Prickly Pear

5 Star Route

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

The Arizona Trail (AZT) can be one prickly bear, but this section of the AZT is only a prickly pear. Lots of prickly pear cactus, with winding, gentle single track, a smidge of gravel road, and a quiet paved farm road.  The route also includes two tunnels, one which we named Viper Tunnel, because the mouth is quite the artistic display. (A tunnel you will go through twice to cross under Highway 10.) 

The route starts at Gabe Zimmerman trailhead. (Gabe was one of the 6 people killed during the assassination attempt of Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford in 2011.) Zimmerman, who died at age 30, was a congressional staff member and a member of the Arizona Trail Association was who helped get the Arizona Trail designated as a National Scenic Trail.

This route was a surprise find for us; the endless prickly pear cactus, rolling terrain, and views of the surrounding mountains made for a lovely ride. 

Adventure / Gravel Route

Lollipop: 18 miles / 1000 ft gain
– Surface: ~ 5% gravel, 75% single track, 20% paved
eBike Friendly: No
– Location: ~ 30 minutes southeast of Tucson, Arizona
– Published: January 2021

Technical Difficulty & Risk[what this means]

Moderate (Overall)

  • Riding skills required: moderate
  • Navigation difficulty: low
  • Remote risk: low

The route has a significant number of miles of single track (14 miles, 10 miles in one stretch); however, it is all rated mountain bike easy. There is some loose and / or rutted trail. Our major concern was the prickly (cactus) risk if we crashed or fell over.

When we like to ride this ..

Fall through spring. Spring is spectacular when the desert is green and alive with the bloom. If we lived in Tucson, this would be one of our go-to rides for something quick and easy.

The Start

Gabe Zimmerman trailhead parking lot. If the lot is full, continue further north to just before the bridge. There is a second parking lot.
Lat / Long: 32.013906, -110.647455

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Red = paved road
Brown = gravel / dirt road
Blue = single track

Ride Details

We love this section of the AZT for gravel riding and have managed to link it up with a bit of paved and gravel road to make the route a lollipop versus a simple out and back (something we are not big fans of!). And bonus! A majority of the single-track is downhill.

The Arizona Trail (AZT) is the premier desert singletrack bikepacking route following an 800+ mile recreation trail from Mexico to Utah that connects mountain ranges, canyons, deserts, forests, wilderness areas, historic sites, and trail systems. []

The ride feels remote and uncluttered even though the bustle of everyday life is close by. The variety and density of the desert fauna is absolutely stunning! This is the Sonoran Desert at its best. The Cienega wetlands, distant mountain ranges, and cactus a galore.

Miles 0 to 4 / AZT – The Stick / Single Track

The route starts from the Gabe Zimmerman trailhead. The first couple of hundred yards are on uphill, loose single-track, some of the most difficult riding of the day. Soon you are on a rim above the Davidson Canyon.(Micro-video) Below in the wetland is a swath of big Cottonwood trees. You make your way towards Viper tunnel and then cross underneath the freeway.(Micro-video) On the other side, the single track continues, moving higher; in the far distance are the Santa Rita Mountains with Mount Wrightson towering above.

The Cienega Watershed is a unique landscape in Southeastern Arizona in which the Cienega Creek, visible as a green riparian ribbon, cuts through a sea of semi-desert grasslands hosting an array of critical habitats and historical resources. However, within this scenic and rich landscape are threats from climate change, vegetation changes, development pressures, and multiple owners. The Cienega Watershed Partnership and many partners in the watershed are committed to sustaining the ecological systems, heritage values, wildlife corridors, and open spaces for future generations. [Cienega Watershed Partnership]

Miles 4 to 7 / Old Sonoita Highway / Paved

At mile 4, you connect with the Old Sonoita Highway. This is now a quiet road as it is used mostly by local ranchers and homesteaders. The grade is gentle.

Miles 7 to 8 / The Cut-through / Gravel

At mile 7.3, make a right onto a primitive dirt / gravel road. This “cutoff” avoids riding on the Sonoita Highway for a 1/2 mile or so. The land is part of the Arizona Land Trust. At the far west end, you will cross through two gates, one on each side of the Sonoita Highway.

Don’t miss this turn!

Continue west on the dirt road. It will wind through a rideable wash and then kick up and climb a small hill.(Micro-video) Soon, you reach the high point of the day and ~ 4000 feet and then veer off to the right back onto the Arizona Trail.

Miles 8 to Finish / AZT Downhill / Single-Track

The fun is about to kick in!! The grade is mostly downhill, the trail is flowy and mostly in good condition.(Micro-video) The cactus abound. To your right are the Empire Mountains, and far in the distance, across the freeway, are the Rincon mountains. We came across one hiking group and two mountain bikers.

At mile 12, you cross through one of those beautifully crafted Arizona Trail gates and Sahuarita Road. The Prickly Pear are everywhere! The trail darts between them and around them. At mile 14, cross under the Sonoita Highway using the middle contour of the tunnel. Pop up the other side and continue the downward trend — the fauna transitions to that of a more arid desert.(Micro-video) Soon you are back to the Viper tunnel.

Cross through, do a last hit of a hill, and wind your way in along Cienega Creek on the rim.

Prickly Pear cactus
Ride Notes

When crossing under the freeway, you go through a long tunnel. We recommend a light, something more than your cell phone light. And … it really helps to take off your sunglasses (ugh, a stupid mistake by us.)

The route is doable on 40 mm tires with good bike handling technique, but you will probably “whoop and holler” so much more on a bike with 50 mm+ tires.

Ride Options

You can shorten the ride by starting at the intersection of the Sonoita Highway and Sahuarita Road. There is a dirt parking lot on the west side. It is noisy with traffic, but doable. This makes the ride into a loop of 10 miles with 550 feet of gain. Go in the clockwise direction. (Lat / Long: 31.963438, -110.672297)

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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