Escape from Arizona’s heat is easy in Tucson for locals and travelers. Simply, climb in your car and head out to Mount Lemmon, situated on the northeast outskirts of urban Tucson. Mount Lemmon is Tucson’s well-loved Sky Island, and it offers a welcome change of climate. Within minutes, escape high desert temperatures with a drive on a beautifully scenic, paved road that winds and bends up Mt. Lemmon. That easy drive almost magically transports from a familiar Sonoran desert landscape of saguaro, ocotillo, and prickly pear to cool, high elevation hillsides and forests of pine trees. Taking the Sky Island Scenic Byway with its drive of fascinating vistas and climb up to 9,000 feet can bring a traveler from 100 degree temperatures to delightful 75 degree weather!
Catalina Mountain beauty
Sky Islands are mountain peaks that tower over Arizona’s desert regions. Tucson, with its abundance of sunny days and elevation above 2,000 feet, is a Southwestern city surrounded by picture-perfect mountain ranges. The Santa Catalina Mountains tower in the north, the Tortolitas mark the northwest, the Rincon Mountains in the east highlight gorgeous sunrises, the Tucson Mountain Range to the west highlight postcard-worthy sunsets, and the Santa Rita Mountains in the distant south are a world-renowned birding hotspot.
The majestic Catalina Mountain range is a dominant and beloved part of Tucson’s spectacular views, and Mt. Lemmon is the Catalina’s highest peak. At over 9,000 feet, regal Mt. Lemmon is America’s southernmost ski destination. A scenic drive up its slopes offers world class views.
A microclimate, as defined by the National Weather Service, is a localized climate differing from its surrounding area. Mt. Lemmon is a unique and spectacular treat in its diversity of microclimates. With a drive up Mt. Lemmon’s paved and winding Sky Island Scenic Byway, in a short stretch of 30 miles, one experiences the biological equivalents normally found on a continental drive from the dry deserts of the Mexican life zone through to the northern, forested Canadian life zone region. The intriguing drive’s natural diversity of plants and animals offers a scenic panoply of microclimates that range from the creosote bushes and barrel cactus of a Lower Sonoran desert life zone up to a world of pines and aspens.
Scenic drive of natural opportunities
Traveling from a desert elevation of approximately 2,500 feet to over 9,000 feet, the Catalina Highway (also known as the General Hitchcock Highway or the Mt. Lemmon Highway), the Sky Island Scenic Byway is the only paved highway to the upper reaches of Mt. Lemmon. Along the paved route, there are numerous scenic overlooks and paved turnouts, multiple campgrounds, convenient picnic areas, tempting trails, some paved for comfortable, handicapped access, and advanced hiking and biking trails with numerous accesses to the Coronado National Forest’s backcountry, and the delightful village of Summerhaven near Mt. Lemmon’s peak.
Stop early in the drive at the Babad Do’ag Viewpoint (“frog mountain” in the Tohono O’odham language) or the Molino Canyon Overlook and take a photograph of the Tucson valley, mesquite and palo verde trees, or stately saguaro cacti. By the time you get to Upper Bear Canyon, be sure to stop for images of pines and cypress. Along the way and continuing on, you’ll pass many campground opportunities and chances to picnic.
At Windy Point, Geology Vista, or Hoodoo Vista, stop again to take pictures of remarkable rock formations along with beautiful canyon and mountain vistas while enjoying Mt. Lemmon’s cooler temperatures. Continue upward, and you’ll encounter alluring opportunities to hike, camp, or picnic in the pines.
If you take the turnoff for Rose Canyon Lake, you’ll be able to access (there is a use fee for this site) a seven acre lake stocked with trout as well as the Rose Canyon Campground. A paved path along the banks of Rose Canyon Lake makes a leisurely stroll into the lake environment both pleasurable and easy. A handicapped parking area allows for close access, but the regular parking lot leads right onto a paved walking trail, too, and the walk to the lake is short.
Want even cooler temperatures? Keep traveling upward. Higher yet up the mountain, there are hiking trails near the Palisade Ranger Station, more tempting picnic sites at Inspiration Rock, Loma Linda, Box Elder, and Alder, as well as more campgrounds including the wooded sites of Spencer Canyon Campground.
Enjoy the scenic drive while taking time out for numerous stops and walks. Among Mt. Lemmon’s natural pleasures are not only its dramatic shifts of temperature and diversity of plant life, but also its birdlife. Higher elevations bring out a fresh diversity of birds. Watch for a shift from the Sonoran desert’s familiar cactus wrens and gila woodpeckers to the Forest Zone’s lively blue of scrub jays and winsome acorn woodpeckers.
A spur road just prior to the charming village of Summerhaven leads to the Mount Lemmon Ski Valley, where there is parking and a dining spot for breakfast, brunch, or lunch at the Iron Door Restaurant. If you continue on the Mt. Lemmon Highway past the spur road to the ski area, you’ll reach Summerhaven. Continuing through Summerhaven, the Sky Island Scenic Byway’s paved road concludes at the Marshall Gulch Picnic Area near Sabino Creek.
After the scenic delights and nature opportunities of a drive up Mt.Lemmon, the tiny village of Summerhaven is worth an additional explore. The patio of the Sawmill Run Restaurant allows you to relax and take advantage of cool, mountain top temperatures. For something lighter in culinary fare, there’s the Cookie Cabin for pizza, chili, or a huge cookie. Or, if you’re just looking for a quick cup of coffee before your drive back down the mountain, stop in at the Mt. Lemmon Store and Gift Shop. You’ll likely be tempted to add a sweet energy lift with their tasty, homemade fudge.
Slideshow and directions
Enjoy the slideshow accompanying this article for views of the Sky Island Scenic Byway and glimpses of its nature and birds.
To get to the Sky Island Scenic Byway and Mount Lemmon, go to the intersection of Tanque Verde Road and the Catalina Highway in northeast Tucson. The Sky Island Scenic Byway starts at the junction of East Catalina Highway and the North Lemmon Short Road. Take the Catalina Highway to the boundary of the Coronado National Forest, where it becomes the Hitchcock Highway (Mt. Lemmon Highway). Continue on, driving northeast and up, through the scenic drive’s microclimate zones with the opportunity to stop at overlooks, picnic areas, trailheads, campgrounds, the ranger station, and ski area access road until you reach Summerhaven at the upper reaches of Mt. Lemmon. Drive through Summerhaven to where the Sky Island Scenic Byway ends at Marshall Gulch Picnic Area.
In Tucson, there’s always an easy escape from summer heat or spring warmth. If one tires of viewing stately saguaro, tall ocotillo, and green palo verde trees, there’s an easy, high elevation alternative. For cooler temperatures and scenic diversity, head to the Catalina Mountains’ rugged monarch, Mount Lemmon. Travel up the spectacular Sky Island Scenic Byway and find yourself in temperatures 25 to 30 degrees cooler. Luxuriate in Mount Lemmon’s refreshing, cool breezes. Enjoy the shady respite of ponderosa pines and swaying aspens. Whatever the season, rugged Mt. Lemmon with its easy access, paved Sky Island Scenic Byway offers a wonderful mountain escape.
Find the take in this article to be helpful? National and International Travel and Recreation as well as National Education and Industry materials come from a husband and wife creative team, who travel extensively as photonaturalists and writers. One is an experienced research scientist with a doctorate in Material Sciences and background in optics research. The other is former Vice President of GKE (Global Knowledge Exchange), who served as a US Web-based Education Commissioner during the Clinton administration, and was a former US National Tech&Learning Teacher of the Year.
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