Here I have compiled data and descriptions of some great climbs I’ve done from elsewhere in the country. Most of these are out west or from Hawaii. New Englanders might have one of the toughest hill climbs in the world with Mt. Washington, but there are many climbs that are either much bigger vertical gain, go to a much higher elevation, or both.
About half of the climbs presented here are 100% paved, and one is 100% singletrack. The others are mixed paved/gravel or entirely from gravel. If you like to climb and have opportunities to travel, maybe there’s something here you’ll like to try sometime.
The climbs are depicted in two different ways: in terms of elevation gain to allow comparison of relative steepness, and in terms of absolute altitude to show how high some of the climbs reach.
The two Hawaiian climbs start at sea level, rising to 10,000 and 13,800 feet. Mt. Evans on the other hand, while finishing above 14,000 feet, starts at 7,555 feet. Because Mauna Kea on the Big Island encompasses both huge elevation gain and high altitude climbing, it easily dwarfs the other climbs presented here in difficulty.
Haleakala, Maui, HI – If this climb weren’t in the middle of the Pacific Ocean 2500 miles from the nearest land, it could perhaps be the most popular bicycle climb in the world. This is quite different from the Six Gaps Hill Climb in Vermont, and the fully paved climb to the summit gains just over 10,000 feet from sea level in less than 38 miles.
At the summit, you are only 6 miles, as the crow flies, from the ocean. Nowhere else in the world can you be this close to the sea at this elevation. Views are stunning everywhere you look, especially the Martian landscape at the summit.
I calculate the average grade to be 5.1%, and the entire climb feels like it deviates very little from this. There’s barely a downslope in the whole way up. Only near the summit does the grade pick up some, but maybe only a few percent. I began this climb in Kahului, taking Rts 37, 38, and 377 to the summit.
Mt Washington, NH – The Mt. Washington Auto Road is reviewed elsewhere on this site (>1000 foot climbs). It is included here as a reference standard. I compare all other climbs to Washington, such as Ascutney is the same grade, half vertical, or Haleakala is half the grade, but twice the vertical. In a race scenario, Mt Washington is indeed a very hard mountain to climb. I have practice climbed or raced up to Mt Washington many times.
Mt Wilson, Pasadena, CA – The Mt. Wilson Toll Road is a closed gravel road. It is open to non-motorized recreational use. The surface is pretty decent, but loose sections, occasional rock slides, and embedded sharp rocks pretty much necessitate a mountain bike or at least a cyclocross bike with some decent tires on it.
There is paved access to this summit from the other side for the observatories. I have climbed Mt Wilson Toll Road twice on a hardtail mountain bike. I have met other hillclimber/competitive types on the climb, who descend the toll road the way they came up. That’s too bad. Many miles of incredible singletrack can be accessed from the summit areas of this range.
I have taken Gabrielino Trail down on one occasion, and a mix of Mt. Lowe Rail Path, Echo Mountain, and Sam Merrill trails on another. Stunning views of both the Angeles National Forest and the Los Angeles basin. To get 4900 feet vertical, you must start at the Eaton Canyon park entrance and sneak through.
White Mountain, Big Pine, CA – This climb is part of day two of the Everest Challenge stage race. It is fairly steep most of the way, but at several points along the climb, the grade lets up or even drops for a bit. The road passes through many scenic areas, including a narrow pass through a gorge. It starts in a desert wasteland and passes through unique forested areas higher up.
From vantage points near 10,000ft, you can look across the valley to glaciers in the Sierra Nevadas. Just after cresting above 10,000ft, the road continues as abrasive gravel. On a mountain bike, one can reach the 14,000ft summit, but this option is not profiled here. Someday I hope to ride from Big Pine via Jeep road to the summit, 100% on dirt, with >10,000ft net gain. The descent is marvelous, with good pavement and very little braking required.
Mt Evans, Idaho Springs, CO – This fully paved climb is often compared to Mt. Washington in difficulty. The Fiets index suggests it is much easier than Mt. Washington, despite gaining 40% more vertical in much thinner air. Presumably, this is due to huge average grade differences between the two climbs.
Mt. Washington is over 2.5 times steeper. However, I must say Mt. Evans is pretty difficult for low-landers. The thin air above 10,000 feet has a huge adverse impact on climbers not acclimated to the altitude. Comparisons aside, the scenery is spectacular here. One gets a strong “top of the world” sensation from the summit high point, which requires a short hike from the parking area. An annual hill climb race is held here each year, the Bob Cook Memorial Hillclimb. The fastest times are under two hours.
Mt Graham, Safford, AZ – For maximum vertical gain, begin this climb from the town of Safford. A few miles of gradual climbing brings you to the Mt. Graham Highway, where the grade gradually ramps up. The surface is wonderful pavement (frost heaves are unlikely, at least on the lower elevations). To get above 10,000 feet, a rocky dirt access road is climbed another couple of miles to Heliograph Peak. General public access is not allowed to the actual Mt. Graham summit.
The endangered Mt. Graham squirrel has rights to anything above 10,000 feet, except for a few monster observatories. I climbed this at the end of October. It was the 70’s in town, 30’s up top. There are many great views of the desert below, to the south where the paved road starts to level off, and to the north and east from Heliograph Peak. Races are held here each year, starting on the Mt. Graham Highway and finishing where the pavement levels off.
Mt Hopkins, Amado, AZ – This climb begins just off Interstate 19 and heads towards the Santa Rita Mountains. The summit of Mt. Hopkins contains many observatories at 8,585 feet elevation. The road gains vertical very gently at first, on the pavement. Once past the visitor center, there are a couple more paved sections, but the bulk of the vertical is gained on well-groomed gravel.
I climbed this mountain once on a mountain bike. Other than the research buildings up top, there is nothing else out there. Most of the Santa Rita Mountains are protected by the Mount Wrightson Wilderness, a peak adjacent to Mt Hopkins. The air is very clear here, and the views are superb. You can see the Santa Catalinas north of Tucson, a flat desert floor in between.
Mt Lemmon, Tucson, AZ – Starting on Tucson’s northeast side, this climb begins gently on the newly reconstructed Mt. Lemmon highway. The grade is never steep, but the first 25 miles or so is pretty much all uphill. Many cyclists train on this climb, especially in colder months when mountains in most other parts of the country are socked in with snow.
Mt. Lemmon sees snow too, but generally only above 7000ft. The climb initially peaks out at 8200ft before descending 500ft into the village of Summerhaven. Just before reaching the village, take a right on Ski Valley access road. This climbs a little more steeply. Go past the ski area, under the gate, and climb hundreds of more feet to reach the summit of the mountain.
The 8 last two miles past the gate has deteriorating asphalt, so use care on the descent. Stunning views abound much of the way. Enjoy them while climbing, as you will be bombing down at 40+ mph for 25 miles on the descent. This climb nearly matches Mt. Evans in CO on the relative scale, but Mt. Evans starts almost a vertical mile higher in altitude! For the off-road set, you can mountain bike up the Jeep road on Mt. Lemmon’s north side from Oracle. Steeper, and lots of giant rollers along the way.
Nordhoff Peak, Ojai, CA – This singletrack climb rises from the outskirts of Ojai on the Gridley Trail. Starts out very steep, maybe on the order of 20% grade, but then levels off into a sweet climbing grade. The trail clings steep canyon walls, and at times offers significant exposure (places you can’t afford to fall). It meanders all over the place, and every now and then you get a glimpse of where you were climbing 15 or 30 minutes ago way below.
A short piece of fire road is taken to reach the lookout tower at the peak. From the peak, the Pratt Trail is taken back down to town. Again, stunning views the whole way. Numerous switchbacks force you to lay heavy into braking. Most of the trail surface is very smooth, sometimes a little loose, and non-technical. The last mile or two at the bottom can be a bit hard to follow and considerably more difficult with large rocks and rock structures. I have done this loop twice and is one of my favorite trail rides in California.