Las Cienegas (The Inner Loop)

5 Star Route

Note: This is a 5 Star Route, meaning that it is a highly curated, premier riding route.

There’s a great reason as to why the Empire Ranch has been the backdrop to so many western movies, including Bonanza and Gunsmoke (and also A Star is Born); the ranch is loaded with history, the distant mountain ranges are stunning, and there are miles of gated pastures that will have you singing “Home on the Range.”  

Some of you will not like this as a place to ride. We had a half dozen gates to open and close. That means cows and open grazing lands. And the mixture of smooth to semi-rugged roads will open up long conversations on tire pressure, tire width, and tire grip. 

This is one of the three signature routes we have documented in the Las Cienegas Conservation Area. It is the easiest and shortest route of the three. The Las Cienegas (Gunsmoke) route is our favorite route in the area, albeit a bit more challenging. The Las Cienegas (Lollipop) route, the longest and most demanding route, circumnavigates most of the LCA area except for the northern sector. This is a must-do route — at least once. But, you will want an adventure bike versus a gravel bike (see the ride notes below). Enjoy!!

Las Cienegas National Conservation Area is one of the finest grassland valleys left in the southwestern US. This grassland watershed supports some ten miles of a perennial stream—a rare gem of green running through southern Arizona’s arid landscape. Together these grasslands and wetlands provide homes for a remarkable array of wildlife, including over 230 bird species, 60 mammals, 40 reptiles and amphibians, and at least five endangered species. [Audubon]

Adventure / Gravel Route

Loop: 16 miles / 700 ft gain
– Surface: ~ 100% gravel
eBike Friendly: Yes
– Location: ~ 50 minutes southeast of Tucson, Arizona
– Published: December 2020

Technical Difficulty & Risk[what this means]

Moderate-. Miles 3 to 10 are the most rugged, with short sections of loose rock and gnar. There is cell phone coverage throughout the majority of the ride.

When we like to ride this ..

Fall through spring. Las Cienegas means wetlands in English; thus, beware! We can envision times in the spring and during the monsoon season (June – September), this could be a muddy mess.

The Start

The Historic Empire Ranch. Flush toilets and water.
Lat / Long: 31.785342, -110.641794

Go Local!

After the ride we strongly encourage you to make the short trip south to Sonoita and drop some coin on food and spirits. It’s a great way to give back to rural communities. The Sonoita / Elgin area is also home to a number of wineries. For more information on food, lodging, events, etc. check out Visit Sonoita & Elgin and this handy map.

For help with Ride, GPS files, etc see the “Help with …” page. To learn how to download the routes for free, see “Using Our Routes …” page.


Brown = gravel / dirt road

Ride Details

When looking for a few miles without a lot of climbing, this is the route! It loops through the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, which is a mix of 45,000 acres of rolling grasslands and woodland bounded by the Empire mountains to the north, the Whetstone mountains to the east, and the Mustang mountains to the south. The area’s importance lies in connecting several “sky island” mountain ranges and lush riparian corridors allowing for animal migration.

The area includes five of the rarest habitat types in the American Southwest: cienegas (marshlands), cottonwood-willow riparian forests, sacaton grasslands, mesquite bosques, and semi-desert grasslands. 

We also recommend taking a picture or downloading this map of the area. The typical map sources like Google, ESRI, OSM, and USGS all lack detailed road information with the correct road numbers / names.

Miles 0 to 3 / Gardner Canyon / Gravel

The sector is slightly downhill and fast,(Micro-video) with good gravel for the most part and some vehicle traffic. Towards the east are the Whetstone mountains (left) and the Mustang Mountains (right). The terrain is a mix of rolling grasslands, some prickly bush, and a smattering of trees. This last mile or so is at the boundary for spring / summer (April 1 – June 30) pronghorn fawning habitat. Restrictions are in place for dogs and camping activities.

Just before mile 3, you cross through Gardner Canyon and then, in a short distance, go left onto a smaller, red, single-lane dirt road.(Micro-video)

Miles 3 to 11 / Cienega Creek / Gravel

The next 8 miles run roughly south to north, loosely following the Cienega Creek. This is the most rugged sector of the day with some short rocky, gnar sections,(Micro-video) some short steep hills, some rutted track, and a bit of sand. The road weaves and bobs, giving limited sightlines, something we like to call ‘texture.” Adding to the texture are several gates that need to be opened and closed.

The terrain includes grasslands,(Micro-video) creosote bush (prickly stuff!), and mesquite, cottonwood, and willow trees. We saw a herd of javelina, a small to medium sized animal similar to a wild boar on this segment. Also, take note of the black tailed prairie dog reintroduction area. We looked but never saw any.

Black-tailed prairie dogs are one of five species of prairie dogs and the species with formerly the most expansive range – from southern Canada to northern Mexico. Unfortunately, over the past 150 years, their range has been reduced to less than 2%, and accordingly, their numbers have been greatly reduced. In Arizona, black-tailed prairie dogs were exterminated in 1960. Fortunately, wildlife agencies and multiple partners have worked together to re-establish the species not just in Arizona but across their historic range. In Arizona, black-tailed prairie dogs were first re-introduced in 2008 at the Las Cienegas NCA. [Audubon]

Miles 11 to Finish / “Powerline” Road / Gravel

Just after mile 10, you make a sweeping 180 degree turn back to the south. With this, the road quality improves.(Micro-video) The map led us to believe that this sector is long, straight, and (maybe) boring. It is not! Yes, it does follow a powerline, not our favorite, but the road curves and bends. It gradually climbs but rolling all the while. Texture, again!

At about mile 15, you roll through Empire Gulch, a riparian area with a dense stand of large cottonwood trees. Here you will find Red-Tailed Hawks and Northern Harriers. The ranch is just ahead!

Ride Notes

The route is rideable on 40 mm tires.

Ride Options

For a longer ride that takes in most of the Las Cienegas National Conservation area, check out the Las Cienegas (The Outer Lollipop) route. Note, the Outer Lollipop route really demands an adventure bike over a standard gravel bike. <To be published soon.>

Our favorite route in the Conservation Area is the Las Cienegas (Gunsmoke) route. It is a combination of the best parts of the Las Cienegas (The Inner Loop) and Las Cienegas (The Outer Lollipop) routes. And … it is rideable on 40 mm tires with a bit of skill. <To be published soon.>

Food / Water


Ridden and Reviewed by …

Gravel Girl / Team Dirty Freehub

She loves a good day of gravel like most people like a good book. She’s always amused by the outdoors and the wild adventures. Gravel Girl is a Co-Founder of Dirty Freehub.

Captain O / Team Dirty Freehub

He should have “Never Stop Exploring” tattooed on his chest! He loves adventures on bikes and is a Co-Founder of Dirty Freehub.

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