HomeMountain Bike TrailsSeven Great Tucson Road and Gravel Climb Rides

Seven Great Tucson Road and Gravel Climb Rides

Seven Great Tucson Road and Gravel Climb Rides

More than just Mt. Lemmon, Tucson is a cycling climbing Mecca

TUCSON, ARIZONA – Here are seven fabulous climbing rides that will challenge road bikers of all levels. Professional cyclists, triathletes and bikers from all over the world come to Tucson just for our rigorous, scenic and challenging climbing rides. The Southern, Arizona region from Safford, Arizona (home of Mt. Graham) all the way to Green Valley near the Mexican border offers the most scenic, challenging and bio diverse road climbing rides in the world. Here are the Tucson “Sensational Seven” road and gravel climb rides you cannot miss.

Road Biking Mount Lemmon:
The World’s Most Popular Climbing Ride

1 ) TUCSON, ARIZONA – Mount Lemmon – The world’s crown jewel of road biking climbs. Lemmon is the world’s most popular road cycling climb. Base camp is Le Buzz bakery and you then have almost 29 miles straight to the top, passing four weather zones. Start out at desert and you will road bike to an Alpine climate.

Sean Parker takes you by drone up Mt. Lemmon

For everything you need to know about biking Mt. Lemmon, see the official site BikeAZ.org/bikemountlemmon.

Road Biking Madera Canyon:
Madera Is Perfect Warmup Ride for Lemmon

2) GREEN VALLEY, ARIZONA – Just a half hour or so from Tucson in beautiful Green Valley, Madera is a very worthy Southern Arizona road biking experience.

Only 12 miles up, but it finishes with a 14 percenter! This ride is the number 2 or 3  choice for most pros who come to Tucson. A big plus to Madera is that there is VERY little traffic. It is a very, very safe ride. The top of Madera is just over 5,000 feet so if biking Lemmon is looking iffy, this is often a very good alternative.

Madera Canyon is a great test of climbing endurance, finishing at 14%

Park at La Posada Java and make the climb. After you finish Madera, enjoy some great food at La Posada and then bike on the frontage road to Elephant Butte Road. Follow that road out to the Mt. Hopkins observatory for an additional 9 miles of almost car free biking! The road averages around four percent and the downhill ride back to base is amazing. This is one of the most spectacular, scenic rides in Arizona around sunset. Old west films were filmed out in this area. The only traffic on this road is that of government employees. Madera Canyon and Hopkins makes for an amazing day.

James Haycraft takes you up Madera from Mission Road by Drone

Road Biking Kitt Peak:
Short. Steep. Scenic. Awesome.

3) TUCSON, ARIZONA – Kitt Peak. Short. Steep. Scenic. Awesome. Only 12 miles up, but you will be climbing at a robust 5.7 percent grade. Located just west of Tucson, you will start at 3,234 feet and top out at 6,847. Most locals who go out to Kitt do this ride twice. IF Lemmon’s weather is iffy, Kitt Peak and Madera are likely to be fine.

For more information, click here.


Kitt Peak Observatory


Our Pedro Gomes cycles to the top of Kitt Peak!

Road Biking Mt. Graham:
Graham is Arizona’s Most Challenging Climb

4) SAFFORD, ARIZONA – Mount Graham. Located about 90 minutes from Tucson, Graham is THE MOST challenging hill climb in all of Arizona. With a gradient of 5.5 percent, you will start at 3,249 and peak out just over 9,000 feet in just over 20.1 miles. Graham is an awesome alternative to Lemmon. Google Safford Federal Correctional Institution and park near there. Just don’t get incarcerated there. Coffee sucks. Men in spandex don’t do well there.

For more information, click here:


Road biking incredible Mt. Graham

Mt. Lemmon Control Road: Backside of Lemmon is Scenic and Challenging!

5) ORACLE, ARIZONA – Mt. Lemmon Control Road: Yes! If you have it in you, take a mountain bike (front shock) and mountain bike up the backside of Lemmon where the weather is very different. You will drive to Oracle, Arizona, just 15 minutes north of beautiful Oro Valley and park where you want. Add more miles by parking on scenic Como Road. Oro Valley Bike Rentals rents very lightweight Specialized Chisels that are perfect for this. THIS IS A REAL CLIMB!

Do not use a gravel/open road bike as the road gets too rough for this half way up. More and more road bikers are turning to Lemmon Control Road. There is little traffic and this is a more physically exhausting ride. The Lemmon Gravel Grinder has become quite popular because this is seen as the toughest ride to conquer in Tucson – yes, far tougher than El Tour De Tucson.

For more information:

Bike Mount Lemmon

Central Tucson Loop Bike Rentals

Go With a Front Shock Mountain
Bike Over Gravel Bike

Lemmon Control Road is not smooth enough to go to the top on a gravel bike as the road has suffered deterioration from the four wheel drives roughing up the road. IF you do go with a gravel bike, you would want 45s for your tires. This is a challenging climb that many top roadies can’t do. It’s tough. Scenic as all mad.

Mountain biking Lemmon Control Road

Gravel Biking Box Canyon:
Stunning Dirt Road Desert Biking

6) GREEN VALLEY, ARIZONA – Box Canyon/Madera Canyon – Just south of Tucson in Green Valley, this is one of the most stunning biking climbs in all of Arizona. This ride is suited for a gravel bike ride or a front shock mountain bike. There is very litle traffic as it is a well grated dirt road – with some choppy washboardy spots mostly at the beginning. You can start from Green Valley and do a 33 mile out and back to Highway 83 (that goes to beautiful Sonoita/Elgin) with 3,842 feet of climbing. Wow. If you do this ride during the monsoons, you will be in for a treat. You will be greeted with raging waterfalls while you enjoy splendid Southern Arizona bio diversity. You will see some optional side roads that go out to the ghost town of Greaterville as well as out to Rosemont Junction. This area is biker’s paradise.

Start at La Posada Java and bike uphill 5.3 miles to Whitehouse Canyon Road or just start at Whitehouse Canyon Road where there is plenty of parking.

Box Canyon (next to Madera Canyon) is one of
Tucson’s best climb rides

Biking scenic Madera Canyon of Green Valley.

Elephant Head Road to Top of Mt. Hopkins to Whipple Observatory, Green Valley, Arizona

7) GREEN VALLEY, ARIZONA – A bonus for road biking Madera Canyon, Mt. Hopkins is a 10 mile ride south of the Las Posada Java Madera Canyon base camp – mostly on clear, low traffic front road. Take a left of Elephant Head for a few miles then take a right and enjoy a seven mile ride to Mt. Hopkins Observatory. You can drive and park at Elephant Head Road and you are then looking at a 9 mile ride to the Hopkins visitor center.

This is a breath-taking ride with almost no traffic. You will enjoy beautiful desert views of the Santa Ritas. This is considered once of the most scenic rides in all of Arizona at sunset. Your views of the mountain ranges are endless. If you have the stamina, rent a gravel or a mountain bike and bike to the top of Whipple Observatory. This is a tougher, more challenging hill climb ride that many seasoned roadies find to be a struggle. There is water and restrooms in front of the welcome center.

Tucson Mountain Bike Rentals and Tours

BikeTucson Gravel Bike Rentals


One Way Statistics

Start Miles Feet Climbed My Time
Hopkins Whipple Visitor Center 12.5 4,358 2 h 24 m
Frontage Road 20.7 5,540 3 h 17 m

Whipple Observatory elevation profile from Elephant Head frontage road.

Elevation profile from Hopkins/Whipple observatory road.

Climbing Whipple Observatory by
Gravel or Mountain Bike

For perhaps the most breathtaking climb in all of Arizona – yes, even over Mt. Lemmon – gravel or mountain bike up to the top of Whipple Observatory. A road bike will not work. You will want at least 33mm tires for this ride. This is a gravel or a mountain bike climb ride.

From Hopkins there will be a rough paved road, then it will return to dirt. This 8 mile section will have an average grade of 7%. Compare that to Lemmon at 5% and Kitt Peak at 5.5%. This is a tough ride because you are on dirt, albeit it is hard packed dirt.

Best Rental Tucson Gravel Bike Companies
Tucson Mountain Bike Rentals and Tours

Central Tucson Loop Bike Rentals

The final climb to the observatory is a brutal, difficult climb

Lemmon Control road is
too rough for gravel bikes.

Whipple is a steep climb on solid dirt road.

The views on Whipple’s ascent are stunning.

The higher you ascend, the views become more spectacular.  Note how well conditioned is the road.  One of the cool things about this gravel climb is that you see the observatory from many different angles and views. It hides and reappears, hides and reappears. Just when you think you must be getting closer it appears again from a different perspective and seems just as far away, but from different angles.

The red vertical line on this image below shows the location of the Whipple Visitor Center. It’s just over a thousand feet of gentle climbing from the frontage road.

Pros and Serious Roadies Love Tucson Gravel/Open Roads

And if you don’t have a gravel or mountain bike, Tucson Bike Rentals offers Specialized Diverge and  Specialize Chisels that are ideal for this ride. Our recommendation: Get off the road bike and really discover the best Arizona and Tucson climbing rides by biking gravel and dirt roads. This type of riding is sooooo much safer and you will bike stress free with no traffic near you.

Bike Tucson’s Sensational Six and you can walk away knowing you biked the most incredible climbing rides in America.

Tucson Biking Resources:

Arizona Bicycle Association




Tucson Bike Rentals

Oro Valley Bike Rentals

Bike Mount Lemmon

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The Arizona Bicycle Association is the official cycling and mountain biking site for the state of Arizona. We are a dedicated volunteer organization promoting all forms of cycling including road and gravel biking. We are a volunteer organization dedicated to the promotion of bicycling in our state. More than just promoting bicycling in Arizona, we help foster safety awareness and trail building as well as trail advocacy.


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