Cycle: Ride the (Mostly) New and Improved Western Canal Path

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The Western Canal, one of the original eight canals constructed between 1870 and 1913 to bring water from the Salt River to the initial agricultural areas across the southern half of the Valley, runs 13.6 miles between Phoenix and Gilbert.

Now, thanks to renovation efforts by the cities of Tempe, Chandler and Gilbert, it is home to one of the nicest (and straightest, and flattest, and, in sections, ugliest) multi-purpose paths in town. Just this week, sections of the trail in Chandler had new traffic signals activated to automatically detect when cyclists and other uses approach a main street.

While the Western Canal Path is not one of the more dynamic rides in town, it is a perfect ride to enjoy a nice weekend spin and see how one of our great, historic canals actually helped feed the land. It's also the perfect route to work up an appetite and grab a breakfast at the Liberty Market in the old downtown area of Gilbert.

Even though the Western Canal cuts west along the base of South Mountain, the main canal and canal path begin at Arizona Mills mall in Tempe. For this ride, start at Kiwanis Park, accessing the path from the parking lot on the west side of All American Way, across from the Kiwanis batting cages. The path initially moves south before bending east for its long, straight, ten mile stretch to Gilbert.

The Tempe upgrades to the path include new pavement, often decorated to reflect the canal's water influence. Also new are special "HAWK Pedestrian Beacon" signals to get across main streets such as Rural Road and McClintock Drive.

One of the really great parts of this ride is access to drinking water (hopefully not directly accessed from the canal). Drinking fountains in Tempe parks and trailside fountains throughout Chandler create plenty of access to water to keep hydrated and make this a nice ride even in the hot summer. Just get out early as shade is minimal the entire way.

Once across Price Road and the 101 freeway, the path is now in Chandler. This is where the canal really starts to show its somewhat primitive structure. The canal is a completely exposed dirt trench with an old system of gates and steps to control the flow of water. Look for white and grey cranes and other types of water fowl going for a dip and chasing those nasty, oversized canal carp swimming in the mucky water.

But Chandler made a significant improvement in the cleaning of the landscape along the south side of the path, including either replacing or updating the residential block walls with a repetitive water pattern. Chandler has also included solar powered lighting on its stretch that runs from Price to Arizona Avenue, as well as the newly installed street signals and drinking fountains. As for the trail itself, this is the straightest section.

Once past Arizona Avenue, the path gets dicey. The paved route continues up to a railroad line track and then disappears. The canal has also gone dry by this point. Old farms line the north side of the canal and industrial parks fill out the south side. Just continue riding along the canal bank for another half-mile to McQueen Road.

Keep going straight, due east, through McQueen park (water up here if needed) and rejoin the canal path, now on the north side of the canal. Do not take the windier path on the south side as the pavement ends half-way down the block. In the distance, the Gilbert water tower in the old downtown is now visible.

Across Cooper Road (with a jig back to the south side of the canal), the path now cuts along the old Riparian Reserve which is now being converted into a solar farm. The path ends at Neely Street and cyclists now have two options: follow a circuitous route as outlined by a small sign just before the path ends at Neely, or continue straight along the canal route and go over the railroad tracks (section #2 for those keeping score).

For those cutting over the tracks, the paved path picks back up just beyond the other side and rolls right into the entry to old Gilbert. Here is where Gilbert has made its improvements to the path with some water sculptures and new landscaping. Riders can either continue east for another mile to where the Western Canal terminates against the Consolidated Canal, or cut into downtown and grab a bite at the Liberty Market, home to killer potatoes and the most decadent bread pudding in town.

For those who go to the end, the canal offers a great glimpse at what life was like back in the day with farms directly pulling water from the canal to their crops. The yellow house at the end is an old farm home with some of the original family still living there, now raising goats and peacocks. Look for a canal history marker tucked under an old cork tree planted by the home owners during World War II.

The return trip is straight back the other way. There's not much to see, but the flat, straight, (mostly) smooth path sure makes for a lovely ride.

Trip Distance: 20 miles
Trip Duration: 2 hours, not including any food breaks
Difficulty: Easy - flat, flat, flat - with drinking water sources along the way
Route Map: www.mapmyride.com/routes/view/38411208/

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