountain biking ride in Tucson, Arizona
Bug Springs to Molina Basin or La Milagrosa

This ride is best done as a shuttle (for shuttle services see Shops & Rentals below). There’s no climbing trail, so if you are going to climb up it’ll be on the Mt. Lemmon highway.

Bugs Springs is one of the most popular mountain bike trails in Tucson and a favorite among the locals. The short version ends on Molina Basin and is a great choice for intermediate riders.

If you have the skills, you can continue onto La Milagrosa, which is a very technical and very chunky doubleblack. It has a substantial climb on the AZT to get to the start and then it’s full-on for another 4-miles.

For beginner or intermediate riders, you’ll definitley want to stop at the end of Molina Basin.

7. Starr Pass Classic

ROUTE STATS

  • Route difficulty: Intermediate (Molina Basin) or Expert (La Milagrosa)
  • Trail network: Tucson Mountain Park
  • Highlight trails: ?
  • Mileage: 10 miles
  • Elevation gain/loss: 764 ft
  • Route directions: Richard Genser Star Pass Parking > Rock Wren > David Yetman > Sarasota > Explorer > Little Cat > Rock Wren
  • Map/GPS: TrailForks
Screenshot of map of Starr Pass Classic mountain biking route in Tucson, Arizona
Starr Pass Classic

Note: I have not ridden this route! I included it because Tucson Mountain Park is a popular mountain bike network in Tucson (although I personally have yet to ride it).

This route is a recommendation by the Sonoran Desert Mountain Bicyclists Association and it gets good reviews. If you ride it, let us know how it is in the comments!


Best Time Of Year To ride in Tucson

The best time to mountain bike in Tucson is the late fall through winter and early spring. I’ve visited in November, which was perfect, and also in May, which was definitely bordering on too hot.

Tucson can actually get snow in the winter, so if you want to ride the trails on Mt. Lemmon, be sure to check the forecast.


What to pack for your Tucson Mountain Bike Trip

For a complete list of what mountain bike gear to pack for your trip to Tucson, head over to my Complete Mountain Bike Trip Packing List and Mountain Bike Pack Essentials posts.

Tucson MTB Gear Essentials

Tubeless tire kit for mountain bikes

Tubeless Tire Kit + Tire Boot

There are a lot of sharp, pointy things in Tucson so be prepared for flats with a tubeless tire kit and a tire boot.

Osprey hydration pack for mountain biking

Hydration Pack

Bring LOTS of water with you on every ride. Tucson is very deserty and can be very hot. Be prepared with at least 3L of water in your hydration pack. It’s also a good idea to add a scoop of electrolyte powder to help replenish your body with electrolytes.

Bell Super DH mountain bike helmet

Helmet

Depending on which mountain bike trails you plan on riding, you might want to pack a full-face helmet. I would definitely recommend a full-face for anything on Mt. Lemmon and the Upper 50 Year Trails. I really like the Bell Super DH because you can wear it as a full-face or as a normal helmet.


Tucson Bike Shops, Rentals, Shuttles, & tours

Tucson is a bike town, so there are plenty of bike shops for rentals and emergency repairs. If you’re looking for a shuttle or tour guide, they’ve got you covered there, too. For a full mountain bike experience, definitely check out Home Grown. If you’re looking to just do some mellow riding, Tucson Mountain Bike Rentals and Tours is a great choice.

Home Grown: Home Grown is a locally-owned mountain bike shuttle and tour company in Tucson. They offer shuttles up to Mt. Lemmon as well as guided tours, full-suspension Specialized bike rentals, and even coaching sessions.

Tucson Mountain Bike Rentals and Tours: They offer free bike delivery to Honeybee Ranch, 50 Year Trail, or Oro Valley Hotels. They only offer short travel full-suspension mountain bikes and hardtails (no rear suspension), though, so only book with them if you plan on keeping things mellow (i.e. no Mt. Lemmon). They also rent road bikes.


Where to eat & Drink in Tucson

There are so many great places to eat in Tucson, you really can’t go wrong! Below are three of my favorite restaurants:

  • Seis Kitchen: Really good fresh Mexican food with an emphasis on ‘green’ and local. There are two locations – one in the San Agustin Marketplace and one in Joesler Village. They also have a great taco and margarita happy hour (Joesler Village only).
  • Tumerico: A vegan and vegetarian Mexican restaurant in downtown Tucson, Tumerico serves up amazing and fresh food in a laidback atmosphere. Even if you’re not veggie, you’ll find something delicious here.
  • Agustin Kitchen: Located in the San Agustin Marketplace, Agustin Kitchen has a beautiful outdoor patio and serves tasty food. If you’re feeling extra hungry after a big day on the trails, the AK Burger is really good!

Where to stay in Tucson

Tucson Camping

There are a few campgrounds around Tucson. Catalina State Park Campground is probably the most developed and it’s close to the 50 Year Trails. Book ahead of time, though, because it fills up fast.

You can also purchase a $15 Small-Group Permit to camp on any Arizona State Trust Land for five consecutive days. I like to use the AllStays Camp & RV app to find dispersed campsites.

Mountain biker-friendly Hotels

If you prefer to stay in a hotel, The Tuxon is a good choice for mountain bikers. It has secure bike storage for your bikes plus complimentary cruisers if you want to take a spin on the nearby Loop Trail (see below).

The Tuxon is also located near Tucson Mountain Park and Highway 10 so you can easily get to other mountain bike networks.


Other things to do around Tucson

Bike The Loop

The Loop // Discover the best Tucson mountain biking. From flowy singletrack to epic backcountry rides, there is outdoor adventure for every rider.

In addition to awesome mountain biking, Tucson is also known for its world-class road riding including hundreds of miles of paved bike path. The Loop (aka the Chuck Huckelberry trail) is a 131-mile mostly off-road route that connects parks, bike paths, art, restaurants, and more.

Not feeling up for a century? You can just do portions of the loop like the Rillito River Park Path or the Santa Cruz River Park Path.

Visit Saguaro National Park

You’ll see plenty of saguaro cacti when you’re pedaling along Tucson’s mountain biking trails, but if you want to learn more about these giant desert plants or take a stroll along a nice desert walkway, head to Saguaro National Park.

The Park is actually split into two – East and West and it takes about 20-30 minutes to drive between the two (you only need to pay one entrance fee). To learn more about Saguaro National Park and what to do there, head to my friend Kristen’s post on the Ultimate Saguaro National Park Outdoor Adventure Guide.

Drive the Mt. Lemmon Scenic Byway

If you don’t do the Full Lemmon Drop, it’s still worthwhile to drive up the Mt. Lemmon Scenic Byway. This winding, paved road takes you up into the Santa Catalina Range and offers amazing views out over Tucson and the surrounding mountains and desert landscapes.

The road is about 28 miles one-way and takes 1-2 hours to reach the summit. It ends at Marshall Gulch picnic area where you can take a stroll around the trails and have lunch before starting back down. Time your trip back down with sunset for an unforgettable experience!

Sunset views of Tucson from Mt. Lemmon Highway

Have you experienced Tucson mountain biking? What are your favorite trails or places to ride? Let us know in the comments below!

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Discover the best Tucson mountain biking. From flowy singletrack to epic backcountry rides, there is outdoor adventure for every rider.

2 Comments

  1. I can attest that bikers and hikers will enjoy Tucson Mountain Park. It\’s scenic and the trails range from rather mellow to a technical challenge. Just bring a sense of humor about occasionally wrecking into a cactus patch (and tweezers, like you recommend). Surprisingly, brief sections of Fantasy Island are more technically challenging than what one may expect. Because some of these sections come up with basically no warning, it\’s the closest I\’ve ever come to wetting my pants on a bike ride. Tortolita Mountain Park was my personal favorite; feels so remote. If you go back to Tucson, I recommend exploring Redington Pass. I\’ve never had a bad encounter with e.g. someone driving an ATV or a motorcycle. Fair warning though — I\’ve seen more scary snakes here than elsewhere in the Tucson area.

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