Underexposed is a series dedicated to showcasing trails around North America that fly under the proverbial radar for most riders. PEARL iZUMi athlete Brice Shirbach has seen firsthand what sweat equity can mean among mountain bikers and its impact on the places we call home, and this series will look to help open eyes and shift our attention to some of the brilliant riding that exists in places both unexpected and unheard of.
Perched 2,000 feet above sea level in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains, Oro Valley is a small suburb of Tucson, Arizona. The Tucson Valley occupies a stretch of what might be one of the American Southwest’s greatest gifts: the Sonoran Desert. The desert stretches across a range of over 100,000 square miles and includes portions of southern California, northern Mexico, and southern Arizona.
Home to one of the planet’s most biologically and geologically diverse desert systems, Tucson and its surrounding communities, in particular, are home to the Sonoran Desert’s most stunning stretches of real estate. Oro Valley lies six miles north of downtown Tucson and has a slightly higher average elevation, perched 2,600 feet above sea level. The Santa Catalina Mountains form a funnel of sorts to the north of town along with the Tortolita Mountains, with the rest of the Tucson Valley opening up to the south. While the Catalinas might garner the most attention for riders visiting the area, it is the more modestly scaled Tortolitas that are the subject of this particular adventure.
The Tortolita Trails are an ever-expanding network of trails that are made up of private land easements along with county and state lands that add up to 29 miles of rugged, rocky, and amazing trails that work their way up and over the Cochie, Wild Burro and Ruelas Canyons. There are a handful of ways to navigate this network of trails, but ultimately I think you should try and find yourself descending the Upper Javelina Trail. This mile-long gem offers up stunning views of the venerable Mount Lemmon to the east, as well as the Tucson Mountains and the Sonoran Desert. Do your best to avoid distracted riding, as the terrain is rocky and jagged, with plenty of cacti waiting around virtually every corner to catch you unaware. The trail ends just above the Dove Mountain Golf Resort and is very popular among hikers, so keep your eyes peeled. Fortunately, the line of sight throughout the entire trail is really lengthy, so you should have ample time to adjust your speed accordingly. Nature has done much of the heavy lifting in terms of creating a true all-mountain playground here, but that shouldn’t discount the effort that Pima County and Marana Parks and Recreation have put into these trails.
Tucson and its surrounding communities are home to some of my absolute favorite riding in all of North America, and I’ll admit that 90% of that stems from Mount Lemmon alone. But this is a massive area, and there are plenty of trails that really help to round out the riding experience, and in my estimation, the sprawl of trails across the Tortolitas is well worth a day or two off of the big mountain.