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postheadericon Riding SoAZ Part V (Fabulous Foothills)

I think my favorite things about Tucson are the Foothills. When I was a kid, we would drive up into the foothills to get the great views of the city and to see how another half lives. Tucson is literally surrounded by foothills on all four sides. I have already written about riding in the Tucson Mountains to the west (in Part III) and in the north end of the Santa Ritas to the south in part IV. Lets get to the real foothills of the Rincons and the Santa Catalinas.

Let’s pick up in Vail, where we ended last segment. As you may recall, the main drag through Vail is Colossal Cave Road. After crossing the railroad track, going north, you come to a stoplight at a “T” intersection. As mentioned previously, a left puts you on Mary Ann Cleveland Way and returns you to Houghton Road. Make a right and you are now on Pistol Hill Road. Pistol Hill heads out of Vail to the northeast, climbs along the northern ends of the Rincons then loops around to the northwest where it intersects with Old Spanish Trail.

Old Spanish Trail winds around the border of the Coronado National Forest after going through some historic ranch land, which is rapidly being converted into tracts of housing. There’s a great cemetery along here if you’re like me and enjoy that kind of thing.

Another nice place to stop through here is the Rincon Valley Farmer’s Market. They not only have produce, but they’ve got locally handcrafted items and, my personal favorite, coffee, fresh roasted on the spot.

Spanish trail continues to twist its way northward, eventually passing by Saguaro National Park East. The park not only has an interesting visitors’ center which gives some great history of the area, but it has the awesome “Cactus Forest” loop drive. This loop is 8 miles of one way, steep climbing, tight turning bliss.

I took an out-of-town scooter friend on the loop a while back and he said “It’s like the scooter gods came down and created the perfect road, just for us.”  The scenery is gorgeous. You will need to watch for cyclists, particularly, if you’re riding this on a weekend.

Continuing on Old Spanish Trail after Saguaro National Park, will eventually take you to Broadway Boulevard, near Camino Seco. If you’re headed back to town, it is an excellent route to take. If you’re wanting to continue near the mountains, I prefer to make a right hand turn on Freeman, which is located less than a quarter mile north of the Park entrance.

About a half-mile up Freeman, you come to the top of a hill. The view from this point is spectacular. In the distance are the Catalinas. Spread out before you is beautiful desert. As I write this, we are in monsoon season and everything is very green. Freeman is as straight a road as you will ever travel, but there some nice little dips and hills to go through and over. As always, watch for sand and critters.

I really love exploring the side streets in this area. You do have to be careful, though, because some of them abruptly go from asphalt to dirt.

The paved portion of Freeman ends at Speedway Blvd. You can’t see it from this point, but less than a mile further north is a wide,(usually) dry wash. There are three ways to cross. Turn right and go about one mile east and cross using Wentworth. Wentworth is paved, except for the actually part of the road that goes through the wash. It is fairly well maintained, however, so isn’t usually a lot of sand or debris to worry about. You’ll arrive at Tanque Verde Road in about a mile.

Note: If you continue east on Speedway, you’ll arrive at Tanque Verde  Ranch just three miles down the road. It is a historic dude ranch and has a lot to offer. It is on the list of “Least Expensive Places to Stay in Tucson” however.

If you turn west on Speedway, turn north onto Tanque Verde loop Road after about one mile. This road through the wash is paved all the way to Tanque Verde. If the wash is flowing, you will need to go two miles from the Freeman intersection to the bridge at Houghton Road.

Once on Tanque Verde Road, you have a few options open to you. Going west on Tanque Verde takes you back in to Tucson. If you are looking for some “off the asphalt adventure”, turn to the east. Tanque Verde Road will become Reddington Road. It turns to dirt and gravel and can be very rough. High clearance vehicles are usually recommended. Continuing will eventually bring you to a “T.” North takes you to San Manuel, AZ and will take you behind the Catalinas. South will take you behind the Rincons and eventually to Benson, AZ.  Advisory: The desert can be very unforgiving. If you chose to take to the back roads, make sure you have extra water with you and tell a friend where you plan on going and what route you will take to get there.

If you crossed the wash via Houghton Road, you can continue due north. Houghton the most direct route to the Catalina Highway and up Mt Lemmon. Houghton ends at Snyder Road. I prefer to take Soldier Trail, which is conveniently located halfway between Tanque Verde Loop and Wentworth.

Soldier Trail is mostly straight, but again crosses through some beautiful desert. About two miles up Soldier Trail, you will come to one of my favorite area parks; Agua Caliente. There are natural springs and water can be found here year round. It is quite historic, but the visitors’ center is only open intermittently, however.

Agua Caliente is a true oasis, just like in the movies. We like to take all of our out-of-town visitors here.

If you return to Soldier Trail northbound, you cross Snyder (remember where Houghton Rd ended?) and continuing further you find yourself at Catalina Highway. The ride Mount Lemmon is a segment all its own and I will be getting there in the next week or so. In the meantime, let’s cover some of the foothills between the Catalina highway and Sabino Canyon Creek.

Catalina Highway, Snyder Road and Bear Canyon Road, form a scenic triangle of curving, hilly residential streets perfect for bicyclists, scooters or drivers just looking for some nearby desert scenery.

View Snyder Triangle in a larger map
If you enlarge the map you can see the triangle and how it is filled with a lot of little streets waiting to be explored. You can only go a short distance west of Bear Canyon Road because there are no bridges across Sabino Canyon Creek. From the intersection of Snyder and Bear Canyon, you can clearly see another portion of Snyder, but the only way to get there is to go all the way back to Tanque Verde then east to Sabino Canyon and return north.

Ride Maps

Now that we’ve covered a bit more area, I can post a few ride maps that occur within more than one of the areas we’ve covered:

1. 70 mile loop to Vail via Old Spanish Trail and Sahuarita Road. Great desert scenery with gas and snacks available in Vail or Corona de Tucson.

View Larger Map
2. 65 mile loop to Vail which includes Bear Canyon, Soldier Trail and Freeman Road. It also goes right past the Rincon Valley Farmers’ Market.

View Larger Map
3. 43 mile loop around the foothills of the extreme northeast. It does include Agua Caliente Park.

View Larger Map
Note The mileage on these loops is long mostly because of our starting position. If you remember I am starting all rides from Speedway and Campbell just to give everyone a common point of reference. If you’re starting on the east side, these are all much shorter.

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One Response to “Riding SoAZ Part V (Fabulous Foothills)”

  • Jenni:

    Nice summary, Howard! This is one of my favorite areas in Tucson, and that’s only partly because it’s easily accessible from where I live and work. I truly believe it’s the loveliest part of Tucson.
    I frequently ride down to the Rincon Valley Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings where I buy my favorite natural soaps and sometimes find nice gifts for out-of-towners.
    The Cactus Forest Road at Saguaro NP is a great ride. The catch is that it’s a $10 entrance fee (unless you purchase an annual NP pass for $25.) I’ve ridden up the Mica View Loop a couple times, parked the scoot under a mesquite, then spent a couple hours meandering around the trails. Always make sure you have plenty of water, though!
    Agua Caliente is one of Tucson’s most unusually beautiful secrets; if you’ve never been there, you really need to visit. Pick a day when it’s not too hot and take a picnic dinner.
    One last caveat on monsoon season riding: right now Wentworth is closed at the Tanque Verde Creek. Ft. Lowell between Houghton and Conestoga (the shortcut I often take to get from Emily Gray JH to the Tanque Verde district office) is often closed or has water running across it. In any case, there are lots of streets and roads in northeast Tucson worth exploring; just be careful during monsoon season. Never try to cross running water, and keep an eye out for sand and gravel that’s washed onto the road.
    Also, watch out for wildlife crossing the road. You’re likely to see lots of quail and rabbits, the occasional lizard or tarantula, and once in a while a turtle — which you should ALWAYS stop and help across the road. 🙂

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