Take A Ride In The Tortalitas--While You Can.
By Kevin Franklin
NO TRESPASSING." So reads the sign at the beginning of the Rail X Road, threatening any who would follow the major artery into the east side of the Tortolita Mountains.
Most of the Tortolita Mountains fall under the jurisdiction of the State Land Department. The land is supposed to be held in trust as a source of future revenue for Arizona's school system. As such, it's not managed with the idea that the state's citizens should use it. In fact, until recently, if you didn't have a hunting permit for the specific chunk of state land, you weren't welcome at all and could be cited for trespass.
Recently a recreation permit became available for $15. Purchasing the permit officially allows you to "recreate" on state land as long as you remain on established roads.
I always stand on the mountaintops calling for more protection for Arizona's wild places. So you might think I would be all in favor of a threatening sign appearing to regulate impact on the Tortolitas. But the fact is, the Land Department has nothing to do with preservation or protection. Its purpose is to hold onto land until it reaches what some bureaucrat deems its highest value and then sell it off.
Past voter proposition efforts tried to change the law, thereby allowing the state to swap environmentally sensitive land for economically valuable land more suitable for development. Because they were poorly written and even more poorly explained, the propositions failed. The Tortolitas were once slated to become another giant county park, like the Tucson Mountains. Now the future of the northeastern Tortolitas will most likely turn out like the present of the southeastern Tortolitas--Rancho Vistoso and acres of crappy, tile-roofed, mono-homes here we come.
With little hope for the future of the mountains, I find the sign banning the common citizen insulting. If they think I'm going to pay $15 to some state agency to be fretted away recarpeting the superintendent's office, without even the prospect of land protection, they have another thing coming.
No trespassing my ass.
I blow by the sign with a single digit salute and head toward the mountains.
With the summer furnace warming up, it will soon be mighty hot for traipsing around the Tortolitas. But in the early morning, a window of pleasant temperatures remains.
An excellent mountain bike loop exists for intermediate riders who want to go fast on relatively smooth terrain, or beginning riders who want an achievable challenge. We follow the Rail X Road west from Oracle Road and the town of Catalina for three and quarter miles. Just past a large wash we see a small dirt road heading off to the north. We park near there and follow that road on our bikes.
Almost immediately we see a smaller road heading off to the right--we keep left. A half-mile after the start, we come to a triangle-shaped intersection. The route to the right goes through, the one to the left goes up a large hill for an overview of the area and then dead-ends. A little more than a half-mile later, we come to a fork in the road. The left fork heads off to an old windmill and corral visible up ahead. The right fork goes through and crosses a boggy wash. Soon after that we cross a cattle grate. Three-quarters of a mile later we go right where the road T's.
One mile north of the "T" we cross Batamote Wash. Batamote is Spanish for seep willow (Baccharis salicifolia) and the graceful six-foot shrub can be found in the area. While outwardly resembling a willow, it's actually part of the sunflower family. Crossing the wash demands we get off and walk, as the loose sand easily swallows mountain bike tires.
After the wash we stay on the main road and soon run into the more heavily traveled west-east road. We follow that two miles east to where it forks. We take the right fork and a half-mile later take another fork to the left until that runs into the powerline road. We follow the powerline road south until it hits Rail X Road. We ride back to the truck. All told, this run makes for an excellent 11-mile loop.
Now is the time to enjoy the desert marigolds and pincushion cactus blooms before the summer heat, or ultimately Don Diamond, destroy them.
Take Oracle Road three-quarters of a mile north of Catalina. Right at the county line you will see the Rail X road heading off to the west.
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