Rio Salado Bike Path: A Ride Guide

Rio Salado Bike Path: A Ride Guide
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The Rio Salado bike path is one of the most-overlooked places to ride in metro Phoenix. It’s a 16-mile stretch of pathway that only crosses one road (though it may get longer). 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 will only cross a street once: That’s at McClintock Road in Tempe. Eventually, that will have an underpass.

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.

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?

rio salado bike path
A gravel bike is the way to go for riding the Rio Salado bike path. But nearly anything will work.


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.
  • Start that underpass at McClintock.
  • 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.

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 funds.

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. The 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.

This post just might contain affiliate links. Fear not, they’re non-spammy and benign. Hey, I have to keep this thing running somehow!

Mentioned in this post
  1. Nina Mason Pulliam Rio Salado Audubon Center
    Attraction in Maricopa County Arizona

    3131 S Central Ave
    Maricopa County Arizona
    (602) 468-6470
    http://az.audubon.org/
  2. Mesa Riverview
    Attraction in Maricopa County Arizona

    Maricopa County Arizona
  3. Tempe Beach Park
    Attraction in Maricopa County Arizona

    80 W Rio Salado Pkwy
    Maricopa County Arizona
    (480) 350-5200
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