Historic Ride for the Gold in Arizona

We wanted a trip that would provide great vistas and a taste of local history. This ride on scenic Highway 83 and overnight spent at Kentucky Camp delivered on both of those goals.

We started the ride in Tucson at one of our favorite breakfast stops, Joe’s Pancake House. After stoking up on carbs and doing a final equipment check, we headed southeast and rode on the new 3-mile Julian Wash multi-use path. We rode beside solar power facilities and enjoyed the interpretive stops focusing on rainwater harvesting, burrowing owls, and historic railway operations. This path is just one section of a loop that will ultimately encircle Tucson.

The next portion of our route took us through the town of Vail and to an easy crossing of I-10 to scenic Highway 83. This main portion of our ride climbed about 2,000 feet over a 20-mile stretch of highway. The wide valley is flanked by the Whetstone Mountains on the left and the Santa Rita Mountains on the right; the cactus-studded desert lowlands give way to rolling grasslands at the base of the Santa Ritas.

Highway 83 is a designated Arizona Scenic Road with no billboards to block the natural beauty of the high desert.

The final portion of the ride was a 5-mile stretch on unpaved Forest Service roads. The way to Kentucky Camp is well-marked and the roads are generally well-graded. There are a few washboarded sections, so you probably wouldn't want to bring your skinny-tire racing bike. Our group of six cyclists had no trouble making the trip on a collection of Salsas, Surleys, and other sturdy touring bikes (including a recumbent Bacchetta). There was one steep 50-yard section of dirt road that some of our group elected to walk.

Kentucky Camp is tucked away in a small gulch with oak and mesquite trees dotting the hillsides. As we made the final descent into the camp, the five adobe buildings seemingly appeared out of nowhere. There's a feeling of going back 100 years in time. The site was built in 1904 by the Santa Rita Water and Mining Company. As this name suggests, it was a hydraulic gold mining operation … an odd endeavor for this high-desert location. The five buildings in Kentucky Gulch were the headquarters for the operation. An 8-mile water line consisting of a gravity-fed ditch and pipe provided water to the adjacent Boston Gulch for the short-lived hydraulic gold mining operation. Later, the site served as a cattle ranch.

With volunteer help, the Forest Service has rehabilitated the large ten-room headquarters building, a gold-processing building, and a three-room cabin. Another cabin is currently unused and a barn lies in ruins. Various pieces of mining and ranching equipment adorn the site. The Forest Service arranges for an onsite volunteer caretaker (be sure to stop by the caretaker's trailer and say “Hi"). Potable well water is available at several points throughout the site. There are also two very clean vault toilets with attached shower stalls -- who doesn't appreciate a warm solar shower after a day of cycling?!

We set up camp (permitted just outside the fenced historic area) and then strolled through the renovated adobe buildings. Volunteers have done an amazing job of restoring the buildings, and have provided some interpretive displays that give a sense of how difficult mining life must have been at the turn of the twentieth century.

We had plenty of time to cook a big dinner and enjoy sitting on the expansive porch wrapping around the headquarters building. As the sun set, we were impressed by the total silence and dazzling stars, undiluted by city lights.

The next morning, we had a leisurely breakfast with the knowledge that our 45-mile ride would be mostly downhill. We agreed that our next trip to Kentucky Camp would be for two nights, so we can spend more time taking in the quiet scenery and making the short hike to Boston Gulch to see the remains of the hydraulic water pipes and mining pits.

Get more information about bike overnights.Tip for this adventure: For slightly more refined overnight accommodations, the rehabilitated three-room cabin is available for rent through the Forest Service's Rooms with a View program. We did this trip in mid-April, an ideal time for clear, mild weather in southeastern Arizona. The fall is also a nice time to visit. I’d avoid June through August; even at the 5,000-foot elevation, this can be a very hot ride in the summer months.

Favorite local bike shop: Ajo Bikes in Tucson.

4 responses so far ↓

Patrick - Aug 28, 2012 at 8:07 AM

Sounds like a fantastic ride! I've never visited Kentucky Camp, but I'm no stranger to Gardner Canyon. I'll have to checkout the Camp sometime. Thanks for some inspiration!

Mark - Sep 7, 2012 at 4:31 PM

Thanks Patrick. There is a volunteer work day at Kentucky Camp tomorrow, 9/8/12 starting at 9AM. (And most every second Saturday of the month) Come on out and join us!

Frank - Oct 20, 2012 at 2:53 PM

How was the traffic and road conditions along 83? I am planning an over-night trip from Vail to Patagonia but am concerned about the lack of shoulder along 83.
Thanks

Mark - Oct 23, 2012 at 1:46 PM

The shoulder on highway 83 varies from three feet wide to nothing. Traffic can be moderate on weekends but is generally lighter on weekdays. One route variation that helps avoid traffic is to take the Old Sonoita highway which runs parallel to 83 on the East. This bypass extends from where 83 connects with I10 to the south for about six miles. There is no shoulder on Old Sonoita highway but traffic is extremely light. I rode this section a week or so ago and got passed by only one car.

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