In The Loop

Path, Present, Future!

What links 30 public parks, has nearly four-dozen pieces of public art and is likely only one mile from your house? It’s The Loop!

By Kirsten Almquist

Riders modeling Loop jerseys on a commercial shoot along the Rillito River.

If you’ve driven across a bridge spanning one of metropolitan Tucson’s major (frequently dry) rivers, chances are you’ve seen glimpses of a paved path that runs alongside the wash, bristling with cyclists, runners and folks walking dogs. This is Tucson’s not-so-hidden treasure and, after years of development, it’s finally finished. Each day as the sun begins to peek over the Rincon Mountains, outdoor enthusiasts make their way to some portion of this 131-mile multi-use path.

A dog-walker along the north side of the Rillito River Park path, a particularly scenic portion of Pima County’s The Loop.

Interestingly enough, recreation is not what first inspired the creation of “The Chuck Huckelberry Loop.” Pima County began building cement bank protection along the banks of the Rillito and Santa Cruz rivers after the mighty floods of 1983. What the city soon discovered was that nearby residents were using the unpaved maintenance access paths on top of the banks to walk their dogs, go for a run or ride their bikes.  That’s when inspiration hit.   

What started as a good idea, turned out to be a great idea. The county began creating river parks with paved trails. It didn’t take long for these parks to become widely popular. As the years passed, every time the county constructed new sections of embankment along major canals, they built more parks and multifunctional paths. One of the largest, finest and most popular public recreational trails in the country was being blazed right through the heart of Tucson.

On a regular basis, Pima County residents use The Loop as part of their commute and exercise routine. But locals aren’t the only ones taking advantage of this park-centered perk. Over the past decade, The Loop has become a major tourist attraction. Some visitors to Tucson may scratch their heads in confusion as they stare out at our dry riverbeds. However, come monsoon season, they’re shocked to see these parched veins flowing with water, and delighted by the soothing scent of the dampened creosote bushes as they traverse the many miles of pathways.

Rain or shine, for those keen on outdoor recreation, The Loop provides yet another reason to explore Tucson. In February, Pennsylvania residents Clay Shaw and Karen Mitchell made a five-day-long drive to the Old Pueblo in search of winter refuge and to bike outdoors on recently completed paths. “We wanted to get away from our winter woes and just spend a nice relaxing month in Tucson because we knew it was beautiful, having been here before,” says Mitchell. “The Loop is really well done. The signage made it easy to figure out where we were. I love the fact that you just follow the river and you don’t get off on a bad shoot.”

Jon Jegglie, a resident of Sierra Vista, discovered The Loop nearly three years ago. He makes it a point to use it on weekends when he and his wife are visiting. “My wife drops me at Thornydale and Orange Grove and goes shopping. I walk along The Loop up to the QT on Craycroft and she picks me up there,” he says.

Jennifer Brown and Sandy Ballis ride their horses along the The Loop as it runs along the Rillito River

In addition to luring tourists and locals, The Loop has played a significant role in the art community, as well as the success of local shops, restaurants and farmers markets. For Jessie and David Zugerman, owners of Tucson Hop Shop, locating the brewery in the Metal Arts Village near the path was a no-brainer. “We knew the cyclists would be a huge target demographic for our business,” says Jessie. “Proximity to this major cycling artery was a cornerstone in finding a location.” The pair feels lucky to have found a spot less than a mile from The Loop entrance at Dodge Boulevard.

The Rillito Farmers Market is another business that has benefitted. Although many market shoppers still arrive by car, The Loop provides safe passage for those who wish to bike there. Numerous visitors to the market make a spontaneous stop because they spot the market while biking or walking.

After picking up some local goodies from the Rillito Farmers Market and grabbing a brew from Tucson Hop Shop, “loopers” can take in the spectacle of more than 90 pieces of public art located along the river park paths. Some are obvious, even dramatic, statements designed to reflect the character of the location or enhance a neighborhood’s distinctive identity. Others are more subtle and serve to complement the appearance of more functional features of the linear park such as bridges, noise walls, railings and benches.

Artist Stephen Fairfield submitted the first of his popular “Batty Biker” sculptures in response to a request for concepts incorporating bats, bikes and bridges. “Pima County sought to have sculptures along The Loop where people would go to see the roosting bats fly out at dusk to feed, and come back at dawn to rest up. They also wanted the sculptures relevant to passersby on bicycles,” Fairfield explains. “I kind of have a cracked sense of humor and it isn’t hard for me to find whimsy in everyday things, hence the bat and the bike series.”

Whether you’re using it for restaurant hopping, vegetable shopping, or just enjoying the great outdoors, there’s still one question that may be circling your mind: is The Loop complete? The answer is, yes — but it’s not finished. Future projects to make it bigger and better are already in the planning stages, including improved river park pathways in certain areas, as well as adding sections in Marana and Oro Valley. The county will widen paths in some places and increase native vegetation in others. Look for more improvements and path extensions over the next decade. TL

Editorial Note: Thanks to Pima County Attractions and Tourism for providing information and photos for this article.

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