Page Contributor(s): Bo Jensen, Syracuse, NY, USA
Mt. Graham is an epic and very remote cycling climb in southeastern Arizona,
located in the Coronado National Forest; highest peak in southern Arizona.
Cycling Mt. Graham, Arizona
Ride 20 miles gaining 6,092’ to 9,018’ at 5.5% average grade.
Climb summary by PJAMM’s John Johnson.
The Mt. Graham bike climb is a very remote, unsupported climb up into the Pinaleno Mountains in the southeastern corner of Arizona. We have climbed Mt. Graham four times (2010, 2014, 2015, and 2019) and have a special fondness for it.
Before heading to Arizona and tackling Mt. Graham, be sure to rely on our list of Things to Bring on a Cycling Trip, and use our interactive checklist to ensure you don't forget anything.
Mt. Graham is rated the hardest bike climb in Arizona.
Signs at or near the beginning of the climb.
The mountain ranges in southeastern Arizona are sometimes referred to as Sky Islands because they stand alone and are surrounded by the vast Sonoran Desert. The Pinalenos Mountains are the tallest of all Arizona Sky Islands.
Enter Coronado National Forest at about mile 3.75 (km 6).
First third of the climb.
We begin the climb on Highway 366 -- a highway with a lot of road, but no traffic to speak of -- just south of its intersection with Highway 191 near Safford, AZ. Be forewarned that Mt. Graham is “out there,” roughly a three hour drive from Phoenix. However, we have not travelled great distances to take on this challenge because it’s boring, that’s for sure.
Looking back towards the start two miles up a VERY STRAIGHT road.
The scenery on this climb begins with desert landscape of cactus, yucca and mesquite at 3,000’ in the Gila Valley of the
Sonora Desert. The scenery then transitions to oak grasslands then to pinyon-juniper woodlands and then about one-half our way up the mountain (mile 9.5 / 6,000’ elevation) to forests of pine, spruce and fir.
Altitude markers every 1,000’ from 4,000 to 9,000’.
The roadway is wide and its surface pristine. Rarely do you encounter motor vehicles along the route, which makes for an often private and safe ride up a very challenging mountain.
Hey, we said “rarely,” not “never.”
Middle third of the climb.
Two sets of hairpins along the climb ~ miles 10 and 14.
Upper section (final third) of the climb.
Amazing views 5000’ below to the Sonoran Desert.
The high mark of the Mt. Graham bike climb is at just about 9,000 feet, which could be the end of the ride for pure climbing purposes, but you may as well ride the final two miles to the end of the paved portion of the roadway. There, the road turns to gravel and you’ll be met by a locked gate and an unpaved road beyond it. Several campgrounds appear on the map past the gate, as well as the Mt. Graham International Observatory (affiliated with the University of Arizona) about 10 miles from the gate by our rough estimation. We have ridden about one mile up the dirt/gravel road and it is manageable on a road bike.
I first climbed this mountain in 2010 as a cycling newby . . .
. . . yes, that is a soccer jersey . . . 😕
Left photo: view northeast towards Safford;
Right photo: roadway along the ridge towards climb finish.
Observatory can be seen in the center of video
As with so many major climbs, the weather conditions at the top of the climb are much different from those at the start. We rode Mount Graham in October 2010 (no weather issues, other than heat at the bottom). However, the ride on March 8, 2014 was quite different: a pleasant 66 degrees at the start ultimately gave way to extended riding at 28 to 34 degrees beginning at around 7,000'. Beware of the 30+ degree weather swings from the beginning of this climb to the top. Gear up and be safe!
Our “spring training” attempt in 2014, a “turn back” outing.
The Mt. Graham bike climb begins in the high desert at just over 3,000' and transitions into alpine forest towards the top. The first four miles of the climb are very tame at 4.5%, but the remaining 80% of the ride is closer to 6% average grade.
Do NOT stop at the Federal Correctional Facility to take photos with the facility in the background. We learned that lesson the hard way. After the lovely photo below was taken, we were chastised by prison authorities, but did make it out with our photos to tell the tale of another Stupid John Great Adventure!
Climb begins near the Safford Federal Correctional Institution.
For more information on some awesome Arizona climbs, visit our Arizona Climb Page.
Photos clockwise from top left:
Mt. Lemmon; Mt. Graham; South Mountain; Kitt Peak
Note regarding roadway surface as of September, 2018 from Dan Razum, Campbell, CA:
All the Arizona climbs were very scenic, well worth riding. For some reason I found Mt Lemmon slightly more difficult than Mt Graham, even though the Fiets score is less. I think distance has a greater weight than gradient for me personally. Or maybe it's just because Mt Graham had much less traffic and so I didn't have to worry about cars. Although I have to say that the road on Mt Graham is getting old, I'd probably rate it a 6 or 7, the descent was bumpy. Another 5 years and that road is going to be in poor shape. I hope they repave it at some point, but as isolated as it is, they probably won't, at least not in the next 20 years.
Summary of the climb by Drew Peterson, March 8, 2019:
Wanted to give you guys an update on Mt. Graham - I just got back from Tucson, and after riding Mt. Lemmon on 3/7 and an easier loop on 3/8 I tackled Mt. Graham on 3/9/2019. I share Dan's assessment - I found Mt. Lemmon, at least if you continue as far as the observatory, a harder climb than Mt. Graham, simply because the later leveled off a little as you broke 8,000 feet while the climb from Summerhaven to the observatory is the steepest part of the climb, and a 10-12% grind as you're approaching 9,000 feet is no joke. The pavement on Mt. Graham is... fine, I guess, on the way up - it seems at some point in the past decade they repaired a lot of the lower reaches by putting down some sort of rough asphalt coating, which did an adequate job repairing some of the cracks but felt pretty gravelly and made for slow rolling. It had worn through in places and underneath the asphalt was much smoother, which only made the other 99.9% of the climbing more demoralizing. On the way down it was pretty dicey, between the cracks, occasional loose gravel on the surface, and tight hairpins, and I think I found the downhill more painful than the climb, something I can't believe I'm writing. With a better surface this would be an absolute rollercoaster of a ride, but for now I'd definitely run air pressure as much lower than normal as you're comfortable, and between the gearing, tires, and disc brakes I'd rather have been on my gravel bike for this, even with the extra weight. That said, the surface once you rounded the corner on to the back side of the ride around mile 15 was actually pretty good.
I parked at a truck turn-around at the intersection of Boulder Lane and Rt 366, a couple miles up from the Swift Trail Junction and above the Correctional Institution, which made a really good starting spot. You bypass part of the false flat coming out of Swift Trail Junction, but I don't think anyone's going to call you a sissy for missing this part of the climb, and it's before the start of most of the full mountain Strava segments anyway. No reason you couldn't roll back into town before starting, too.
We may be more tolerant of rough roads than Dan and Drew are, since we live in an area where rough roads are the norm. We did the climb for the fourth time on March 3, 2019 and did find miles 4-20 rough with some gravel, but not such a problem that we would recommend anything other than a road bike (I rode my trusty Roubaix with 28mm’s). The main problem with our climb March 2019 was that my riding partner came down with a major illness on the descent, such that I needed to drive up and retrieve him at about mile five. He was very ill and we have concluded that it may have been a combination of lack of serious preparation and the altitude, but we’ll likely never know. We are just glad Hertz didn’t check the side of the car too closely, or at all actually -- maybe I should have pulled over while he was heaving on the ride home...
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