Babad Do’ag, roughly translates to “Frog Mountain” in the O’odham language. This mountain is now commonly referred to as Mt. Lemmon, named after botanist Sara Plummer Lemmon who studied the botany of the mountain in the late 1800s. The imposing profile of the sprawling mountain range that lines the north and east sides of Tucson is impossible to ignore. While the paved road up into the range is the stuff of road biking legend there is a huge spectrum of unpaved roads that circle the mountain as well. While Patagonia, AZ has been an epicenter of gravel cycling in Southern Arizona, I wanted to bring some attention to a route that was more Tucson-focused.
Before I continue, I’d like to acknowledge that this route travels through the traditional and current home of many indigenous peoples including the; Hohokam, Sobaipuri, Tohono O’odham, O’odham Jeweḍ, Ndee/Nnēē: (Western Apache), and Akimel O’odham (Upper Pima). Please be aware that all these lands are sacred and I encourage you to take some time to educate yourself on the history of these peoples before heading out on this route.
Additionally, I’d like to note that this isn’t “my route”. I’m relatively new to the Tucson area and many parts of this route have been part of other routes and popular rides for a long time. I drew inspiration from the Hundomungus, Bell Breaker, and Pima County Ultracruise routes while stitching this route together. Most of those rides were meant to be very challenging rides while my focus was to make something more accessible for more casual riding/touring. That said, the Babad Do’ag Backroads route is still quite challenging, and if you are interested in a greater challenge or adding sections to the route I would suggest checking out the aforementioned routes.
I also wanted to give huge props to Monique for creating the amazing hand-drawn map for this route. Ride with GPS is cool and all that, but I’d rather look at some of Monique’s work any day. Go and snag some sweet accouterments from this amazing Tucson local over at her Etsy shop.
Now that I have acknowledged a few things let’s talk about this route. It was designed to be a shoulder season (Spring/Fall) route that allows you to pedal in and out of Tucson without a shuttle, while circumnavigating the Santa Catalina Mountain range. Ideally, this would be ridden between October-April. October and April can bring near 100 degree days and the winter can bring sub-freezing nights and the possibility of snow, the desert is a fickle creature. I don’t think I should have to say this but, DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS ROUTE MAY-SEPTEMBER, the heat is dangerous. The route was originally intended to be ridden in either direction, but some late development changes have me strongly recommending it be ridden clockwise. I planned the route with gravel bikes in mind (48c and larger tires) but if you have larger tires you may have a bit more fun on some of the rougher sections. And If you leave a comment asking if “you can ride this on 32c cross tires” I’m going to ignore you, this isn’t the Baja divide facebook group y’all. The route has a variety of surfaces from long bike path sections on the way to Oro Valley up to a short stint on a single track section of the AZT out of Oracle. My hope is that this route will be a good sampling of the Sonoran Desert to spark people’s interest.
The map technically starts at the MSA Annex on the West side of Tucson, though it can reasonably be started from anywhere in town if you can access the closest section of The Loop bike path that circles the city. The MSA Annex houses Transit Cycles (best shop in town IMHO), Decibel Coffee, Beaut Burger (homemade vegan burgers!), West Bound for any refreshments, and Seis across the road at the original Mercado San Augustin for some of the best Mexican food in town. Any way you cut it, it’s a great spot to grab whatever you need to start out the ride, and it’s right next to the bike path. If you decide to ride all the way out of town, you don’t need to worry about stocking up much on supplies as there are many options for food and water along the first 50 miles. I will always recommend a stop at In-and-Out burger, especially one with such a scenic view of Oro Valley. Shortly after you leave The Loop you will pick up a short section of singletrack in the Honeybee trail system via the Big Wash trailhead. The mellow single track will bring you back and forth across the wash and through some lovely sections with great views of the western side of the Catalina Mountains. Somewhere between here and Oracle make for a good night’s camp for the first night. You will technically need a permit to camp on the state land trust that the Honeybee system resides on, but there is also plenty of National Forest/BLM dispersed camping near and before Oracle as well.
While I haven’t had a chance to stop in for a tour, the amazing Biosphere 2 is just a few miles off route before you reach Oracle. Ill let them do the talking on this one:
“The Biosphere 2 facility serves as a laboratory for controlled scientific studies, an arena for scientific discovery and discussion, and a far-reaching provider of public education. Its mission is to serve as a center for research, outreach, teaching, and life-long learning about Earth, its living systems, and its place in the universe; to catalyze interdisciplinary thinking and understanding about Earth and its future; to be an adaptive tool for Earth education and outreach to industry, government, and the public; and to distill issues related to Earth systems planning and management for use by policymakers, students and the public.”
Around mile 48 you will reach the quaint town of Oracle. The Patio Cafe sits near the center of town for any needs you may have, they have a lovely cafe and a small store with everything bikepackers/backpackers could need. They are one of the few resupply stops close to the Arizona Trail (AZT) so they are seasoned in the needs of those packing light and carry a bunch of staple camping meals. As you leave town there is another small single-track section of AZT just to wet your whistle to the amazing feat of trail the AZT is. At this point, you will start your climb up the famous Mt Lemmon control road, the dirt alternative to the famous paved route on the other side of the mountain. Peppersauce Campground is another lovely place to camp with restrooms and water, but you can also disperse camp just across the road if you want. Plan to fill up all your bottles here as the next water source is 20 miles away and you have a lot of exposed climbing ahead of you. If you like dark and cramped places you can stop at the Peppersauce Cave which is over a mile deep, though without squeezing through a tight passage you won’t get very far. At the turn onto Forest Road 4450 you COULD choose to just keep pedaling another ~3k feet to the town of Summerhaven near the summit of the mountain, its a burly climb but it’s there.
Once you turn east there are few rollers then you start really screaming downhill, though make sure to keep an eye on your map or you will pass the turnoff to the last possible water until the other side of Redington Pass. At mile 79 there is a well-fed cattle tank that usually has good water overflowing the tank or trough. You will need to filter or chemically treat the water to make it potable. Once you have filled your bottles head back to the main dirt road. There are some camp spots with lovely sunset views of the Galiuro Wilderness on the other side of the valley between miles 82 and 84. After that the road does get loose with baby head rocks, you can see Duncan taking a spill on the hardest part, after which, the road gets much easier. Some pavement is a welcome reprieve before you start your climb up and over Redington pass.
The pass starts with a gut-wrenching climb through a beautiful and dense cactus forest. It continues in many rolling hills up almost 3000 feet of expansive and unshaded climbing. This climb is the reason you want to fill your bottles at the cow trough at mile 79. As you reach the summit, you will pass the AZT again and be treated to amazing views of Cew Do’ag (Rincon Mountains). Once you reach the western side of the pass you will have ripper descent down to the Tucson basin. If you have the time and energy I would recommend a short hike out to Tanque Verde falls (the north trail is a nudist spot, fair warning). If you are dying of thirst or need a snack the Circle K is the first taste of civilization you will reach. At this point, the route is essentially finished, but I routed it via a bicycle boulevard through eastern Tucson for anyone needing to make it a loop, but you can just break off to wherever you might be staying in Tucson.
Water is probably the toughest part of this route as there are no reliable natural sources of water along the route. I have marked places I feel confident having people expect to find water. I would recommend 4-6 liters once you leave Peppersauce campground and fill up the same amount from the cow trough at mile 79. Large 2+ Liter bladders are your best friend down in the desert.
I have marked a few camp spots that I used while scouting on this route, but there is camping near large swathes of this route as it crosses mostly National Forest land. The only thing I would caution against is camping anywhere along the San Pedro River (miles 86-95) as this area is all private land. Rain would be rare on this route as the summer is the Sonoran wet season, so check the forecast before you leave, but tents are rarely necessary out here. If you are packing an inflatable pad make sure you have a good groundsheet like a sheet of Tyvek for all the pokey things in the desert.
Find the Shade:
The sun is different down here. For real, bring some good long sleeve tops/hats for riding out here. When you are resting, find a spot in the shade if you can. I’ve seen people get super roasted down here even before it’s very hot.
Don’t Touch Anything:
I always joke that the first rule of the desert is to not touch anything. Literally, everything has spines or needles, especially if it looks fuzzy. Be careful where you squat.
I would say this route is doable in 2-4 days depending on your fitness. Two days would be a really fast pace, but hey some of y’all fast as hell. When scouting this we rode the route in 3 days which was still challenging with each day having about 3K feet of climbing. I think my ideal pace would be 3 nights. The first night I would try to camp near Honeybee with a bag of In-and-Out for dinner. Get breakfast at Lupe’s then catch a tour at the Biosphere and top-off supplies in Oracle and camp near Peppersauce Campground night 2. Then make it toward the base of Redington Pass for night 3 and blast into town on the morning of day 4. That’s just me though, do whatcha want.
I’m so excited to have more people come down and experience the Sonoran desert. I’m hoping this route will be accessible for people with some experience with bike camping as it may be a bit tough for people totally new to the experience. I know people will be looking for something to do this fall and winter as we get to the other side of the pandemic, so I would like to invite y’all to come down to Tucson and see how lovely it is. If you ride the route give me a shout, maybe I can catch ya for coffee before or a beer after, I’d love to hear what people think of the route.
I’m currently working to finalize some connector routes to the Sky Islands Loop this fall so check back for those if you might want to be a really big loop down here!
Special Shout out to everyone who helped with scouting and input for this route: Brenda, Monique, Abbie, Brittany, Dani, Ben, and Duncan.