Sky Islands Odyssey (East Loop)
125 Mi.(201 KM)
% Rideable (time)
Swallow Bicycle Works
If you enjoy stargazing, birding, wine tasting, and glamping, the East Loop is for you. With more frequent contact with the outside world, opportunities to resupply and to go wine tasting, as well as some unique lodging options along the way, the East Loop is slightly less committing and a little more of a luxurious experience than the West Loop.
The charming artisanal town of Patagonia serves as the start and end point of the East Loop of the Sky Islands Odyssey. Once a supply town for nearby mines and cattle ranches, today Patagonia serves as a trail town for Arizona Trail thru-hikers and bikers. Home to local art galleries, a natural food co-op, a café, and a few places to stay, Patagonia is a quiet desert hamlet with an eclectic vibe.
Starting in the counterclockwise directions, the East Loop quickly enters some of the only remaining high desert short grass prairies in America. These prairies served as the setting for many Hollywood western films, most notably the Roger and Hammerstein musical, Oklahoma!
One of the unique experiences along the East Loop is gaining permitted access to the protected grassland and wildlife habitats of the Audubon Society’s Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch, and the centuries-old 28,000 acre Babacomari Ranch, originally held by King Charles V of Spain (see must know for rules and permits). These ranches allow passage to the intimate setting of miles of double track roads otherwise closed to the public that wind their way through tall, 30-year-old grasslands, a habitat for pronghorn antelope, hundreds of bird species, javelina, and reptiles. The Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch in particular offers deluxe camping in designated areas of their property, rooms to rent, and an atmosphere to learn more about your surroundings from its passionate researchers.
Just outside these preserved boundaries, the route passes through Elgin and Sonoita Wine Country, home to the largest concentration of wineries and vineyards in the state, providing the opportunity to taste a local wine and share a celebratory toast along the tour.
As the route heads west and climbs within the forested folds of the Santa Rita Mountains, it passes by many abandoned town sites and former mining haunts. One is the Kentucky Camp, home to a museum of gold mining artifacts that existed in the early 1900s. Kentucky Camp also serves as a necessary water resupply, provides adobe rooms for rent, and offers camping on site.
Crossing to the west side of Santa Rita Mountains via Box Canyon Pass, the route makes a dramatic transition to a low desert environment, and after a brief resupply in Green Valley follows the Juan Batista De Anza Trail, used by a Spanish expedition to colonize San Francisco, California, in the 1770s, before returning into the Santa Ritas along the scenic roller coaster mountain road, Salero Canyon, back to the town of Patagonia.
This land was originally home to the Tohono O’odham tribe and has suffered a long history of colonization, human migration, and land exchange between Spain, Mexico, and the United States. While this region is today an illegal border-crossing corridor for migrants traveling from Mexico and Central America into the United States, the region that the East Loop travels through is significantly less popular and less patrolled compared to the West Loop.
Route Development: For years, cyclists have been riding through the Sky Islands Region on the gruelling 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 to 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.
Difficulty: This route is a 4 out of 10 in terms of difficulty. It travels along smooth and rocky dirt roads and sandy double tracks and is 99% rideable. With a total elevation gain of only 8,267 ft over 125 miles, this is a mellow route for the reward and is great for all levels, especially for those new to camping. This route has been completed on 47mm tires but the suggested tire size is 2.0 – 3.0” to combat the sandy and rocky sections. Prolonged sections of exposed riding in potentially very windy, hot, and cold weather conditions are what makes this route a 4.
- Spectacular sunrises and sunsets
- Idyllic and easy camping throughout
- World-class stargazing
- Warm sunny days and cool dry nights
- Mellow terrain and rewarding scenery
- Diversity of flora and fauna in a short distance
- The view of the San Raphael Valley from San Raphael Valley Road
- Permit Access to ride through the preserved tall grasslands of the Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch and Babacomari Ranch
- Appleton-Whittell Research Camp HQ and informative literature available on the surrounding area.
- Loads of critter sightings (pronghorn antelope, hundreds of bird species, reptiles, and more!)
- Elgin Village Winery
- A look at mining life in Kentucky Camp.
- The views from and the terrain of the Canelo Hills
- The Juan Bautista de Anza Trail
- Admiring huge barrel cactus, ocotillo, and choyo cacti from afar
- The roller coaster roads and views of Salero Canyon Road
- Adobe ruins on Salero Canyon Road
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 accessable for public use. In the case of the Sky Islands Odyssey routes; due to the outdated and inaccurate mapping of the region, these route initially took seven separate trips 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 land owners 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 her at paypal.me/sarahjswallow.
- Permits: Two free permits are required to access the route between Elgin and Canelo which passes through the private property of the Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch and Babacomari Ranch. The two ranches have streamlined this process so that you only have to call one of the ranches, the Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch, to acquire both permits. If you do not acquire the permits for this section you must take the 10-mile paved Elgin-Canelo Road detour. Contact Cristina Francois (email@example.com)
- The Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch and Babacomari Ranch are private ranches that are actively conducting research and conservation. Bicycles are restricted to roads on the Sky Island Odyssey Route. Do not walk, sit, or set your bike down in the grass, and camp only in designated areas. See POIs for more detail.
- While this region is a popular migration border-crossing corridor, areas included on the East Loop are less frequently traveled by migrants in comparison to the West Loop.
- This route can be ridden in either direction. This guide is written for the counterclockwise direction.
- When to go – this route is best ridden between November and mid April, with the coldest night temperatures occurring in December and January.
- 10 – 25 degree sleeping bags are recommended
- Stay hydrated – the dry desert heat can be a real hazard for people not used to hot climates. A person can lose up to five quarts of fluid a day, and easily become dehydrated without realizing it. Drink plenty of water and electrolytes even if you do not feel thirsty.
- Bring sun protection – wear light loose clothing, use sunscreen, wear a hat, and wear good sunglasses.
- There is little to no groundwater available to filter on this route, so plan accordingly.
- High fire risk – this region is extremely dry and can be very windy, so be smart and obey fire regulations.
- Go tubeless – due to the amount of cacti along the route, tubeless tires are strongly recommended!
- Any time you leave this region to head back north, your vehicle is subject to a random search at one of the many Border Patrol Checkpoints.
Wind: The wind in this part of the world can be ferocious; particularly in the San Raphael Valley and the Sonoita Plain (between Canelo and Las Cienegas). There can be persistant winds of 20-30 mph which can make touring very challenging. Prior to your trip, check the weather forecast and which direction the winds will be coming from. Decide whether to follow the route in the counterclockwise or clockwise direction based on that information. If you decide to go regardless of the wind, bring some earplugs!
- There are many dispersed and established camping opportunities available within the public lands of this route. Camp only in areas that have already been camped in before.
- Leave No Trace.
- Do not camp near the water tanks
- Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch camping is available for $20 and includes access to Camp HQ equipped with a kitchen, bathroom with a shower, and small living space (with loads of interesting books on the region). There is also a fire ring, picnic table and even word of a corn-hole set!
- Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch lodging: for $40 you can rent a room at the lodge at the Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch, next to the Camp HQ
- Babacomari Ranch House – VRBO adobe ranch house available for rent on the Babacomari Ranch. Two-night minimum stay, sleeps 10, and gives exclusive access to the rest of the roads and trails available on Babacomari Ranch.
- Kentucky Camp Cabin – A popular respite for AZT through-hikers, the Kentucky Camp Cabin offers rooms for rent in a historic adobe building within the Santa Rita Mountains and Coronado National Forest.
- Sonoita Inn– Off route and pricey, but a good option to escape inclement weather.
- Patagonia has a variety of lodging options from a motel to various B&Bs
- Patagonia Red Mountain Foods and Gathering Grounds Cafe
- Mile 31: Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch HQ and Camp HQ water, sodas, and ice cream
- Mile 37: Elgin Village Winery wine and filterable water only
- Mile 60: Kentucky Camp water spigot
- Mile 77-78.5: Seasonal water tanks
- Mile 83: Green Valley Safeway and Starbucks (off route). This is the only food resupply on route.
- Sonoita: A 10-15 mile detour off route has a restaurant and a small convenience store.
Patagonia to Canelo
The Sky Islands East Loop is best ridden in the counterclockwise direction, and begins by heading south from Patagonia, ascending Harshaw Creek Road to the wide open spaces of the San Rafael Valley. Continue climbing into the pine-oak forests along the smooth gravel road over Canelo Pass.
Canelo to Elgin
There are two ways to get from Elgin to Canelo Pass: the dirt way through the Babacomari Ranch and the Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch which requires a permit from each ranch, or the paved way along Elgin-Canelo Road that doesn’t require any permits. If you don’t have permits by this point, you must follow the Elgin-Canelo Road detour (see route POIs). These permits provide passage through private property that is undergoing active cattle ranching, research, and conservation. If you attain the permits, you are welcome to enjoy miles of vast grasslands, often speckled with pronghorn antelope, intimate views of the Whetstone Mountains, and dirt roads otherwise closed to the public.
The rules for this area are to stay on the roads, don’t walk, sit, or set your bike in the grass, camp only in designated areas, watch out for reptiles in the road, and don’t litter. Stop and visit with Cristina at the Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch Headquarters, fill up on water, sodas, ice cream, and literature for some more light reading. If the timing is right, camping is luxurious here, with a designated a Camp Headquarters a couple miles down the road from main office. The Camp Headquarters has a designated grassy area to pitch a tent, a picnic table, a fire ring with benches, and access to a building with a small living space, kitchen, bathroom and shower. This is a welcomed respite from the elements for only $20 per person. For $40 you could rent a room inside an adobe house next to the Camp HQ and sleep indoors. Cristina will give you instructions for passing through the fence to exit the property on the south end of the property.
Elgin to Kentucky Camp
Make your way through the country roads of Elgin Wine Country and stop at the Elgin Village Winery for a celebratory toast if you are in the mood. Enter the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area and enjoy the protected grasslands and woodlands that were once in danger of being commercially developed. Cross Highway 83 to Gardner Canyon Road where there are some nice camp spots on either side of the road then gradually climb to Kentucky to Kentucky Camp.
Kentucky Camp to Green Valley
Stop at Kentucky Camp for a history lesson, some water, and a night in the cabin if you need it, before embarking on the roller coaster roads of the Canelo Hills within the Coronado National Forest, eventually reaching Box Canyon Pass over the Santa Rita Mountains. Enjoy the screaming fast descent to a drastic change of scenery on the west side of the Santa Rita Mountains, overlooking the Santa Cruz River Valley. From Box Canyon, follow the sandy cacti-lined tracks before turning right on Madeira Canyon Road to follow a paved bike lane for a few miles into Green Valley. The Safeway in Green Valley is the last opportunity to resupply with food and water along this route. Before entering the trails through the pecan groves, follow Continental Road west for a half a mile, under Highway 93, and the Safeway will be on your right.
Green Valley to Canoa Preserve
Make your way to the Canoa Preserve and the Juan Bautista De Anza Trailhead through the pecan groves and sandy arroyos. Enjoy this mellow trail that quietly skirts busy paved roads, private property, and suburban golf courses of Green Valley along a National Historic Trail commemorating the expedition route taken by Spanish colonizers from Sonora, Mexico, to establish the future city of San Francisco, California, between 1774-1776.
Canoa Preserve to Patagonia
From the Canoa Preserve and the parking lot for the Juan Bautista De Anza Trail, head east toward the wall of the Santa Rita Mountains. Wind your way past huge barrel, ocotillo, and choyo cacti along the roller coaster ride through Salero Canyon and if the timing is right, there are some nice places to camp at the higher elevations off of Salero Canyon Road. Stop to picnic in the shade of some old adobe ruins before finishing the final descent to Patagonia. In Patagonia, treat yourself to a cold beverage and a fresh meal from Gathering Grounds. Note that you’ll have to cross Border Patrol checkpoints surrounding Patagonia and may be subject to search.
- Overview: Sky Islands Route Guide
- Sky Islands Odyssey West Loop
- Coronado National Forest
- Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge
- Juan Bautista De Anza Trail
- Canoa Preserve
- Las Cienegas National Conservation Area
- Babacomari Ranch
- Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch
- Gulch Magazine Issue Two “Walls”
- Radiolab Border Trilogy Part 1
- Radiolab Border Trilogy Part 2
- Radiolab Border Trilogy Part 3
- The Undocumented Migration Project
- Border Patrol Strategic Plan 1994 and Beyond: National Strategy
- A Humanitarian Crisis at the Border: New Estimates of Deaths Among Unauthorized Immigrants
- Executive Order 13767
- No More Deaths Humanitarian Organization
Please keep the conversation civil, constructive, and inclusive, or your comment will be removed.