Just south of Downtown Phoenix cuts a riverbed that offers one of the great hidden paved trails in the entire Valley. Based around the riparian zone that also hosts Arizona's Audubon center, the Rio Salado Restoration Habitat Area is lined by quiet, easy trails with some amazing glimpses of wildlife while still being just a stone's throw from the heart of the city.
Multi-use paths run along both north and south sides of the Rio Salado riverbed, stretching about 4 miles along each bank from 15th Avenue to 16th Street. Riparian wetlands run along the river bottom the entire length providing unexpected greenery to break up the scar of landfills, open pit mines and industrial complexes that otherwise line the river.
Riders will easily encounter more wildlife along these trails than other humans. On my last ride here, I came across one cyclist and five hikers, as opposed to three turtles, a two-foot long lizard, half a dozen jackrabbits, a ground hog, two coyotes, and an array of birds that included herons, hummingbirds, ducks, quail and cactus wrens.
The riding path is very easy with a few small but very basic hills - nothing any rider of any age couldn't handle. The best route is the north bank trail. It winds a bit more through the riparian area and offers access to an artificial wetland (home of the turtles) near Central Avenue and path access to a waterfall runoff that will hearken back to scenes from Chinatown.
The south bank trail is nice as well as you get a great view and perspective of the Downtown skyline, and has more dirt trail access down into the riverbed offering more opportunities to get up close to where a claimed 200 species of birds hang out. (Hint: Only venture off the paved roads with knobby mountain bike tires.)
The Nina Mason Pullium Rio Salado Audubon Center sits on the south side of the riverbed just off of Central. It has ample parking and direct access to the south bank trail. Be sure to take some time and stop in the center for a good background on the area and what various groups are doing to reinvigorate this section of Phoenix.
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There are five other trailhead parking areas that access the Rio Salado. One of the best is on the north side of the river off of 7th Avenue. This lot has bathrooms (open on weekends), water and shade that overlooks a the riverbed as well as a man-made wetland area.
To get from one side to the other, be sure to use the sidewalk areas along Central. Riders can cross over the 7th Avenue, 7th Street or 16th Street bridges as well, but there is not a protected pedestrian area and there is a lot of high-speed industrial traffic along those roads.