McDowell Mountain Regional Park is kind of my “homefield” when it comes to mountain biking. I probably ride more at Brown’s Ranch, but I race at McDowell more than anywhere else.
This ties in nicely to the recent Frenzy Hills race that went down in early December. It was my third Frenzy Hills event. As always, Aravaipa Rides did a nice job with marking the course and stocking their aid stations.
The event also provides a great chance to offer some observations about mountain biking at McDowell Mountain Regional Park.
1. There’s a Ton of Trails at McDowell
The Maricopa County Parks website says there are 40 miles of trails at McDowell Mountain Regional Park. I’m not sure that’s accurate. I think it’s northward of 40.
The trails out here are largely not overly technical. But many of them have a nice contour to them — dips, dives, twists that are very satisfying (though if park managers ever want volunteers to help them build some berms, I’ll be all over it). You don’t need the skills of an X-Games lunatic to ride here and have fun. It’s also a great place to cover a lot of ground and check out amazing scenery.
Let’s break some of the trails down and include some commentary about them.
Pemberton: 15 miles, the longest single loop out here. Best ridden clockwise, great for night riding. Not technical at all, just rocky in a few spots. Very singlespeed friendly.
Long Loop: 9 miles, part of the Competitive Track section. In dire need of maintenance. Lots of loose rubble. Occasional technical challenges, which are great. Not a fan of the rubble and erosion, though.
Gooseneck: 7 miles, great for plotting a super-long ride connecting to Brown’s Ranch. Twisty, turny, non-technical fun.
Escondido Trail: 6 miles. Can get crowded when there’s a race on. Still a lot of fun.
Dixie Mine: 5 miles, good fun with some rocks strewn around to make you pay attention. I’d love to see this one get turned into a loop that turns back to the Pemberton.
Coachwhip: 3 miles, some good climbing with great views. Not technical, but can be a grind — especially on a singlespeed.
We haven’t even mentioned the Windmill, Rock Knob, Boulder, Tonto Tank, Delise, Lariat or Granite trails yet. That means we’re well over 40 miles here.
2. The Rio Fire Burns McDowell Mountain Regional Park
The Rio Fire in 1995 burned more than 14,000 acres within the park. Riding through the aftermath of the fire was absolutely surreal.
That said, you’d barely realize there had been such a huge fire there. It looks like things have rebounded nicely.
Of course, there’s always more than meets the eye. One article says it may take 100 or more years for the park acreage to fully recover.
3. The Cactus Cup Arrives
The Cactus Cup used to be kind of a huge deal. In the 90s, it was pretty much like an opening weekend to the mountain bike season. All the big shots would show up — that’s how I got to work on the bikes of a few top pros back in the day!
The Cactus Cup started off at Pinnacle Peak. Then developers turned the course into houses and chased the event to WestWorld, where it operated happily for a few years.
Then, developers turned the course into McDowell Mountain Ranch.
In 1998, the Cactus Cup returned — this time, to McDowell Mountain Regional Park. It was held on the new Competitive Loop: Long, Sport and Technical.
I can’t confirm it, but I remember hearing that Specialized Bicycles threw some funding in to make the loops. Either way, the Competitive Loops have been a mainstay of events at the park, both running and riding, ever since. The Comp Loops are part of many races both past and present, from the Fat Tire 40 to the current Cactus Cup to the Frenzy Hills race.
That said, they’re long overdue for some maintenance. My “favorite” part is a bit on the Long Loop where the center of the trail is seriously eroded, and a barrel cactus somehow points DOWNWARD toward the trail at a 45-degree angle.
4. Night Rides: A Big Part of McDowell
McDowell Mountain Regional Park might be the first park around to host organized night rides. That started with Rand Hubbell, who spent many years as the park supervisor. He realized what creating a better mountain bike experience could do for the park, and many of the good things that came for mountain bikers came under his watch.
Including the organized night rides, which continue on. You can find a monthly night ride in the summer, often sponsored by local bike shops who will also grill post-ride hot dogs and other good stuff.
Most of the rides happen on the Pemberton, but they occasionally take a lap on the Long Loop. It’s not unusual for more than 100 riders to show up. That’s not a surprise: We’re all eager to mountain bike at night to escape the summer heat.
Not only are there night rides, but also night races like the Jangover Ride. Such a great time!
5. More Amenities All The Time
Over the years, mountain bikers have obviously enjoyed all the new trails that have opened, including a pump track. But we’ve also appreciated the bathrooms (I once took shelter in one during a huge monsoon storm). The actual for-real bathrooms at the Pemberton trailhead have been around forever, while those at the Competitive Tracks parking lot are relatively new additions.
There have also been other helpful additions, like ramadas for riders to sit down and rest in the shade — Jackass Junction is always a favorite.
What more could they add? There’s apparently a short new Skills Trail near the Comp Track parking lot. There was also talk awhile back about doing a flow trail, but that never came to be.
Other than that, I’m not sure. I wouldn’t mind seeing some 220V outlets where electric cars could plug in. It’s even possible to get outlets like that powered by solar panels (and I’d bet there are federal grants for county parks to make upgrades like that).
6. There’s A Good Chance You’ll See Wildlife
I’ve seen a good number of desert creatures at McDowell — coyotes, javelina, scorpions, rattlesnakes (even a baby one!), kangaroo rats, tarantulas, to name a few.
I even rode past a rock once that my wife (who was riding behind me) recognized as a desert tortoise. Sorry I missed that one!
You’ll also hear the coyotes howling if you camp out or do a night ride. I’d also bet campers and hikers are likely to see owls.
7. The Right Kind of Bike to Ride at McDowell
The Pemberton and Escondido trails are perfectly suited to cranking out miles on a singlespeed, so that’s my recommendation for those trails. If you have some excess leg power, you can still use that singlespeed on Coachwhip or Dixie Mine.
The Competitive Loops aren’t great for singlespeeds. There’s not much climbing, but a lot of it is short, steep, eroded stuff with lots of rubble. That’s much better suited to a bike with some nice, low gears. Full suspension will also make it easier to navigate some of the rockier bits, but it’s not a must.
The Bottom Line on Mountain Biking at McDowell Mountain Regional Park
Even in the post-Rand Hubbell years, McDowell Mountain Regional Park remains a great place to go mountain biking. Some trails need some TLC, for sure. Overall, though, it’s still a great experience — especially if you want to put a long ride together.
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