Amazing Sonoran Desert Cycling - Visit Ajo

January 19, 2021

We would like to add an introductory note to this post. Covid-19 has impacted small towns and indigenous communities at disproportionate rates, so please don’t travel to do this ride – or any rides outside of your locales – until the pandemic subsides. This will give you plenty of time to plan for an epic and safe ride along the Camino del Diablo…


What if I told you there was a small town on the border of three nations, surrounded by endless miles of gravel roads yet to be discovered. Fairtrade coffee is roasted there daily, artists from around the world call this town home, and you can see three major types of cactus in a single bike ride.

The town I’d tell you about is Ajo, Arizona. It sits 40 miles north of the Mexican border, on the edge of the O’odham Nation, and in the heart of the Sonoran desert. Throughout the 1900s, the local copper mine produced more copper than anywhere in the world. Following the close of the mine, the town was forced to reinvent itself. It did so by looking outward, to the desert, for answers. With the formation of the International Sonora Desert Alliance (ISDA), the goal was to preserve and protect the desert and at the same time create a healthy, non-extractive economy.

I’ll let those that live and thrive in Ajo share their story, but if you’re planning a visit, I’ll share with you what I consider to be a perfect weekend.

Day 1 – A little less than a two-hour drive from Phoenix or Tucson, you’ll arrive in time for lunch at the local farmer’s market. You’ll check in to the Sonoran Desert Inn, an old school converted into a modernly quaint guest house. Then you’ll go for a ride on the scenic loop just south of town. Upon returning from your ride, you’ll spend the rest of the evening in the quiet courtyard, enjoying the stars, listening to coyotes howl, and waiting for the local javelina family to make their nightly appearance.

Day 2 – You’ll wake up early, well-rested, with a cup of freshly roasted Curley School Coffee. You’ll head out by bike to explore the Sonoran Desert. You will need something capable of exploring endless gravel roads for hours. Whether that’s an early 90s Bridgestone MB2 or a new Moots Routt 45, the bike brand doesn’t matter. No one in town cares what you ride. People just ride for the love of riding. You’ll head south again, but this time further into the desert. You’ll see the world-famous organ pipe cactus that only exists here outside of Ajo. You’ll see thousands of them. Each one you pass is bigger than the one before it. You’ll stop, take out the lunch you packed and enjoy a picnic in the remote desert where very few people have ever been. This ride is a loop, a loop of any length you want. Remember, there are hundreds of miles of gravel roads with little to no-one else in sight. Then you’ll head back into town to check out the local art and grab a nap. That evening, you might consider another short sunset ride, maybe bring a light with you so you can just stare up at the sky and see the Andromeda galaxy…it’s really dark.

Day 3 – The next morning you’ll be up and enjoying another cup of freshly roasted Curley School Coffee before you head out for your ride up Charlie Bell. Once you summit the pass, you will be rewarded with an incredible view of the Sonoran Desert. Once you’re back into town, you can grab a fresh Burrito from Sergio in the town square and head home.

As cyclists, in general, we’re not only looking for new roads, fresh coffee, and incredible landscapes, we’re also looking for ways we can help. In Ajo, simply coming to ride your bike on new-to-you roads while you drink some fresh coffee and experience incredible landscapes, you’re helping this town redefine itself in an environmentally forward way.

Lily Williams, Desert Senita Community Health Center Outreach Manager, holding up a pair of PEARL iZUMi gloves that were donated to the bike programs she helps manage.Lily Williams, Desert Senita Community Health Center Outreach Manager, holding up a pair of PEARL iZUMi gloves that were donated to the bike programs she helps manage.


-Lily Williams, Desert Senita Community Health Center Outreach Manager.

Bike Ajo was formed in 2015 through the Plan4Health grant supported by the American Planning Association. The goal of the coalition is to improve access to opportunities for physical activity to prevent chronic disease. Bike Ajo provides education on bicycle safety, basic repair, and maintenance and builds health-based partnerships with local Ajo organizations. Bike Ajo has established school-based bike programs, community events such as an annual Bike and Hike, and lead a variety of group rides through community partnerships. The rides focus on food, art, and substance abuse prevention to promote the Ajo community and encourage healthy habits for all. “We were so excited to receive the donation of gloves from PEARL iZUMi and thank Justin Balog for making this arrangement to benefit our students or other cyclists who ride with us weekly!

Bike Ajo Program
Bike Ajo, Local Rides (
although it’s an MTB map, you can definitely ride a capable gravel bike everywhere)


-Aaron Cooper, International Sonoran Desert Alliance Managing Director and local cyclist

In Ajo, it truly feels like everywhere is a trailhead. Ajo’s modest development footprint is bounded in every direction by public lands and the pristine Sonoran Desert…meaning your capacity to explore is really only limited by the amount of water you can carry. As you crank along the expansive network of gravel trails and 2-track roads, it’s not unusual to startle a dozing javelina, catch a glimpse of a slinking bobcat, or, if you’re really lucky, have a chance encounter with the endangered Sonoran Desert pronghorn. Exploring one of the most biodiverse desert regions in the world, surrounded by towering saguaros and the fantastically complex organ pipe cactuses, it can start to feel like you’re in the beating heart of the Sonoran Desert. This is how I fell in love here: two wheels with nothing but the crunch of gravel and the whistling of the wind in my ears.

What makes cycling and bikepacking around Ajo even more compelling is the rich complexity of the context. Ajo is part of the vast homeland of the O’odham people that stretches across Arizona and northern Mexico. In fact, the modern name Ajo comes from the O’odham word for a naturally occurring red paint–au’auho. Through colonization by the Spanish Empire, subsequent Mexican independence, and finally the Gadsden purchase of 1853, Ajo now sits at a tri-national intersection of peoples resulting in a distinctive shared heritage of art, food, and culture.

Cycling in Ajo is also part of a broader pivot toward a post-extractive future. As home to Arizona’s first open-pit mining operation, Ajo was once a quintessential company town where the New Cornelia Branch of Phelps Dodge Corporation provided nearly all community services for 70 years. Since the mine’s closure in 1985 and the subsequent economic devastation, the community has been pursuing other economic development opportunities. Given the proximity to a profoundly unique national monument, a massive wildlife refuge, and a seemingly endless network of Bureau of Land Management roads, it’s no surprise that outdoor recreation is one of the pillars of a push to expand eco and cultural tourism opportunities. With so many places to get out and explore, it’s easy to see why Ajo is often described as a small town with a great big backyard.

Related Posts


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published