Owl Head

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!

Fast gravel tossed in with fast pavement on flat surfaces. Now don’t get going too speedy that you miss all those stunning saguaro cactus. Or you run into a cow. Or you fail to admire the Owl Head buttes along with the other surrounding peaks. Or you don’t pick out your favorite hobby farm. You’ll run into some washboard and some wash sections that will slow you down a smidge, but overall it’s a ripping fast route with plenty of great views.  

Adventure / Gravel Route

– Loop: 32 miles / 1000 ft gain
– Surface: ~ 85% gravel, 15% paved
eBike Friendly: Yes
– Location: ~ 30 min northwest of Tucson, AZ
– Published: November 2020 (Updated January 2021)

Technical Difficulty & Risk[what this means]

Easier+ (Overall)

  • Technical Riding Difficulty: Easier+
    There is a bit of wash / loose sand riding in the first few miles.
  • Navigation Challenge & Risk: Moderate–
    There are a number of turns, but the consequences of taking a wrong turn are low.
  • Remote Risk: Low
    The area is at the urban / rural boundary of greater Tucson. Most of the ride has cell phone access.

When we like to ride this ..

(a) When we are short on time but looking for a great ride close to Tucson. (b) In the winter, on a cool day. The route is relatively flat, so now big uphills to get you all sweaty and no long downhills to chill your bones.

The Start

A makeshift dirt parking area at the intersection of N. Owl Head Ranch road and Cochie Canyon Trail road.
Lat / Long: 32.470032, -111.194865


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

Miles 0 to 2.5 / Sandy Wash Like Riding / Gravel Road

From the parking area, take the wide gravel road heading in a northerly direction. It is loose and sandy, maybe the most difficult riding of the day. Early on, look to your left for a one-track road paralleling the main road. We found the ride quality on this much more hard-packed.

Miles 2.5 to 7 / Hard-packed and Fast / Gravel Road

Just after passing through the cattle guard take a 90 degree left onto a red two-lane gravel road. After a mile or so, we found hard-packed, fast riding. The mountains to the east (slightly south) are the Silver Bells. For more information on the area, check out the Silver Bell route.

The Silver Bell Mountains are home to the Ironwood Forest National Monument as well as a highly productive mine owned by Asarco. The site is used to extract copper and molybdenum from these rocks, minerals which help to enable advanced technology, like smartphones. [Discover Marana]

Miles 7 to 10.2 / Amongst the Cactus / Gravel Road

At mile 7.1, take a quick right onto Missile Base Road [paved]. Directly in front of you is one of the last remaining Titan II missile bunkers from the Cold War era. [For a more in-depth look at the history of the Titan II program, check out the Titan Missile Museum.]

Buried 60 feet underground and encased in four feet of concrete and steel, the bunker was designed to withstand a direct nuclear missile strike! Able to launch from its underground silo in just 58 seconds, the Titan II was capable of delivering a 9-megaton nuclear warhead to targets more than 6300 miles away in about 30 minutes.

The silo became operational in 1963 and was deactivated in 1982 as part of President Reagan’s policy of decommissioning the Titan II missiles as part of a weapon systems modernization program. All operational Titan II silos throughout the country were demolished, including 17 sites by Davis-Monthan AFB and Tucson, except the one in Sahuarita / Green Valley area that remains a national museum.

Approximately 6,000-square-feet below ground, the bunker cost $55 million to build in the 1960s. [Real Estate Daily News]

Quickly make a left onto a gravel / dirt road. The next several miles wind between saguaro and cholla cactus and past mesquite and palo verde trees. The road appears to be the access to several ranches and hobby farms.

At mile 9.2 make a left onto Cattle Tank road [gravel]. The scenic desert beauty continues.

Miles 10.2 to 15 / Small Rollers / Paved Road

At mile 10.2, connect with the paved portion of Cattle Tank road. The next 5 miles are a series of small paved rollers with a slight upward trend. To the northwest is Picacho Peak.

Miles 15 to 18.5 / OHV Trail / Dirt Trail

This next section is just a blast! Zipping around cactus all the while looking at Owl Head Buttes to the west. The trail / road is just wide enough for a car and, for the most part hard-packed. As you near the end of the segment, there is a gate to pass through.

Miles 18.5 to 26 / Owl Head Road/ Gravel Road

The next miles are scenic and fast. It is pure Sonoran desert; there is little evidence of the homesites nearby except the occasional dirt driveway. You are drawn in close to the buttes, and then they gradually slip away as you pedal along a straight rolling dirt road. Just before mile 26, the texture changes. The road is tinted white, with some embedded rock, and it meanders up a hill and then down through a wash.

Miles 26 to Finish / Carpenter Ranch Road/ Gravel Road

At mile 26, make a right onto Carpenter Ranch Road. The road is wide, slightly downhill, hard-packed, occasionally bumpy, and with light traffic. As the views gradually fade away, put your head down, up your cadence and speed, and grind it back to the finish.

Overall, this route delivered big for something so close to Tucson!

Ride Notes

40 mm tires will work, but you won’t go wrong with more tread.

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.

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

A dog deterrent device is recommended. We saw a few dogs along the way, but did not get chased.

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

Researched 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.

  • Robert says:

    Rode this today. Great route in an area of greater Tucson that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. That said, I don’t think I’d do it again given the option to ride something else–at least not with tires wider than the 42s I had today. It was cool to see an I’m glad I did it but it was much more of a beat down than I’d anticipated. As stated many times below, the first few miles are deep sand and nearly un-rideable. At the moment, mile 15-18.5 is also very sandy, though not as bad as the first few miles, and takes a lot of power to get through. I did have a headwind the last 10 or so miles, so that made things more difficult, but the elevation profile is deceiving in that it’s not as downhill as it looks. Mile 26 to the finish is extremely washboard-y right now, and with the headwind I was having to drop the hammer just to keep moving. Looking at the elevation profile I was prepared to coast my way in, but that was not the case. I was pretty spent the last 5 miles and ready to be done. Admittedly, A lot of that could be due to the fact that I’ve put in over 200 miles on gravel in the last week and I’m just a little beat up. Anyway, I would definitely recommend doing this at least once to see the area! But just be prepared that, at least in current conditions, it’s more of a grind than it appears.

    • Robert says:

      *meant to say at least not *without* tires wider than 42s.

    • Kevin / Co-Founder @ Dirty Freehub says:

      Thanks for the great feedback. The longer I own and ride a gravel bikes … the wider my tires have become. My first gravel bike had a max tire size of 38 mm. My most current gravel bike has a max tire size of 2.4″, which is 60 mm+.

      The other thing that I have come to realize is that Southern Arizona has some of the roughest, gnarliest gravel routes. More so than Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada or Tasmania. Now, my exclusive bike in Southern Arizona is a Salsa Cutthroat, a drop bar mountain bike with 2.2″ (55+) tires. With this bike, l love the Southern AZ stuff!

      Ride dirty and smile!

  • Ace says:

    I’m glad I found your site. I decided to dip out of Denver a couple days ago and get some warmer weather riding.

    I rode owls head today February 18, 2021. I have a gravel bike with 40 mm tires and I definitely could’ve used more width in that first stretch. I did follow the advice to go over to the Westside and it was slightly better but once you’re forced back onto the road by the cattle farm I was weaving back-and-forth to each side looking for better paths. It took me 45 minutes with a mechanical and picking cactus thorns out of my arms and legs. All I did was brush the plant and had probably 30 thorns inside my shirt and gloves.

    I wonder if one Commentor missed a turn just after missile base Road. It was only about 5 miles on paved road. I bet they missed the quick left after the right.

    My favorite section was when I turned right off the paved road until the horrible washboard 5 miles from the end started.

    It was 60° today and windy so it was a perfect temperature for a great ride. I’m looking forward to doing some of your other rides in the next few days

    • Kevin / Co-Founder @ Dirty Freehub says:

      Thanks for the great post!

      Southern Arizona has some of the most difficult gravel roads to ride (loose, rugged, and sandy). We do almost all of our riding on 50+mm tires in Southern Arizona. 40’s work in areas like Patagonia…. and we try to give you an idea of the tire size needed in the Route Notes, near the bottom of the page.

      We changed the route significantly after they paved a major section of it. Thus, the previous comment about too much pavement.

      An idea for cactus – carry a fork that has been flattened and use it like a mini prior bar to get the cactus off of you. It works!

      Again, love the feedback! Thanks!! Ride dirty and smile!

  • Andy white says:

    Oh, one more thing. If you’re doing clockwise, in the first mile stick to the OHV trail that starts right from the parking area and parallels the sandy road about 10 to 100 yards west of the road. It’s not nearly as sand and kicks out in a mile at the cattle yard.

  • Andrew White says:

    The dog in your first 2 miles by the cattle enclosure, isn’t fenced but he’s been there for years, often runs out to great, but has always been friendly (knock on wood). At mile 4.2 on East Grand Valley Drive it can be muddy after a rain. If so, turn north on a gravel cut-thru to Cattle Tank Road to get out of the mud. The rest of the route sand and gravel are not susceptible to rain as much. I’ve seen a large Buck on that OHV/farm trail taking advantage of the cattle water trough! FYI, that OHV trail can take you all the way to Chief Butte Rd, Palo Verde Ranch Road and Hwy 79. Also, there is a fun 1 mile hill climb overlook on AZ Trust Land thru the gate on the south side of Carpenter Ranch Road at your mile 26.4

    • Kevin / Co-Founder @ Dirty Freehub says:

      Great feedback! Thanks for posting….

    • Hi Andrew-we were out there today (2-27-21) and we made the “mistake” of staying on the OHV/Farm Rd all the way to Chief Butte and Palo Verde Ranch Rd. (we missed our turn!) We ended up going up to 79 and then to Park Link and back. However, just wanted to let people know that if you go farther on OHV/Farm Rd. it gets REALLY rocky! Not so good for gravel bikes-definitely more of a mountain bike area. Anyway, we survived and are coming back to do it right!

  • Jeremy Baker says:

    Hey thanks for the great website. I’m camped at the BLM campground on Cattle Tank Rd near Park Rd. wondering what to do today and this inspired me. I was just thinking how wonderful this glistening gravel is. It’s like walking or riding on a beach. And fat tires aren’t needed, it’s got a good feel to it in my bike. Feel free to ride west on the camp track and say hi to the guy in the little green bus with a green bike on the front.

  • Dean says:

    What do you use/recommend as a dog deterrent?

    • Kevin / Co-Founder @ Dirty Freehub says:

      At Amazon you can find a number of pepper sprays for dogs and there is also a silent dog dazzer that makes a high frequency noise. We have used both.

  • Kevin / Co-Founder @ Dirty Freehub says:

    We have updated the route based on the comments below and a ride by the DF Team of the route. It is all 5 Star now!

  • John Genell says:

    Hey guys! Sharon and I really enjoyed riding with you guys last month. You showed us some great routes as we are just starting to explore gravel rides in the Tucson area. I rode Owlhead yesterday (1/3/2021). Here are some updates on the route. The first 2.5 miles on N Owlhead Ranch Rd was extremely sandy. It was just barely rideable but lots of deep sand and very slow going (and strenuous). The route turns to paved road at about the 7 mile mark (intersection of S Estancia Dr & E Missile Base Rd) all the way to the 19.5 mile mark (intersection of E Park Link Rd & S Owlhead Ranch Rd). So a little over 12 miles. Your map is showing the entirety of the section on S Cattle Tank Rd as gravel/dirt. I suspect it’s possible this section of road may have been paved since you last rode it. The good news is there was almost no traffic on the paved section of the route at all and I was riding it mid-afternoon on a Sunday. I didn’t really see any other dirt roads in the area that would allow the route to avoid as much pavement without giving up all of the long section of gravel road once you turn off of E Park Link Rd (Which in my opinion is the best part of the ride). It looks like that area has tremendous promise for several variations of gravel routes. I was truly amazed at how great the area was and yet so close to the greater Tucson area. It only took me about 20 minutes to get to the parking area from our house near downtown. Oh, and bring a cooler full of food and drink and a few lounge chairs next time you go. The parking area is a prime spot for tailgating after the ride!!

    • Kevin / Co-Founder @ Dirty Freehub says:

      Thanks for the great feedback!

      I have mapped and looked at some alternatives for the route. I have put this version (V1) out for review to other riders. Need to get some feedback. Look for an update soon. Thanks!

  • H. Gruneisen says:

    Live and ride(mostly road but searching out gravel) in Tucson and have enjoyed your postings on gravel in the area. This is the first route I downloaded and set out to do with a friend. Overall a great route with a few major caveats. Hedgehog/Power Line was unrideable most of the way because of the deep sand. Even trying to find alternate paths out of the sand, in the bush along the edge, was difficult if not impossible. Lots of scratched legs along the way. Also some of the washboards were tough but you do have to manage those. We thought sections of the route were extremely scenic and really loved seeing the area. Thanks for your explorations and continue posting…we appreciate it! Good Gravel!

    • KevinE says:

      Thanks for letting us know. I just did a more detailed look at satellite imagery and Strava heat maps. I was able to re-route around Hedgehog / Power line. Hopefully, this will make it better. Ride dirty and smile!!

      • Colleen Giles says:

        Just rode this route today. (December 15, 2020) Really a nice route. We enjoyed the peaceful, quiet roads, we rode on Tuesday. Owl Head Buttes were beautiful to see so close. We’ve always seen them from a distance. Once we turned off Park link Dr onto the gravel road it was beautiful. Not a lot of washboard either. We will ride this again. 😀

        • Kevin / Co-Founder @ Dirty Freehub says:

          Great! We plan to get out there soon as well. Really appreciate the comment … it really helps other riders to know what to expect!

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