A Winter/Pandemic Family Overnighter to Catalina State Park

The weekend following Thanksgiving, our family went on an overnighter bike campout from our house in central Tucson to Catalina State Park. It was the first bicycle camping trip of any sort that I’d taken since the start of the pandemic.

Figuring out how to stay safe, manage our time, keep the kids having fun and moving forward with their education has lead us to spend much more time than usual in the outdoors. Throughout the summer and into the fall, every other weekend we were taking off on car camping/exploring adventures around Southern Arizona and beyond. We logged around 15 nights of camping out, choosing destinations with elevations with comfortable temperatures, which we’re fortunate to have a wide variety of within two hour drives of Tucson.

Once things cooled off in the fall at the higher elevations, the camping gear got put away from its perpetual spot in the car’s roof box and we got back to our weekends of hiking and biking around Tucson.

Most of our family bicycling around Tucson involves 7 to 12 mile rides, rotating between our 3 favorite routes. An Overnighter to Catalina State Park involved a 21 mile ride each way requiring a bit more strategizing to get my 9 year old daughter comfortable with the plan.

As other cycling families can surely attest to, managing kids on bikes is an on-going, evolving process of various bikes, trailers and other devises. As the kids get bigger things get easier in some ways, harder in others. They can contribute more to the pedaling effort until you wear them out at which point they offer more bulk to tow. As they grow older they are generally able to appreciate and enjoy longer outings. But when they’re not enjoying themselves they have more experience with asserting their will power and figuring out ways to make you know it when they are not having fun.

Our family bicycle setup seems like it is in a constant state of evolution. Since this trip 2 months ago, I’ve already come up with some new setups to try to get the family back into some rougher gravel road riding (Note: we’ve been there before but the progress of our families capabilities as the kids grow has not always been only forward)

Our setup for this trip was to have my 6 year old son’s 20″ wheeled Cleary Owl connected to my bicycle with a FollowMe Tandem. My 9 year old daughter rode the majority of the way on her own on her 24″ wheeled Cleary Scout. She rode almost all of the way to camp but my wife did hook up the TowWee Tow Strap for the last 3 or so miles. That said she rode all the way home on her own the next day.

Our family bike tour achieved lift off around 10:30AM, riding North from our house towards the Huckleberry Loop. The plan was to see if we could ride the first half or so before stopping for a long lunch break. Things started off great with everyone in high spirits and great weather.

As noon approached about 6 miles into the ride, our daughter declared she was getting hungry. I wanted to get another mile or two before stopping so asked her to press on. The problem I didn’t foresee was that we were entering the I-10 zone where the bike path had almost no hospitable lunch spots, and Amelia was starting to get hangry. We finally arrived at a nice grove of trees along the highway only to realize there was something spilling a bad stench into the air nearby. So we carried on another couple miles to finally find a decent spot 11 or so miles into the day.

Lunch hit the spot and we were able to complete the second half of the ride without too much more drama. As we were stopped for another long group, we were passed by another bike camping family. Earlier that week this mother daughter tandem team had been by Campfire Cycling for a tuneup and a few supplies for their trip.

We ended up passing eachother back and fourth, careful to social distance of course, and arriving at Catalina State Park together.

We arrived around 4PM so got straight to work setting up camp. The campgrounds at Catalina State Park are very popular this time of year and we had had to reserve our spot a month or so in advance. Camping amongst the RVs in every direction made us feel like strange birds amongst the local flock. Having a luxury heated bathroom with showers at our disposal felt odd.

After setting up camp we found where our bike camping friends had made their camp. Then we watched a brilliant moon rise over the Catalinas and had dinner.

You’ll notice notice we have two tents. As an “essential worker” keeping our bike shop operational and having my mother-in-law in our family pod to help us with child care, I’ve been applying some safety measures involving masks and separate sleeping areas between myself and my family.

My wife and kids cuddled up in our 4-man Big Agnes tent. And I dove into my Fly Creek UL1 Bikepacker for what turned into a cold night.

We all stayed warm enough through the night, but getting up that chilly morning was interesting to say the least. I believe the temperature was in the high thirties. Getting up before the sun rose was a chilly affair. Our 6 year old chose to stay buried in his sleeping bag. But our 9-year old was ready for hot chocolate. We danced to stay warm and tried to guess when the sun would peak out over the Catalinas.

Riding home that morning was a bit easier for my daughter with a small downhill and the challenge of the initial ride out already overcome. We were determined not to have another hangry episode and ended up getting to an Inn-N-Out burger in time along our route.

As we were getting towards the final miles to our house, we came across a desert tortoise trucking down the road. He was an impressive fellow, probably the biggest we’d seen in the wild.

We were reminded of our family bikepacking trip several year ago where at the end of the ride as we approached Patagonia, AZ we saw around 20 Kotamundi crossing the road and then scrambling up a cliff stalked by a hawk and 2 vultures.

While I considered the trip an overall success, pulling off a family bicycle campout of any sort has always felt like a miracle. The stars must align and the fact that things came together for this trip in the midst of this pandemic simultaneously seemed impossible and made perfect sense.

The idea for another family trip in the early spring is brewing, but we’ve learned to not commit to soon with how quickly things change these days. It is a time to go with the flow.

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