Owl Head

5 Star Route

Note: This is a 5 Star Route, meaning that it is a highly curated, premier riding route.

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.


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.

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