“Where am I?” I asked myself rhetorically, knowing I was midway through the Brown Canyon Loop on a mountain bike trail leading into the foothills of the Huachuca Mountains. I was just south of Sierra Vista, Arizona. What I had trouble understanding was what all these green, tree-studded hillsides were doing in Southern Arizona.
Here I was, smack-dab in the middle of the Southeast Arizona Sky Islands, part of the vast archipelago of majestic mountains that rise from the valley floor to nearly 10,000 feet. Cooler temperatures, a greater biodiversity than anywhere else in the United States, and a treasure trove of pine and oak forests offer a surprising southern respite from Arizona’s stereotypical desert.
Let’s back up.
Last spring, my youngest child, Serena, graduated from high school and flew the nest. So, there I was: 42 years old, with the house all to myself and more time than I knew what to do with. I had taken up spinning, but being in an enclosed room made the exercise class quickly lose its appeal. So, I decided to free myself from the stationary bike and pick up mountain biking, which felt like going from splashing around the kiddy pool to diving off the high board.
It was a serious adjustment, but I committed myself to at least six months. Three months and a few sore muscles later, I decided to go all in with an overnight biking trip out of town.
I checked into the Garden Place Suites, a hotel just off Buffalo Soldier Trail, one of the main bike paths in Sierra Vista. Aside from reasonably-priced rooms, it offers bicycle storage and even allows bicycles in the rooms. I had paid a small fortune for that shiny blue torture device, so I wasn’t about to let it out of my sight. While researching my trip, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Sierra Vista is exceptionally bicycle-friendly with clearly-marked bike paths, numerous bike shops, and easy-to-read maps showing the suggested bike routes around and outside of town. Little more than an hour south of Tucson, it seemed to be the perfect getaway for novice and experienced cyclists alike.
On the first morning, I strapped on my helmet and Camelback, slathered on SPF 50, and armed myself with a map I downloaded from the city’s website. I headed to the entry point for the Brown Canyon Trail, a 13.2-mile route that veered south toward the Huachuca Mountains. Including the relatively flat Garden Canyon Linear Park Trail, it rumbled past historic buildings at the Brown Canyon Ranch before climbing up into the foothills with the more technically challenging Brown Canyon Loop—featuring a 5,674-foot peak, an average grade of 3% and a max grade of 12%.
The countryside was lush and green from the recent monsoon rains, with knee-high grass engulfing the stumpy mesquite trees that dotted the landscape all the way to the distant mountain peaks. A sharp contrast from the brown and rocky, cactus-speckled vistas closer to Tucson, I was used to seeing. The air smelled clean and fresh, and a slight breeze tickled the sweat beading on my neck. Out there on that trail, it dawned on me that I wasn’t obsessing about how many calories I was burning, desperately watching the time countdown, or thinking about tasks and chores I needed to complete. I was simply present, listening to the sounds of cicadas chirping in the trees and my wheels crunching along the dirt path.
I stopped for a moment to enjoy the quaint ranch property with its vintage metal windmill and wooden corrals while munching on a granola bar. I noted that many of the bikers who were passing by as I stopped to admire the scenery were around my age, and smiled pleasantly, acknowledging our assumed mutual desire to free ourselves from the monotony of the everyday.
Challenging though it was, I was determined to follow those riders and finish the loop. Despite multiple stops, the time passed quickly. I was often distracted by the winding, rocky trails and beautiful vistas. If it weren't for the yucca and agave plants growing wild along the route, I’d swear I was in the rolling hills of Southern California.
I was ravenous when I arrived back into town and opted to assuage my grumbling stomach at Bobke’s For Lunch. Because it prides itself on German cuisine, I thought it rude not to order their daily special Schnitzel, a lightly-fried piece of porcine heaven. And because I needed to carbo-load for the next trail—or so I told myself—I grabbed one of their gigantic sugar-glazed cinnamon rolls to go.
I had planned to go back to the foothills and try another challenging trail, but a friendly couple at Bobke’s suggested I finish the day on the San Pedro River Trail. They assured me it was an easy ride through the beautiful San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area on the other side of town. Biking leisurely alongside a river filled with summer rains, accompanied by the sound of leaves rustling in the cottonwood trees that dotted the banks, was certainly good advice.
That evening, I treated myself to the Outside Inn for dinner. Yelp reviews and tantalizing photos of gourmet dishes left me excited for the meal. And I wasn’t disappointed. The restaurant housed in a cozy little cottage off Arizona Highway 92 was the hidden gem I’d been searching for. Baked Brie? Yes, please. Butter roasted filet with lobster and béarnaise sauce? Don’t mind if I do.
The next morning I awoke a little sore, but eager for my final ride. I nearly opted for the Copper Loop Trail but had to check my inflated ego. At 10.4 miles, it was shorter than the Brown Canyon Loop but was more challenging, with a peak at 6,120 feet. I was far from the “experienced mountain biker” suggested by the map. So, I decided that I’d set that one aside for a future visit. Instead, I chose the more off-the-beaten-path Wren Arena Red Loop Trail, a 5.3-mile mountain bike route east of town, accessible only through Fort Huachuca. It boasted an average grade of 4% with a max grade of 15%.
The first 1.5-mile incline was a doozy, but with my heart pumping and legs burning I pushed on until I felt the trail begin to decline. I paused along the oak-lined dirt track to catch my breath and wipe the sweat from my brow. It was then I realized for the first time since walking out of the bike shop months before, I was truly enjoying myself. I marveled at this sudden turn of events. Last week I was questioning why I would ever decide to take up something like mountain biking. But there, at that moment, I knew that I was right where I was supposed to be.