El Jefe, One of America’s Last Jaguars, Has Inspired a Heck of a Race


The Santa Rita Mountains, in south-central Arizona, are a beautiful serration of peaks poking into the clear desert air near the US/Mexico border, with 9,453-foot Mt. Wrightson lording over the San Rafael valley and the Sonoran desert below. These mountains are home to one of America’s rarest treasures—a jaguar. Once, these cats roamed from Hollywood to Lousiana, but hunting and habitat destruction have limited their numbers to…one? Two? Nobody knows for sure. But there is at least one adult male jaguar, “El Jefe,” born likely in Mexico, but residing in the Santa Ritas.

El Jefe is part of the inspiration behind the Ruta Del Jefe, a bike adventure pioneered by Sarah Swallow.  It’s a race, sure, but it’s an adventure, really. A gravel-grinding 125 miles, with 8,000-plus feet of elevation gain, all self-supported (“which means there is no sag following you in a car, and no Moms or boyfriends handing you Mexican Cokes along the route” Swallow explains).

Swallow organized this shindig with the goal of sharing a spectacular bike route with fellow cyclists, but also to highlight—using El Jefe as a kind of mascot—the dangers mining and a physical border wall present to the unique ecosystem of the Santa Ritas, and that whole stretch of the Sonoran desert. In particular, Swallow is trying to raise awareness about the proposed Rosemont copper mine.

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The event takes place in February. The cost of registration? A donation to either Save the Scenic Santa Ritas or No More Deaths. Riders tackle the whole thing in one day, though it’s a bikepacking route for those who want to take their time, suffer a little less, soak in the scenery.

A short film about the event follows these photos.

Photo: John Watson

Photo: Watson

Photo: Gus Morton

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