Bike Ride Along the Rillito River

I suppose in a perfect world, a river bike path, would run along side an actual river with water in it. But this is Tucson, and things are seldom perfect in the desert. Truth is, calling our Rillito River a “river” is a bit misleading. In reality, it’s a dry sandbar where a perennial river once flowed.

By way of introduction, history, and hydrological erudition, centuries of groundwater pumping, coupled with a population explosion in the last decade, all but drained the water table of Tucson’s alluvial plain, leaving the rivers in the area dry.


Even though the river long ago ran dry, the City of Tucson nonetheless opted to invest heavily in the river’s infrastructure, creating a bike path that has expanded to more or less to run the entire length of the Rillito River within the Tucson City Limits – making lemonade out of lemons if you will.

To state matters simply, Tucson’s basic approach is that if you can’t have a bike path along a real river, well, why not have a nice bike path all the same? And that’s more or less what the City has accomplished with the Rillito River Park.

My route along the path begins where I would normally take Mountain Avenue to head south toward the U of A campus. But instead of heading south, I continue eastward toward Craycroft Road. You can see the entire route here – I’ll spare you the embedded video as an act of good faith.

I’ve posted pictures of where I catch the River Path before. But the photo below shows an unexpected problem I’ve had in bike riding the past few weeks. We are entering the rainy season here in the Sonoran Desert, and the annual monsoon rains usually arrive in the late afternoon, and early evenings. This makes riding to my wife, who gets off work at 4:30pm, a bit tricky.

Photo Jul 12 4 03 38 PM  HDR

Anyway, after catching the River path, rather than taking the bike and pedestrian bridge toward Mountain Ave., my journey yesterday went eastward for about six miles.

Photo Jul 12 4 05 25 PM  HDR

On balance, the path is made of extremely high-quality, rubberized asphalt. This makes the ride remarkably smooth, and allows riders to enjoy the quite of the desert. And, in truth, this is how the path runs for the vast majority of its length.

Photo Jul 12 4 13 05 PM  HDR

If there is one portion of the River Path that deserves a word of criticism, it’s where the path swings away from the river, as it nears Dodge Boulevard. You’ll notice in the photo below, the only marker for two-wheelers is a faded, green bike box, and a minuscule sign alerting motorists to a bike crossing. It’s not exactly an encouraging investment in bicycle safety.

I’m sure money is an issue in developing this portion of the path. When is money ever not an issue? But it would make a lot of sense, both in terms of liability lawsuits and infrastructure costs, just to continue the path eastward, underneath Dodge Boulevard. The City does this at Campbell Ave, Alvernon Way, and Swan Ave. Taking the path underneath Dodge too, would insulate it from city traffic entirely, allowing the route to be even more family/bicycle/pedestrian friendly.

On the off chance a City of Tucson acolyte stumbles across this post, consider this paragraph a formal Planning and Development request. You can name it the “Pax Plena, Rillito River Family/Bike/Pedestrian Underpass.” No royalties necesary.

Photo Jul 12 4 20 51 PM  HDR

Shortly after Dodge, but before Swan, the path descends into the riverbed itself. Most of the path runs along the erstwhile bank of the river, so riding in the actual riverbed is an interesting experience. It’s a bit like taking a trek through the wilderness, armed with knowledge that the wilderness has a fixed end point in less than a mile. Photo Jul 12 4 22 50 PM  HDR

Once the path descends, portions of the route, roughly 75 yards or so, look like this.

Photo Jul 12 4 27 21 PM  HDR

To state the obvious, the road is almost entirely covered with silt, carried along by the annual monsoons rains that create a sporadic water flow in the river during the summer months. Even this section of the route really isn’t that bad. My road bike navigated this part of the path just fine, but it can look deceptively treacherous on the first bike ride or two.

Soon, the path climbs out of the riverbed, as you approach Craycroft. I was excited to see some storm clouds in the distance.

Photo Jul 12 4 28 28 PM  HDR

Shortly, my excitement waned, as the clouds darkened, making me regret that I had both left my rain slicker at home, and that I didn’t spring for tire fenders on my trusty steed. Naturally, I didn’t like my odds in a race against the weather. Photo Jul 12 4 32 10 PM My fears were unfounded though. My wife works at Tucson Medical Center, and by the time I pulled up from the River Path at Craycroft, there was an inexplicable break in the clouds. Photo Jul 12 4 39 36 PM I sidled up to my favorite bench, just as the wife got off of work, and picked me up. Photo Jul 12 4 40 24 PM  HDR

In all, the River Bike Path struck me as an excellent way for new riders to get used to riding in the city. It’s not a very taxing route spare a couple of steep, paved inclines.

Lest anyone be fooled, not all of Tucson’s streets, are as accommodating as the River Path. But what makes it good for new riders is that it’s a nice, mostly safe way to get used to biking in general without having to worry about the odd motorist and their temperament on any given day. It also boasts some great views of the city.

2 responses to “Bike Ride Along the Rillito River”

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