Update: 1/19/2021. I have been informed by the Whipple Observatory Site Director that there was a serious accident involving a cyclist on the upper road a couple of years ago, and cycling above the gate at Km 13 is now prohibited. If you still choose to ride part way up Mt Hopkins, please turn around at the gate. Hopefully some time in the future this beautiful climb will again be accessible to cyclists, but currently the upper section is closed.
Update: I rode this again with friends on 2/5/2018. The photos are now all from the 2018 ride.
The road up Mount Hopkins is another spectacular climb in the Tucson area. It’s the sort of climb that calls out to you when you hike up Mount Wrightson and look down at the beautiful white observatory sitting atop Mt Hopkins and see the steep road leading up to the observatory.
There are in fact several distinct telescopes at the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory and research into riding up this road can be confusing because when you find references to the Whipple Observatory, you are generally told about the Visitor Center at the base of the mountain. The white building at the top is the MMT (Multiple Mirror Telescope) Observatory – although the multiple mirrors have now been replaced by a single 6.5 meter mirror.
It’s a big climb, but since it’s a good road used by astronomers to get to their offices, it doesn’t have the feeling of isolation and big open skies that the Mount Lemmon Control Road has. The road is sometimes closed and you can generally find out about closures here.
One of the fascinating things about this climb is that you see the MMT Observatory from many different angles. 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 differently far away.
The red vertical line shows the location of the Whipple Visitor Center. It’s just over a thousand feet of gentle climbing from the frontage road.
Google maps shows the distance from the Visitor Center to the top as being just over 11 miles. The kilometers markers by the road show the distance being 20 km, which is about 12.5 miles. Either way it’s a great climb 🙂
One Way Statistics
|Start||Miles||Feet Climbed||My Time|
|Whipple Visitor Center||12.5||4,358||2 h 24 m|
|Frontage Road||20.7||5,540||3 h 17 m|
Drive down I-19 past Green Valley to Exit 56 for Canoa Road. At the roundabout go left under the Interstate then turn right and go about three miles down the frontage road to Elephant Head Road. Turn left and park in the large dirt area on the right.
It’s about 8 miles of gradual uphill from here to the Whipple Visitor Center. Ride along Elephant Head Road for 1.5 miles then turn right on Mt Hopkins Road, following the signs for Whipple Observatory.
When you reach the Visitor Center the real climbing starts; everything so far has just been a warmup. In fact, another option is to drive to the Visitor Center and park there, and many people do just this.
From the Visitor Center to the very top, the distances are marked at the side of the road in kilometers, with a sign every half kilometer. The top is at the 20 Km mark. You always know how far you have climbed and how far you still have to climb.
The road immediately turns to dirt and continues as dirt for around a kilometer, then switches back to pavement. Then a short way after Km 2, it goes back to dirt and continues as dirt for the next 10 km, until just after Km 12.5, when it changes back to pavement for the rest of the climb. So the climb has approximately 7 miles of good dirt road, which would make this ride a good candidate for a gravel grinder bike.
Update: Please don’t ride further. See Update at top of the page.
Just after Km 13 there is a gate but you can walk around this on the left. At Km 17 you are finally below the summit block and you head left up the switchbacks to the summit, which you reach at Km 20. The final few hundred feet below the summit are the steepest on the climb.
I rode this on May 29, 2014.
Do you think the dirt would be too rough for standard road tires? Both ascending and descending? I’m thinking about attempting this one this week.
Last time I rode Hopkins the road was very well graded so I don’t think it should be a problem. But I can’t promise anything as it was a few years ago since I rode it 🙂
Road bike tires are good UNTIL you get past the Hopkins observatory. I struggled on a cyclocross bike with 33s. I have a 38 gravel and it is ideal. The Arizona Bicycle Association at BikeAZ.org ranks this has a must do gravel bike ride. Many will use a rigid or front shock bike.