Gates Pass - Winterlude 2020 - CycleBlaze

January 6, 2021

Gates Pass

So this is a pretty half-hearted post, for a ride that deserves better.  It’s hard to think much about a peaceful ride through the desert on a day when the country has fallen into such chaos.  Still, the record must be kept; and I want to remember how this day was spent.  Not that I’m likely to forget - it will get filed away in that mental closet of horrors, like the night we arrived in Silver City four years ago and watched the presidential election returns come in, or sitting at dinner in a restaurant in Orvieto on 9/11/2001, wondering what the agitated crowd across the table was discussing.

Gates Pass is a low gap through the Tucson Mountains, and the most direct route from Tucson to the desert parks on the far side of the range: the western unit of Saguaro National Park, and Tucson Mountain Park.  It is also regarded as one of the best cycling routes outside of the city.

I’ve always intended to take this ride, but I’ve been uncertain about its safety.  Before taking Rachael up there I decided to check it out for myself on a solo ride, and have been waiting for the right day.  Today was perfect: midweek, so the traffic should be less; warm, with highs in the low seventies; and almost windless.

There are multiple options for a ride through the pass - as an out and back, riding it both directions; or as one of a few loop options that are possible depending on how far you’re willing to bike.  I chose a loop that approaches the far side of the range by skirting it from the south, and then biking through the pass from the west on the way back to Tucson.

Rachael has her own plans for the day.  She leaves home early while it’s still a bit chilly for my tastes, and stops by Fairwheel Bikes for a consultation and to schedule some maintenance work.  Afterwards, she’ll head back to the Loop, biking out Aviation Way and Julian Wash for a 44 miler.

I wait about an hour before leaving myself.  The route starts with a few miles south along the Santa Cruz, a stop by Kennedy Park to see what’s flying around today, and then a three or four mile ride west along Ajo Way.

An obliging round tailed ground squirrel stands watch beside his hole on the shoulder of the Loop.
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There’s more activity down in the wash this morning than usual. I think this is the only killdeer I’ve seen since we arrived.
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A verdin, in Kennedy Park. Now that I know what to look for, this is actually a pretty common bird here. A shy, tiny thing that doesn’t stay put for long, it’s not easy to get a shot of.
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Westbound on Ajo Way. There’s a steady stream of traffic to provide background music, but other than that it’s a surprisingly decent ride with its smooth, broad shoulder.
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From Ajo Way, today’s route branches northwest up Kinney road for five miles, to the junction with Gates Pass Road coming in from the east.  It’s a gradual climb, first passing by Kinney Village and Tucson Eatates before entering Tucson Mountain Park.  Once we’re inside the park we’re biking through beautiful, unspoiled Sonoran Desert until finally doubling back east and over Gates Pass.

Biking through Tucson Mountain Park, on Kinney Road. Until entering the park there was a good shoulder to the road, but it disappeared at the park boundary. Today at least, it doesn’t matter because the traffic load is so low.
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Golden Gate Mountain, from Kinney Road.
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On Kinney Road. There are a few small rollers and blind curves, but it’s so quiet it’s not concerning. You can hear the few passing cars well before they arrive.
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Approaching the junction with Gates Pass Road. I think the water tower is a part of Old Tucson, the movie set for westerns that has gradually turned into a theme park.
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From the junction, I turn west for about a ten mile loop through the desert: west along West McCain Loop to its junction with Kinney Road again, continuing on to the National park visitor center, and then doubling back along Kinney Road to this junction with Gates Pass Road.  The whole distance is an exceptional ride, but McCain is particularly fine.  Practically traffic-free today, I encounter more bicycles than motor vehicles.  This is definitely a spot worth coming back to.

Back at the Gates Pass junction, I sit by the side of the road to eat my orange, contemplate the pass ahead, and check my emails.  I read a bit about the mob riot back in the Capitol, and have a hard time squaring that with my experience sitting here alone in this beautiful, peaceful setting. 

On West McCain Loop. The approaching biker stopped for a roadside chat and confirmed that the riding here is nearly always this fine, in the right season. He’s an immigrant, moving down to the sun after 16 years in Portland. Hmm.
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Along McCain Loop Road.
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A beautiful cycling experience, biking along this empty road with saguaros rising just off your shoulder.
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Patrick O'HaraThese are all very enticing photos, Scott. Thanks for putting another riding area on our list.
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1 week ago
Looking southwest down Mile Wide Road toward Kitt Peak. This is another possible approach to the parks that might be worth checking out.
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Along McCain Loop Road.
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Along McCain Loop Road.
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A phainopepla, one of my candidates for the funny bird award. To my mind they look just a bit goofy with that tousled crest. Like they’re always suffering through a bad hair day.
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Jen GrumbyLimerick bait!

Phainopepla! A bird with bedhead.
Well-coiffed? No! A wild mess, instead.
He sits high in the tree
Looking like a banshee
Or maybe a roaming Deadhead?
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1 week ago
Scott AndersonTo Jen GrumbyHeh, heh. I thought that would work.
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1 week ago
There are some long views up here. This one is looking southeast, toward Mount Wrightson.
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The ride across Gates Pass exceeds my expectations.  I was a bit apprehensive about it, partly from anticipating the difficulty and partly worrying about safety.  Eastbound, it’s definitely a bit of a lift - but it’s well concentrated, with most of the elevation coming in about a 12-13% climb in the final half mile.  Easier than I’d feared, actually.  

And it feels much safer than than I’d expected too.  There’s no shoulder, but the road has been recently repaved and is very smooth so it’s an easy ride.  You aren’t bouncing over breaks in the pavement, your mirror jostling around so it’s hard to see the traffic approaching behind you.  And today at least, there’s not that much traffic in the first place, and they’re considerate and moving slowly anyway.  I don’t know what Rachael might think, but it’s definitely a climb I’d repeat.

And the views from the top are amazing - back across the desert, and ahead to Tucson once you shoot the gap.  The descent back toward town is a delight, dropping at a comfortable grade on this smooth highway.   I keep a good pace on the way down, but I’m still passed from behind by three or four others, and see another half dozen climbing the other way.

There.  That’s enough.  Back to the news.

On Gates Pass Road. It’s hard to tell at first where the road passes through, but if you zoom in you can see it angling up to the left.
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The view west from the summit of Gates Pass.
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Looking back down at the steepest part of the ascent.
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Through the gap, with Tucson far ahead.
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Back on the Loop, this big guy was eyeing the Santa Cruz wash. Amazing how different red-tails can look, isn’t it? Compare this to that almost snowy bird we saw back near Patagonia.
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Ride stats today: 41 miles, 2,400’; for the tour: 1,724 miles, 60,600’; for the year: 6 riding days, 252 miles, 8,600’, and 1 flat tire

Today's ride: 43 miles (69 km)
Total: 1,665 miles (2,680 km)

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Comment on this entry Comment 1
Jen GrumbyThanks for this refreshing detour off Shit Show Road.

Nice that there are more pleasant things to remember about 1/6/21.
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1 week ago