Rio Salado Bike Path: A Ride Guide (With Video)

The Rio Salado bike path is one of the most-overlooked places to ride in metro Phoenix. It’s a 16-mile stretch of sweet car-free riding. I’ve had many local riders act completely surprised to hear about it.

So let’s lift the lid on the Rio Salado bike path, which doesn’t even seem to have an official name.

Rio Salado Bike Path Overview

There are very few places to ride in Phoenix where bikes are completely separated from traffic. This is one of them. From the family-friendly Mesa Riverview Park to the Mad Max-style apocalypse-opolis of 18th Avenue and the Rio Salado, riders don’t have to cross a single street. It’s all separate bike path.
rio salado bike path

A look at the handy (but not perfect) MAG bike map.

You’ll have to dodge other trail users from McClintock to Priest Avenue. And that’s because Tempe is a prime place to park. You’ll find more users there who aren’t aware of trail etiquette, so be prepared.

As you head west, you’ll pass Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, Liberty Wildlife and the Nina Mason Pulliam Rio Salado Audubon Center.

Depending on whether you’re chasing a Strava PR, you can stop to have a look at them.

underpass rio salado mcclintock
Construction has started to link the Rio Salado bike path under McClintock Road. That will make it much more convenient.

Who Should Ride the Rio Salado Bike Path?

There’s a little something for everyone. Serious riders will use it as part of a higher-mileage ride. The route doesn’t offer much climbing, but there’s usually a stiff headwind in at least one direction.

But there are several other places where you can do a less-intense ride. Families and more laid-back riders should start somewhere like Mesa Riverview, Tempe Beach Park or Central Avenue and the Rio Salado. Each spot has parking, restrooms and water.

What’s the Best Bike for the Rio Salado Bike Path?

My Lynskey Urbano gravel bike! But seriously, you can ride nearly anything here right now. The pavement is in good condition, so road bikes are pretty good to go — just be careful going under Central Avenue until that gets paved.

There’s very little climbing along the Rio Salado, so even single-speed beach cruisers will work.

What are the Path Conditions?

The Rio Salado bike path is in overall great shape. Here are a few good-to-know bits:

  • The Mesa portion has a 15-mph speed limit. That’s ridiculously slow, especially since it’s nice and wide with lane dividers.
  • Tempe could put some thought into educating trail users. I’ve seen some awful behavior, mostly users meandering on the wrong side and not paying attention.
  • Speaking of Tempe, you can use the pedestrian bridge west of Mill Avenue to ride to the North Bank.
  • The City of Phoenix made some recent upgrades: repaving some chopped up areas and adding underpasses. Its signage could be better, and the 7th Avenue underpass could use some paving. It’s fine for gravel bikes, but road bikes won’t be happy.

Improvements for the Rio Salado Bike Path

Overall, this is a good riding experience. But there is room for improvement:

  • Add more viable, safe connections leading to the Rio Salado bike path. This is especially true on the west side, where there’s literally no good place to ride once you leave the river bottom.
  • Add more bathrooms and water stops.
  • Stretch it out further west, preferably on the South Bank. The City of Phoenix appears to own the property where a fence spells an end to the ride. I wonder how viable it is to move the fencing a bit to allow bike access.
rio salado bike path rio reimagined
Near the end of the line of the Rio Salado bike path on the north bank.

About the West Side: It’s awful past Central. The area needs development. But I know that’s a challenge because of property ownership. But it should be a priority. Until the west side connects to someplace cyclists want to ride, this ride will be a mere out-and-back that pales in comparison to other cycling infrastructure. One good starting place, though, would be figuring out a way to link the Rio Salado path to the new Grand Canalscape bike path.

Fitting in With Rio Reimagined

Redeveloping the Rio Salado is part of an ongoing discussion that’s been tagged “Rio Reimagined.” It’s one of those projects that could last more than a generation. And it involves multiple governments. Sustaining some cooperation, coordination and vision will be hard for the long term.

rio reimagined rio salado bike path
As the Rio Reimagined project progresses, addressing the dead end at 15th Avenue must be a priority.

The Rio Salado bike path is arguably the first tangible link in this chain. Maybe the organizations trying to make this happen should focus there. It’s a perfect starting point for a connected, healthy community. It could fuse transit, recreation, business and residential development.

The Rio Reimagined effort should definitely engage supporters of The Loop in Tucson. That’s 130 miles-plus of car-free riding. And Phoenix cyclists who know about it are jealous. It’s an example of what’s possible with political will and funding.

Planning a Long Ride

Typically, I take Rio Salado Drive out to Mesa Riverview Park. That’s where I’ll hop on the Rio Salado bike path and head west as far as it goes.

I now stay on the south bank since Phoenix re-paved the munched-up sections. Then I’ll usually turn around and head back to Tempe, crossing Tempe Town Lake via the pedestrian bridge. From there, I have a few options for adding more mileage as I like.

rio salado bike path
There are some places along the Rio Salado bike path here you can forget you’re in a major metro area.

Of course, you can plan your own ride. And the MAG Bikeways map is a huge help. It’s not fully up-to-date, though: For example, it doesn’t show that the section under the 143 is finished. It also doesn’t indicate the quality of the routes — a pristine piece of new pavement with barely any traffic is marked the same as a choppy bike lane populated by speeders and semi trucks. Also, it doesn’t point out water sources, bathrooms or parking.

What The Rio Salado Bike Path is Like in 2020

The Rio Salado bike path has some growing pains. The cities have built it, but they’re doing a terrible job overall on a few key elements: They haven’t consistently signed it, and they haven’t educated users about some basic matters of safety and courtesy.

That means you have people wandering all over both sides of the path with no situational awareness. You have unauthorized motor vehicles (mostly ATVs). I’m also not thrilled with the Tempe Center for the Arts golf carts blocking traffic; we use this path to get away from vehicles. There’s no way the arts center couldn’t shuttle people elsewhere.

Take a look at this video. Keep in mind this is just one ride featuring literally everything I mentioned. At least I didn’t get chased by unleashed dogs on this ride. That also happens often.

And look at this guy from my previous ride. Keep in mind, stuff like this happens all the time. By that, I mean multiple times per ride.

It’s impossible to make every human behave themselves. But striping this path and having directional arrows would at least give people a clue. And a bit of attention from park rangers or police could keep motorcycles and ATVs off.

The Rio Salado bike path could be a world-class asset with some attention. Until then, we’re stuck with mediocrity. Building it isn’t good enough. We have to maintain it.

The 737 MAX: One Refreshed Version Too Far

Here’s the big problem with the Boeing 737 MAX: Both Boeing and the airlines are forcing a past-its-prime design to be a flying Swiss Army Knife. They want it to have unparalleled fuel efficiency on short hops from Chicago to Louisville. And they want it to fly from Phoenix to Hawaii, too.
The two fatal 737 MAX crashes seem like a solid indicator that Boeing rushed what Patrick Smith calls a Frankenplane into service. Boeing saw this as the most cost-effective way to counter the Airbus A320 NEO.

United Airlines Versus American Airlines
Inside an American Airlines 737-800.

Here are a few thoughts about the pickle presented by the Boeing 737 MAX family.

Stubby Landing Gear: Huge Problem for 737 MAX

Engine fan diameters have grown over time in the quest for more fuel efficiency. The 737 is low to the ground because airports were different when it was designed in the 1960s: Passengers might have to use a stair car, built-in metal stairs or other means to board.

For the MAX, Boeing wanted a bigger, more-efficient engine. But the company didn’t want all the expense and effort of redesigning the wing to accommodate a taller landing gear (which is necessary for a bigger engine).

Boeing 737 MAX 8
I couldn’t resist an Arrested Development stair car reference.

Boeing engineers "solved" this problem by moving the engines "forward and up to accomodate[sic] the larger fan diameter. Any handling differences as a result of this have been tuned out by Boeing in the flight control system to make the types feel the same to crew. This was necessary for certification under the same type certificate." (That’s the MCAS we’re hearing so much about.)

The more modern Airbus A320 represents a different design area. It has more ground clearance for bigger-diameter high-bypass engines. It was never meant to operate with a built-in staircase. It’s a product of the jetway era.

callsigns
A US Airways 757

737 MAX Can’t Replace 757

Airliners are trying hard to make the 737 and A320 fill a number of roles, including some that suit the Boeing 757. The 757 is a middle ground airliner dating to the early 80s. It’s kind of over-powered, which gives it a huge performance edge at high-altitude airports and in hot weather with a heavy load. This sorry situation that happened to me on an Airbus A320? Never gonna happen on a 757. Its power and capacity make it able to handle scenarios where the smaller twinjets fall short.

But the 757 is nearing the end of its life. Airbus says its A320 family can replace it, which pilots and many airline wonks don’t believe for a second.

Hawaiian Airlines 787
The 797 might replace the 767, too.

Boeing seems to agree: Its 797 program — which isn’t a sure thing — is a 757/767 replacement: A small, high-performance widebody. Airlines initially squawked about costs.

But what about the costs of forcing a Frankenplane into roles it shouldn’t occupy with kludged fixes? That’s a question Boeing and airlines need to consider.


Airlines Fixated on Small, Dense Planes

Over the years, small airliners like the 737 and A320 have swiped routes that widebody airliners used to serve. Southwest Airlines was flying the 737 MAX to Hawaii before the grounding.

No airline previously used anything smaller than a 757 for that route (and no thanks to flying that far on an airline with no in-flight meals — I don’t care how quirky the flight attendants are with their safety demos).

United Airlines Versus American Airlines
Heading to Newark on a United Airlines A320.

Here’s some info from one of my earlier posts about why airlines are doing this.

In the US, airlines have to essentially pay by the pound for their landing fees. Smaller airliners are also a smaller capital outlay, require smaller crews and use less fuel.

That’s another incentive to go small. And the cheapest way to go small, at least in the way that pleases shareholders hungry for a quarterly return, is to refresh current designs.

Paying a little more in landing fees seems like a good bet in retrospect, doesn’t it?

What’s Ahead for the Boeing, the MAX and the 797?

So that Boeing 797 I mentioned earlier. The specter of the 737 MAX looms over the Boeing decision makers. It seems like a great way to keep the company from cutting corners.

But what happens if Boeing produces a great plane? How does Airbus react? Do they cling to the idea of competing with the 797 with a kludged A320? Or do they go for a clean-sheet design?

737 MAX
The split-scimitar wing and scalloped engine nacelles of a Boeing 737 MAX.

I wonder what will happen with the 737 MAX, too. A lot fewer people are saying "If it’s not Boeing, I’m not going." It’s hard for me to trust the MAX family right now, and I wonder how Boeing will fix this damage.
At the smaller end of the scale, the Airbus A220 (formerly Bombardier C series) could fill this vacuum nicely. And the MAX situation invites a stretched A220.

As a co-worker of mine used to say, "I look forward to seeing how this plays out."