I am not a newcomer here. Despite a three year gap, I come laden with memories and expectations from two prior stays at the base of the Catalina Mountains on the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona. Escaping a winter that just won’t quit, the constant sunshine and warmth were the natural draw. But to me, that is only the backdrop for my cycling plans. I already know, I will head straight to The Loop.
Tucson’s vast expanse of paved bike trails top the “washes” where flood waters are funneled during the rainy season. The Loop accounts for 131 miles of off-road trail, including a 55-mile long route that circles the city. I crossed that off my to-do list last time we were here, so instead I turn my focus to the three River Parks that radiate out from a central connecting point. Each has a distinct personality, which guides my selection each time I set out.
Our location in the Oro Valley is at the top of La Cañada del Oro River Park. Within a mile, I join the trail that I consider “my home trail.” I traverse this 12-mile trail down and back each time I seek out a route to cycle. Rich rolls his eyes, at my willingness to pedal 30-40 miles to explore each time I set out. But the terrain is flat, the pavement remarkably smooth, the cycling is easy and I’m just tickled to be out in the warm sunshine.
La Cañada del Oro heads southwest through suburban areas that exude prosperity. At the top, the rugged mountain peaks remain in close proximity, a tireless sight. Two golf courses flank the trail, spilling nice landscaping onto the sidelines and spawning narrow bridges to usher golf carts to the holes on the opposite side. An artsy park is a popular spot and a handy parking area for cyclists. And the path takes to the flats with a windy course flanked by desert shrubs, wildlife and birds. Before I know it, I’m alongside massive poles with netting to enclose Top Golf, with three decks of golf stations. That signals my approach to a decision point.
Turning to the right takes me to Santa Cruz River Park North. After enduring some industrial development, it leads to the flowing Santa Cruz River. Green lush trees and bushes line the banks of the river and the sound of flowing water is both a surprise and a treat. Cycling alongside this oasis I want it to continue forever, but the trail moves away and into local neighborhoods. I cycle behind houses for miles – most protected from view by stone walls – with desert scrub on the opposite side. More eye candy appears with the El Rio preserve and a seasonal lake. Another range of mountains looms close by. Like all my River Park routes, it’s an out-and-back proposition.
In the opposite direction, Santa Cruz River Park South is probably the most remote of the trails – at least for the portion I cycle. It starts with open pit digging of some kind, then takes off in a wilderness area where the trail quietly follows the wash down both sides. It passes Sweetwater Wetlands Park, popular for birding. But until it reaches the heart of the city, it remains quiet and unpopulated. I can cycle on autopilot through that section.
I’ve left my favorite for last, Rilitto River Park. This appears to be the most popular trail, with paths on both sides of the wash and there are plenty of walkers, runners and cyclists enjoying it at all times of the day. The south side is less populated, and has some fun artwork and landscaping along the way. The north side has numerous parks, playgrounds and ball fields that draw families. And the Ren Coffeehouse is a popular stopping spot for cyclists. Rilitto Park hosts a Farmers’ Market on Sundays, and I happened to be there on Bike to the Farmers Market Day. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to peruse the farm and ethnic foods on offer.
I took my last bike ride this morning, finishing with another pass on both sides of Rilitto. My new bicycle bell came in handy, dinging each time I passed a pedestrian or bike. It made me smile each time it rang, and garnered a wavy from those on the path. Tomorrow we leave to head back to the cold Northland. But I’m already looking forward to another visit, knowing I will be lured back to The Loop.