Sky Islands Odyssey (West Loop)
170 Mi.(274 KM)
% Rideable (time)
Swallow Bicycle Works
The West Loop is the more remote and rugged of the two routes in the Sky Islands Odyssey.
The West Loop explores its own unique flavor of transitions between biomes characteristic to the diversity of the Sky Islands region and the wildlife that rely on them. From pine-oak forests and lichen covered cliffs of the Patagonia Mountains, to otherworldly landscapes of boulder fields and succulents along the foothills of the San Luis Mountains, to cottonwoods and yucca trees emerging from the wetlands and grassland savannas of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, to large barrel, ocotillo, and choyo cacti through the Santa Cruz River Valley and the west side of the Santa Rita Mountains, The West Loop guarantees a journey through ever-changing landscapes and environments and loads of critter sightings, all in a 170-mile loop.
Serving as the iconic landmark of the West Loop is Baboquivari Peak. The region this route travels through is originally home to the Tohono O’odham tribe who regard Boboquivari as the “navel of the world,” the most sacred place at the center of their cosmology. Its noteworthy rectangular peak is a memorable symbol visible throughout the loop.
The light show doesn’t end at sunrise and sunset along the West Loop. This region is an astronomers dream due to its clear weather, steady atmosphere, and low humidity – ideal conditions for stargazing in dark night skies. Numerous prestigious observatories call this region home. The most notable of these observatories is Kitt Peak National Observatory, visible from the Quinlan Mountains just north of Boboquivari Mountains and notorious for its astronomical discoveries in dark matter, charting cosmic distance, far-away galaxies, and Boötes void.
This region has a long history of Spanish, Mexican, and American land colonization and human migration dating back to the late 1770s, when Spanish conquistadors used the region as an expedition route to colonize the indigenous lands of present day San Francisco and sequentially New Spain, which included much of the land in what is today the Western United States. Under the Mexican Cession in 1848, Arizona became a territory of the United States, spurring an influx of miners traveling west for the California Gold Rush to settle in the region. Today, this region continues to make history every day as border-crossing corridor at the center of debate of US immigration policies, border patrol, and a humanitarian crisis (read more in Sky Islands Odyssey Overview). While this aspect of the route may deter some, for others is offers a unique, humanizing perspective of a very current issue in U.S. history.
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 5 out of 10 in terms of difficulty. It travels along dirt roads, rocky arroyos, and sandy double tracks and is 99% rideable. With a total elevation gain of only 11,105 ft over 170 miles, this is a mellow route for the reward and is great for all levels, especially for those new to camping. This route deserves a 5 out of 10 due to its remote stretches with limited resupply, a few technical climbs, descents, and rocky sections (2.0 – 3.0” tires are suggested), along with prolonged sections of exposed riding in potentially very windy, hot, and cold weather conditions.
- 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
- The view of the Santa Cruz River Valley from Mt. Washington
- The many changing views of Baboquivari Mountain, a sacred mountain to the Tohono O’odham who regard it as “the navel of the world”
- The other-worldly terrain and succulents along Ruby Road
- Arivaca Farmers Market. Great tamales!
- Loads of critter sightings (pronghorn antelope, hundreds of bird species, reptiles, and more!)
- Riding through tunnels of tall grass and yucca in Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge
- 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
- There are no permits required for the West Loop
- This route is best ridden in the clockwise direction
- This region is a popular migration border-crossing corridor at the center of a humanitarian and potential wildlife crisis related to US Immigration policies (see resources).
- 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.
- 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
- Patagonia has a variety of lodging options from a motel to various B&Bs
- Patagonia Red Mountain Foods and Gathering Grounds Cafe
- Mile 38: Pilot Travel Center with Wendy’s
- Mile 47: Pena Blanca Lake (filterable water source)
- Mile 74: Arrivaca Grocery Store and La Gitana Cantina Restaurant. Farmers Market Saturday mornings
- Mile 92: Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge HQ water spigot
- Mile 135: Amado Mini Market and The Cow Palace
- Some seasonal water tanks, see POIs
Patagonia to Mt. Washington
The Sky Islands Full Loop is best ridden in the clockwise direction. It begins by heading due south from Patagonia and climbs to the wide open spaces of the San Rafael Valley. Continue climbing into the pine-oak forests of the rugged Patagonia Mountains, to the route’s highest point, Mt. Washington, where you can enjoy the view. Facing northwest, you can see the Santa Cruz River Valley, and a couple miles to the southwest is Mexico.
Mt. Washington to Arivaca
From Mt. Washington, enjoy the sandy, zig-zagging descent along granite cliffs covered in lichen down to Duquesne Road and into the Santa Cruz River Valley. There will be a campground on your right before crossing Highway 82, and a brief paved stretch through suburbia in order to bypass the city of Nogales and to cross Highway 19. Try to avoid needing to stop at the Pilot Travel Center and Wendy’s there. This rest stop can get very busy, and while the smell of fast food and the potential for milkshakes and cold drinks may already be tempting after 38 miles, stopping here comes at a psychological cost, not to mention the physical cost of how you’ll feel after a greasy burger! Just keep moving toward a swim at Pena Blanca Lake and the other-worldly views and succulents along Ruby Road. Once on Ruby Road, take note of the greater presence of border patrol vehicles, immigration signs, tire-draggers and clothing along the side of the road. This area is a border-crossing corridor for migrants. Imagine the journey of crossing the terrain along Ruby Road by foot with little to no food, water, or supplies.
Arivaca to Amado
Arrive in Arivaca, ideally before 11:00 am on a Saturday to pick up some fresh tamales. You can also restock anytime at the Arivaca Grocery Store or visit the restaurant across the street. Venture back into the border hill country to make your way to the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge and wait for Baboquivari Peak (pronounced Ba-bo-quay-vi-ra) to reveal itself. Pick up some reading material and fill up on water at the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters before making your way into its beautiful wetlands and grasslands. Keep your eyes peeled for a variety of bird species, pronghorn antelope, and see how long you can track a jackrabbit. Enjoy riding through tunnels of tall grass savannas and yucca trees with Baboquivari Peak in the backdrop. Stop at the humanitarian aid station marked with a purple flag to top off your water before the long ride to Amado. The Mini Mart in Amado is the last resupply directly on route for the rest of the ride.
Amado to Patagonia
From Amado, head due East toward the wall of the Santa Rita Mountains and wind your way past huge barrel, ocotillo, and choyo cacti along the roller coaster ride of Salero Canyon Road. If the timing is right, there are some great places to camp toward higher elevations on Salero Canyon. Stop for a picnic in the shade of some old adobe ruins before finishing the final descent to Patagonia. In Patagonia, treat yourself to a cold beverage, some protein 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 East Loop
- Coronado National Forest
- Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge
- Gultch 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