Nicole and I generally want to use this platform to share more manageable, more moderate ride options that anyone can find joy in. That usually means shorter options that are good for any work schedule or fitness level. But being racers on the brink of a return to racing after the long COVID hiatus, we are remembering that we definitely find joy in pushing ourselves beyond those boundaries as well. And we firmly believe that in so doing we can inspire others to push their own boundaries as well. There are always multiple options for tackling a big route like this, making it accessible for all types. Most importantly, as long as adequate fueling and hydration strategies are observed, we’ve long reveled in the universal ability to surprise ourselves with how far we can push the envelope from time to time. It’s our sincere hope that this sort of adventure, even if grossly disproportionate at first glance, can inspire some to dream of bigger personal riding goals, if nothing else.
For years, Nicole and I have been hearing secondhand stories of the route up the “backside” (read: North side) of Mt. Lemmon. The main approach to this grand mountain to the north of Tucson, AZ is fairly well known in the cycling community. It’s a relatively low-gradient, extended climb out of the Sonoran desert. Over 30 or so miles, the paved Catalina Highway route winds its way up the mountain through 6 different life zones (or “eco zones”). In 1889, American scientist C. Hart Merriam discovered that the various communities encountered in the Arizona mountains were equivalent to the sort of diversity in ecological communities that one could encounter traveling up through northern latitudes within a very short vertical trip. He equated a journey of 1,000 feet in elevation through these mountains to the same sort of diversity one could encounter in the natural world with a trip of 300 miles to the north. In holding with this theory, we can see species and ecological constructs common in Mexico transition to those of Canada within just a 30 mile drive from the Sonoran desert floor at 2,900’ to 9157’ at the top of the highway above the Mt. Lemmon ski area. And it makes for an incredible descent to finish an arduous, rugged, unpaved backcountry journey.
This paved highway on the southern slopes of the Catalina range, or Babad Do’ag (translated to “Frog Mountain” from the native Hohokam language of this area’s original inhabitants), is an amazing ride in its own right. But in the spirit of adventure, Nicole and I wanted to see what the northern, unpaved route up Lemmon had to offer. We were not disappointed. Between wild horses, epic wild west scenery, and the springtime cactus bloom, we were in sensory overload all day long. Yet it was indeed one of the bigger rides we’ve done. And we ride a lot. So we have identified three primary approaches to this beast of a route, to make it accessible to a wider range of riders, as well as primary safety notes and considerations for your journey.
One. Keep in mind that this ride took two experienced, well-trained professional riders around 9 hours of pedaling time from our home just south of the noted start/finish point, which equated to almost 11 hours of elapsed time with fueling breaks and various rest/photo stops en route. We tackled the ride with two bottles onboard for each of us, as well as a two liter backpack that we shared between us. We refilled and purchased more food at the markets at the communities of San Manuel and Summerhaven. There is also water available at Peppersauce Campground around mile 65. I would only recommend this option for the heartier and more experienced rider, ideally with support throughout as a rugged off-road capable vehicle could manage this route as a follow car. However, it is entirely impassable for most passenger cars and definitely doable self-supported with the right planning and equipment. There is decent cell coverage throughout the majority of this route in case you get separated from a riding partner or require emergency assistance. A large part of the appeal of this route is indeed its remoteness, though there can be a lot of ATV traffic on these roads over the weekends.
Two. For those who are interested in completing this entire route, but at a more enjoyable pace or more moderate daily total in terms of miles covered, this is certainly one that can be split up into a two or three day bike packing route. Our recommendation for this approach would be to camp at the Peppersauce campground at the base of the final climb up Lemmon, just off the noted route at about mile 65. Campsites here are $15 per night. From Peppersauce, there is the daunting 20 mile climb up the north side of the mountain and then about 30 miles of paved decent down Catalina highway to the route’s start/end point. If a three stage option is preferred, we would recommend choosing a free primitive campsite off the top of the opening Redington Pass climb, of which there are many, somewhere between mile 18 and 27.
Three. If the totality of this route is out of your budget for time allotment or ability level, a great third option would be to shuttle to the town of Oracle and ride from there up Mt. Lemmon. At the top, consider staying the night and riding back down the same way you came up or simply descending the frontside highway to an awaiting car in Tucson. If you plan to ride back down the northside route, just keep in mind that this is the most rugged sector of the entire course and would require a very capable tire setup and probably some suspension. If you choose to descend the pavement, several outfitters in the Tucson area could likely help you coordinate a shuttle service to avoid having to drive the 1.5 hours back around to Oracle to retrieve your launch vehicle. Try Homegrown MTB for a quick shuttle option. They can likely help, or direct you to another outfit in town who might be available. The Cycling House also runs fully supported camps on this route from time to time. Call well in advance for availability.
If you do choose either option one or two here, and decide to pursue the full route, it begins with approximately 7 miles of paved city riding before hitting the dirt on Redington Pass. The final two miles of approach before arriving at the base of the climb here is some of the worst pavement we've ever ridden. It's far more technically demanding and challenging to ride over than many of the gravel roads in this area. Be warned. For the next 10 or so miles after reaching the dirt here, expect to be predominantly climbing, though the main climb segment on the pass only lasts about 3.5 miles. The road conditions here are incredibly variable, but it's a bit rugged even shortly after the regrading work that happens about once a year. After the high point on Redington, riders are treated to an extended decent down to the San Pedro River valley. Here you'll marvel at contrast between a dense saguaro forest on the upland side, and canyon cliff faces reminiscent of Southern Utah on the other side of the valley. After five or so miles of flat dirt road riding along the river basin here, you'll be delighted to return to pavement for the next 23 miles. In the middle of this paved segment, be sure to stop by the Salt & Pepper convenience store right off the main highway in San Manuel. This is the first refuel opportunity on the route and one of only two food options on route. Shortly after the paved climb up Webb road, the ride returns to the dirt. Soon after this change, riders will pass Peppersauce Campground. Here you can post up for the night or grab one last water refresh prior to the long climb up to the top of Lemmon. The first half of the climb is a rough, undulating traverse over to the the junction with FS RD 4450, at which point the road surface improves for a while and the climb points straight up until the summit. At the top, breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that it's essentially all downhill back to Tucson. Unless you choose to descend down into the village of Summerhaven for snacks and cold beverages, there's only one more small 5-15 minute climb between you and the bulk of the descent off the southside of Lemmon. Knowing this makes the climb much more palatable.
Safety Notes: Road conditions on this route are highly variable due to seasonal weather events, county maintenance schedules and ATV traffic. There can be high snow levels (sometimes impassable levels) mid-winter, as snowpack at 8-9k feet on northern slopes can accumulate rapidly and melt very slowly on unmaintained roadways. Confirm weather conditions at the top before attempting this ride and be prepared with bailout options and emergency layers in the event that an unforeseen obstacle prevents your summit. Bring plenty of water and know your refill options (there aren’t many, and a filter likely won’t help you much out in the desert). Wear lots of sunscreen and bring more with you to reapply en route. Extra chain lube is also not a bad idea on this dusty, dry route. Parking, for whichever option you choose here, is plentiful at this large shopping plaza at the intersection of Tanque Verde road and Catalina Highway. There is a great coffee shop named Le Buzz here where many riders start and finish day routes, as well as a grocery store and several fast-food options.
Route by Dillon and Nicole Caldwell - PEARL iZUMi Athletes | IG: @theopentrail + @nicolee.caldwell