5 Star Route / Ridden and Reviewed by Captain ‘O’
Note: This is a 5 Star Route, meaning that it is a highly curated, premier riding route.
We all know a Spider Tom, the skinny dude who can ride through that gnarly rocky stuff and make it look easy. You’ll need to have some Spider skills to navigate your way through the Arizona Trail (AZT) portion of this route. No worries if you dab a foot, or heck, even push your bike through the tough sections. It’s a great challenge that some of you will embrace.
The route pays off big with remoteness, the unique beauty of the Canelo Hills, and wide, expansive views of the San Rafael Valley.
The Arizona Trail stretches over 800 miles from the U.S. border with Mexico to Utah, showcasing Arizona’s diverse vegetation, wildlife, scenery, and history in a way that provides a unique and unparalleled Arizona experience. The Arizona Trail was designated a national scenic trail by Congress in 2009. [US Forest Service]
The San Rafael Valley represents one of the finest stands of native grassland in Arizona, extending over 90,000 acres. It is bounded between the Patagonia Mountains (to the west), Huachuca Mountains (to the east), and the Canelo Hills (to the north), making for a floodplain that forms the headwaters of the Santa Cruz River. [Arizona State Parks]
Now the overall gist of the route is a few mile warm-up on a superhighway of gravel, hop on the trail for 14 miles, and then back to more amazing, easy gravel roads. We designed the route so you will get in a warm-up, hit the technical bits, then spin your way home.
But no hate mail if you don’t like the gnar … we warned you!!
Adventure / Gravel Route
– Lollipop: 37 miles / 3500 ft gain (RideWithGPS gain fails to account for many small rises and dips)
– Surface: ~ 60% gravel, 40% single track
– eBike Friendly: No
– Location: ~ 1 hour, 10 minutes southeast of Tucson, Arizona
– Published: December 2020
Technical Difficulty & Risk[what this means]
Advanced. Miles 3 to 17 are on the Arizona Trail Canelo Hills (West) sector. This is rated mountain bike intermediate. It is a mix of single track and double track. Sections are rocky, loose, and gnarly. It is remote with no bailout points and no access points. There is little to no cell phone reception. You will want an adventure bike with at least 50 mm tires.
With all that said, Spider Tom, the technical guru of the Dirty Freehub team, rode (yes, rode!) 99% of the terrain. His bike was a Moots Routt YBB with 50 mm Gravel King tires. Captain O of the Dirty Freehub team cleaned about 95% of the course on his Salsa Cutthroat with 55 mm Fleecer Ridge tires.
When we like to ride this ..
Fall through spring. I think winter is ideal. With heavy plant growth, the Arizona Trail section could be a real challenge, both riding and navigating.
A dirt pull out on the west side of the road, Highway 83, just before a left hand 90 degree bend.
Lat / Long: 31.542926, -110.529815
After the ride, we strongly encourage you to make the short trip north 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 several wineries. For more information on food, lodging, events, etc., check out Visit Sonoita & Elgin and this handy map.
Miles 0 to 3 / Canelo Hills Out / Gravel
The route leads out south, diving immediately into the hills. The 3 miles to the AZT is gradually uphill, gaining 300 feet. The road is hard-packed with some embedded rock. Look for a soft line, usually at the edges, and all will be good.
Miles 3 to 17 / Arizona Trail / Singletrack
At the 3 mile mark, make a right hand turn into the parking lot. The trail will be at the south end of the parking area. The elevation profile is very deceptive; it looks all downhill but is 2500 feet of descent with 1500 feet of gain.
Get ready and put your gnar face on! Manzanitas, alligator junipers, and oaks line the single-track. There’s a slight incline, but it’s not enough to take your breath away.(Micro-video) But in less than a mile, you embark on three switchbacks that lead to a mountain saddle and the high point of the day, 5580 feet. Cross through the beautifully crafted gate and take a moment to look east, the Huachuca mountains in the distance buffeted by the Canelo Hills in the foreground. The pitch off the west side of the saddle is steep and technical.
At mile 6, the technical load lightens. There are bits of fun, fast single track and some double track.(Micro-video) For the most part, you are working yourself downhill through rolling grasslands, yuccas, and pinyon pines. The trail will bring you through a drainage where navigation can be a bit of a challenge and then into Red Rock canyon.
At mile 13, it gets tough again. The next 4 miles are the most demanding of the day. The hills have closed in, offering no easy exit. You climb some rocky, steep trail to a saddle from which you can see the town of Patagonia in the distance. I loved the view from here. The descent from this saddle to Harshaw Avenue is steep with several sharp turns. This is where most of my hike-a-bike took place.
When you’re about to cry “uncle”, it’s over and in front of you is a bit of paved road.
Miles 17 to 29 / Harshaw Creek & San Rafael Valley / Gravel
Go left on Harshaw Avenue, then go left in couple hundred yards onto Harshaw Creek Road [gravel]. These next 4 miles are some of the most beautiful miles in the Patagonia area.(Micro-video) Big Cottonwood trees, a rock canyon, and the creek. The road climbs gradually at 1 to 2% on good hard-pack.
At mile 21, keep left on San Rafael Road. The next 4 miles are transition miles, steadily climbing, passing by dispersed camping spots lined with trees.
At mile 25, you top out after a short step pitch lifting you out of Willow Spring Canyon. This is a yeehaw! spot.(Micro-video) In front of you is the San Rafael Valley. The road is hard-packed and slightly descending. So beautiful! So much fun!
Miles 29 to Finish / Canelo Hills Return / Gravel
Just before mile 29, stay straight and make a quick corner left followed by a corner right (it feels like your tracing a property line) and then gradually bend north. In front of you is the Canelo Hills; if you look closely, at about the 11 o’clock position, you can see the road cutting up the right to left to Canelo Pass, your destination.
The climb is about 4 miles in length with 500 feet of gain; near the top is the steepest. But … it is never brutally steep. This is one of those climbs that you anticipate to be harder than it actually is. A good thing!!
As you near the pass and climb in a northwesterly direction, off your left shoulder is a sweeping view of the Canelo Hills backdropped by the San Rafael Valley backdropped by the Patagonia mountains. When you see the Canelo Pass sign, most of the work for the day is done. From here, it is 3.5 miles back to the cars with a net loss of 500 feet and a couple of short popper hills adding 100 feet in gain.
Leave us a comment below to grab your bragging rights!!
Post Ride Interview
… with Spider Tom!
It may be tempting to start this route from Patagonia, but we do not recommend that. The last half of your day will be the most technical and demanding (by, a lot!) Not always a good thing!
I would recommend knee high socks to save yourself from a lot of the close in prickly stuff.
A new segment of Arizona Trail is being built in 2020 to remove the AZT from Harshaw Road. As of December 2020, 6.4 miles have been built from Red Rock Canyon and Hwy 82. See the map here. This may affect this route as documented.
The Arizona Trail sector of this route really demands an adventure style gravel bike. Something with 50+ mm tires, low gearing, and a geometry closer to a mountain bike than a road bike. I rode this route on Salsa Cutthroats with 2.1″ (55 mm) Fleecer Ridge tires (by Rene Hearse), tubeless with CushCore inserts. The gear ratio is about 0.9.
You can shorten the ride by eliminating the stick of the lollipop and starting at the Arizona Trail Parking lot. (Lat / Long: 31.512847, -110.557701) We did not opt for this option, in that you get no time to warm up your legs before embarking on tough, demanding terrain. And … the drive to the parking area is only slightly quicker than being on your bike!
Food / Water
Patagonia. ~ 6 mile detour. At mile 16.7, go right on the Harshaw Avenue [paved] for 3 miles.