Saguaro Cactus

Most cyclists dream of biking through massive mountain ranges.  The Carreterra Austral in the Andes, the Leh-Manali road through the Indian Himalayas and Central Asia’s Pamir Highway consistently top the lists of favorite cycling spots.

Desert cycling rarely makes the cut.  And I’m really not sure why. 

Perhaps it’s because few people are acquainted with the splendor of arid places. For many of us, deserts are faraway places difficult to explore. Mountains, on the other hand, are fairly easily accessible. 

Even if you hail from a level country like the Netherlands, the Alps are just a short jump away in Germany or France.  If home is pancake-flat Kansas, you can zip to the Colorado Rockies on a weekend road trip.

From Fear to Favorite

Our first desert cycling experience was in the Sahara. I'd road tripped through the American Southwest but this was a whole different ballgame.  We were riding bikes through one of the world's most inhospitable environments.

The sun pounded down on us without remorse. I  was terrified of the vast empty spaces. Rolling sand dunes as far as the eye could see. No trace of civilization. Running out of water preoccupied my thoughts.

But after 1,000 kilometers through Morocco and Mauritania, I’d come to adore the desert.  The desolate daytime beauty and star-filled night skies calmed my soul and cleared my mind. Desert riding now delights me.

Opportunity Knocks

Back in the USA after our jaunt into Mexico, we had time to kill.  Our flight to Kazakhstan (departing from NYC’s JFK airport) was still six months away.  With cold winter temps and snow blanketing the northern US, we were in no hurry to get to New York.

Google searches for “best road rides in America” turned up Mount Lemmon near Tucson.    It’s a 28-mile monster of a climb. With an elevation gain of 5600 feet, you go from scorching desert to a cool  pine-clad mountain climate in a matter of hours.

We were in. It would mean heading west and making a major detour, but this was one ride we didn’t want to miss.

We could experience the best of both worlds: deserts AND mountains.



Arizona Cactus

The desert is far less empty than most people imagine. The saguaro cactus, left, has become a symbol of Arizona.

From the Mexican border town of Agua Prieta we cross into the US at Douglas, Arizona and point our bikes westward. Views of the Coronado mountains to the left.
Sunrise bicycle touring Arizona
There are two reasons to wake early when you're riding a bike through the desert: beat the heat and catch spectacular sunrises.


Who would have imagined the desert could be such a dangerous place?

final-dirt road bicycle riding near Tucson

A remote dirt road took us part way to Tucson. At one point we came along a group of tough-looking men with binoculars gazing out towards Mexico. I thought they might be members of one of Arizona's notorious vigilante groups on the search for migrants. Luckily the men were hunting deer, not our southern neighbors.

Saguaro National Park

Just outside the Tucson city limits lies Saguaro National Park. We arrived at dawn and had the whole place to ourselves and wandered freely among the tree-sized cactuses.

Riding up Mount Lemmon

The ride up the frontside of Mount Lemmon is entirely paved and extremely popular with road cyclists. Several dozen lycra-clad men (and a few women) zipped by us as we struggled up with our over-loaded bikes.

Riding up Mount Lemmon

The ride did not disappoint! Definitely worth the 500 kilometer detour westwards.

The ride down the backside of Mount Lemmon was clearly NOT paved. We had the road all to ourselves.

rough ride down Mount Lemmon
Riding Down Mount Lemmon
Mount Lemmon Arizona

Mount Lemmon Arizona

sunrise in the Arizona Desert

February 2017 World Biking Stats

Mount Lemmon: A 500 Kilometer Detour up Arizona’s Most Thrilling Climb

2 thoughts on “Mount Lemmon: A 500 Kilometer Detour up Arizona’s Most Thrilling Climb

  • February 26, 2017 at 4:47 PM

    Great post!! I’ve taken note of this area. Enjoy the desert (and mountains).

    • February 26, 2017 at 6:34 PM

      Definitely recommend a ride up Mount Lemmon to anyone touring in the Southwest!


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