50 Year Trail … Chutes … Gates … Rock Gardens
The 50 Year Trail was the most popular mountain bike ride in Tucson, by far.
I was heading to Tucson to visit my middle daughter (Alissa) and her family for a three day weekend. I figured I could work in at most one day of riding (on Sunday), so I asked the forums (MTBR, Tucson MTB, and SDMB) what I should ride. The majority of posts said… the 50 Year Trail. I then asked if anyone was willing to join me for the ride. I really didn’t expect many responses as my posts were on Friday, just a couple days before the proposed ride. A couple of guys said they would love to be my guide but had already made commitments, family commitments. One fellow said his wife had things for him to do.
Length: 23.7 miles
My response was, “I have a wife, so I totally understand what you mean… thanks anyway.” But on Saturday I got a text that read, “Hey, this is Duncan from the Tucson forum. My Sunday is free and know the 50yr pretty well.” I was excited and wrote back immediately and accepted his offer, then asked him where we should meet. His reply? “The Chase Bank across the entrance of the park is a good spot. 9 am good?” My reply… “Perfect!”
It took me no less than seven roads to get from my middle daughter’s condo to the Oracle highway. I passed no less than 3 cops, which normally doesn’t bother me at all, except this time I was driving an unregistered car. My daughter had moved to Tucson and bought a new car, then let the California registration expire on her old car due to a dead battery. At one point I had a policeman pull behind me, at which time I immediately made a sharp right turn onto a side street. Luckily he hadn’t noticed the tag and kept going straight. All I needed was a u-turn and I was back on my way.
Please enjoy this interactive map, which shows my trip from Alissa’s house… to East Golder Ranch… and back to the Chase Bank. I took no less than 7 roads. Click on the automobile for directions to the Chase Bank.
View Tuscon to Catalina State Park in a larger map
The GPS on the phone told me to go back to the Oracle Highway, the way I’d come. A couple miles later and I neared a Chase bank. But as soon as I got close I knew this Chase Bank was the wrong one… not a single car in the parking lot. Even though it was a Sunday, I knew I should have seen some cars.
So I called Duncan, who said he was down the hill, at the Oro Valley Marketplace, a huge, outdoor shopping mall I had driven by on my way up. I told him I would be down there in 5 minutes. The clock on the dash clicked to 9:00 just as I pulled into the lot. I usually try to arrive at least 10-20 minutes early but I was happy to just be on time at that moment.
Chase Parking Lot
There were several cars in this Chase parking lot, and most had some sort of bike rack. I saw two bikes outside of cars and so I was guessing as to which was Duncan. One guy looked to be middle aged and had his bike sitting outside his car while he sat inside. I figured he was waiting for someone and wanted to stay warm.
The other was just starting to get his bike off a rack as I passed behind his car. This guy looked young, fit, and very athletic. My thoughts were, “If Duncan was the guy in the car, I had a chance of keeping up. If he was the young guy… I had my work cut out for me.”
I rolled my window down and yelled, “Duncan?” The young guy said, “Yup, that is me.” I said,”Okay,” shut off the ignition, and opened the door… knowing I was in for quite a ride.
I immediately went over to introduce myself and thank him (ahead of time) for being my leader. He seemed like the nicest guy (and he remained that way all day, despite having to wait for me at the top of every hill).
Duncan Was Ready
Duncan had all his stuff ready to ride in about 2 minutes. I had to remove my bike from the car and put the front wheel on. I also had all my usual things to get ready… GPS, still camera, two video cameras, camelback, fanny pack with tools and spare batteries for the cameras.
I decided to leave one of the video cameras in the car (my old Kodak Playsport that I could hardly get the battery compartment open) and just threw the Contour into my fanny pack. After starting the GPS and I set up my Android (with utility battery attached) to record the ride. Feeling rushed (not because Duncan acted impatient) I knew I would forget something … I almost always do. One time I forgot all my water (see Bunker Creek Left Fork).
We rode across the Oracle Highway and up the road to Catalina Park, and the 50 Year Trail beyond. The park charged $7 a car and $3 for a biker (the reason for so many autos at Chase Bank). Duncan paid my entry fee. I should have been the one paying his, since he agreed to be my guide.
Once past the Catalina State Park guard station we had to ride about another half mile to the equestrian center, where the trail would begin.
The 50 Year Trail started out as a smooth, sandy road, then quickly turned into a rough, rocky singletrack. The trail was a slight incline and I had a hard time keeping up enough speed to roll over all the stones… ranging in size from golf balls to footballs. I am not sure I have ever ridden a rockier stretch outside of riding on a dry riverbed. Duncan didn’t seem to be slowed and quickly pulled away from me, as he would several times this the day.
50 Year Trail Interactive Map
The map below shows all the parts to this amazing, 23.7 mile mile ride… which includes the 50 Year Trail, the Chutes, the Upper 50 Year Trail, and the Middle Gate Loop.
Click the Blue “P” for Driving Directions to the Parking Lot.
Have you ridden the 50 Year Trail before? What did you think of it? Share your story with us and other visitors to this page here.
The 50 Year Trail reaches the top of a small plateau after about 1 mile. Once on top of the bluff the trail remained rocky, and mostly level. Somewhere near the top we sped by two older guys with bows and arrows. I would normally stop and talk to guys like that but Duncan was flying along, so I yelled, “What are you guys hunting?” I was 20 feet past them when I heard one of them yell,”Javalina!”
Trying to Hang with Duncan
As the 50 Year Trail started downhill I did much better at keeping my momentum up, and managed to hang with Duncan for a while. At the bottom of the mesa the 50 Year Trail offers a couple miles of flat, straight trail, some parts rocky, and some sandy, but the sand was firm due to recent rains. We crossed several dirt roads, with Duncan often stopping to explain where they led. Twice I came upon an open gate, open… because Duncan stood there holding it for me to pass. A couple times we came to the top of hills and found a large clearing. We usually stopped and took in the view (and for me to gasp for breath).
At one of these Duncan said he used to live near this trail but had to move south, closer to the city. He said he was excited to be riding the 50 Year Trail… to get back to his old stomping grounds.
On one of those stops, while looking at the Catalina Mountains Duncan said, “Do you see that ridge up there?” as he pointed to our left. I said,”Yup, it looks pretty rugged.” He said,”We have ridden up there.” I was stunned, and said, “How’s that?” Duncan then proceeded to tell me about how he and his buddies start up on Mount Lemon, then bushwhack/ride down that ridge (called Samaniego Ridge), zip through a gap in the mountains and eventually end up down where we were, on the 50 Year Trail. He said the trail is extremely rough, and they often have to clear a considerable amount of brush.
Duncan pointed to one area and said they had to get down a 60 foot cliff. He said the last time they did the ride they set up a zip line to send their bikes down, then rappelled themselves down. Setting up the line took quite a lot of time… but turned out to be much easier than hike-a-biking themselves and their bikes down.
We eventually got to a clearing where I noticed a couple of trails dropping off with highly banked turns. “This must be the chutes,” I said, remembering the loop I’d seen on the Tucson MTB website. Duncan confirmed my observation as he took off his camelback and started to consume part of an energy bar.
I dug the Contour video camera out of my pack and asked Duncan if he would mount it on his bike, hoping I could capture some exciting footage as he shot down the chutes. He said, “Yes,” but we had a tough time figuring out where to place it on his Trek Scratch. Finally we just hooked it to his seat post and took off. I once again followed, but soon lost track of him.
I had a great time on the chutes, which resembled the track for an Olympic bobsled run. The banking for the turns had to be at least 3 feet high in most places. When I rounded the last turn I found Duncan waiting for me, under a grove of Mesquite trees.
For one minute of thrills, riding down The Chutes, we had to climb for 5 minutes to return to the top. It kind of reminded me of Disneyland, stand in line for 30 minutes and the ride was over before you could blink an eye.
Below you will find the video taken from Duncan’s seat post. To watch the video on a full screen click the icon in the lower right corner just to the right of the YouTube emblem.
To view all my videos go to my YouTube channel at MountainBikeDiaries.
Once on the top we met some other riders getting ready to do The Chutes. They asked Duncan a few questions about different trails. He told them also the story about zip lining their bikes down Samaniego Ridge.
Upper 50 Year
Leaving the Chutes, which seemed to be formed by a red-purple clay-ish material, we headed to the Upper 50 Year Trail, which wove its way through a rock garden. I found the Upper 50 Year Trail to be absolutely gorgeous, and very challenging, for we do not have many places here in San Diego to practice on rocks. Many types of cactus (Cholla, Prickly Pear, Ocotillo, Barrel, and Saguaro) along with Palo Verde and Mesquite Trees seemed to line the trail on all sides. All of these plants are armed with various types of spines… one little loss of concentration would have put me into a world of hurt.
To view the second part of this ride click Upper 50 and Middle Gate Loop.