Mt Hopkins

5 Star Route

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

Lollipop: 31 miles / 4100 ft gain
– Surface: ~ 40% gravel, 60% paved
eBike Friendly: Yes
– Location: ~ 35 minutes south of Tucson, Arizona
– Published: December 2020

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.

The Start

Elephant Head trail parking area.
Lat / Long: 31.745936, -111.037823

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.


Red = paved road
Brown = gravel / dirt road

Ride Details

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]

The gate.
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.

Devils Cash Box
Ride Notes

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.

Ride Options

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.

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.

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