Free Man

5 Star Route / Ridden and Reviewed by Gravel Girl & Captain ‘O

This is a 5 Star Route: highly curated, fully documented and a great ride!

The Free Man is just that … a route free of rough, gnarly roads; a 35-mile loop that lets you crank up Freeman road on a continuous uphill, reeling in Coyote and Black Mountain.  

When you top out, having polished off all the 1,600 feet of climbing for the day, “hang a louie” onto Barkerville Road. The only things that will slow you down now are a gate and the 96 Ranch, which is just a collection of ransacked buildings. (Oh, if walls could talk…) 

There’s a smidge (sometimes more than a smidge) of easy gnar and loose sand in the last 8 miles, but it’s just enough to slow you down to enjoy that scenic Sonoran desert.

(About the name. Yes, it is a play on words with Freeman Road, but we also did route while 2 men were still at large after escaping from the Florence State Prison. Hmmm??)

Adventure / Gravel Route

Loop: 35 miles / 1600 ft gain
– Surface: 100% gravel
eBike Friendly: Yes
– Location: ~ 1 hour north of Tucson, Arizona
– Published: February 2021

Technical Difficulty & Risk[what this means]

Moderate (Overall)

  • Technical Riding Difficulty: Moderate
    There last 8 miles are the most technical. Some loose sand, a bit of wash, and a little rutting out of the road.
  • Navigation Challenge & Risk: Low+
    Until mile 26, the navigation is very straightforward. The next 8 miles have several turns without sign markers, but if you continue in the general direction of south, you will intersect Freeman Road.
  • Remote Risk: Low+
    We saw a handful of cars and OHV buggies. Again, the last 8 miles are the most remote, but they are bounded by the highway to the west, the 96 road to the north, Freeman Road to the south, and the Ninety Six Hills to the east.

When we like to ride this ..

Fall through spring. This is a great route on a cooler winter day; it stays low, without any big climbs. Not recommended on a windy day, it is very exposed.

The Start

Dirt parking lot at intersection of Highway 79 and Freeman Road.
Lat / Long: 32.776489, -111.162142

For help with Ride, GPS files, etc see the “Help with …” page. To learn how to download the routes for free, see “Using Our Routes …” page.


Brown = gravel / dirt road

Ride Details

Miles 0 to 14 / Freeman Road Climb / Gravel Road

From the parking area, the lead-out east is on a wide two-lane hard-packed dirt road.(Micro-video) Expect some washboard, but there is usually a fast riding line near the edges. The first 14 miles climbs continuously at a 1 to 2% grade. At mile ~ mile, Freeman Road begins to split Coyote Peak to the left and the Black Mountains to the right. The landscape changes from a long straight road with Saguaros, Chollos, mesquite trees, creosote bush to rolling hills with a more rugged landscape.

The Black Mountains

At ~ mile 7, notice the abrupt change in desert texture. Mesquite trees dominate, and there is little wild desert grass. Some would argue that this is caused by extensive and prolonged cattle grazing. [To learn more, a good starting point is this report from the United States General Accounting Office. An alternative to traditional grazing practices, regenerative grazing, is detailed in this article by the NY Times. This is a very complex topic and we would encourage you to do your own research.]

At ~ mile 8, you pass by Willow Springs Ranch. This was the site of a disrupted housing / community development in the first part of the century (circa 2001)[Ref: 1, 2, 3]. [We wish we could have found more information on this, but a read of the references listed is worth a few minutes of your time. They show how lands like these could disappear from the gravel community. ]

Continuing, the route rolls and undulates, and a set of big boulders appears in the distance. Then, just as you crest the high point of the day, they are gone.

The boulders – in the distance.
Miles 14 to 26 / Barkerville – 96 Ranch Road Descent / Gravel Road

Just before mile 14, make a left onto Barkerville Road, a wide two lane gravel road. Look north, and in the far distance, you can see several impressive mountains bounded between Phoenix [to the west] and Globe [to the east]. (We believe they are the Superstition and Pinal mountain ranges.) The miles fly by with a downhill gradient of 2 to 3%.

At mile 19, make a left onto 96 Ranch Road. The trend is still downhill, but on a more narrow, twisting, undulating road.(Micro-video) The road follows a northeast to southwest split in the Ninetysix Hills. At mile 22.2, there is a gate and at mile 23.6 is the old 96 Ranch. It was a working ranch until circa 1978 and later was put up for sale for $4.5 million.

The 96 Ranch

Continue on your fast downward descent until mile 26.

Miles 26 to Finish / Desert Crossing Crux / Dirt Road

Go left onto a more rugged dirt road. The remaining 8 miles are on Arizona State Lands and are the crux of the ride. For the most part, the roads are of good quality, but there will be some sandy wash riding and some rutted tracks.(Micro-video) This entire section should be rideable on 40 mm tires, but you will work. Luckily, it is slightly downhill and quite scenic!

Food / Water


Ride Notes

This is (mostly) a 40 mm tire route. The first 26 miles are fast and furious. The last 8 miles on 40 mm tires will work you, but are doable.

The route has light traffic, but we recommend a red blinky light.

Be on the lookout for cows, there is open grazing.

Part of the route is on Arizona State Trust Lands. For access, a permit is required. We strongly encourage you to do the “right thing” and purchase a permit. The fee is nominal.

Ride Options

If you are looking for a bit more mileage (still with 40 mm tires), start at the intersection of 96 Ranch Road and Highway 79. From the start, go east on 96 Ranch Road to intersect the original course at mile 26, then follow the route. This will add about 11 miles and 600 feet of gain.
Alternative Start (Lat / Long): 32.861159, -111.239803

Ridden and Reviewed by …

Gravel Girl / Team Dirty Freehub

She loves a good day of gravel like most people like a good book. She’s always amused by the outdoors and the wild adventures. Gravel Girl is a Co-Founder of Dirty Freehub.

Captain O / Team Dirty Freehub

He should have “Never Stop Exploring” tattooed on his chest! He loves adventures on bikes and is a Co-Founder of Dirty Freehub.

  • Theresa Gilbert says:

    I biked this as my first gravel ride with two others, also new to gravel routes. We had a great time, only issue was in the last 4 miles or so, the sand was so thick that we had to walk quite a bit. Two of us had 38 mm pathfinder pros, other had 42mm. It was like riding on a beach with very thick sand. I am new to this but I am not sure how anyone could bike through that…. My friend wiped out twice due to this sand, though once was on a descent on Freeman – veered to far into the side of road at speed. Otherwise it was incredibly fun! Also be aware of lots of ruts as you descend on of the first steeper descents on Freeman Road – I hit them straight on and it was rough! But I made it through. (we were thinking next time we’d stay on 96 Ranch Road and take Hwy 79 back to parking area on Freeman to avoid the beachy area!) Thank you! So appreciate this site and information.

    • Kevin / Co-Founder @ Dirty Freehub says:

      Thanks for the great feedback!!

      A couple of thoughts on riding sand. (for comparison – I rode the Free Man route on 40 mm tires, my weight is about 175 pounds, and it was all rideable.)
      – make sure you are running low air pressures, for that section I would have about 25 psi front / 28 rear.
      – shift your weight back on the bike to let the front tire float
      – find a gear (usually an easier gear) that you can spin at high cadence but without having the tire loose grip. You want to apply maximum power.
      – look for a line in the sand that is firm, maybe a tire track or towards the edges, usually there is a firm line to be found somewhere
      – practice, practice, practice

      In cyclocross racing I remember seeing guys fly by me on the sand. It took some time until I was competent, and sometime longer until I was good on sand.

      Again, thanks for the feedback!

  • Andy White says:

    I think the 96 Hills west slope is one of the most lush sonorian deserts in the area. It’s on my top list of rides I take my gravel friends when they visit. Thanks for capturing a portion of it on one of your rides. FYI, There is a bit of double track in those hills and off Freeman and Barkerville Roads for those looking for adventure style gravel.

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