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. Despite the lack of a name, I still consider it the best canal for riding a bike.
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.
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?
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.
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.
There’s also an awful lot of traffic on the Rio Salado path that shouldn’t be, and nearly every city is doing a terrible job of preventing it. We’re talking about ATVs, gas-powered motorcycles and even the occasional car. You wouldn’t believe the stuff I capture with my bike camera.
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.
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.
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.
With the lack of amenities near the path, you’ll need to be sure you have everything you need to ride, too.
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.
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thx for the post. very informative. I see you updated one place about McClintock underpass completion, but way at the beginning you can update “It’s a 16-mile stretch of pathway that only crosses one road”; because the one road was McClintock, right?
Yep, that’s it! And now our nice long path is truncated again thanks to that crazy train derailment.
I’ll make a quick update – thanks for pointing that out and for reading!
Hey Justin! Thanks for the post and keeping it up to date. As of September 1, 2020 seems the train delrailment has been fixed. I’m planning to ride from the pedestrian bridge in Tempe via northaide to downtown Phoenix near the Renaissance Square building. I can’t seem to determine just using maps (like the MAG map) you’ve linked if it would be possible to ride separate from traffic via the Rio Salado bike path to downtown Phoenix. Would I have to jump off at 7th Ave and take the street down. Could you help me out and guide me in a direction to find the best pathway from Tempe to downtown Phoenix via the Rio Salado bike path or even another bike path? Goal is to travel with the least amount of cars as possible. Thank you!
Hi, Al! Thanks for the kind words. I’ll be sure to update about the train deraillment!
I wish I had better news about a relatively car-free route into Downtown Phoenix. 7th Street or Central are your best bets. At some point, you could do 3rd Avenue north and then 5th Avenue south. The traffic there isn’t as fast or scary. If you’re using the MAG Bikeways Map, check out the Layers feature and make sure that the Phoenix Sonoran Bikeway option is checked. That gives you a pretty decent idea of where the riding is less bad. If you’re trying to go uptown (like Central and Indian School-ish), the Grand Canalscape can get you there.
I hope this helps!
Justin, I hope you can help. My husband and I took bikes to the 7th Ave Rio Salado parking spot. We took off on the trail that was marked for bikes. Shortly we ran into a fence, so we took bikes down to river bottom where fence was moved open. Got back on paved path, but husband got flat because of going off trail. Fixed flat. Tried the 14th ave overlook path. Again ran into fencing. Do you know a better way to start on the Rio Salado trail and also why isnt the city telling people the trail is fenced and closed. Thanks for your help.
Hi, Tamara. Back in 2021, there was a big fire on 7th Street. What you’re seeing now is the ongoing effort to fix all the damage (of course, the bike infrastructure is the last thing to get finished!). I recommend starting further east, maybe around 16th Street, and heading east toward Tempe. As for why the city doesn’t communicate what’s going on … I have no idea. My guess is that there are multiple government entities with jurisdiction at various points, and they can’t agree with who is responsible. I may have to do some digging and figure out more about that!