Conclusion - Southeast Arizona 2016 - CycleBlaze

April 7, 2016


Southeast Arizona bike tour

March 27 thru April 7, 201612 days
Pedaled 465 miles (744 km) entirely on paved roads
Hiked 29 miles (46 km) on trails and in towns
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It was a pretty good trip. The bike performed well, with 2 simultaneous thorn punctures on the front wheel but no other problems. My foot was sore at the beginning but I had no other aches and pains.

The weather was slightly cooler than expected. Days 1 and 11 were the warmest with a high of 86F (30C). Day 5 was the coldest with a high of 56F (13C) and a little bit of rain. No other rain.

Day 3 had a strong headwind from Garden Valley to Nogales. Wind was light to moderate other days.

The route has mostly gentle terrain if you ignore the out-and-back climbs to Madera Canyon and Kartchner Caverns. The highways are mostly 2% grade or less. 6% grades are rare. There is one short 7% grade on the climb to Bisbee.

3 distinct regions:

The first 3 days, from Tucson to Nogales, had a more pronounced Sonoran desert landscape than expected. I really enjoyed the variety of succulents mixed among the freshly leafed mesquite trees. Shade was surprisingly easy to find. That segment also has the heaviest traffic and the most complex navigation. On the last day of the tour I re-entered the Sonoran desert near Tucson. The 1-lane Cactus Forest loop in Saguaro National Park was one of the scenic highlights of the tour.The next 3 days, from Nogales to Bisbee were in a high desert region that mostly had mesquite and bunch grass, but not much cactus. A sudden departure from the Sonoran desert, with spectacular mountain views in every direction. Low traffic, few fences or houses outside of towns. The stereotypical southeast Arizona landscape.
East of Bisbee the route traverses a big flat basin that reminds me of the Great Plains, with irrigated crop circles and grain elevators. Kind of monotonous but unexpected and very different from the rest of the tour. The mesquite trees were still bare, making shade hard to find. I went this direction to see Chiricahua National Monument.

Most memorable moment:

A mountain lion slowly walked 150 feet in front of me on the Echo Canyon trail in Chiricahua National Monument.

Missed opportunity:

The northeast part of my route passed the turnoff to Cochise Stronghold. That would have been an interesting detour, 6 miles uphill into a remote canyon with a campground. Cochise was an Apache chief who starting in 1861 led an 11 year rebellion against the U.S. and Mexican governments. He burned pretty much every white settlement in southern Arizona. Cochise is not as famous as Geronimo but is still a revered Apache leader. Cochise County Arizona is named after him.

Getting Home

On April 9 I flew from Tucson to San Francisco to Eugene. The CRJ-200 regional jet seemed more claustrophobic after spending 2 weeks in the desert. The fuselage is smaller than a bus.

The flights were on time but my rear wheel was damaged by United Airlines.

Rim destroyed by United Airlines on the return from Tucson to Eugene.
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I initially thought that I couldn't make a damage claim after signing an "insufficient packaging" waiver when checking the boxed bike. Fortunately an alert reader who is a United Airlines pilot forwarded my information to his airport's baggage customer service agents. They contacted me and offered to reimburse the cost of repairs. I built the wheel from parts, so I only asked them to reimburse me for a new rim. A check arrived in the mail 2 weeks later.

The story has a happy ending but it would have been different if the damage occurred before the tour and I had to buy a new rear wheel in Tucson. The delay would have made it impossible to get to my pre-paid room in Madera Canyon.

General Information

Southeast Arizona is an excellent destination for a short "drop in" bike tour. From a bicycle touring perspective Southeast Arizona is its own separate universe, isolated by I-10 and a vast roadless area to the north, and the Mexican border to the south.

You don't need to be an elite athlete or an experienced bicycle tourist to tour Southeast Arizona. The distances between services are reasonable. The climbs aren't huge and the grades are mostly gentle. The weather is pleasant and predictable if you go at the right time of year. Traffic is light.

Tucson's airport is on the south edge of town making it easy to get out of the city. You can also get to downtown Tucson 3 times a week on the AMTRAK Sunset Limited train.

March and April is the best time to tour the high desert of Southeast Arizona. It's too hot from May thru September. I imagine that October and early November might be pleasant as well but the days are shorter and the desert isn't blooming. Winter has periods of very nice weather but also periods of cold weather. A winter tour can be a magical escape if you have the flexibility to wait until the weather forecast is good.

Southern Arizona is quite arid but it has two rainy seasons. During winter occasional storms come from the north. During summer occasional monsoon rains come from the southwest. Consequently the landscape is greener than most deserts, yet reliably dry during Spring and Fall.

Tombstone, Bisbee, and Kartchner Caverns are major tourist destinations that are sometimes crowded. All 3 places are likely to have No Vacancy signs on Saturday night. At other attractions such as Fairbank ghost town you might have the whole place to yourself.

Just north of Bisbee is the half mile long Mule Mountain tunnel which has 2 lighted lanes of grooved concrete and no shoulder. It's relatively safe when going south in the downhill direction. If traveling north from Bisbee to Tombstone it's best to pedal over the hill on Old Divide road.

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