A nice river park - bank on it

The "River Park Gateway" bridge offers bicyclists access to the linear park from Mountain Avenue

Close to town and miles from gridlock, the Rillito is calling

-You wake up one morning at your cozy new digs on campus and nature calls. No, not that. We're talking about the urge to get outside, take in the desert scenery, work off some calories and be back by lunchtime. The Rillito River Park, as the hundreds of Tucsonans who use it every day would attest, fits the bill perfectly. This peaceful, tree-lined linear park cuts through the north side of the city, less than a half-hour away from the university by bike. Multi-use paths run along both banks, apart from traffic, for most of the Rillito River's length. The six-mile section of the park between Campbell Avenue and the railroad tracks near Interstate 10 is paved and striped and is the most heavily used. It is county-maintained and lushly landscaped and has numerous drinking fountains and three restroom facilities.

"I come for the scenery," said Tucsonan John Shreiner, 75, who walks the path "exactly 2 1/2 miles" six days a week. "It gives me a chance to think. I do my best thinking when I'm walking." Getting to the Rillito from the University of Arizona is a snap - easy and safe on striped bike lanes. Normally, the best way to go is a straight shot north on Mountain Avenue on its wide bike lane. But construction has Mountain closed (and the bike lane torn up) from East Speedway to East Fort Lowell Road to all but residents. So it's best to start at Speedway and Park Avenue. Ride north on Park on its striped bike lane two miles to Fort Lowell. Turn right on Fort Lowell for a quarter-mile and then left on Mountain, heading north again for a little over a mile.

Just north of Roger Road, on the right, cows lazily graze at the University of Arizona Farm. A few blocks later, Mountain ends at Prospect Lane, but the bike path keeps going a couple hundred more yards right up to the river.

If you're new to Arizona, you'll be surprised by what you see at the bottom of the "river" - sand, trees and bushes. Except for a few times a year following heavy rains, the Rillito is dry. Since bikes are not allowed here along the south bank, cross the bridge under the iron sign that reads "River Park Gateway," and turn right onto the paved path. The pavement ends barely a half-mile later at Campbell, and you have a choice - either continue under Campbell onto the unpaved portion of the path (it continues for many miles) or turn around and stay on the more developed section of the park.

Keep in mind there is no water east of Campbell, but the path is hard-packed and the going is flat and easy, past numerous horse properties. To stay on the paved path, though, turn around and ride west from Campbell. The trail here (and for the next four uninterrupted miles) is heavily lined with trees, mostly mesquite and palo verde, many of which have grown tall enough to create a canopy effect and offer welcome shade.

Ground cover such as Mexican bird of paradise, Texas ranger and the occasional wildflower is abundant. In some parts you can't hear any traffic, and it's enough to almost make you feel like you've left the city. The Rillito Park racetrack appears on the right. It's dark now, but the horses run on weekends for about two months during the winter. The path continues under First Avenue, just as it continues under each street that crosses the river - Stone Avenue, Oracle Road, La Cañada Drive and La Cholla Boulevard.

This portion of the park can be crowded with runners, strollers, skaters and other cyclists, so this is not the place to ride like Lance Armstrong. Keep to a relaxed pace. Between Oracle and La Cañada, just west of the Tucson Mall, is Children's Memorial Park, a popular rest area. There are restrooms and drinking water here, along with a children's playground, a ball field and a basketball court. The gently rolling trail continues along the south bank for another 1 3/4 miles. There's another restroom at the parking lot between La Canada and La Cholla, where the pavement ends.

Many people choose to turn around here, although the pavement continues on the south bank for another couple of miles until the railroad tracks near Interstate 10. This portion is much less crowded - and less shaded - and there are restrooms, drinking fountains and a parking lot where it crosses Camino de la Tierra. If you turn back at La Cholla and retrace your steps back to the UA, you'll have ridden 23 miles - and answered that call of nature.

If you go

Drive: From the university, take any major northbound artery - Campbell, First Avenue, Stone Avenue or Oracle Road - to River Road. Parking is available at at least four places: 1. Rillito Park racetrack, on First Avenue just south of River Road. 2. Children's Memorial Park, 4851 N. 15th Place. Take River Road west of Oracle and turn south on 15th. 3. The park's parking lot on River Road, a quarter-mile west of La Cañada Drive 4. Camino de la Tierra where the river crosses.

Hours: Sunrise to sunset. Cost: Free. Et cetera: The Rillito River actually begins at Craycroft Road, at the confluence of the Tanque Verde and Pantano washes. It ends when it meets the Santa Cruz River west of Interstate 10.

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