Bicycle Culture

Cycle: Rolling and Climbing Along Bush Highway and Usery Pass

Deep in the east Valley, between the Superstitions and Saguaro Lake in the shadows of the Four Peaks, a ribbon of rolling roadway known as Bush Highway cuts through the desert.

Meandering along the banks of the Salt River, this stretch of tarmac unwinds through undulating terrain lined with saguaros and palo verdes offering road cyclists a challenging route with breathtaking views that makes any rider thank Madonna del Ghisallo, the patron saint of cycling, for filling their souls with the need to get out and ride.

The catch in getting to this road is that one must drop down into the river basin, requiring a climb back out over the long, steady ascent of Usery Pass. This is no beginner ride, so be sure to fill the water bottles and pack the pockets with food before hitting the road.

Bush Highway and Usery Pass cut through Tonto National Forest land, with the roadway providing primary access to both the Salt River Recreation Area as well as Saguaro Lake. Wide bike lanes line road in both directions for most of the route, allowing for safe riding even with crazy tubers and boaters barreling down the path.

Riders can make a 40 mile loop, beginning in east Mesa and following Bush all the way north to the Beeline Highway. Just know that the five miles between Saguaro Lake and the Beeline has little to no bike lane and can be a dangerous ride on weekends. However, the view from coming back towards the Usery Mountains is among the best in the state.

Start the ride from Power Road and McDowell Road. There are ample parking, food and beverage options for both pre- and post-ride at any of the strip malls and retail centers at the intersection. The best lot to stage in is on the northeast corner with the Egg & I Café.

Begin rolling north along Power, under the 202 overpass and towards Red Mountain. It's a very slight incline before the road starts rolling up and down, allowing for the pace to pick up quickly. Just as the residential developments vanish, the roadway will appear to drop off into nothing with the Salt River basin in the distance.

Enjoy the rapid descent down into the basin as Red Mountain moves off in the west and the Salt River unwinds before you. As soon as the road bottoms out, it looks to level but actually hits a false flat requiring a deceiving effort to maintain a decent pace. The road quickly hits a rising bend at the mile 23 marker that looks harmless but actually tilts upwards to 10 percent grade.

More blacktop ebbs and flows continue with some challenging stretches that look like they should be nothing, but before you know it the road extends out towards the Four Peaks angling downwards in the direction of Saguaro Lake. Depending on your condition and familiarity with the route, push the tempo or just enjoy the ride.

Grab a quick glance up Usery Pass to the right before rolling into the true sweet spot of this ride. This is mostly a downhill stretch with brand new, glassy bike lanes, but the hills require some good intermittent out of the saddle efforts. About ten miles into the ride, the road crosses the Salt for the only time, passing by the Pebble Beach camping area.

About two miles further, the roadway bends north towards the Beeline with two sharp Cat. 5 hill climbs. It's at this bend that the bike lanes go away, so get a gauge on the traffic and use good judgment before riding on. Even after getting over the two hills, it's uphill all the way for those five-plus miles out to the Beeline.

Once at the Beeline, turn around and hang on for a sweet glide back down to the basin. It's along this stretch that the views are unparalleled. This truly is one of the most amazing stretches of road to ride in Arizona with the desert landscape rarely looking as perfect. Just remember that you are sharing the road with weekend warrior types hauling big things, so don't get too caught up in the beauty.

REAL DEAL BIKE TIP #17: FUEL UP. The average human burns around 500 calories an hour while cycling at a challenging pace. Most power gels offer 100 calories and power drinks provide 100 to 150 calories per water bottle. When going out on longer, strenuous rides, keep fueled by regularly taking in calories both through drink and food. Don't like the goo or bars? Bring along bananas, cooked sweet potatoes or Fig Newtons. Just don't be stuck out in the middle of nowhere with nothing in the tank. Nothing pisses off a loved one like that call for a bonk pickup.

The push back along Bush is not too difficult, especially if the typical midday tailwind is blowing through the basin. Return to the Usery Pass intersection and turn left to begin the four mile climb out. Usery Pass Road, considered a Cat. 3 climb, is a steady ramp of four to five percent the entire way, never getting steep at any point. But it can be a haul, especially at this stage of riding over hills and rollers if you are not used to repetitive climbs.

The key to getting up a climb like Usery is to just find a comfortable pedaling rhythm and stick with it the whole way up. If it starts to get uncomfortable, quickly shift one gear harder and pedal standing for a few moments before sitting and shifting back. The road bends slightly a couple of times, each offering a false summit, so don't expect it to end early. Just count down the miles because the summit is obvious.

Once back up top, the road tips down just slightly as you pass by the Usery Mountain Park entrance to the left and the gun range on the right (don't worry, they're not shooting at you). This stretch is a great reward for the climb up and provides a fast run back into civilization.

Usery Pass Road becomes Ellsworth Road as you blast southbound. Feel free to turn right at McDowell or continue on to McKellips Road or Brown Road for the full 40 mile loop. If you opt for Brown, be careful when turning back onto Power as there is a nasty storm drain in the middle of the bike lane that can cause serious damage if hit. Not the way to end this ride.

Trip Distance: 40 miles
Trip Duration: 2 hours
Difficulty: This one's hard.
Route Map:

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Jason Franz
Contact: Jason Franz