It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything but I’ve just been enjoying “living” in Tucson. It’s really a recreation paradise. So, I’m about to expound on yet another ride and I’m starting to wonder if those of you who read along here are starting to think, “Oh great (with rolling eyes) he’s done another bike ride.” Too much??? I realize it’s my passion and not yours.
This ride, however, was one of epic proportion. It’s been on my bucket list since I saw an article several years ago about some of the great bike climbs in America. Mt Lemmon is, in itself, a more than sufficient reason to visit Tucson if you’ve never been. Whether you go up via motorized vehicle or on a bicycle, it is a spectacular journey. I’ve now done it both ways.
From Agua Caliente Park, where I started, to Ski Valley is 28.5 miles. I ended up turning around at exactly 28 miles, which I’ll explain in a bit. It is one mile slightly downhill out of the park. From there, with the exception of two short slight downhill sections totaling less than 1/4 mile combined, it is uphill for more than 22 miles. By far the longest sustained climb I’ve done. The grades are not very steep, but it is just relentless climbing. Agua Caliente Park sits at 2750 ft elevation. I topped out in the Whitetail area at just over 8100 feet, experiencing temperatures from as high as 68 degrees to as low as 37 degrees. Even colder when you consider I hit well over 30 mph on those descents at the top so the windchill had to be at least 5-10 degrees colder. It was certainly chilly.
Needless to say, it was a beautiful day for a bike ride. Sunny and almost no wind. I got started, well, a lot later than I’d wanted to. Cold mornings have made me lazy and I
lounged through breakfast waiting for the day to warm up. I wasn’t really sure how long it would take me to make the climb and with sunset a little after 5 pm I wasn’t assured at all of making it to the top, starting at 11:45 am. I didn’t mind the idea of finishing in the dark but the gates of Agua Caliente Park lock at sunset, so I set a time limit and decided no matter where I was I would stop going uphill at 3:30 pm.
I had on my ultra thin base layer shirt, but other than that was in short-sleeve jersey, bibs and fingerless gloves. In my pack I had arm warmers, knee warmers a mid weight jacket and full finger cold weather gloves along with my food and 100 oz bladder of water.
Nothing like dragging an extra 15 lbs up a mountain. The air, as always here in the desert in winter, was cool but the sun quite warm and I was perfectly comfortable for most of the way up. Miles 14.5 to 16.5, heading southwest up to Windy Point were far cooler as I climbed in to a headwind coming through the mountain gap but still not uncomfortable.
It really wasn’t until topping out at 8105 ft and hitting the 2 mile descent that changed. And boy did it change, as I went from comfortable cool to not being able to feel my fingers, feet or arms and freezing in about half a mile. There was still snow left over up here from when it poured in Tucson and snowed at elevation the week prior. Then a short climb with numb quads, another short, bone chilling descent to Summerhaven, the town near the top, and then turning off the main road to climb up to Ski Valley.
The road actually continues past Ski Valley and climbs another 1.5 mile up to an observatory. This had been my original goal when I planned this ride. This road, though, is a good bit steeper once you turn off at Summerhaven. With my late start, the cold up at this elevation, my legs beginning to really fatigue on the steeper grade and knowing I had to get back up those last two descents before my LONG descent back to the valley I decided to stop at mile 28. I didn’t realize I was just a half mile from Ski Valley at the time, but no regrets. It was getting very near my cutoff time and need to leave myself a few minutes to eat a bit and put on some of
my warmer clothing for the trip down. I put on my arm warmers, my jacket and my warmer gloves and I’ll tell you now I was completely warm and toasty for the rest of the ride.
Climbing back up the 2+ miles at the top of the mountain turned out far easier than I expected. Going down hills I know I have to climb back up always makes them seem steeper to me than they actually are. Sooner than I thought I was rocketing down the long descent, temperatures getting warmer by the minute. Far sooner than I thought, I was back at the park with plenty of time to spare before sunset. 3:27:22 up; 01:13:56 down. I certainly could have made that half mile to Ski Valley, but again, no regret at turning around when I did. I climbed Mt Lemmon and it was fantastic.
Not to mention, there is a dirt forest service road that comes up the other side of the mountain which I plan to climb one day as well, though not this time in Tucson. That’s one where I’ll definitely want a full day of sunlight available.