Yes, South Mountain is the ultimate playground for Valley cyclists thanks to its world famous singletrack runs and challenging climb to the ever-blinking towers at the mountain's top. If you consider yourself a serious rider and you have not turned a pedal on Summit Road, National Trail or Desert Classic Trail, well...you're just not a serious cyclist. But South Mountain isn't for everyone.
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McDowell Mountain Regional Park is. (Except perhaps for hard-core downhill huckers who live to bleed all over National.) A generous spread of rolling desert floor on the back slopes of the McDowell Mountains just north of Fountain Hills, McDowell is home to more than 50 miles of highly rideable trails crosscutting the park with stunning views of the Superstitions, Four Peaks, Mazatzals and, of course, the McDowells.
One of the best things about McDowell is it never feels crowded thanks to the many miles of easy flowing tracks. With mountain bike-specific trails, general use trails, and now a pump track, the McDowell Mountain Regional Park can easily grab a close second place as the Valley's cycling destination of choice.
McDowell is one of 10 regional desert parks dotted around the edge of the greater Phoenix area that is managed by Maricopa County. To get to this park, head northeast to Fountain Hills and follow Fountain Hills Boulevard north about four miles, follow it right where it becomes McDowell Mountain Road, then proceed another three and a half miles to park entrance on the left.
Maricopa County does charge an entrance fee of $6 per car (you're welcome to park in town and ride in but you'll still get dinged $2 per cyclist). It's quite clear that the fees are going to park maintenance because the park is in great shape and offers pretty slick facilities for being in the middle of the desert.
The hub of the bike area is just beyond the entrance gate to the left. The size of the parking lot is an indicator of the kind of traffic this place can see, but rarely felt. From this parking lot, complete with a very large and clean bathroom with water, cyclists access the bike-only area known as the McDowell Competitive Track - three different singletrack loops that appeal to riders of all abilities.
The Sport Loop is the easiest circuit and good for everyone. Filled with super easy trails, a few short and barely strenuous climbs, and some fun rolling hills, the highlights of this loop come about a mile in with the Double Dip, and connection of two swooping drops that thrill without really challenging, followed by the T-Burner flat that provides a killer view of the McDowells just ahead. Any ride in the park requires this lap as a warm-up.
The Technical Loop is considered the "expert trail" of the park, but it doesn't present any greater surprises or obstacles than Desert Classic on South Mountain. If you know Desert Classic, this track will be cake. The Bowl is a sweet, bending, fast drop about a half-mile from the lot that'll make your eyes bug at first sight but rolls nice and easy. Both of these trails start at the northwest end of the lot and link into each other so you can mix-and-match starts and finishes.
The Long Loop in intended to be the challenging route for intermediate riders and is typically rockier than the Sport Loop. This circuit starts from the southeast end of the lot, next to the pump track, but it can also be looped in via the Technical Loop. In fact, if you start on the Sport Loop, connect to the Technical Loop and then split over to the Long Loop, it ends up being a cool 10 mile ride.
Not to be overlooked is the pump track. It's actually a fairly easy ring to roll through and test your skills, something Lance Armstrong and his fellow Team Radioshack pros did on their road bikes just over a year ago. Pump tracks are part BMX, part technical mountain biking and use a whole heap of upper body to push through a couple short circuits. If you can squeeze the hot shot youngsters off, give it a whirl.
Cyclists aren't restricted to the Competitive Track. The granddaddy trail in the park is Pemberton Trail, a 15.4 mile loop that rolls around the northwest corner of the preserve. Aside from a mile of a kinda-sorta rocky ridgeline drop from the upper plateau to the old Pemberton Homestead (marked with a historical landmark sign), this is among the simplest, smoothest and widest of singletracks anywhere. Just keep in mind that these trails are shared with hikers, trail runners and horseback riders.
Start Pemberton from the Trailhead Staging Area in the center of the park (a two-mile ride up from the Competitive Track lot - note that you cannot link into Pemberton from the Competitive Tracks). Unlike the Competitive Tracks, this trail can be ridden in either direction. Just know that whichever way you go it will be uphill for the first seven to eight miles. The easier, more gradual ascent is in the counter-clockwise direction, but going the other way means a clean and fast ride home.
McDowell Mountain Regional Park has a whole slew of other trails to explore and link to other trails outside of the park. If you're looking for a road ride, this is a nice uphill diversion but not really worth the $2 to get in for little more than 10 to 15 miles of tarmac. Just focus the time on spinning up the fat knobbies and enjoy the ride.