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Adventure, Travel / November 20, 2016

Tucson: an active winter escape

Written by: Renee Howard

When many folks think of Tucson, they think of knee-high socks and golf carts. But that’s not the whole story. The southern Arizona city is not just a retirement community—it’s also an affordable winter break destination for bikers, climbers, and active dirtbags of all kinds.

Tucson is nestled at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains, which contain enough recreation opportunities to scratch any itch. Locals ski the slopes of Mt Lemmon Ski Valley, but most visitors prefer an affordable winter vacation that takes advantage of the town’s moderate temperatures.


A technical MTB haven

The Mt. Lemmon ski area offers world-class MTB terrain in the off-season.

Local bike pro and metal artist Ryan Beamish behind the counter at Broadway Bicycles.

The Tucson area offers some of the best mountain bike trails in Arizona… which places it pretty high in the running for the best mountain bike trails worldwide.

Every local biker I’ve talked to recommends the Lemmon Drop trail, which bombs 9000’ from the high alpine to the low lying desert at Molino Basin. For the average biker, it’s a full day of fast, technical riding.

North toward the town of Catalina (30 mins from Tucson), the 50 Year Trail is a well-liked local ride and part of the extensive Golder Ranch Trail System. It offers technical desert terrain with exciting steep rock slabs, bank turns, sandy washes and fast winding single track. Just watch out for cacti.

For road bikers, the climb from the bottom of Sabino Canyon to the Summit of Mt. Lemmon is one of the most challenging and beautiful in the country.

In the summer months, Mt. Lemmon offers a wide variety of single track trails. Aspen Draw is a popular route for moderate skill levels. It launches off the top of the Lemmon ski hill and zig zags through the ski area. For those with large lungs, the route can loop back to the top of the mountain on the highway.

If you need wheels, there’s no shortage of top-notch bike shops in town. I recommend Broadway Bicycles or Pro Bike. Local businesses like Tucson Bike Rentals and Tours offer everything from road bike rentals to all-inclusive bike tours.


1,000+ rock routes

Author Renee Howard tops out a boulder in Sabino Canyon.

The Tucson area has something for climbers of all abilities.

The Hairpin Turn crag is home to dozens of bouldering routes, all within a walkable proximity.

Tucson is a perfect winter climbing destination. Climbers experience 65-80 degree temps in the lowlands, and the mercury bottoms out around 50 degrees (read: sending temperature) in the high country. 

I strongly recommend the bouldering at Hairpin Turn at the base of Mt. Lemmon Highway. The area houses many problems in close proximity, and offers something for climbers of all abilities. 

The boulders up the road at Rose Canyon Lake have a magic forest feel to them, while the black and orange Cataract Boulders offer steep and ominous problems. The routes in all these areas are detailed in the “Old Pueblo Bouldering Guide“.

Climbers seeking dramatic sport and trad routes head to Cochise Stronghold in the Dragoon Mountains (two hours east of Tucson and worth the drive). The dome shaped granite slabs there are a sight to behold, and even the “easy” routes make many climbers question their adrenaline thresholds.

If you forgot your climbing shoes (like I did) rent a pair from the Summit Hut ($5 for three days).


A trail town

The six-mile out-and-back Romero Canyon Trail makes for a great afternoon hike.

The slopes of Mt. Lemmon are still recovering from a forest fire that swept the area several years ago.

The hiking in Tucson is endless.

I’m particularly fond of Butterfly Trail on Mt. Lemmon: a great 15-mile cruise through the woods with unbeatable views.

The shorter but equally stunning Romero Canyon Trail leads to swimming pools surrounded by picnic-friendly rock outcroppings. That hike is just three miles each way. 

Campsites are plentiful around Rose Canyon Lake on Mt. Lemmon, and so are the rainbow trout. Nearby hiking trails and climbing make it a dreamy multi-sport destination.

In the Mt. Lemmon area, the Cookie Cabin is among the best dining options.

The Huevos Rancheros at Frank's Restaurant can cure even the most stubborn hangover.

Eating and drinking in Tucson is inexpensive and entertaining. Frank’s and Francisco’s Restaurant is top notch for hangover recovery breakfast or tacos at night.

Want to get weird? Try Batch Doughnuts and Whiskey. If you’re a crusty dive bar type, The Buffet Bar is the oldest in Tucson.

Now that you know the inside scoop on Tucson, you can have an adventurous and affordable winter break in the desert!

about the author

Renee Howard

Renee is a photographer and writer based out of South-central Alaska. Her interest in bridging gaps between all manner of outdoor sports, philosophy, folk culture and backwoods artistry is a significant motivation for her work.

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