This is one of the three signature routes we have documented in the Las Cienegas Conservation Area. It is the longest and most demanding route. You will wander through an important and beautiful ecological grassland / wetland area bounded by several mountain ranges.
There’s a great reason as to why the Empire Ranch has been the backdrop to so many western movies, including Bonanza and Gunsmoke (and also A Star is Born); the ranch is loaded with history, the distant mountain ranges are stunning, and there are miles of gated pastures that will have you singing “Home on the Range.”
Some of you will not like this as a place to ride. We had a half dozen gates to open and close. That means cows and open grazing lands. And the mixture of smooth to semi-rugged roads will open up long conversations on tire pressure, tire width, and tire grip.
This is one of the three signature routes we have documented in the Las Cienegas Conservation Area. It is the longest and most demanding route. The Las Cienegas (The Inner Loop) route is the shortest and easiest. The Las Cienegas (Gunsmoke) route is our favorite route in the area, combining The Outer Lollipop and The Inner Loop, picking the best roads from each. Entirely rideable on 40 mm tires.
Las Cienegas National Conservation Area is one of the finest grassland valleys left in the southwestern US. This grassland watershed supports some ten miles of a perennial stream—a rare gem of green running through southern Arizona’s arid landscape. Together these grasslands and wetlands provide homes for a remarkable array of wildlife, including over 230 bird species, 60 mammals, 40 reptiles and amphibians, and at least five endangered species. [Audubon]
Fall through spring. Las Cienegas means wetlands in English; thus, beware! We can envision times in the spring and during the monsoon season (June – September) where this could be a muddy mess.
Dirt parking area just off Highway 82.
Lat / Long: 31.703045, -110.592001
This is a go-to ride on a colder winter day. No big climbs, no big descents. Just enough work to keep you warm all the entire time. It loops through the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, which is a mix of 45,000 acres of rolling grasslands and woodland bounded by the Empire mountains to the north, the Whetstone mountains to the east, and the Mustang mountains to the south. The area’s importance lies in connecting several “sky island” mountain ranges and lush riparian corridors allowing for animal migration.
The area includes five of the rarest habitat types in the American Southwest: cienegas (marshlands), cottonwood-willow riparian forests, sacaton grasslands, mesquite bosques, and semi-desert grasslands.
We also recommend taking a picture or downloading this map of the area. The typical map sources like Google, ESRI, OSM, and USGS all lack detailed road information with the correct road numbers / names.
The route leads out north, aiming for the distant hills, through grasslands and antelope grazing territory. There is some creosote bush, some Yucca plant, and a few mesquite trees. The road is hard-packed gravel, 2-lane, with a few cars.
At mile 4.3, make a right onto a red dirt road. The next 11 miles loop to the east, at first following Hilton Wash out, and then at the easternmost point connecting with Spring Water Canyon to come back west.
This is the most rugged sector of the day with some short rocky-gnar sections, some short steep hills, some rutted track, and a bit of sand. The road weaves and bobs amongst the small hills and gullies, giving limited sightlines, something we like to call ‘texture.” Adding to the texture are several gates that need to be opened and closed.
The terrain includes grasslands, creosote bush (prickly stuff!), and mesquite, cottonwood, and willow trees. Also, take note of the black-tailed prairie dog reintroduction area. We looked but never saw any.
Black-tailed prairie dogs are one of five species of prairie dogs and the species with formerly the most expansive range – from southern Canada to northern Mexico. Unfortunately, over the past 150 years, their range has been reduced to less than 2%, and accordingly, their numbers have been greatly reduced. In Arizona, black-tailed prairie dogs were exterminated in 1960. Fortunately, wildlife agencies and multiple partners have worked together to re-establish the species not just in Arizona but across their historic range. In Arizona, black-tailed prairie dogs were first re-introduced in 2008 at the Las Cienegas NCA. [Audubon]
This is the sector that really demands a wider, more aggressive tire. 50mm+. Very skilled riders can make do with 40mm tires, but the ride will be so more enjoyable on thick rubber. This sector will also work you more than the metrics suggest [13 miles, 600 feet of gain, 800 feet of loss].
Just before mile 15, you connect with Road 6914. The next 2.5 miles are flatter with improved road quality, offering a chance to spin the legs rhythmically. At mile 16, the road makes a sweeping 180 degree turn back to the south. Don’t miss this turn! Shortly thereafter, take a right-hand spur leading west to North Canyon.
The next 5 miles, from mile 17 on, are truly spectacular riding, but also very deceptive! You climb 700 feet in this distance on a rolling, undulating climb. Each roller brings you a little bit higher, maybe 15 to 20 rollers in total. There are short pitches of loose over hard-pack, there are short gradients above 15%.
At mile 22, you reach the high point, turn south and begin a zippy downhill back to Empire Ranch, passing through Oak Tree canyon and the Airstrip Group camping site. What a place to boondock for several nights!
Guide-led walking tours of the historic Empire Ranch House are held at 11 am on the second and fourth Saturday of each month. Tours start at the Empire Ranch Visitor Contact Station and provide an introduction to the history of the Empire Ranch families and the buildings in which they worked and lived. Tours are free and open to the public.
From September to May, advance registration is not required for individuals or groups smaller than 10. Reservations are required for tours during the summer months (June-August). [Empire Ranch Foundation]
Just before the ranch, you roll through Empire Gulch, a riparian area with a dense stand of large cottonwood trees. Here you will find Red-Tailed Hawks and Northern Harriers.
The last 9 miles go quick. The road is wide, the gravel hard-packed, and the riding is fast. The rolling hills give way to wide-open grasslands with big, distant views. To the south are the Mustang mountains, and to the left are the Whetstone mountains.
This is also prime antelope grazing territory and is protected with restrictions on camping and pets in the spring for fawning activities.
The second sector of this route really demands an adventure-style gravel bike. Something with 50+ mm tires, low gearing, and a geometry closer to a mountain bike than a road bike. We rode this route on Salsa Cutthroats with 55 mm Fleecer Ridge tires (by Rene Hearse), tubeless with CushCore inserts and with a 100 mm front suspension fork. Our gear ratio is about 0.85.
For a shorter variation of this route (25 miles and 1500 feet of gain), start at Empire Ranch (see map). Lat / Long: 31.785361, -110.641873
For a shorter and technically easier ride, check out the Las Cienegas (The Inner Loop) route.
Our favorite route in the Conservation Area is the Las Cienegas (Gunsmoke) route. It is a combination of the best parts of the Las Cienegas (The Inner Loop) and Las Cienegas (The Outer Lollipop) routes. And … it is rideable on 45 mm tires with a bit of skill.
Have you ridden this route? Got a question? Join the discussion!