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Mountain Biking During the Pandemic Part 2: Gravel Grinding

20 Apr 2020 4:30 PM | Deleted user

Photo credit: Mt. Lemmon Gravel Grinder

Mountain Biking During the Pandemic Part 2: Gravel Grinding

Ok, so you want to be a responsible citizen and practice effective social distancing but want to keep riding?  Awesome.  Here in Southern Arizona we’re really fortunate to have 450+ miles of non-Wilderness singletrack, so there are plenty of ways to spread out and avoid the crowds.  In our last blog post we discussed some of the “lesser-traveled” trails around Tucson that are fun to explore and unlikely to be crowded.  For this blog post we’re going to share a couple of gravel routes; higher-mileage rides that use dirt roads instead of trails.  Gravel grinding is an awesome way to cover a lot of ground, explore new areas, and build fitness.  It’s also a great option for beginner riders, less-confident riders, and those coming from a road riding background, as by and large dirt roads are less technical (but not always!).  Southern Arizona has literally thousands of miles of dirt roads in both the low desert and the mountains, so you can move up or down in elevation depending on the weather.

To get the dirt on gravel routes, we reached out to a few of our local gravel grinder race/event promoters: the Mt. Lemmon Gravel Grinder (MLGG) and the Spirit World 100.  The MLGG takes place in October of each year and takes riders from the 3C Ranch in Oracle up Mt. Lemmon and through the San Pedro River Valley on 40, 50, and 60-mile routes.  SDMB is a nonprofit beneficiary of the MLGG, so a portion of all sponsorships and race fees benefit local trail projects!  The Spirit World 100 is Southern Arizona’s newest gravel race, and it takes riders on a 50 and 100-mile route based out of Patagonia.  The event is coordinated by The Cyclists’s Menu, which offers fully-catered cycling camps with amazing food courtesy of chef Zander Ault.

Exploration is one of the best parts of any ride, whether it's on singletrack or a back dirt road.  You don't need to follow an established route to have a blast.  Two great starting points are Charleau Gap Rd. in Catalina and Redington Rd. to the east of Tucson.  Both roads are also popular with OHV users, especially on weekends, so avoid peak days/hours.

Given the distances that most gravel routes cover, it’s pretty likely that you will be driving there and stopping in small towns like Oracle and Patagonia.  At this point we are all hopefully practicing social distancing, washing our hands, wearing masks, etc to help flatten the curve and end the COVID-19 outbreak.  When traveling from one area to another, or from a city to a small town, please make sure to do the following:

  • Do your research!  Some small outdoor towns are specifically requesting that folks not go there to avoid stressing their already-limited medical resources (Moab, UT for example).  If a town says “don’t come here” please respect that!
  • Support the local economy, but do so in a respectful and responsible way.  Buy a tank of gas, get take-out from a local restaurant, but make sure to avoid unnecessary exposure!  Make sure to wear gloves and a mask and keep that 6-foot distance going.  Remember, the concern here is you infecting the locals, not vice-versa.
  • Be Prepared and Practice “Leave No Trace”.  Even though we’re in a pandemic, Leave No Trace principles still apply.  Bring what you need and take all your waste home with you.  Remember, most developed recreation services (including restrooms) are closed, so now is a great time to read up on how to go potty outside (hint… bring a trowel/shovel, TP, and hand sanitizer).  LNT has great information on their website about LNT ethics and practices and outdoor recreation during the pandemic.  GO HERE FOR MORE LNT INFORMATION
  • Don’t Be a Victim!  It’s never a good time to need a rescue or a trip to the emergency room, but now is an especially bad time.  Ride within your limits, pack everything you need, and manage any unnecessary risks.  Local emergency responders and medical professionals have much bigger concerns than treating your concussion or heat exhaustion because you sent it too hard. 

Gravel Grinder Routes

Mt. Lemmon Gravel Grinder

The MLGG course has 40, 50, and 60-mile options.  All routes technically start and finish at the 3C Ranch, but a good alternate start/finish is just past the ranch at the turn-off for Peppersauce Campground.  While the MLGG is technically a gravel route, the Mt. Lemmon Control Road is steep, bumpy, and often has loose rock so while you can ride it on a gravel or CX bike, a hardtail 29er is the weapon of choice for most riders.  The MLGG course has a low elevation of 3,000 ft. and a high elevation of 8,000 ft. (for the 60 Grind) so be prepared for a wide variety of temperatures.  No matter which route you choose, the views of the Catalina and Galiuro Mountains are spectacular and the diversity of plants (Saguaros all the way up to Ponderosa Pines) on the course is second to none.


Spirit World 100

Based out of Patagonia, AZ the Sprit World 100 has 50 and 100-mile routes.  These are more “traditional” gravel routes that can be ridden on a gravel/CX bike or a mountain bike.  Both the 50 and 100-mile routes are between 4,000 and 6,000 feet in elevation, and cross high desert grasslands and the Patagonia, Huachuca, and Mule Mountains and the Canelo Hills.  It’s proximity to the US/Mexico border makes the Spirit World 100 an interesting ride. 


Other Gravel Grinding Resources and Suggestions

The Dirty Freehub

The Dirt Freehub is a national website that features curated and vetted gravel routes in each state.  They have detailed map and elevation information for all routes.


From SDMB Board Member Kirk Astroth

SDMB’s own Kirk Astroth is an avid explorer of random dirt roads and backcountry routes, many of which feature interesting historical and archeological features.  Read on for a list of some of his favorite gravel rides.  You’ll have to do your own map and wayfinding research for these, which just makes it more of an adventure!

  • Samaniego Hills, Ironwood Forest National Monument. Bikes are not allowed on trails in national monuments, but you can ride the roads. This 13-20 mile set of loops takes you through a little-explored area called the Samaniego Hills east of the Silverbell Mine.
  • Silverbell Mine Loop. I have been on this loop that goes behind the Silverbell Mine to the west. Lots of wash crossings and roller coaster-like. There are old cemeteries along the way although you can’t visit the old Silverbell ghost town since it is on the mine’s private property. Start at the end of Avra Valley Road near the gate to the mine and ride the gravel road where the sign says “Red Rock” 25 miles. Look for an amazing sagauro cactus along the paved access road with a number of arms. Ride as far as you want, or for a really long ride, go all the way to the Silverbell Road intersection with Sasco Road, ride south to the Avra Valley Road, and head back to where you started.
  • Malpais Hill Loop. This loop circumnavigates Malpais Hill, a prominent, lone black outcrop west of the Silverbell Road NW of the mine.
  • Sonoran Desert National Monument.
  • Option 1. Farley’s Cabin. This ride is kind of far afield, but since no one uses the trails and roads in the Sonoran Desert National Monument on both sides of I-8 west of Casa Grande, this is a good place to ride. The road into an old stone cabin is 5 miles one way. Entrance off I-8 is MP 133 on Road #8012. There are numerous gates and access sites along I-8 but you would never know it, so keep an eye out. Once you reach Farley’s Canyon, you are in the Sand Tank Mountains Military Reserve and need a special permit to go further. Maps of this area are usually available at the roadside kiosks where the trail starts. For more information:
  • Option 2. South Vekol Road. At MP 144, exit I-8 and park. Head south on your bike on South Vekol Road (#8007). You can take the first road heading east (#8044 and 8042) and ride into the Table Top Wilderness area to the Lava Flow North Trailhead. Or continue south on #8007 and follow it (don’t get tricked into taking many of the minor tributaries like 8007C or 8007D) and ride all the way south to road #8024 where you head east to the Table Top Campground and Trailhead. Access into the wilderess is closed to bikes
  • San Pedro River Trail. (All Trails app has a complete map of this trail system)
    • Option 1. There is a nice stretch of 14 miles of bike trail along the San Pedro River, one of the last running rivers in Arizona. The San Pedro National Conservation Area is popular with hikers, bikers and bird watchers. To ride the trail, most people start at the San Pedro House trailhead located nine miles east of Sierra Vista on AZ 90 where the highway crosses the river. Look for the obvious visitor center and huge cottonwood trees. From here, you can obtain a map and ride either north or south. Right now, because of COVID-19, the visitor center is closed, but you can obtain a map and more information here:
    • Option 2. The San Pedro trail goes through a variety of archaeological sites, including Murray Springs which is where they found a mammoth kill site dating to 11,000 years ago and Clovis spear points. For a shorter ride, you can access this site and do a 6.5 mile loop by driving to Monson Road, 1.2 miles north of the turnoff to Monson from AZ 90 (the highway from Sierra Vista and Bisbee).
  • Option 3. Another historic site along this trail is the Spanish Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate. The ruins here are some of the most intact examples of a string of Spanish missions and presidios that stretched through Arizona. To access this site, go to Fairbanks where AZ 82 crosses the San Pedro River, drive about two miles west on AZ 82, and then turn right (north) on Kellar Ranch Road. The trailhead is about three miles north of this intersection. The ruins are about two miles in from the trail head. Once there, you can ride south on the San Pedro River Trail.

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