Ride Here Now: Your Best Bets for Winter Riding in the Southwest Desert

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Warm temps, sunshine and trails abound in these desert oases

When icy trails and dark days have you feeling down, look no further than the deserts of the Southwest for a mid-winter pick-me-up. If you’ve never visited Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, or Southern California during the winter, you’re missing out on some of the country’s best riding.

While the region offers a vast array of pedal-friendly destinations, the following cities are my top pics after years of traveling the region.

Sedona, AZ

As the crown jewel of the Southwest, Sedona has quickly become a must-visit location for riders of all interests and ability levels. Once the bottom of a great sea, the area is littered with unique limestone and sandstone rock formations. And thanks to a bought-in community, the town is now home to some of the most scenic, technical, and magical singletrack in the Southwest.

“Hangover starts out pretty easy once you leave Schnebly Hill Road.” Photo: Steve Mokan

Sedona can see the occasional snowfall, given its position at 4,300 feet above sea level, but it usually melts very quickly. Average daily high temps in the winter hover between the mid-50s to mid-60s which, given the extremely intense sun, are perfect for riding. With a laundry list of amazing trails to check out, start with the West Sedona Tour for a well-rounded taste of the area’s offerings. If you like sunshine, unique trails, and massive views filled with majestic crimson rock buttes, Sedona is sure to please.

Las Vegas, NV

Not far from the lights, sights, and excess of the Strip, Vegas has some stellar mountain biking. Spend a long weekend there for mid-winter vitamin D and singletrack therapy. The best part? You won’t need to throw down a ton of cash. Thanks to the city’s main vice and tourist draw, there are tons of easy flight options from just about everywhere as well as inexpensive hotel and meal options—all of which you can take advantage of without ever actually gambling. Add in an expansive desert landscape crisscrossed by great trails and Vegas starts to sound a lot like a top southwestern mountain bike destination.

“Rocks are the name of the game on Kibbles-n-Bits at the Cowboy trail system.” Photo: Leslie Kehmeier

Trail networks like Blue Diamond, Bootleg Canyon, and the Cowboy Trails showcase the beautiful red rock landscape outside the over-stimulating concrete jungle. Prime time to hit Vegas is in the winter when temps are in the low 60s and the sun is shining. Bike rentals are also easily found in Vegas; check out Las Vegas Cyclery for a nice offering of demo bikes from Specialized and Santa Cruz.

San Diego, CA

If your vacation interests include singletrack, good food, tasty beer, and beach time, San Diego knocks it out of the park as a destination. Home to more than 100 local breweries, it’s also a beer lover’s paradise. Work up a thirst for a fine IPA on trails like Del Mar Mesa Preserve, or check out the beautiful and adrenaline-filled Noble Canyon to the East of the city.

The San Diego Mountain Bike Association is hard at work building more trails and creating more connectivity between existing routes. Average winter temps are a comfortable 70 degrees, so you can ride in the morning before catching some rays (or waves) at the beach in the afternoon.

Phoenix, AZ

As the sixth most populated city in the country, it’s inspiring to see a strong interest in trail development taking place just outside of the city of Phoenix. The area’s subtropical desert climate offers an arid, sun-filled environment prime for warm weather recreation year round.

“Red Mountain from Upper Ridge Trail at Hawes.” Photo: C R John

Notable trails include the Cave Creek Cactus Classic Loop, which offers 24 miles of pedaling just 45 minutes north of downtown. If you’re looking for a mellower way to ease into your trip, the Hawes trail network is a great place to pedal and take in views of the Sonoran Desert. Riders looking for a true challenge should hit South Mountain and the infamous National Trail, which trials champion Jeff Lenosky featured in his recent Trail Boss video. Average winter temps in the Phoenix area are warm, usually in the high 60s and low 70s.

St. George & Hurricane, UT

Situated in Utah’s southwestern corner, St. George’s unique landscape can be attributed to the fact that it is the convergence of three distinct geological areas: the Mojave Desert, Colorado Plateau, and Great Basin. This landscape is a haven for recreation, especially mountain biking.

“Rounding the corner on Sidewinder with the beautiful Snow Canyon and Pine Mountains in the background.” Photo: Steve Mokan

Both St. George and Hurricane (pronounced hurr–ah–can) have done an excellent job developing a diverse trail offering that ranges from beginner trails like the Anasazi Trail to extreme trails like Flying Monkey and scenic Gooseberry Mesa. No matter what type of trails you prefer, St George and Hurricane are worth the trip. Winter temps in the area average 55-65 degrees, making for comfortable riding year round.

Gallup, NM

This quaint town worked hard to develop mountain bike trails in an effort to lure visitors and locals into its beautiful northern New Mexico landscape. Steeped in Native American culture and located right on historic Route 66, visitors can also get their kicks with a plethora of tourist stops, Navajo museums, and Native American art exhibits.

The High Desert Trail System, located just north of town, is home to the annual Dawn to Dusk 12-hour MTB Race and serves as the centerpiece of riding in Gallup. Depending on the year’s snowfall, the Zuni Mountains Trail System, a 20-minute drive southeast of town, can also offer up primo winter riding. It can get a little chilly in Gallup, but the sun is usually shining and the average winter temps are in the 50s, so make sure to grab a few extra layers.

Tucson, AZ

Farther south than Phoenix, but higher in elevation, Tucson offers mild temps throughout the winter and a diverse offering of mountain bike trails. Towering over the surrounding desert, the Santa Catalina Mountains have excellent recreational opportunities. Mount Lemmon (9,100′), the range’s highest peak, features some kick-ass trails that provide a unique view of the city while entertaining riders with technical rock features, sharp cacti, and loose soil. These trails can be snowed in over the winter, so be sure to check in on the conditions heading out. Riders looking for a more relaxed option will appreciate Honeybee Canyon Loop, which also offers some more intermediate and advanced offshoots.

“A little bit of climbing will give you the Tucson Vista and Catalina.” Photo: Caren Villaroman

Plenty of food options, local festivals, and nightlife make Tucson an accessible destination to pedal away those cold weather blues. Winter temps are in the mid-60s and skies are usually sunny, but it can get chilly on Mt. Lemmon, so be sure to pack some warm clothes.