Eight years ago I spent Thanksgiving by biking across the Arizona desert, exploring the path from Tempe to Tucson. The ride was magically warm and beautiful, and the people I met showed hospitality that I will never forget, including the woman at the Circle K in Florence, AZ that laid out a buffet of leftovers for two sweaty, hungry bicyclists, and the two nice gals in Tucson that let us sleep on their sofas. They truly embodied the spirit of the holiday.
This year I find myself celebrating Thanksgiving in Tucson once again, and decided to re-post my original writeup and photos in commemoration of the anniversary. Two clean-shaven, baby-faced bikers blazing trails across Arizona. Enjoy!
A great way to get to know Arizona outside of the cities is to spend a few days exploring the state’s backroads and byways. Phoenix has tremendously varied regions close by, and all offer great rewards to anyone who takes the time to get out there and find them. A fantastic outing for any pleasant weekend is to bike south on the side roads to Tucson. The trip covers roughly 125 miles of scenic desert beauty, and can be done in one long day or broken up in two segments with an overnight stay.
There are a few ways to begin the trip. I choose to start in Tempe, heading south towards Chandler. You can take McClintock Blvd. south about 10 miles to Chandler Blvd, where you’ll want to head east past Intel and the new Chandler Fashion Center. At this point you can keep heading east and then southeast through the small towns of Higley and Rittenhouse, which take you closer to the hills, or you can cut south on Route 87 towards the Casa Grande Ruins. This route brings you through the Gila River Indian Reservation for a stretch, and then gently curves east. Both routes intersect in Florence, about 55 miles into the trip, which is a smart place to stop whether it is for supplies and water or to spend the night. I recommend the Blue Mist Motel–its the only lodging there.
Once you leave Florence, you’ll head south on the one road out of town, Route 79, otherwise known as the Pinal Pioneer Parkway. This is my favorite part of the ride: a seldom traveled narrow road that stretches for 40 miles through some of the most picturesque desert that you may ever find. Some stretches put you deep in the middle of saguaro forests, while others spread out ahead for miles with the slowly approaching mountains as a backdrop. If you drive the route you can experience a small part of the splendor, but by spending a couple hours pedaling though the open air you really become one with the natural magic of the Arizona outdoors. Bring a couple power bars to munch on and a spare tube, just in case.
The majority of the first 90 miles or so are relatively flat, making for pleasant sightseeing and ease of keeping up a decent speed. The last 10 miles of the Pinal Pioneer Parkway has some incline, slight enough that you may not notice it. There really are no surprises until the end just after you hit the hundredth mile (which should be a couple miles before you reach Oracle Junction, if you’ve haven’t gotten lost yet), you will be given the sweet relief of cruising downhill between the mountains for 25 miles, straight into Tucson.
Starting this trip early in the day should get you to town in time to enjoy yourself or at least find a hotel to crash at. Tucson has plenty of accommodation available, and if you haven’t arranged for a ride back, the easiest way home is to rent a car and cruise back up the I-10. There are plenty of rental options on Speedway Blvd, a major east-west thoroughfare that you will be sure to pass by once you get close to downtown.
Exploring Arizona for more than just the rigors of city life will increase your life experiences and can serve as a great way to keep your mind and body healthy. Take the opportunity to push yourself and you might be amazed at where the ride takes you.