The Sky Islands Odyssey is a network of bikepacking routes that offer a journey through the culturally rich, biodiverse, and complex borderlands of Southern Arizona, featuring a fun network of dirt, rocky, and sandy roads that traverse the ever-changing landscapes characteristic of the Sky Islands bioregion of the Sonoran Desert. These routes earn their name from the biological wonderland known as the Sky Islands, which extends from southeast Arizona to northern Mexico.
With three main route options and several alternates in Sky Islands Odyssey network, there is something for everyone. In addition, due to popular demand, gravel bike-friendlier versions of the East Loop and the Full Loop are also now available. Ranging in distances from 125 to 235 miles, the three routes are designed so that you can enjoy the Sky Islands Odyssey in two separate parts or one complete loop, depending on how much time you have. Each route tells a story of flora and fauna, history, and the human and wildlife consequences of U.S. immigration policies.
History and Backstory
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. 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.
During this period, the broad plains of the San Pedro River Valley teemed with larger herbivores such as camels, llamas, horses, mastodons, mammoths, and long-horned bison, as well as tapirs and ground sloths. These large animals were preyed upon by the dire wolf, jaguar, lion, cheetah, cougar, bear, and humans. Most of these large Ice Age mammals, collectively called megafauna by scientists, are now extinct.
Scientists do not fully understand why many megafauna species became extinct while others, such as the grizzly and black bear, cougar, elk, pronghorn, and wolf, survived this period. Human predation, climate, vegetation changes, or a combination of these factors may have caused such selective extinctions.
Archeological evidence recovered from six sites in the San Pedro Valley, where Ice Age hunters killed mammoth and bison, indicates that people belonging to the Clovis culture were roaming southeastern Arizona at least 11,000 years ago.
The most commonly held perspective on the end of the Clovis culture is that a decline in the availability of megafauna, combined with an overall increase in a less mobile population, led to local differentiation of lithic and cultural traditions across the Americas.
The Clovis people were replaced by a succession of cultures such as the Cochise, Preceramic O’otam, the Formative O’otam (Pima), Hohokam, and the Sobaipuri dependent on small game, the gathering of seeds and nuts, and later, agriculture. Land occupancy of these groups overlapped with the arrival of Spanish explorers such as Fray Marcos de Niza, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, Padre Eusebio Kino, and Captain Juan Mateo Manje.
Chiricahua Apache moved into the area east of the Santa Rita Mountains in approximately 1680 CE and had largely replaced the indigenous tribes by the end of the 17th century. The Apaches and their allies, plus the introduced disease, malaria, kept settlement by those of European descent at low levels until the 1870s.
Numerous archeological sites are recorded in the Arizona State Museum field surveys and the Amerindian Foundation for the upper San Pedro and Babocomari Drainages, as well as in the Santa Rita and Patagonia Mountains.
History of Domestic Livestock Grazing and Its Impact on the Land
A combination of factors, including ignorance of the climate and ecology of the region, led to a series of overgrazing events, as well as a period of severe drought in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries which resulted in the loss of topsoil, changes in hydrology, and the realization that grasslands of the Southwest present unique challenges to ranchers. Because these grasslands survived and evolved without the presence of native hoofed grazers for 10,000 years or more, they were unprepared for the introduction of domestic grazers at such a large scale. As a result, very arid grasslands in the Southwest were converted to desert scrublands by grazing and are permanently incapable of supporting grasses today.
Much of the modern management of the existing grassland prairies has sought to strike a balance between the economic necessities associated with ranching on a landscape with little or no natural defenses against grazing by domestic livestock.
Borders and Human Migration
The reality of coming face-to-face with the issues at the borderlands is not what many want to be exposed to when we are on a cycling vacation from work, rain, or snow back home. However, the humanitarian crisis in this region is a reality nonetheless. While cyclists will never understand what it is like to cross the border this way, we travel through the same landscape under human power. Find a historical perspective below as well as further details and resources on the subject…
A Brief History of Borders
In recent years, Executive Order 13767 was created by former president Trump as an emergency order to bypass environmental protections to rush further construction of the U.S. border wall across southeastern Arizona. The construction of this new section of wall has created new roads through wilderness areas, blown up mountains, and blocked essential animal migration corridors for threatened and endangered species (and all mammals larger than 6″ wide).
The amount of suffering in the borderlands is not what some folks want to be confronted with when they are on a cycling vacation from work, rain, or snow back home. However, this humanitarian crisis in the borderlands is a reality nonetheless. While cyclists will never understand what it is like to cross the border this way, we travel through the same landscape under human power. Perhaps riding one of the Sky Islands loops, experiencing the harsh environment, and witnessing the militarization can bring us closer to empathy and compassion for those who cross. Of course, you may leave this place with more questions than answers. Still, you will gain a unique and critical perspective on a massive and urgent issue in which we should all be invested.
If you feel compelled to help the humanitarian crisis in the borderlands in any way, please consider donating or volunteering to No More Deaths. No More Deaths aims to end death and suffering in the Mexico–US borderlands through civil initiative: people of conscience working openly and in community to uphold fundamental human rights. Their work embraces the Faith-Based Principles for Immigration Reform and focuses on the following themes:
- Direct aid that extends the right to provide humanitarian assistance
- Witnessing and responding
- Global movement building
- Encouraging humane immigration policy
Guidelines for Humanitarian Aid / Migrant Encounters
- It is legal and appropriate to give migrants water, food, first aid for minor injuries, and a blanket or clothing. In addition, if a migrant asks you to get in touch with a friend or a relative to let them know what has happened to them and their situation, you may do so.
- As autonomous human beings, migrants have the right to make their own decisions, even if they seem ill-advised or unlawful. However, you can not intentionally help migrants engage in any illegal course of conduct– for example, by giving them rides to the home of a friend or relative or assisting them to avoid capture by law enforcement, even if that may seem morally or ethically acceptable under the totality of the circumstances.
- You have no obligation to turn migrants into law enforcement unless they request your help to do so.
- If you encounter a migrant who is in dire need of emergency medical treatment or seems to be near death, you should immediately call 911 or the border patrol (877-227-5511) for help using a cell phone or SOS. If the situation is grave and there is no cell signal, you may give the affected migrant a ride to the nearest border patrol checkpoint or a hospital. In such a case, you should call the border patrol and report what has happened at the earliest reasonable opportunity.
- Film: American Scar: The Environmental Tragedy of the Border Wall – The New Yorker Documentary
- Article: Jordahl, Laiken. [2020, November]. A Year of Devastation in Arizona’s Wild Lands. The New York Times.
- Article: Moteil, Anya. [2017, Summer]. The Tohono O’odham and The Border Wall. American Indian Magazine.
- Article: Greenwald, Noah. Segee, Brian. Curry, Tierra. Bradley, Curt. [2017, May]. A Wall in the Wild: Disastrous Impacts of Trump’s Border Wall on Wildlife.Center for Biological Diversity.
- Article: Gultch Magazine Issue Two “Walls”
- Policy: Executive Order 13767: Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements – The White House
- Report: No Border Wall – Center for Biological Diversity.
- Gadsden Purchase
- Podcast: Radiolab Border Trilogy Part 1
- Podcast: Radiolab Border Trilogy Part 2
- Podcast: Radiolab Border Trilogy Part 3
- Book: The Undocumented Migration Project
- Border Patrol Strategic Plan 1994 and Beyond: National Strategy
- Report: Rubio-Goldsmith, Raquel. McCormick, Melissa. Martinez, Daniel. Duarte, Inez Magdalena [2007, February]. A Humanitarian Crisis at the Border: New Estimates of Deaths Among Unauthorized Immigrants Immigration Policy Center.
- Documentary: Immigration Nation – Netflix Limited Series
- Website: No More Deaths
The region comprises 65 isolated mountain ranges covered in oaks and pines that rise like an archipelago from a sea of desert and grassland. In the Sky Islands, plants and animals from several major biological zones converge; the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts, the Colorado Plateau and the Rocky Mountains, and the Sierra Madre Occidental resulting in half of the world’s biomes represented in a relatively small geographic area. More than half the entire bird species of North America migrate to the Sky Islands. In addition, more than a third of all snake species in the U.S. are here; an estimation of 100 mammals, 150,000 invertebrate (insect) species, evidence suggesting the highest diversity of bees than anywhere else in the world, and the only place in the U.S. where jaguars still roam.
“El Jefe” the Jaguar
- Video: The Bear Project – New Jaguar in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands
- Website: Conservation CATalyst
- Article: Grant, Richards. [2016, October]. The Return of the Great American Jaguar. Smithsonian Magazine.
- Article: Main, Douglas [2021, March]. Why a new jaguar sighting near the Arizona-Mexico border gives experts hope. National Geographic.
- Website: Saving the Jaguar – Center for Biological Diversity
Native Grasslands: A Forgotten Ecosystem
Santa Rita Mountains
Riders of the East Loop will experience grasslands on the south and east side of the Santa Rita Mountains, pine and oak-pine forests as they climb in elevation and ride through the Santa Rita’s foothills, and low-desert environment on the west side of the range, once they cross Box Canyon Pass on the north side of the course.
The Santa Rita Mountains are best known for their birding opportunities, particularly in Madera Canyon, dark night skies for stargazing, and being the habitat of the infamous Jaguar “El Jefe,” who was documented living in the Santa Rita Mountains from 2010-2015, until he migrated south to Sonora.
San Rafael Valley
The riparian areas and native grass prairie in the San Rafael State Natural Area are home to many species of plants and animals, including; the endangered plant, Huachuca Water Umbel, the state-protected Sonoran Tiger Salamander, as well as mule deer, javelina, antelope, bobcats, cougar, coyote, and many birds unique to the prairie (website). As some of the last remaining un-fragmented prairie grassland habitat left in the American Southwest, this area is vital for grassland bird species. It is best known for wintering raptors, sparrows, pipits, and longspurs.
The most relevant current conservation threat to the San Rafael Valley is mining. As the Santa Cruz River headwaters, this area is particularly vulnerable to the water depletion and fouling associated with mining. In addition, the Patagonia, Arizona, area is presently the location of multiple major mining exploration projects.
- Website: Rosemont Mine Truth
- Website: Save the Scenic Santa Ritas News
- Article: Stopping the Rosemont Copper Mine – Center for Biological Diversity
- Article: Sky Islands Conservation – Center for Biological Diversity
Additional Resources on the Region
Sky Islands Region
- Bahre, Conrad J. 1977. Land-Use History of the Research Ranch, Elgin, Arizona. Journal of the Arizona Academy of Science.
- Book: Basso, Keith H. Wisdom Sits In Places: Landscape and Language Among The Western Apache.
- Book: Erickson, Winston P. Sharing the Desert: The Tohono O’odham in History
- Book: Amann, Andrew W. Jr. Bezy, John V. Ratkevich, Ron W. Witkind, Max. Ice Age Mammals of the San Pedro River Valley. Arizona Geological Survey, Tucson
- Book: Sayre, Nathan F. Ranching, Endangered Species, and Urbanization in the Southwest. 2005. The University of Arizona Press
- Book: Dimmitt, Mark A. Wentworth Comus, Patricia, and Brewer, Linda M. A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert. Second Edition. 2015. Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Press. University of California Press.
- Website: Sky Islands Alliance
- Website: Borderlands Restoration Network
- Website: Coronado National Forest
- Website: Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge
- Website: Juan Bautista De Anza Trail
Things to do and see
You can find detailed information about places of interest and other such details on each individual route guide. Here’s a few of the places, sights, and points of interests that are along the routes. Each is referenced with the loop(s) with which they are associated.
Town of Patagonia (east, west, and full loops)
Town of Sonoita (east and full loops)
Sonoita Wine Country
There are approximately twenty wineries, meaderies, and cideries in the Sonoita Elgin area. With climate and soil conditions comparable to wine regions in California and Argentina, Arizona’s southern high deserts made the state a major player in international wine circles. Sonoita is one of the most prolific Arizona wine regions, with vast valley farmlands producing nearly three quarters of the state’s grapes to produce award-winning Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Merlot varietals.Sonoita was the first location in Arizona to be designated as an American Viticultural Area.
The Sonoita valley receives no outside water, relying entirely on rainfall; precipitation averages 17 inches per year. Climate change, urbanization, a dwindling water table in the Sonoita Valley, and the reality that each grape plant requires 960 gallons of water per season, will likely impact the sustainability of the Sonoita Wine Country in years to come. Read more here.
Kentucky Camp (east and full loops)
Kentucky Camp was built in 1904 as the headquarters of the Santa Rita Water and Mining Company, whose investors hoped to collect water from the Santa Rita Mountains for hydraulic gold mining. The venture was abandoned following the mysterious death of the chief engineer the following year. The property became a working cattle ranch for the next 50 years before being sold to a mining conglomerate. The Coronado National Forest acquired the site in 1989; since then, the forest and volunteers have been working together to preserve the site. Kentucky Camp (and associated features related to the development of the water system and mining in the area) is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.A unique feature of this site is its collection of five-century-old adobe buildings. The ten-room headquarters building is one of its era’s largest surviving adobe buildings. A three-room adobe building is available for overnight rental. Go to the Forest Service “Cabins and Camping” web page for additional details on renting this building. (website)
Juan Bautista De Anza Trail (east and full loops)
Ruta Del Jefe Event
- Video: Ruta del Jefe Film – Gus Morton and Samantha Sauri
- Article: Put Ruta del Jefe on your Radar: Top six takeaways from riding and learning in the Sky Islands region – SRAM
- Article: Chasing the Jaguar: Reflections from Ruta del Jefe 2022 – Dominique Powers
- Video: BIKES!!!! with Cheech and Nam: Ruta del Jefe
- Article: Madness and Mud: Ruta del Jefe 2020 – Tenzin Namdol
- Article: Racing the Ruta Del Jefe in the San Raphael Valley – John Watson
- Article: Raw Cycling Magazine: Interview with Sarah Swallow on Ruta Del Jefe
The goal for the Sky Islands Odyssey Route(s) is to make an accessible multi-day journey along dirt roads, highlighting this region’s biodiversity and history while also raising awareness of the human and wildlife consequences of U.S. immigration policies. These routes were initially developed and scouted in 2017-2018 by Sarah Swallow and friends over seven separate reconnaissance missions to route the complex network of mismapped dirt roads and tracks in this region. To do this day, Sarah Swallow maintains and updates these routes multiple times a year.
Many of the resources and information included in this revised guide were collected and researched by Sarah during a two-year winter residency at the Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch, in Elgin, from 2020 to 2022. Sarah hosted Ruta del Jefe on the Sky Islands East Loop in 2019, 2020, and 2022. Sarah also hosts the Sky Islands Adventure Ride series every winter, a series of group adventure rides highlighting some of the Sky Islands Odyssey segments and the Tucson cycling community. In 2023 the Sky Islands East and Full Loops underwent a significant reroute after management changed at Appleton-Whittell Research which led to them no longer accepting cycling permits. Along with the update, Sarah released gravel-bike friendlier versions of the East Loop and Full Loop to make the routes more accessible to all. Sarah keeps a collection of the most up-to-date route versions and variations, in her Sky Islands Odyssey Ride with GPS Collection.
Campfire Cycling in Tucson, Arizona, has served bikepackers of the Sky Islands Odyssey Loops since their inception by providing up-to-date conditions and weather along with any last-minute gear and maintenance needs. In addition, Campfire Cycling hosts at least one guided group tour annually on the Sky Islands Odyssey loops.
If you ride and enjoy your time on one of the Sky Islands Odyssey routes, please donate a few bucks to the Sky Islands Odyssey Route Project to support, maintain, develop, and promote these routes for years to come. Similarly, the Sky Islands Odssey Route Project is seeking community feedback to grow and develop in the future. If you ride any of the routes, please provide your feedback by filling out this form.