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Best Mountain-Bike Route

Sabino Canyon

READERS' PICK: While it's a stretch to call the four-mile road at Sabino Canyon a "trail," it nevertheless makes for a pleasant and quick escape from the pavement covering much of Tucson's valley floor. The canyon, formed by Sabino Creek, is one of the primary run-off paths of the Santa Catalinas, and home to a spectacular range of desert flora and fauna. Shady cottonwood, willow and mesquite trees shelter the streambed, and white-tailed deer wander down from the higher slopes for a drink. You might even spot the occasional gopher snake or rattler slithering onto the asphalt to soak up some warmth. Though it's sometimes difficult to spot wildlife here in the daytime, mornings and evenings abound with critters. The restricted cycling hours (before 9 a.m. and after 5 p.m.) actually ensure you'll see more of the canyon's natural population than its visiting one. No bicycles are allowed on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

READERS' POLL RUNNER-UP: From the moment you first put tire to trail, one thing should be abundantly clear: Chiva Falls Upper Loop would like to have you for lunch. Spread over nearly eight miles of forbiddingly uneven terrain at the base of the Rincon Mountains, the trail offers the experienced rider--and we do mean experienced--just about everything he or she could hope for in terms of a thoroughly challenging desert ride: long, slow, grinding uphills punctuated by patches of loose sand, perilous outcroppings of rock, and the ever-menacing cholla cactus, as well as some vertiginously steep downhills rife with their own potential calamities. And lest we forget, there are also some pretty neat waterfalls. The Lower Loop offers about eight miles of arduous, if less-steep, trekking. Be sure to bring plenty of water.

A REAL SCREAM: Among the many trails to be found among the foothills of the Santa Rita Mountains, the Melendrez Pass stretch of the Arizona Trail, which follows the wandering rim of scenic Gardner Canyon to a point just below the summit of Mount Wrightson, is one of our all-time favorites. While we wouldn't necessarily recommend trying to make it all the way to the top on a bike (it's primarily a foot path, after all), the lower part of the trail offers some of the nicest riding you'll find anywhere. Generally gradual and obstacle free, with a few jarring yet easily walkable exceptions, the 20.3-mile trail offers plenty of pretty vistas along its increasingly tree-lined route, including an occasional glimpse of the summit itself. Elevation gain is 1,700 feet. While we usually turn around at the well-shaded pool about 10 miles in, if you've got plenty of water and plenty more patience and dexterity, you can continue on to the summit. You'll be amply rewarded with a spectacular view of the entire Santa Rita range, not to mention one hell of an exciting ride back.

Case History

1998 Winner: Starr Pass

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