The 50 Year Trail

Big Rock Roll on Upper 50
Length of Bike Ride: 12-18 Miles
Difficulty: Moderate to Advanced
Suggested Skill Level: Intermediate to Advanced
Trailhead longitude and latitude: 32°25'44.0"N 110°55'38.9"W (32.4288889°, -110.9274722°)
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Description of Ride:

The 50 Year Trail.

While in Tucson for the 8ish Days of Christmas event last December we rode a section of the 50 Year trail. I was disappointed with my ride since I balked at some of the big rock features.

I returned to the Tucson area a couple of months later and was invited to ride the 50 Year again with Brian Vance and Jim Nixon.

We started at the parking area located next to the cattle guard at the end of Golder Ranch Dr. This is the shorter ride, aprox 12 miles.

Now the trail, as far as I can tell, starts in Catalina State Park, the longer version, aprox 18 miles. The trail head is in the equestrian area. It starts with a sandy double track climb up to a water tank where it changes to single track.

The reason everyone starts at the end of Golder Ranch Dr. is because the park charges an entry fee to Catalina State Park. The portion that runs through the park, has a couple of good climbs but also has a lot of good single track, all be it rocky; a little rock and rubble.

From the Golder Ranch Dr trail head there is a connector trail that starts right across the road from the cattle guard, there are not any markers but it is very distinct.

The first part, the connector trail, varies between double track and single track, rather wide and a bit sandy.

After a couple of minutes of riding the connector runs into the 50 Year trail, probably not something you will notice, there are a couple of off shoot trails that are more than likely cow trails that people walk and other riders may use but the main trial is obvious.

The trail follows the contours of the low rolling terrain through this area, a very nice ride-able area for newbies and beginning riders. I took my wife, who has very limited single track experience, to ride this portion of the trail and she had a great time.

After the trail crosses a couple of dirt roads, it starts down through an area where the rider needs to have a little more experience and have developed some basic skills.

The line heads down through some large boulders, there are lots of options to explore and some big rocks to roll across. The main line is more distinct but Brian and Jim were off on tangent lines, rolling across big rocks.

After we crossed a wash we came to a place where a trail split off from the main line to climb up through some rocks and cactus. We climbed up a little ways and Brian pointed out a large boulder that he said was good for hucking. A process where you ride up on the boulder, which in this case, had a very good approach from the uphill side. Then jump your bike off the other side instead of rolling it. Rolling off the back side was not an option on this boulder.

Back on the main trail, it climbs and descends at a moderate rate. It is not steep. It is ride-able in a mid range gear, combined with a little huffing and puffing; interval climbing.

There are lots of large boulders in the trail that can make for a track that weaves in and out, or the other option that Brian and Jim would often take was to roll up and over the rocks and boulders.

The trail has a few optional lines for rolling large boulders. One of the big boulder features has a second boulder right behind it that is not visible on the approach. When I took the alternate line to try this feature, I lofted my wheel up onto the boulder and as soon as my front wheel hit the rock I could see I was going to have to negotiate a crack between the two. I ended up stalling on top, in a quick track stand, before kicking my front wheel up as I cranked forward. You could probably roll it with 29er tires but my first attempt was a little sketchy. Although there is a spot where a rock is wedged in the crack to make a nice clean transition from one to the other but I didn't see that at the time.

After the rocky boulder section the trail continues to climb at a very sustained rate for a few minutes, a gritty tread that leads to a section that is referred to as the chutes.

There were four gutters or chutes descending fifty feet to merge into a single trough at the bottom, where it turned up to hit a junction on top of a ridge.

The Chutes turns to the left, down the top of a ridge.

We did not take “The Chutes” option. The line we took was to drop into one of four chutes and scream down through that narrow slot and turn up the hill past “The Chutes”. The trail turned into a climb up a gully to cross the top of some narrows and finally climb in earnest.

The trail runs up through a narrow gully or rut that follows along the edge of a ridge. It is a gritty climb that presents challenge after challenge in the form of narrow little gaps, exposed granite in the gullies and sandy sections. All the while lined with Prickly Pear and Cholla.

I think that knowledge of the trail would make a huge difference since you know where to torque it out and where to spin.

After about 15 minutes of climbing there is a trail intersection with the Gem Trail, it takes off to the left. The 50 Year Trail goes right.

After a few hundred feet the trail crosses a fence line, bounces down through a short narrows and climbs over a large granite dome to present a very large step. Neither Brian or Jim attempted to make the big step and the last time I was here, there was at least a half dozen riders bite it trying to clear that step. The approach is just too hard of an angle and the step too large for the approach.

There was a little more climbing across more granite and through lots of Ocotillo to a spot where the trail splits, giving you the option of climbing a granite face or take the trail around the rock. We chose to climb the granite dome.

The slope of the climb quickly became too radical for me. I could not sustain the climb and dismounted. I leaned into the push and hiked my bike up the granite face.

Both Brian and Jim continued to climb to a point where they stopped to catch their breath. About half way through the climb. Jim, remounted and cranked up what looked from my perspective to be a sheer rock wall. As Brian restarted his climb, the sound of a loud a crack came from his back wheel. He had blown his rear hub. He could crank the pedal, the sprocket would turn but the wheel would not.

Brian told me that this was the second time that has happened with that hub. But, it was still under warranty and he would have to send it in for repair.

We sat on the top of the granite dome for a while talking bikes.

Then Brian decided that he would go back the way we came because there was more climbing to do later in the loop. If he went back he would be riding mostly downhill.

Jim and I headed on up and over the top of the dome. A very exciting bit of riding, the top of this huge rock dome has great panoramic views. The line, from here, descends down the spine of the rock with ether side dropping away and out of site. The exit from the rock is to cross a large gap that has been filled with rubble, and glide down to a single track that rolls around to meet up with the main trail.

This is where we stopped and put on our protective gear. The next section of the trail is mostly downhill over lots of rocky boulders and granite.

The trail continues through a short boulder filled section, rolling up and down as it follows along a gritty line. Part of this section has a rock drop and an alternate line to roll around the drop and through another series of boulder rolls.

Last winter when I was riding here with a group, there were a bunch of young guys that hit this section two or three times, hitting the rock drop like a jump, clearing five to ten feet as they popped off the rock.

The trail rolls up onto and across a long granite slab with a good three foot drop on the other end, one of the spots that had me off my bike on the last ride. Jim rolled the drop and cruised on down the trail. I rolled up and shifted my weight back as far as I could as my front tire dropped over the edge, the tire slammed the bottom just as the back tire rolled over the edge and I rolled out and down the trail.

The trail starts a strong descent here. It rolls down through gritty little gullies and ruts, dropping over small boulders and skidding around sharp turns.

We reached a spot on this part of the descent where Jim rolled up on to a rock and came to a sudden stop. His back wheel on one side of the rock and his front wheel just over the edge on the other, his bash guard hung up on the rock. He pulled his bike off the rock and walked back to take another shot at it. Again the bike caught and he said, “twice is enough”. He pushed his bike over the rock and rode on down through the jumble of stones.

I didn't even try. I pushed my bike around the rock. Remounted, and while standing on the peddles, I skid down through the granite stones on the gritty track.

The trail continued to roll along through thick desert flora, lots of Ocotillo, Prickly Pear, and Cholla with fresh green ground cover intermixed with the Agave, dropping through ruts and over boulders until it drops into a steep descent.

The trail flowed into a wide deep gully. I tried to ride the line high on the side of a rock. My front wheel stuck but my back wheel was just a little too low. It broke free, causing my bike to slip side ways skidding into the bottom of the ditch.

A quick push off with my foot and a shift of my weight back as far as I could, sent me down a series of large steps to round another corner and find Jim sitting on top of a huge boulder. He pushed off and glided down the front of the rock, then up onto another rock, to drop off the end.

I paid close attention to the line he took because I could not see out over the end of the series of rocks. Climbing up on the top, I looked down the steep face and let my self go. The granite was covered with grit and I could hear a hollow sound from my rear tire every time it skidded on the grit. Transitioning from one rock and over the second, again the hollow sound from my tire skidding as I dropped off of the rock and back onto the dirt. I continued to descend a steep line in the gritty sand to cross more boulders.

The line continued descending through a series of dirt steps to round a large boulder where I found Jim sitting on his bike, looking back at me. As I approached what looks to me to be at least a four foot drop.

I asked, "really you rolled that"? Jim shook his head up and down as I heard him say "Uh huh".

I backed my bike up about ten feet and took off, a quick bobble and a stop. Then I backed up to take one more shot. This time I threw my weight back as my front tire dropped off the edge, it was a quick hard bounce as the wheel made contact and my fork compressed, almost throwing me over the front.

The trail wound down through some more sandy gritty single track, over a few flat rock areas to approach a huge granite rock. This is the big one, I exclaimed to Jim, to which I got another uh huh.

The trail approaches a huge granite rock that is at least two stories high, the bottom of the rock can not be seen from the top. The alternate descent from here is a steeper rock that requires you to transition to another rock on the descent. When I was here last winter I balked and walked down the face, where I realized as I reached the bottom that my shoes stuck to the rock like glue so even though the rock felt like it was near vertical I was able to get good traction.

Jim was down and off the rock before I had even gotten up onto it.

I knew I could not hesitate so I cranked a half pedal stoke to keep me moving. I started shifting my weight back as I rolled forward and started down the front of the rock. My weight moved further back with each foot of the descent until I was so far back that I could feel the tire rubbing against my shorts.

My breaks began modulating with a vibrating sound, a combination of squeaking and rumbling. The rear tube and tire reverberating the skidding noise my tire made as it seemed to stop with each break modulation.

A quick transition from vertical to horizontal through a soft sandy radius at the bottom had me on the line and letting out a hoot as my anxiety evaporated.

We rolled a couple of more small boulders as the trail followed a line that continued to descend.

There were a few skinny tight spots while passing Saguaro and brushing past more Ocotillo as we descended until we reached a sandy wash at the bottom of a valley and the trail turned to start another ascent.

We had reached a point on the upper 50 year trail where it junctions with the Middle Gate trail. The Middle Gate being a short technical connector that comes over from The Chutes.

I leaned into the next climb. The trail crosses the face of the hillside before it turns to take a couple three switchbacks to the end of a ridge. Once on the ridge, the trail climbs along the top of the ridge where it crossed a few flat rocks but the tread is mostly sand and grit. It winds it's way up through a bunch of large boulders, some standing high over my head.

I had to make a couple of more stops to catch my breath but I refused to relent and walk, so I leaned into it until I hit a narrow steep step up that I just could not clear.

As I reached the top of the climb I could see Jim standing over on a spur trail, off on my right, that leads to a great view.

Jim told me he had just seen Brian down below on the trail but by the time I got there Brian was gone.

The trail meanders across the top of the ridge, mostly level with a number of transitions between rock and gritty sandy line.

The area is densely populated with cactus, mostly prickly pear but plenty of other varieties are present.

There were a couple of spots that forced me from my bike because I could not clear the large step up or negotiate a rocky narrow pinch point.

Jim turned off the trail at one point to follow a line that was just barely visible as it crossed a grassy section before transitioning to some exposed granite.

This was not the line we rode the first time, back in December.

The normal route is a chunky descent. The trail weaves back and forth while descending. With some technical rocky spots and some tight turns but nothing like the upper 50 with the narrow deep gulleys.

The dome is a long solid rock face that drops off sharply to the side but is ride-able over the front. A descent that was both fun and easy but transitions into a very short technical that I found myself off and walking for a few steps.

As we crossed a couple of more large granite features, Jim pointed out a couple of launch points for those with the experience and willingness.

We finally rode by a large rock that Jim called the “Lunch Box”. A rock that I saw Brian ride up on from the backside and down a vertical face on the other side.

This rock is a marker, much like the two story rock that I finally rode, a spot that people refer to when talking about the 50 Year trail in reference to mountain biking. Though not a feature that called to me.

After a few rock steps, the trail turns into a well worn grove and I started to pick up speed.

A moderately fast run with a few rocky features to negotiate; a couple of step downs, a few large rocks to roll and lots of fast weaving single track.

The line continues on a fast but not steep descent until it reaches a very short quick punch up through some rocks before it turns down again, into a narrow rush of quick skidding rock drops.

The trail dropped through more large granite boulders before multiple lines were presented. The one I took was both great, a nice ridge of granite to ride down and not so great. I found myself in a narrow that brought me to a stop where I had to lift and push my bike to get through.

The trail presented more skidding granite steps and fast quick gutters to shoot through and out onto an exposed granite face.

This last part of the trail was fast, quick, and lots of fun.

But all too soon the trail hit the bottom of the descent where it crosses a very large wash. We were confronted by a young cow standing on the trail. He waited, looking us over as we approached. He finally relented and turned to trot off up the wash.

Then it was a short rock and rubble climb over the next ridge and down through another wash to be repeated once more over the next ridge where we exited out onto a dirt road.

A few feet down the road and we are back at the 50 Year trail at the point where it crossed the road.

We rode back over the meandering single track to the point where the connector trail back to the parking area splits off. But instead of taking the connector, Jim rocketed down the main 50 Year trail. Not to be left behind, I jumped up out of the saddle and cranked into the descent. It is a fast blasting run that screams down the narrow single track, throwing little berms and pops at you and had me grinning all the way to the road.

We turned onto the dirt road and cranked our way back to the cars.

50 Year Trail Views