On a bike tour through the Southwest, I stepped out of Cartel Coffee Lab in downtown Tucson and jumped with excitement when I saw three touring bikes parked against the glass window.
I walked back in on a short-lived mission to find the owners — three sisters in their 20s on their very first bicycle tour. Amy, Aya, and Ruth Mares told me that the cycling part of it came out of necessity when their car broke down. They’re from the area and figured circling bike-friendly Tucson would make for a perfect mini-bike tour. They inspired me to go back to Tucson for a three-day trip of my own.
Northern Tucson to Downtown Tucson — with a few detours
On a late September morning, I began my own mini-bike tour out of northern Tucson at the crack of dawn. I pedaled toward the Chuck Huckelberry Loop (known as “the Loop”), a 131-mile bike path that connects many of Tucson’s parks, shopping areas, bus routes, trailheads, schools, and more. Riding on it felt like I was in a different country, a bike-friendly one like Denmark or the Netherlands. Completed only two years ago, the Loop has become a main artery of the city.
On pavement still shadowed by the Santa Catalina Mountains, I witnessed the town waking up: dedicated runners up early to beat the midday heat, folks walking their dogs in the wash, and kids on their way to school. I loved how the Loop was like a highway with its numerous exits, dotted median lines turning solid, and locals referring to it as something to “hop on” like you would the 405 Interstate in Los Angeles.
A few hairpin turns and gravel roads led to the Tanque Verde Falls Trailhead where I realized my blood sugar was high and I was running low on water. As a type 1 diabetic (T1D) who is always monitoring my blood sugar, I’ve learned that water is essential in bringing my numbers down. After asking around, I was able to muster up two water bottles, enough for the one-mile hike down to the creek.
Lying down on a warm slab with my feet dipped in the water, I looked at my continuous glucose meter and sighed. My blood sugar was still in the 300s, and my water bottles were nearly empty once again. Having T1D means constantly analyzing my blood sugar and predicting and avoiding future disasters. I made the conservative decision to skip the last scramble to the waterfall — the endpoint and trail’s namesake — and turn around. I still had 500 feet of uphill hiking and a bike ride until I could reach potable water.
It was a bummer, but this place was beautiful whether I reached the falls or not. T1D sucks, but how lucky was I to be sitting here in this tranquil canyon? Where the only noises I could hear were the river burbling and the faint squeal of a little girl jumping between rocks, and where the sparkling water was clear as day. I got back on my bike and the downhill breeze blew the sweat off my face.
It was 1:00 PM and the heat of the day had hit. I turned onto a straight, burning, gradual uphill, and I felt like I was back in my mother’s native Maracaibo, Venezuela. By now I’d surrendered to the sun and accepted that to exist in Tucson is to embrace its rays. I was sweating, and my phone was sweating. I was drenched in my own perspiration, and it felt so good. What didn’t feel good, however, was my first-ever lip sunburn.
An older gentleman, clearly a local, passed me and said, “It’s much funner going the other way, isn’t it?” We met again under a pavilion at the Rincon Mountain Visitor Center where I finally filled up on water and grabbed a sticker to add to my plastered bike. While he fixed a flat, he gave me a few tips on my route and warned me that thieves linger around the Loop waiting to steal bikes.
I spent an hour riding Cactus Forest Drive, a quiet looped road. Saguaro cacti dotted the park’s 67,000 acres, their cartoon-like presence larger than life and their many arms twisted like yoga poses.
Someone once described Tucson to me as an unpretentious Denver. There’s a real, authentic, no-nonsense outdoors community here of cyclists, climbers, and runners. I love how fluid the line is between the city and the desert, how the desert inspires the city with murals on every corner. While roads in the city center can be hectic, you can escape into tranquility pretty quickly.
I arrived at my family friend Ken’s quaint home just blocks from downtown. He refused to let me take an indoor shower as he’s got a shower head attached to a tree branch in his backyard. I stood under its streaming water and soaked in what was the best shower I’d had since childhood on Fire Island. We munched on chips and guacamole while his tuxedo cat Puss rubbed against my leg. Ken told me that since the last time I rolled my bike through his house, he’d lost 20 pounds, a reminder that bike travel not only benefits ourselves but also inspires others.
Downtown Tucson to Northern Tucson
The next morning, I hopped back on the Loop in search of a greasy spoon diner, one of my favorite parts about bike trips. I ducked into KG’s Westside Café, a beloved local hole in the wall nestled in a strip mall. I tried not to get too comfortable as I knew the omelette and home fries would start spiking my blood sugar the second I did. I cycled north on the Loop toward Catalina State Park and stopped frequently under overpasses to cool off. It was refreshing to turn my brain on autopilot and not have to worry about following directions.
On my final day, back in northern Tucson, I left my bags at my host’s house for an early morning unloaded ride up Sabino Canyon with PK, a good friend from the T1D community.
Every day of the week (except Wednesday and Saturday) before 9:00 AM and after 5:00 PM, a magical thing happens: the 2.8-mile road to the top is closed off to cars and becomes a bike path. Back in the spring, I had taken a Sabino Canyon van up, but I struggle to say I’ve truly been here before. I remember sitting on cushy seats, 90 percent of my view obstructed by the walls of the vehicle while children screamed in the back, thinking, I would so much rather be cycling.
In the parking lot, PK unbuckled the straps of the bike rack and lifted our bicycles to the ground. His road bike was so light you could lift it with one finger. As always, he was decked out in a JDRF (Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation) cycling kit. PK started cycling for his daughter Marlowe, who has T1D, and has since become a JDRF cycling coach, fixture, and cheerleader in this growing community. “You start by riding for someone you love, but in the end you ride for everyone affected by T1D. Together we are stronger than any one of us alone,” he said.
PK rides Sabino Canyon almost as often as he brushes his teeth. And you can’t blame him — this place was a dream.
The ride started flat, and the temperature was cool. Slivers of sunshine sneaked their way into a still dark canyon, and a sea of saguaro cacti stretched over distant lit-up rocky peaks. PK and I continued our leapfrogging routine where he’d cycle ahead of me and take my picture, repeating the process until we reached the 3,300-foot summit. I’ve always appreciated how he waits for me in a way that doesn’t make me feel slow, how he stops at every single waterfall to snap photos.
At the top, I realized the climb was much easier than I had anticipated. Having cycled more than 2,000 miles across the Southwest this past spring, my legs felt strong. Cycling never gets old. Recounting that van ride up here months ago on which we only got out at predetermined stops along the way, I was so thankful to not only see A and B but everything in between.
Back in the parking lot, PK and I hugged goodbye. He headed to work and I headed to my favorite café. I thought to myself how wonderful it was that this ride is oftentimes his morning routine.
Le Buzz Café, another strip mall gem eight miles from Sabino, seemed to be built off of hungry cyclists. I’m not one to eat pastries, but there was an almond croissant here I’d been dreaming about. Last spring, I grabbed two for the road before climbing nearby 9,000-foot Mount Lemmon with PK and my friend Erik. PK calls these pastries BG (blood sugar) busters — they spike our numbers but are so worth it. I have a distinct memory of stopping at one of the mountain’s first overpasses, Tucson already a distant skyline. After countless switchbacks, pulling this flaky, mouth-watering treat apart was the sweetest reward.
Whether they’re cyclists, climbers, or runners, everyone sitting at this café seemed to have earned their croissants. And that’s what I like about Tucson: this town celebrates the bicycle and the natural wonders that lie just outside its limits. One major perk of bike touring is that it allows me to scout out possible future homes as I’ve concluded that my native New York City is not for me. Over the miles, I’ve come to prefer natural canyons over concrete, and wide-open spaces over crowded subway cars.
I took a taxi to the airport. It was time to go, but I wasn’t ready. Shortly after my plane took off for the East Coast, I spotted Mount Lemmon’s ridges lit up by the golden hour sun and had a realization: I could live here.
Anytime but the summer! Tucson’s the perfect place to escape any other season. But be aware that winter is the peak season.
High-SPF sunscreen, long sleeves, and a hat — the sun is strong here. Be sure to also bring a good lock as there is quite a bit of theft especially around the Loop.
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