Biking my age in miles: The Old Sonoita Highway - Winterlude 2021 - CycleBlaze

December 21, 2021

Biking my age in miles: The Old Sonoita Highway

There’s a direct road from Tucson to Sonoita: Highway 83, the Sonoita Highway, it starts at Vail and cuts through the Santa Rita foothills.  On paper this looks like it would be a great ride, short enough that you could  bike from downtown Tucson to Sonoita in a day: 53 miles, 3,500’ of climbing.   Even better would be to ride it the other direction, flying downhill back to Tucson after a multi-day loop through Green Valley, Tubac, Patagonia and Sonoita.   Kelly Iniguez has done something like this loop a few times and documented her rides here.

We’ve considered this a few times ourselves, but the safety reviews on Route 83 always discouraged us against it - and when we drove it last year it didn’t look attractive either.  Busy, narrow, shoulderless, rough surface - I doubt we’ll ever bike it unless the road gets upgraded with a decent shoulder someday.

There is a side-road though, the Old Sonoita Highway, that more or less parallels 83 about halfway to Sonoita.  I was aware of this road from prior research and thought I might check it out as a possible candidate for my birthday ride this year.  I was puzzled though when I couldn’t find the Old Sonoita Highway on the map though; and you won’t either, unless you’re looking at an old map.  It looks like its official name now is Charolais Road, although I can’t find any documentation of when or why this happened.

In any case, I was delighted to see that it was a 74.2 mile out and back from our home.  Perfect!  I’ll just plan on packing in another mile somewhere, and see for the first time an old road I’ve been curious about for awhile.  Rachael offers to join me for the first part of the ride and turn back at some point, which I happily take her up on.  It will be great to have company at the start to help me keep up a faster pace.

We wait around until 8:30 when it finally warms up to 45, still chilly enough to require our coats.  We begin the ride by biking west to the loop and then working our way south along the Santa Cruz and then east up Julian Wash.  by the time we’re ten miles from home it’s warmed up enough that we stop and shed a layer.

Southbound up the Santa Cruz, passing beneath A Hill. A perfect day for a ride like this - dry, not too hot, not too windy, with partial cloud cover.
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Town and mountain.
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I like a town that has wall art you can appreciate while waiting for the light to turn green.
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The ride up Julian Wash through south Tucson is probably my least favorite part of the loop - a bit industrial, on-road stretches, long red lights - but once you finally break out of that it turns really fine.  Upper Julian Wash is one of our favorite parts of the loop.  

Rachael’s still with me at this point, and I hear her commanding ‘GoPro, find roadrunner!’ behind me, testing out a new aspect of her superpowers.  Amazing - a quarter mile later I see one off the side of the path, working its way through the cholla and creosote. Too far off for a good shot, but still very impressive.  I wish I had superpowers!

And then, maybe another quarter mile later here comes another one, closer in this time. And, I do mean here she comes.  She’s maybe fifty yards off when we first see her and I’m focusing in on her when she looks our way, lifts her tail, and starts coming straight in our direction.  Close enough for a good shot.

Amazing. I wish I had a superpower like Rachael’s!
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And then she just keeps coming!  Eventually she makes her way right onto the bike path and stares up at Rachael, apparently hoping we’d brought breakfast with us.  We give back nothing but appreciative stares though, so she moves on.

Sorry, we forgot to pack the crickets today.
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Suzanne GibsonWhat a great picture!
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1 month ago
Kathleen JonesNow that’s a stand-off.
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1 month ago
Susan CarpenterBeep Beep! Super powers indeed!
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1 month ago
Bruce LellmanThere's some kind of communication going on here! What a great photo.
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1 month ago
marilyn swettShe probably would have eaten right out of Rachel's hand!
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1 month ago
Scott AndersonTo Bruce LellmanI love this one. It would make a good cartoon. If we had a wall we’d frame and hang it there.
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1 month ago
Jen GrumbyA great way to start the day, this is!

And the roadrunner said, "Hello human! Would you like to race? Those wheels look pretty fast .. but wait 'til you see my spindly legs!!"
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1 month ago

That excitement behind us, we continue east up the wash until we come to Rita Road.  My plan is to cut over to the Old Vail Road here and continue southeast, making my way eventually to the Old Sonoita Highway.  The first two miles of Old Vail Road Have a pretty crappy surface though, and it doesn’t take long before Rachael decides she’s found her reason to turn back.

For Kelly.
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Kelly IniguezMy favorite! You remembered!
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1 month ago
Thanks, Pard! See you back at the ranch.
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Eva WaltersNice photo, Rachael.
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1 month ago
Jen GrumbyYes! What a smile!
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1 month ago

In two miles I cross Houghton and the road surface improves considerably.  Now Mary Ann Cleveland Way, it has an abundant shoulder and a smooth surface and provides a fine ride all the way to Vail with great views on either side - to the nearby Rincon Range on the left and Santa Rita on the right.

After about five miles I come to Colossal Cave Road and turn south, first passing through Old Vail and then continuing south to the I-10 interchange.  Once I cross the Tucson city limits the road instantly turns crappy again and the shoulder disappears, and the last half mile to the intersection are an unpleasant ride.

The view north to the Rincon Mountains.
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In Old Vail. This looks like a research project - I wonder how far you can ride in this direction?
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In Old Vail.
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Another research project. I assume the old Vail schoolhouse no longer exists, but I’ll check it out.
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At the interchange I turn east on the Benson Highway, another old route that’s now just a frontage road along the freeway.  Lightly traveled, but not the best surface or the most interesting ride, although the mountain and desert views are still fine.  Six miles on I finally come to the Old Sonoita Highway.

Once I’m here, the Old Sonoita Highway comes as something of a disappointment.  There’s very little out here - no houses, no ruins, no livestock; just desert and mountains.  Nice enough of course, and it’s especially great that it’s a virtually empty road.  No complaints, but I’d been picturing this romantic western road with rusty relics and rotting homesteads.  Nope.

It is undeniably scenic though, with ranges in the distance every direction you turn.  And it’s one of those delightful roads where the desert vegetation grows right up to the road perimeter.   It’s overcast now but I’ll bet it’s really beautiful when the low sunlight brings out all the colors.

Looking across the ocotillo flats to the Santa Rita range.
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Other than the roadrunners, birding this season have been a disappointment so far. Maybe it’s just been too dry this year? It’s a little too far off, but it’s nice to finally see my first black throated sparrow.
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marilyn swettWe're hoping to see a bigger variety of birds in January at the state park. But you could be right about the dry season. I know a lot of birds migrate through Tucson in the winter - last year we saw cardinals and blue birds plus several different species of hummingbirds and woodpeckers.
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1 month ago
Heading south on the Old Sonoita Highway toward the Santa Rita Foothills.
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The Santa Rita Foothills.
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It’s just a tease. I won’t see a single cow out here today.
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The Old Sonoita Highway, aka Charolais Road. So where are all the Charolais?
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Finally I come to my turn back spot, the junction with Route 83.  There’s a pull off by the junction with a fairly clean pile of trash beside it, and I squat down on a clean enough piece of carpet and eat lunch.  It’s the best I’m going to find unless I want to eat standing up or bike all the way back to Vail before eating.

Goal! Now if I can just get home.
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Kelly IniguezYour lunch spot pile of trash is where we pumped Jan's tire up too far. It blew a mile or so down the road. The carpet was there at that time . . .
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1 month ago
Scott AndersonTo Kelly IniguezThat’s so funny, but it’s the obvious spot to stop. Probably everyone does that passes this way. And the carpet is probably there on purpose, but a bench would really be nicer. They should put up a guest register.
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1 month ago
The view at the top.
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Lunch stop. I’ll need to be careful picking my bike up from out of those dead prickly pear blades. Probably not the wisest spot for a photo op.
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And then, the ride back home.  Up until now it’s been a gradual uphill for the last 25 miles, rising very gently at about 1% most of the way.  I’ve been biking into a headwind ever since we started east on Julian Wash, and it’s gradually picked up strength - for the last ten or fifteen miles I’ve been biking into perhaps a 10-12 mph headwind.  Not so much to exhaust me, but enough that I’m really looking forward to the ride back.  Downhill and downwind, I’ll fly the whole way home.  I’ve already factored that into the ride plan, and know I won’t need as much time getting home.  I figure I’ll be there by four if not earlier.

It’s not like that though.  It’s still downhill, but the winds have shifted on me.  By the time I get back to Vail I’m biking into a headwind again, and don’t make it back home until just before five, not long before sundown.  When I pull into the driveway, Rachael’s waiting there with the camera - she’s been tracking me and knows I’m just nearing home.

And, she tells me of her own impressive ride - 54 miles herself today!  She could have gone more, but she didn’t bring lunch along and needed to get back before a food crisis occurred.  We end the day pleased with ourselves and proud of each other.

Back down the Old Sonoita Highway, for a few miles at least enjoying a tailwind.
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I like a town that has wall art you can appreciate while waiting for the light to turn green. The Agave Hamlet?
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Great to have a welcoming face greet me when I bike up!
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Steve Miller/GrampiesWhy is your helmet not on your head? This is making Dodie nervous, even though she still has no memory of the events surrounding her crash. Always wear your helmet is her mantra.
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1 month ago
Rachael AndersonTo Steve Miller/GrampiesHe took it off for the photo. I make sure he always wears a helmet!
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1 month ago
Steve Miller/GrampiesTo Rachael AndersonWell done, Rachael.
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1 month ago
Eva WaltersCongratulations Scott; you don't even look tired!
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1 month ago
Susan CarpenterCongratulations Scott! And thanks Rachael for the great photo!
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1 month ago
Kelly IniguezWell done! Happy birthday!
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1 month ago
Scott AndersonTo Eva WaltersThanks, Eva. And you’re right; surprisingly I wasn’t really that tired. It was a great day.
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1 month ago
Scott AndersonTo Susan CarpenterThat was really special, alright. It was a delight turning in to our alley and seeing her waiting there for me to arrive.
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1 month ago
Bruce LellmanWell done, Scott!! What a wonderful accomplishment. You are truly an inspiration to all of us.
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1 month ago
marilyn swettCongrats Scott! And happy birthday!
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1 month ago
Jen GrumbyWoohoo! Always look forward to these posts.

Start planning now for extra special decade rides .. 80, 90, 100, and beyond!
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1 month ago
Rachael AndersonTo Susan CarpenterI’m glad I caught him on time,
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1 month ago
Graham FinchWell done!... nice shirt, too...
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1 month ago
Spot on!
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Bruce LellmanCouldn't be more perfect!
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1 month ago

Video sound track: Old Man, by Neil Young

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Ride stats today: Rachael: 54 miles, 1,400’; Scott, 75 miles, 2,400’

Today's ride: 75 miles (121 km)
Total: 836 miles (1,345 km)

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Suzanne GibsonCongrats on the successful birthday ride, "Old Man"!
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1 month ago
Kathleen JonesWell done, birthday boy!
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1 month ago
Scott AndersonTo Suzanne GibsonThanks, Suzanne. It was a great day, but it really tickled me to think of this song. It came to me early in the ride and I claimed the right to use it for the video. It has a good cadence to cycle through if you’re not in a hurry, and it ran through my head all day.
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1 month ago
Scott AndersonTo Kathleen JonesThanks, Kathleen. It’s nice to get this behind me. The pressure’s off now and I can just cruise through the rest of the year.
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1 month ago
Scott AndersonTo Bob DistelbergIt was nice, and really easier than I’d anticipated. It’s been really good for me to keep cycling around the calendar like this.
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1 month ago
Bruce LellmanWhat a great uplifting entry, Old Man! I will do my best to follow in your tracks.
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1 month ago
Scott AndersonTo Bruce LellmanThanks, Bruce. I’m feeling beyond lucky to still be doing this. I felt really good afterwards though. If my health holds, 80 seems like it might be reasonable from the way I felt today. Stretch goal? 85.
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1 month ago
Jen GrumbyMaybe we could have CycleBlaze gatherings at the decade finish lines?
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1 month ago
Rich FrasierNice job, Scott!
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1 month ago
Scott AndersonTo Rich FrasierThanks, Rich. Nice to have the pressure off. I can skate through the rest of the year now.
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1 month ago
Scott AndersonTo Jen GrumbyEvery decade seems overly optimistic. How about every 5 years? And on the actual day, so it would need to be somewhere warm in December. Puglia, southern Spain, Tucson.
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1 month ago
Jen GrumbyTo Scott AndersonOh .. any of those would be great.

We haven't been to Puglia before .. maybe we could go there first?
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1 month ago
Scott AndersonTo Jen GrumbyOr after. Start talking it up with Bruce and Andrea so we can get a plan in place. It will be 2026 before we know it!
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1 month ago