We had come for our inaugural ride of a new loop in the Santa Catalinas, a route that was made possible when this section of the Arizona Trail was completed. From the trailhead on the Mount Lemmon Highway (Forest Road 38 -- and not much of a "highway"), we planned to pedal south on the dirt road to Peppersauce Campground and then up to Oracle Ridge, where we would connect with the Arizona Trail and ride the well-maintained path back down to the car. The loop, approximately 18 miles long, promised to be a challenging new route.
Oracle Ridge Push
The four-mile ride up to Peppersauce passed through rolling hills, providing a good warm-up for our tired legs. At the campground, we turned right on Forest Road 4483 and started climbing toward Oracle Ridge. The rough track led up Peppersauce Canyon, with large oak trees shading the route and water tumbling down the creek. The first half of the canyon was a gentle, scenic ride, but then the road took on a new character -- steep. Neither of our motors were up to the test, and a push here and there got us over the few pitches we were unable to pedal.
We finally reached the summit of the climb and stood atop Oracle Ridge, one of the backbones of the Santa Catalinas. We took some time to catch our breath and let a little life seep back into our sore muscles -- and enjoy the panoramic views of the desert. We also had a bird's eye view of Biosphere 2. We didn't stay long, however; we were anxious to "downhill" the rest of the ride.
From the midway point it would be almost entirely downhill back to the car. As soon as we crossed through the Forest Service gate and entered the trees again, we let gravity take over. Some sections of the route have been improved by the Oracle Trails Coalition in their efforts complete this section of the Arizona Trail. The volunteer club has improved the old Cody Trail from Oracle Ridge down to American Flag Ranch, at the Mount Lemmon Highway. The recently groomed path was very fast: sweet single-track without any obstructions -- no overhanging branches, no roots or rocks, just smooth fun.
After traveling 3.5 miles and descending about 800 feet, the topography began to change. The dense trees and bushes we had been riding through gave way to expansive views and rolling, rocky terrain. We weaved in and out of rock pillars that stood at odd angles and varying degrees of attention. The riding was slower and more technical. When I stopped to look around, it seemed we were traveling through some sort of prehistoric land.
The path is well-marked with Arizona Trail signs, making it easy to concentrate on riding, not routefinding. The remaining miles back to the car flew by. The trail continued its steady descent, meandering in and out of dry streambeds. It felt like we were on a wonderful, warm weather ski run.
Three hours after leaving the trailhead, we returned to the car -- exhausted but extremely pleased with our new discovery. Except for the few short sections that we had to walk on the initial climb, this loop had proved to be even better than expected. And besides, those challenging parts just meant we'd have to come back and do it again.
To get there: To reach the beginning of this loop from the Phoenix area, drive east on Highway 60 to Florence Junction and go south on Highway 79. Continue down to Oracle Junction and go east on Highway 77 to Oracle. Proceed through town and take the Mount Lemmon Highway (Forest Road 38) to the signed trailhead (about eight miles from town).
Contact: Coronado National Forest, Santa Catalina Ranger District (520) 749-8700.
Rating: Moderate to difficult