Even when it has water running, the Santa Cruz River is a modest stream twisting its northerly route through Tucson. Most of the year it is a dry wash, dirty brown in color, with scrubby desert trees breaking the monotony. Although the city presses hard on both sides, the riverbed and adjacent shorelines—as much as half a mile in width—resist encroachments other than street-level bridges every mile or two. It has long been a city park, with multi-use trails, on both sides much of the distance, running approximately twenty miles from near the Tucson airport south of town to the edge of Marana on the northern edge of the city.
On previous winter visits to Tucson, I have biked the Julian Wash Greenway which branches off from the Santa Cruz River Trail and runs in a southeasterly direction through the city’s southern section. Hoping that the Santa Cruz Trail would be equally satisfying for a vigorous training ride, I spent an afternoon riding in the park.
According to the map I picked up at the Ajo Bike Shop, the trail begins at Valencia Road about three miles west of the airport motel where I’m staying. Not trusting the map, however, I rode north a mile to Drexel Road and then west to the park. To my consternation, Drexel doesn’t cross the river and I found myself on an old trail, with stenciled notes reporting “trail closed.” I continued north on the old trail another mile to Irvington Street and a bridge that took me across the river to the new, well paved trail on the west side of the river. Before pushing toward the north, I stopped to pay my respects at a memorial shrine shaded by a desert tree.
Much of the trail looks to be ten to twelve feet wide, except when it narrows for traveling under bridges. It winds its way around trees and other desert growth, sometimes close to the edge and sometimes a little distance from the drop-off to the river itself. The twisting adds to the interest of the ride and I found that I could ride as hard as I wanted. In contrast to my experience on many multi-use trails, other users were almost exclusively cyclists. I met a few walkers and one little dog trotting along, dragging its short leash, with no sign of owner anywhere around.
I saw lots of small rodents scurrying along the trail’s edge but no flying birds. The most impressive wild creature was a roadrunner, rushing across the trail a few yards in front of me, carrying something in its beak.
Near the city center, the park has been upgraded. Nicely designed information boards have been installed and wild desert growth has been replaced with carefully groomed desert trees. Nicely designed, discreet information boards list donors who have provided funding for developing this part of the park
Near Grant Street further north, near a spot identified as Julian Park, I had to turn around even though the trail runs another ten miles or so. It was late afternoon and winter days are short. Signs gave me the confidence that the map is correct when it indicates that the trail on the western bank continues all the way to Valencia Road.
At the 5:00 p.m. rush hour peak, I reached the end of the trail and was dumped onto Valencia, one of Tucson’s busiest arterial streets: three lanes of packed, rapid traffic in each direction, very rough and jolting bike lanes, and a complicated interchange with Interstate Highway 19 going to Nogales. Despite this harrowing conclusion, my ride with a roadrunner along the Santa Cruz River Trail was a fine way to enjoy the afternoon.
One other note. Later in the evening, one of my Indianapolis daughters reported that it had been warmer that afternoon in Indianapolis that it was in Tucson. Maybe I should have stayed home for the weather, but I would have missed riding with the roadrunner.