The Sky Islands Odyssey

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The Sky Islands Odyssey is a journey through the vast borderlands of the Southwest, featuring a diverse network of rocky and sandy roads that traverse the ever-changing landscapes characteristic of the Sky Islands bioregion in the Sonoran Desert…

Updated February 2022 (originally posted October 2018)

Overview of The Sky Islands Odyssey

The Sky Islands is a specific ecoregion within the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, named for a series of isolated, forested mountain ranges surrounded by radically different lowland desert and grassland environments. The Sky Islands Odyssey circumnavigates one of the Sky Islands, the Santa Rita Mountains, and offers views of many others (most notably, Baboquivari and Whetstone). These habitat “islands” host some of the highest levels of biodiversity of plants and animals in the world, ensuring ever-changing scenery, terrain, and unique critter sightings. Keep your eyes peeled for the hundreds of bird species, reptiles, pronghorn antelope, javelinas, jackrabbits, black bear, coatimundi, and even jaguars that are known to roam the region.

There’s something for everyone, with three route options in the Sky Islands Odyssey. The West Loop and The East Loop range in distances from 125 to 170 miles. These route options were designed so that you could enjoy the Sky Islands Odyssey in two separate weekend parts. Or, as defined below, you can complete the full route in one 230-mile loop, depending on how much time you have. Each route tells its own story of flora and fauna, land management, and the human and wildlife consequences of the US immigration policies. Find a description for each below with links to the relevant route guide.

Sky Islands Odyssey
  • Sky Islands Odyssey
  • Sky Islands Odyssey
The land management agencies along the Sky Islands Odyssey are almost as diverse as its ecosystems, as they include a range of state, federal, and private lands. Among these land management agencies are the San Raphael State Natural Area, Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, Canoa Preserve, Coronado National Forest, Las Cienegas Conservation Area, and the Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch of the National Audubon Society and Babacomari Ranch (permits required, see Must Know). The wild spaces these land management agencies preserve are what make the Sky Islands Odyssey so special. They offer educational information about the region, quiet, gated roads open to bicyclists, preserved wild spaces, and ideal places to camp and spot wildlife.
Lurking in the background to all this intriguing beauty is the reality that this region is a border-crossing corridor at the center of the US immigration debate and a humanitarian crisis. In 1994, the U.S. Border Patrol issued a national strategy called “Prevention Through Deterrence” to disrupt the traditional routes of undocumented traffic near urban areas with more border infrastructure and to deter further traffic toward more hostile terrain, less suited for crossing and better suited to enforcement. Unfortunately, this strategy has done little to deter migrants and has simply redirected traffic to cross through the rugged terrain of the Sonoran Desert. As a result, thousands of undocumented migrants suffer or die from the extreme journey and dehydration each year within these borderlands. Another policy of concern for this area is Executive Order 13767, which calls for a physical wall to be built along the border, posing a massive threat to the wildlife corridor in this region.
  • Sky Islands Odyssey
  • Sky Islands Odyssey
  • Sky Islands Odyssey

The most obvious evidence of this border crossing corridor is the presence of Border Patrol agents. In certain areas of the route, particularly the south and west, border patrol agents will be the only people you’re likely to see for days. These officers are on patrol for migrants and seem totally unfazed by the presence of bicycles. There are also northbound border patrol checkpoints on State Highway 83 and Interstate I-19 that you will go through if you drive to and from the route. These checkpoint officers are looking for illegal drugs and human trafficking and often have detection dogs. Subtle things you may notice in the southern and western portions of the route are tire draggers on the side of the road. This is a method used by Border Patrol to groom the dirt roads so they can track new footprints. Lastly, you may notice items of clothing and personal belongings left behind on the side of the road or in the bushes. That said, it’s highly unlikely that you will encounter any migrants on this route. The Sky Islands Odyssey route follows established dirt roads in the area. Migrants are often avoiding these roads by traveling along more discreet trails. In the case that you do have an encounter with a migrant, understand that they are people who likely have no food or water and are traveling by foot through the same terrain that you are with your bicycle.

Sky Island Odyssey East Loop

The East Loop

135 miles (217 km)

9,140 feet (2,785 meters) total ascent

View the Route Guide

Pedal into the quintessential setting of savannah rangelands along the East Loop of the Sky Islands Odyssey. Meander mellow dirt roads, doubletracks, and a historic expedition trail around an island in the sky, the Santa Rita Mountains, through ever-changing landscapes of grasslands, forests, and desert in one of the most biodiverse regions in the world.
Sky Island Odyssey West Loop

The West Loop

175 miles (282 km)

11,500 feet (3,500 meters) total ascent

View the Route Guide

Journey through the vast borderlands of the Southwest along the West Loop of the Sky Islands Odyssey. Ride dirt roads, rocky arroyos, and sandy doubletracks over rugged forested mountains, low grasslands, and valleys of cacti in a remote region rich in biodiversity, Indigenous heritage, astronomical discoveries, and migration history.

The Full Loop

245 miles (394 km)

14,072 feet (4,290 meters) total ascent

Enjoy the best of the Sky Islands Odyssey East and West Loops on one spectacular journey through the vast borderlands of the Southwest, featuring a diverse network of dirt, rocky, and sandy roads that traverse the ever-changing landscapes characteristic of the Sky Islands bioregion in the Sonoran Desert.

Route Development

For years, cyclists have been riding through the Sky Islands Region on the grueling singletrack of the Arizona Trail and along the smooth, rolling tarmac of Sonoita Wine Country, but the dirt roads had seemingly been overlooked. The goal for the Sky Islands Odyssey Routes was to make an accessible multi-day journey along dirt roads, highlighting this region’s biodiversity and types of land management, while also raising awareness of the human and wildlife consequences of the US immigration policies. It took seven separate reconnaissance missions over the course of a year to route the complex network of mis-mapped gravel roads and tracks in this region. A huge thanks to Adam, Hubert, Benedict, Ty, Sophia, Todd, Cass, and Lael for putting in scouting time along this route. I would also like to thank Cristina for her active participation in accommodating bicyclists on the Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch, as well as Ellen from the Babacomari Ranch.

Please consider making a donation to the route maker. It takes a lot of time to research, design, test ride, document, write, and publish routes in order for them to be safe, appropriate, and accessible for public use. In the case of the Sky Islands Odyssey routes, due to the outdated and inaccurate mapping of the region, it took considerable effort to test ride and connect a network of diverse roads that are fun and challenging to ride. These routes also required establishing relationships and maintaining communication with private landowners to allow bikepackers unique access to one of the most preserved grasslands conservation areas in North America. Sarah continues to manage and update the Sky Islands Odyssey routes annually by riding the existing routes and test riding new sections to add.

If you ride and enjoy your time on one of the Sky Islands Odyssey routes, please consider sending a few bucks to the route maker to thank them for their time and for providing you with a memorable and safe experience. You can Venmo Sarah at @sarahjswallow or PayPal at paypal.me/sarahjswallow.

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