Note: This is a 5 Star Route, meaning that it is a highly curated, premier riding route.
“You’re as smooth as Tennessee whisky, You’re as sweet as strawberry wine, You’re as warm as a glass of brandy.” ~ Chris Stapleton.
Mt Hopkins is a simple out and back, a big climb up to a gate with a No Trespassing sign. Nothing about that sounds enticing except it’s a fabulous route.
Smooth roads (for Arizona) and stunning scenery that on a clear day will have you speculating just how far can you see? The view feels endless and includes an overlook area for Devil’s Cash Box. There’s a bonus trip to the observatory. We promise you’ll love it more than Tennessee whisky, strawberry wine, or a glass of brandy.
Adventure / Gravel Route
Technical Difficulty & Risk[what this means]
Moderate. There are some pitches at 8 to 10% grade on fine, loose gravel over hardpack. It can be a bit slippery in the turns. There is cell phone coverage throughout the majority of the ride.
When we like to ride this …
Spring through fall. Elevations along with the route range from 3000 feet to 7100 feet. Winter may be possible but be prepared for high elevation and cool temperatures. If it has snowed recently in the mountains, the route is a no go.
Elephant Head trail parking area.
Lat / Long: 31.745936, -111.037823
This is a go to route of ours when in Tucson and looking for a good climb without a big drive.
Miles 0 to 16 / Uphill / Paved & Gravel
The first 8 miles from the parking area are paved, climbing gradually at 1 to 3%. The road is chip sealed with some frost heave cracks, good for a gravel bike.
Climb towards the Whipple Observatory Visitors Center through rolling and undulating desert terrain … cactus, green scrub, and a few trees. After the observatory, the road is mostly hard-packed gravel that twists and turns to move you higher. The desert floor gives way to tree-filled hillsides. The grades steepen to over 6% most of the time.(Micro-video) And … the views explode! You can see mountain ranges for miles!
We arrive at the visitors center about a mile past the Coronado National Forest boundary. Here, we find the only telescope system we can see without a tour. It’s impressive. The four gamma ray telescopes that make up the Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System (VERITAS) are mounted on 60,000-pound bases, and each 39-foot “dish” is made up of 345 mirrors and a camera.
Inside the visitors center, a short video recounts the history of the observatory and its telescopes, including the summit’s Multiple Mirror Telescope (MMT). That instrument is jointly operated by the Smithsonian Institution and the University of Arizona, and astronomers are using its data to create a 3D map of the universe. There’s also a replica of the MMT and, outside, a viewing scope trained on the real thing. A petroglyph discovered on the property is on display, along with information about local plants. [Arizona Highways]
(We really do recommend making a stop at the Observatory Visitors Center. For us, we like to make the stop on the way down.)
You are near the top when the grade lessons and the road turns back to pavement. Just after a big left bend, you come to a gate. This is your destination, albeit a bit anti-climatic but a good spot to rest and for a picture. Please go no further!
There is no public access past the gate. There is no public automobile, bicycle, or foot traffic of any kind after this gate for any reason. [Smithsonian Astrophysical Laboratory]
Miles 16 to Finish / Downhill / Gravel & Paved
Everything in reverse! At first, steep gravel with twists and turns.(Micro-video) Then more moderate gravel conditions. Then paved descending at 2 to 4%(Micro-video) to the start/finish. Some will find the descent more challenging than the climb.
There are some terrific views on the descent. Best to stop and take them in. At mile 21, you get a big, explosive view of Devil’s Cash Box. A mountain with 4 distinct peaks.
40 mm tires are sufficient for this ride. Most of the gravel / dirt roads are hard pack or loose over hard pack.
We recommend a red blinky light as there is some traffic on the paved section leading to the Visitor Center.
Another route in the area to consider is Devil’s Cash Box. This has a more rugged feel to it, with some steep pitches near the top.
Food / Water
Whipple Observatory Visitors Center at ~ mile 8.