Note: This is a 5 Star Route, meaning that it is a highly curated, premier riding route.
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
Technical Difficulty & Risk[what this means]
- 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.
Dirt parking lot at intersection of Highway 79 and Freeman Road.
Lat / Long: 32.776489, -111.162142
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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