Arizona, with its red-rock canyons and mountains jutting out of the desert, has been a mountain biker’s paradise since there’s been mountain biking. But the completion of the Arizona National Scenic Trail – which runs 817 miles from the Utah border south to Mexico – turns the state into a world-class off-road cycling destination. The Arizona Trail doesn’t just allow cyclists on its paths: It was planned, funded, and built with mountain biking in mind. That means everything from the trail surface to the curvature of the turns was designed for a smooth, flowing ride.
Starting at the highlands of the Kaibab Plateau north of the Grand Canyon, the trail winds through the canyon itself, past the alpine tundra of the 12,000-foot San Francisco Peaks, beside the Mogollon Rim, and down into the Sonoran Desert of central and southern Arizona. Along the way, it passes the Superstition Wilderness and Santa Catalina Mountains, and runs through the wild Huachuca Mountains to the Mexican border. Put all that together and you’re looking at a once-in-a-lifetime, month-long through-ride – or a trove of day trips accessible from any number of destination towns. Here are three places to start your exploration of America’s next great trail.
On the northern end, Jacob Lake is a tiny community that sits on the only paved road to the Grand Canyon’s remote northern rim. It has one gas station, a single campground, and a great little inn. At Jacob Lake, you can bypass the crush of tourists at the canyon’s southern rim entrance and enjoy easy access to the Arizona Trail and other rides, including the Rainbow Rim Trail – the only singletrack along the rim of the canyon. Rent a one-room cabin at the Jacob Lake Inn for $100 a night. The inn’s restaurant has top-notch comfort food, such as the third-of-a-pound Grand Bull burger and the cranberry cream cheese chicken sandwich, as well as a bakery specializing in cookies like lemon zucchini, German chocolate, and six grain. Two miles from the inn’s front door, take the Arizona Trail north from the Orderville Canyon Trailhead (the trail’s first). This 17-mile ride loses 2,000 feet of elevation as it drops down from the Kaibab Plateau, emerging from the ponderosa pine forest into the boulder-strewn red-rock desert region.
Close to the central section of the trail is Flagstaff, a city of 65,000 that has nearly as many breweries as Boulder and is a good thousand feet higher than Denver. It’s no surprise that mountain bikers and trail runners flock here from Colorado. Flagstaff is also the one place where the Arizona Trail breaks in two – you can head straight into town or around it, by way of a canyon to the east. The Little America Hotel is two miles from downtown, but it has the largest outdoor pool in the city and its own 500 acres of ponderosa forest. At the end of the day, grab a brew at Flagstaff Brewing Company, one of the city’s five breweries. Order the Pear Burger, with blue cheese, grilled pears, and a balsamic glaze. In the morning, make for the fast-moving Walnut Canyon Trail, which travels along the limestone rim through oak, pine, and yucca forest with ample vistas.
The Sky Island region of central and southern Arizona – where the Chiricahua, Whetstone, and Santa Catalina mountains rise out of the Sonoran Desert – offers miles of cactus-dotted desert in the lowlands, green grasslands at the middle elevations, and breathtaking views in the mountains. In Tucson, stay at the historic Hotel Congress, a 1920s throwback. The hotel’s Cup Cafe serves cocktails and meaty fare until midnight on Friday and Saturday. From Tucson, make your way through Saguaro National Park to the Pistol Hill Trailhead. You’ll find 35 miles of singletrack with views of the Santa Rita Mountains. The trail winds south until it reaches Kentucky Camp, a long-abandoned mining town.