Mt Lemmon (Epic)

5 Star Route

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

George Simpson of the Elevate KHS Pro Cycling team rode this route for us and gave it the approved 5 Star rating. For George, it was a bit under 7 hours of ride time. For mere mortals (like Captain ‘O’), this is a big, big endeavor! But … the payoffs are huge: (a) the accomplishment of a monster climb (4400 feet in 13 miles), (b) one of the longest and most scenic paved descents in the West, and (c) bragging rights with your riding friends.

And if none of that captures your fancy, there is the San Pedro River Valley sector (miles 26 to 40) that is one of the most valuable riparian ecosystems in the Southwest[The Ribbon of Green] and has one of the highest concentrations of Clovis cultural artifacts in North America.[University of Arizona]

The Clovis culture is a prehistoric Paleoamerican culture, named for distinctive bone and ivory tools found at Blackwater Locality No. 1 near Clovis, New Mexico in the 1920s and 1930s. Clovis people are considered to be the ancestors of most of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.[Wikipedia]

Adventure / Gravel Route

Loop with dogleg: 114 miles / 12,000 ft gain
– Surface: ~ 50% gravel, 50% paved
eBike Friendly: Yes
– Location: Tucson, AZ
– Published: December 2019 (updated January 2021)

Terrain & Technical Difficulty Rating[what this means]

50% Remote & Rugged, 50% Paved & Fast

Reddington road and the Mt Lemmon Control road (the backside gravel climb) are rugged, rocky and sometimes rutted.

When we like to ride this ..

Fall and spring, when you have a bit more daylight and the temperatures are more moderate. We do not recommend this route in the winter as the Control Road can hold snow and ice. In the summertime, the route can be extremely hot, and water becomes a concern.

The Start

Agua Caliente Regional park. Flush toilets and water.
Lat / Long: 32.281464, -110.728947


For help with GPS files, the RideWithGPs mapping app and to learn how to download our routes for free, see the “Using Our Rides” page.

Legend

Red = paved road
Brown = gravel / dirt road


Ride Details

Intense! More than 50% off-road…some of the most concentrated climbing I’ve seen, and what has to be one of the longest descents anywhere.

Ok, some quick details, this was a really dumb idea, and I wouldn’t recommend doing it alone, but I would recommend doing it if you can find someone who appreciates suffering and is a little dumb as well.

Start as early as possible!…possibly at dawn, to check out the sunrise. I started some time after 8 am and got back to my car in the dark. If I had any issues or mechanicals, I would have been in trouble because of the remoteness of most of this route. You’re basically in a valley (the San Pedro River Valley) that requires ~ 7500 feet of climbing to escape from….or backtracking 40 miles. I would consider warmer clothes and an emergency bivy if I did it again. (Note, I did this ride in mid-January).

Also, bring lights.

My ride.

This route starts from the parking lot of Agua Caliente and, in a short time, heads up and over Reddington Pass. This area seems to be one of the gravel destinations for people riding from Tucson. It’s a switchbacky climb with some great views. This isn’t the smooth and relaxing gravel of the midwest or northeast; it’s chunky. I was running 2.2” tires.

After Reddington, it gets really flat for a long while, the San Pedro Valley River sector. The dirt turns to rough pavement [~ mile 41], and there was always a headwind. This would be a good spot to have a partner for some drafting.

The San Pedro River valley is the most significant migratory flyway remaining in the Southwest. Nearly 400 species of birds spend part of their life-cycle along the San Pedro, and during peak migration, between 1 and 4 million birds are found there. Part of the Madrean Sky Island Archipelago, the entire valley’s exceptional richness provides a well-watered, verdant corridor for birds running from Sonora, Mexico to the Rincon / Catalina Mountains. [San Pedro River Valley]

Looking back at the San Pedro River Valley.

There’s a resupply around mile 48 in the town of San Manuel. It’s a convenience store, so you can get some liquids and a snack…but for some reason, they don’t sell Combos. There was a non-operational food truck outside, so there is potential for a culinary surprise if you pass by on the right day!

After San Manual, the pavement continues west towards the backside of Mt Lemmon. This is the kind of climb that slowly grinds its way up, but it almost looks flat or even downhill at points. Maybe your eyes are fooled, but your legs certainly notice. These are some of the worst climbs.

I should mention that around mile 59 or so, there is a zip line place where the pavement turns to dirt that was advertising burgers, so that’s a potential stop as well. Though, I’m not sure I’d want to eat a burger right before the next leg of this route. This is also the boundary to the Coronado National Forest and the Santa Catalina Mountains.

The Santa Catalina Mountains are a rugged range with steep slopes and deep canyons. The vegetation is strikingly diverse, with mixed conifer forests at the highest elevations and on north-facing slopes. Ponderosa pines predominate on many high elevation south-facing slopes. The higher elevation deep canyons, particularly those with running water, support lush hardwood forests of bigtooth maple, aspen, New Mexico locust, Arizona walnut, Gambel oak, and velvet ash. [US Forest Service]

Once you’re on the dirt (the Mt Lemmon Control Road), it’s mostly up, except when it’s not, and there are some dicey downs in this area. After the rolling gravel, you get pretty close to Mt Lemmon, and it really starts to go up, 5500’ pretty much straight up [~ mile 70]. This just might be the most absurd climb I’ve done. It’s really windy, loose in points, chunky, and I got treated to some snow and ice. It’s relentless. It’s all rideable, but it still takes a long time. It feels like it took me 4 hours to go 15 miles.

Mt Lemmon Control Road

At the top, you pop out on General Hitchcock Highway, also known as the popular paved road that heads up Mt Lemmon from the south. There are a lot of pro-roadies that train on this in the winter…and it does seem like it would be a fun climb and descent if it were a warm day. It was not a warm day. It was 30 up there, and I only had a sun shirt and minimalist wind shell…also, it was getting pretty dark, and I had some lights.

If you have the energy and daylight, make it to the official top by taking a right at mile 80 and finishing out the last bit of the climb: roughly 3.5 miles and 1300 feet of gain. Dusk was descending on me fast, so I gave this a pass.

Catalina Sky Survey (CSS), on Mt. Lemmon, is a project to discover comets and asteroids and to search for near-Earth objects (NEOs). More specifically, CSS is to search for any potentially hazardous asteroids that may pose a threat of impact. [Wikipedia]

Catalina Sky Survey
(Photo Credit: Wikimedia)

The descent is about 7000 feet in 29 miles, so it takes a while. Also, there are people who like to race their cars up and down the highway, and there were rocks and snow in the road at points. It’s really steep and there is some incredible exposure in places. I’m sure I would have loved it if the circumstances were different. But I just clung to the bars, stopping occasionally to shake the numbness out and warm them up. The whole way down I was really questioning the decision to even start this ride. But I survived and am in a warm place, so I’m appreciative of the whole experience. This is type 2 fun…which is great, but that’s sometimes better to share with someone else.

The Descent!
Food / Water

At ~ mile 47, there the Salt & Pepper convenience store in San Manuel where water and snacks can be had.

At ~ mile 78, in the resort town of Summerhaven there is a pizza shop and cookie shop. This requires about a 0.5 mile detour with a bit of elevation loss.

Route Notes

The route is suited for big tires. 40 mm is pretty much the minimum you want. 650b’s at 50 mm or 29’ers at 2.1″ would be even better!

We recommend a red blinky light and a front facing white light for the descent from Mt Lemmon.

On the backside gravel climb of Mt Lemmon, if the gate is closed do not proceed. The gate is closed each year at ~ December 1 to allow for animal migration and for maintenance. Contact the Santa Catalina Ranger District of the Coronado National Forest for gate status.

Ride Options

If you skip the short dogleg to the Catalina Sky Survey station [at ~ mile 80], the route is then 107 miles and 10,700 feet of gain.

Ridden and Reviewed by …

JayR / Guest Contributor

“A flat-bar mountain biker who’s developed a taste for gravel after frequently sampling it in order to link up bits of singletrack. Now occasionally enjoys a straight-up gravel ride with a twist of the bars. Also, lives in an Airstream with his dog.” Follow Jay on Instagram!

  • jay rogan says:

    Just did this last week. It’s certainly a 5-star route!

    Overall, it is manageable if you don’t mind some suffering…or if suffering is something you’re into.

    Here are some random thoughts on the route:

    Most of my gravel experience has been in PA and NY, so some of this is quite chunky and loose compared to that. But I’m mainly a mountain biker so it was very manageable in terms of bike handling, though the roughness of the surface definitely added to the fatigue I felt and reduced the speed I could tackle some sections at. The elevation gain is also rather concentrated, so you do have to “settle in” for a bit when it comes to the climbs.

    The refuel point was at a good spot in the route, and I might add that there was a zipline spot (Peppersauce) advertising burgers and drinks right before you hit the dirt on the backside of Lemmon. I went past it because I don’t think a burger would have been conducive to the climb I was heading up…if I was treating this as an overnighter…maybe I’d stop here.

    There was some snow in the shady spots near the top of the mountain. This was to be expected with the amount of snow the range had seen in the previous weeks.

    I did this solo. If I were to do it again, I’d certainly coerce someone into doing it with me. There are some really remote points on it where you could get into trouble if something happens. If I did do it again solo, I would take a SPOT or InReach Mini just in case…I don’t think that would be overkill. It would also be nice to have someone to paceline a bit on the flats after Reddington Pass…this would cut a lot of time and effort from the route.

    Definitely bring lights and start early. I started around 8:30 am and finished a little after dark (AZ winter). The descent down Lemmon is quite harrowing with all of the cars that zip by you…I was very glad to have both a headlight and a taillight. This was my timeline and I had 0 mechanical issues. If something had occurred to the bike or me, this could have been a lot longer.

    I brought 3 bottles of water, which seemed like the perfect amount. I did refill them all, and I chugged a bit of extra water at the Salt and Pepper gas station.

    I did this on a Salsa Cutthroat with 2.2 Teravail Sparwood tires. This bike is pretty perfect for the route, though there were a few points where larger tires or front suspension would have been nice.

    Bring a bit more clothing than you think you might need! I had just a sun shirt and a minimalist wind shell. I was feeling really good at the top of the climb, but this quickly went away by the time I got to the paved downhill on Lemmon, it was in the 30s and getting dark. I was shivering the whole way on the descent which made it hard “stay loose” and ride well since it is such a long descent, there was also quite a bit of shivering going on. My mind was also pulling inside in a way that’s hard to describe, but it seemed to be doing so to avoid feeling cold. This made it super hard to focus on things. It also made the cars that raced by me a little more startling. I ended up skipping the out and back to the top because of the temps and remaining light…and I’m really glad I did.

    In relation to many of the things mentioned above, the important thing to remember about this route is that it puts you in a pretty dangerous spot at the 75% mark. You’re at the bottom of a massive climb and there aren’t really any services available around there. You can’t bail and backtrack…if you did it would still be a massive ride…and I’m not sure what a complete circumnavigation of the range would require. Like I mentioned earlier, I think an emergency beacon would be a nice thing to have. I might even throw in an emergency bivy if you have room for one.

    Here is a link to my ride with some more photos and a description:
    https://www.strava.com/activities/4777830420

    Here is an IG post with some pictures:
    https://www.instagram.com/p/CLc3KDyrLn9/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

    • Kevin / Co-Founder @ Dirty Freehub says:

      Wow!! Great review and feedback. Thx!

    • Bob kauffman says:

      Thanks for the detailed info. Let me just clarify, you did the entire loop? Was the gate at about mile 65 and was it open or closed?

      • jay rogan says:

        Hi Bob, I did the entire loop minus the 3 miles out and back to the top of Lemmon. I skipped this because of the temperature plus it was already getting dark. The gate was somewhere around mile 76 according to the way Strava handles overlaying photos on your route via geolocation data….I had taken a picture of the “road closed” sign that is near the gate. The gate was indeed open…though, I had anxiety the whole ride thinking that it could be closed and I would have to turn back.

        If I were to overnight it, I would consider camping at Peppersauce Campground, or somewhere in that vicinity. There should be plenty of places you could stay for free without doing any damages, and there were also some boondocking spots along that road. This is a nice area because you can take on Reddington and the flats, refuel, do some easy climbing, camp, then have some time to warm up the legs before ascending the backside of Lemmon, and you could enjoy a mid-day cruise down Lemmon highway in the sun versus shivering in the dark. Also, it’s around the half way point. Cheers!

  • Bob kauffman says:

    Doing this solo self supported. Can I camp anywhere along the rout?

    • Kevin / Co-Founder @ Dirty Freehub says:

      (1) Before you go, make sure to call the FS to ensure that the gate on the back side is open and the road is open to use. (2) For camping, I would put the question out to the Southern Arizona Gravel Grinder Facebook group …

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