As the Sonoran Desert begins to fade as you climb into the high desert plains, browns turn to subtle yellows and greens, and the vastness of the Southwest only continues to grow. Expansive vistas full of emptiness ignite a kindling inside to explore - to find the moment where the pavement ends, to find the alternative road that only just meets the definition of a road - a way from one place to another.
An hour drive south of Tucson, Arizona, known as a popular winter road cycling destination, the quirky town of Patagonia sits at just over 4,000 feet nestled between the Santa Rita and Patagonia Mountains. For those inclined towards a fine layer of dirt on their water bottle nozzles, this small western community is home to some of the best gravel in Arizona.
The small footprint of town provides access to solitary gravel within minutes as you’re catapulted into the surrounding Coronado National Forest. From epic climbing up Forest Service Road 143 and Mt. Hopkins to the rolling, windy plains of San Rafael Valley towards Parker Canyon Lake, the gravel riding in Patagonia has no shortage of attrition. Whether you’re seeking an adventure with your best mates or looking to log some quality miles for a specific event later in the year, sunny Southern Arizona won’t disappoint. You might even be lucky enough to come across a herd of Pronghorn Antelope charging across the plains, or (unlucky?) enough to see a wild ocelot.
From prime camping locations at Patagonia Lake State Park to more established accommodations in town, there are options for every type of adventure style. For those that prefer a real bed to inflatable sleeping pads, the Stage Stop Inn provides the perfect rustic and homey setting for your venture into the wild west. If you’re looking something a bit more familiar still, this region of Arizona is perhaps most well-known in the travel world for wine production. And while it’s no Napa, there are a number of local wineries well worth a half-day trip to provide contrast to long hours in the saddle.
Patagonia is also a gateway to the Arizona National Scenic Trail, a bike-packing destination and bucket list to-do for many adventure cyclists. While the AZT is most commonly traversed by mountain bike, the southern Arizona sections are quite manageable on a gravel bike for experienced riders on the right setup.
The soil is generally sandy and loamy with no shortage of rocky stretches as you head towards the mountains. You’ll want to outfit some loose-over-hard tubeless tires and top off on a good sealant - the IRC Boken are a great place to start. The strong sun and dry air mandate you bring more chapstick, water, and electrolytes than you think you’ll need. If you find yourself hesitant about pushing the limits of your gravel bike on your own, or simply want to ensure you are riding and eating the best the region has to offer, check out a Patagonia gravel camp via The Cyclist's Menu. Heidi and Chef Z are world-class on the bike, in the kitchen, and in life.
With the U.S.-Mexico border getting so much attention in the media lately due to controversial political disputes, there is a lot of talk about how dangerous these borderlands can be. However, in these remote backcountry lands and rural towns, it is no more dangerous than any other part of the country. Everyone in the area had incredible stories to share and a refreshing perspective to offer. Just acknowledge your own presence knowing that fancy bikes and lycra aren’t quite commonplace in these parts, and will likely turn some heads. Unless you’re lucky enough to waive down a border patrol officer or local rancher, plan to be entirely self-supported with reasonable margin for error as there are virtually no services around once you’re beyond city limits.
Upon glancing at Google maps, you’ll likely get the feeling Patagonia is just the tip of the iceberg in regards to Arizona gravel, and you’re absolutely right. Tucson, Phoenix, and Flagstaff all have well-established cycling communities and spectacular gravel riding in their own right. Other epic routes and areas to explore throughout the state include the Apache Trail, Mogollon Rim country, and the San Francisco Peaks of northern Arizona to name a few.