Tucson: Welcome to the Wild Urban West

With nearly 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers) of bike infrastructure, Tucson’s bike-friendly streets and paths provide easy access to some of the city’s most popular shops, cafes, and restaurants.

Bike-friendly streets and paths crisscross the city of Tucson, AZ.

My ride today, a 30-mile (48-kilometer) loop celebrating the best routes around town, starts at Reid Park. The largest park in Tucson, Reid Park is home to a city golf course, a zoo, and a grove of old eucalyptus trees that shade the playgrounds. I slingshot around the five-mile (eight-kilometer) path that wraps around the park, passing a little waterfall and a pond surrounded by benches, where locals lounge and feed the chatting ducks. Exiting the park, I enter a quiet neighborhood and head east. After ducking through an underpass, I pedal over a berm and onto the smooth asphalt path of the Aviation Bikeway, which sweeps up from the south.

Tucson has nearly 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers) of bike infrastructure; more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) are multiuse paths, away from motorized traffic. The Aviation Bikeway, landscaped with drought-resistant plants, is a fast track for cyclists navigating the southern edge of town. It’s quiet on today’s ride, the only noise coming from the clicking freewheels of other riders. I cross over traffic on the pedestrian Basket Bridge, an orange-and-red steel lattice that lets pinpricks of light through its woven design. I then cross a second bridge – known as the Snake Bridge due to its resemblance to a diamondback rattlesnake – and enter 4th Avenue, a bike boulevard and one of Tucson’s funkiest shopping districts.

4th Avenue is lined with locally owned shops selling books, vintage clothes, great burgers, cocktails, Mexican relics, recycled art, unique fare, and coffee. There is plenty of bike parking at bike racks, many of which are made from recycled parts or painted or dressed with crocheted sleeves; most of the bikes chained here are vintage and steel, used by locals to tackle some of the rougher Tucson pavement. Here, stops for a caffeine fuel-up are plentiful, though my favorite is Café Passé, with its outdoor courtyard and studious atmosphere.

Bike and pedestrian traffic picks up around me as I head toward the heart of downtown: everybody wants to avoid traffic congestion and parking headaches. My favorite place for lunch is The Little Cafe Poca Cosa, at the corner of Stone and Alameda; I love its bustling atmosphere, unapologetically loud music, and amazing, Mexico City-style food. I stop for a glass of horchata (with freshly crushed cinnamon) and a plate of mole (which makes me swoon). Then it’s back on the bike for a ride along The Loop.

Carving across the perimeter of town, The Loop is a bike path that winds along the Santa Cruz and Rillito rivers. The downtown stretch is dotted with small parks, filled with bright playground equipment. Paloverde trees line the path on one side, birds twittering among the lime-green branches. A row of feathery salt-cedar trees lines one park, where the Tucson Mountains come into view. To the north, the Santa Catalina Mountains loom, while in the south, the purple tips of the Santa Rita Mountains recede. When rain falls it quickly floods the riverbeds and makes the path smell like creosote, slightly medicinal and comforting.

Desert views are broken for a moment by a pecan grove, and I see a man wandering under the branches, picking up nuts. I approach a metal shipping container: it’s the Tucson’s Loop Bicycle Shop. The front door of this small shop faces the bike path and is a great place to stop for locally made energy bars and coffee, both of which are best enjoyed at the huddle of shaded tables.

As I leave the Santa Cruz section of The Loop and start riding alongside the Rillito river, saguaros stand sentinel by the path and underneath the bridges bats roost and you can hear them clicking and sounding off to each other; on summer evenings they flock out in dense clouds to feed on insects.

Exiting The Loop, I enter Mountain Avenue, which leads into the heart of the University of Arizona; the bike lane is wide and separated by a brick rumble strip. Ahead of me – just around the bend – is the Old Main, where locals and students meet for a joyride around town every Tuesday night.

Continuing on, I reach Campbell Avenue. I decide to make a jaunt south to Allegro to buy a rose-and-cinnamon gelato and cool down after my long ride. Then, I am off to Broadway Boulevard, where local shops and restaurants fill 1950s-era buildings in a stretch called The Sunshine Mile. Traffic is dense, but the bike lane is wide. After a mile I finish my ride at the edge of Reid Park – where I began – completing my tour of the Wild Urban West, from culture hub to open desert.

Emily Gindlesparger rides and writes in Tucson, AZ, where she loves using her bicycle for commuting and adventure. From rock climbing to kayaking to paragliding, the desert southwest offers up an infinite playground, and Gindlesparger has spent the past few years here sharing stories of human-powered adventure in local publications.

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