Mount Lemmon, in the Santa Catalina Range is just one of several "sky islands" in Southern Arizona, called such because of their striking differences in temperature and vegetation from the surrounding desert.
The front way into Mount Lemmon is 30-mile-or-so-long, curvy, paved road often looming over large drop-offs. There are some gorgeous views of Tucson along the way up, with the best being at Windy Point, where the road makes a 180. This road, and particularly this spot, was recently re-built, and is now much safer and much more tourist friendly. If you go after a big rain, or when the snow is melting, you'll be treated to dramatic waterfalls and a beautiful, flowing creek.
Most people go up during the summer because, when it's 100 degrees in the valley, it's often 75 on the mountain. I like the winter the best though, after a big snow. It's relatively isolated (too cold for Tucsonans), and it's even more gorgeous. Many of the forest roads are closed off during the winter, as they are not plowed, but this just provides a nice hike, as many of the trails are then inaccessible due to the ice.
Whatever season, Summerhaven is a must-see. The cafe there is famous for its pies, and although they're something like $6/slice, they're very deserving of the fame. Much of the village was destroyed during a large fire in 2003, but much has been re-built at this point.
The ski resort is normally open, but skiing is only open about two times per year. Otherwise, this is about the only restaurant on the mountain.
In the higher areas, there are four campgrounds: General Hitchcock, Showers Point, Spencer Canyon and Rose Canyon, all of which are right on the main road. These all close in October though, when it begins to get too cold. Lower campgrounds (Peppersauce and Molino Basin) are open year-round. All require a $10/site fee.
If you don't mind roughing it though, there are several areas where you can just park your car and pitch your tent. Just off of the main road, Mount Bigelow Road leads a little further into the wilderness. Camping is free here, but the road is closed off sometime in the late fall. There are also often fire restrictions in place that prohibit campfires outside of campgrounds.
Allot for about two hours driving from the east side of Tucson to reach the top of Mount Lemmon. The speed limit is 35mph for the entire length, and is often patrolled by the county, although people typically speed, and get up to 65 on the way down sometimes. Obey the signs and use the pull-offs if you don't want to go that fast and/or are not in a hurry. Also keep in mind that there is no gas on Mount Lemmon, so you'll need to fill up beforehand in town.
There is a back way up the mountain on Oracle Control Road (called such because there was a once a signal that controlled traffic because it was too narrow for two-way travel). This is 30 miles of gravel and dirt, oftentimes very bumpy, and is definitely not for the faint of heart, although it is possible in a passenger car. Not advisable during the winter after the snows, or during monsoon season when you run the risk of getting stuck by flash floods.
I stand corrected, Summerhaven is gone due to wildfires which means some shops & restaurants are not there anymore, but apparently it's still worth the drive. Mt. Lemmon is the highest peak in the Santa Catalina mountains (approx. 9000 ft). Lots of hiking trails, camping and a lake. It's a great place to beat the heat in the dog days of summer and it's only a 30 minute drive up to the top. Lots of scenic view stops on the way and within a half hour you transist from cactus and shrubs to pine trees and grass.
If you like to drive and take in interesting scenery, this is the perfect experience. Mt. Lemmon is about 9,000 feet and northeast of Tucson. The road is about 30 miles and it gently winds up the hills. At the bottom there is nothing but cactus dotting the slopes. But by the time you get to the top, there are large pines and interesting rock formations.
If you happen to go up there in January, there is a ski area. When I drove to the top, it was about 40 degrees cooler and there was snow.
People also live on the mountain and there is a village at the top.
Going through this drive is like going from the border of Mexico to the border of Canada in one hour. You start going through the residential areas of Tucson, then go through the desert passing large saguaros. Slowly, as the elevation increases you'll notice some trees. By the end of the drive you'll be surrounded by dark green trees more reminicent of the Rockies and if it's winter you'll see snow. The road up Mt. Lemmon is long (about 25 miles) but well worth the drive. Along the way there are dozens of stops, each giving you a unique view at various elevations. The mountain itself is over 9000 ft. Near the top is the town of Summerhaven, which doesn't really have too much, but is a nice break. If you want to hike to the top of the mountain (or ski - yes you could ski near Tuscon), turn right off the road near Summerhaven. Unless you're visiting Summerhaven, you'll need to pay a $5 entrance fee.
One strange sight on this trip was dozens of people shoveling snow on top of their cars near the top.
Mount Lemmon is located within the Coronado National Forest covering a vast portion of the National Forest. When you first start traveling to Mount Lemmon, the landscape is so dry and unfriendly until you gain height to about 5000 feet and then the environment of these ranges is a total departure from what you'll find on the low lands: total change from dry dusty brown lands to green pines, hills and a combination of undulating hills. Temperatures are far lower up here and water is relatively abundant, and the wildlife, fauna and flora are largely what you'd expect to find high in the Rocky Mountains.
Coronado National Forest protects the twelve "sky islands of Southwestern Arizona which are the real treasure houses of the region. I decided to go hiking all by myself this morning. I made some coffee, backed my hiking pack with water and Gatorade, picked my pink hat and headed off to the Catalina highway. Along the highway, I decided to count how many hiking trail heads were along the highway 'that should be fun I thought?', well did not succeed in coming up with a definite number because I was snapping pictures as I drove up and gained elevation with each turn. The Trailheads are as many as the Vista points, what is challenging is how winding the road is and how fast some people drive on what is clearly marked 25 and 35 speed limits. By the time I left Tucson it was a little over 92 degrees, I could not wait to get up there. Did I mention the views from up there are spectacular and you can literally experience all four seasons during a single day's journey, spending the morning wandering among giant saguaros and colorful wildflowers, having a picnic lunch under the brilliant golden leaves of a cottonwood tree, and playing in the snow later in the afternoon (well this is common in the earlier part of the year and later in the year).
Mt. Lemmon rises a little over 9,000 ft. above Tuscon. Give yourself time to adjust your breathing. Your car may cough a little too. There are lots of hiking trails. I loved leaving a 90 degree day in the city and coming up here to a 60 degree day. We would stay in a little A frame cabin in the village of Summerhaven.
Mt. Lemmon rises on the north side of Tucson. For locals its an escape from the summer-time heat, or a quick ski trip during the winter.
The drive up Mt. Lemmon is amazing. It will take you through several different levels of vegetation starting on the desert floor and moving up into a forest of aspen trees at the top. Along the way there is a huge variety of Saguaro cacti, many which tower over you 30 feet tall or more. Mt. Lemmon also has quite a few hikers and repelers. As Mt. Lemmon is in a national forest there is a minimal fee of about $5 per car for entry, this allows you to access their facilities alongside. At regular intervals there are turn off's for restrooms, picinic areas, and overlooks of the Tucson Valley.
There are FABULOUS mountain views here. Take your camera because you WILL want it. Best times for pictures are sunrise and sunset as these cast the best shadows to give your pictures depth.
As you drive up the mountain you'll notice that the temp drops. The temperatures here can be as much as 20 degrees lower than Tucson's in the valley below. This contributes to alot of campsites for people wanting to escape the desert heat. At the top of the mountain is a ski resort. YES! Skiing in the desert! Ok at this altitude it isn't a desert, but still its only about 45 minutes from downtown Tucson!
The southernmost Ski resort in the USA is located at Mt Lemmon. Who would have thought you can ski just outside of Tucson? We visited in the fall, so there was no snow. You can take the ski lifts up to visit the Catalina mtns and beautiful views of Tucson area. In the winter there are 21 different ski runs.
It took a long time to get up and down Mt. Lemmon, but I would say it was worth it. It's a little cooler at the top (9,000 feet), and there are some tourist shops and other things to do up there. Not too long before we were there, a fire had burned a lot of the trees, and we could still see the consequences of that fire. There were several places to stop and take pictures.
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