Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Arizona Road Trips: Mount Lemmon

We put a lot of miles on the Jeep this Winter. Arizona has some beautiful places to see and we did not want to miss anything.
Several people suggested to us that we had to go to Mount Lemmon so we headed to the Catalina foothills in Tucson and the Sky Island Scenic Byway.

Saguaro cactus love the steep slopes of the Catalina Mountains.
The scenic drive starts on Tanque Rd in a typical Sonoran Desert landscape of tall Saguaro cactus. It was amazing to see them clinging to the side of the mountain as we started to climb. They did not look secure in the steep rocky landscape but from the size of them had been thriving for decades on the rocky slopes.
The road began to climb very quickly and we were treated to expansive views of the city of Tucson as we wound around the mountain.

The cacti gave way to shrubs and low lying bushes.
The cacti disappeared and were replaced by shorter bushes and impossibly balanced rock formations that reminded us of those in Chiricahua National Park.
There were many parking areas that allowed us to pull off the road and really enjoy the views.
The signage at the pull outs was great describing the plants and geology that we were looking at.
Their were several intrepid riders on bicycles struggling up the mountain. We were astonished at their ability as they kept moving around the switchbacks and the long steep grade.

This rock formation at Windy Point reminds me of an Easter Island Moai.
Windy Point at mile marker 17 was one of our favorite stops. Hikers and rock climbers can be seen from the lookout platform, and we saw many people walking out onto the rock formations toward the trails. We are told that this is a popular spot for wedding ceremonies and I can see why. Windy Point is where we started to see bicycle riding daredevils flying back down the mountain road.

The road climbs around the sides of the mountain in a series of switch backs.
The road continued to climb and we began to feel the temperature cooling down. There are trees toward the top of Mount Lemmon that make you feel like you are way North of Arizona. Aspen, Maple and Ponderosa Pines dominate the landscape.

The upper regions of Mount Lemmon are often covered in snow.
We began to see patches of snow in shady crevices and then rounded a corner and found ourselves in a winter wonderland of several inches of the white stuff on a north facing slope.
We soon arrived in Summerhaven, a tiny town and as far as the road would take us. The appropriately named destination has a coffee shop, pizza parlor and a couple of gift shops. The Mount Lemmon Ski Area is located nearby.

The rocks have interesting shapes and are precariously balanced
Mount Lemmon's peak is at 9,171 feet and Tucson sits at 3000 feet, so our 27 mile drive gained 6000 feet in elevation. The temperature in Summerhaven was 30 degrees cooler than that on Tanque Rd where we started.
We learned that the road passes through 6 distinct ecosystems from Sonoran Desert to Subalpine Forest.  There is even a Mount Lemmon Science Tour app that you can download to learn as you drive.
It was a great experience and fantastic way to spend the day. We highly recommend the experience to anyone visiting Tucson.


  1. We definitely want to take that drive the next time we are there, Bonnie. Those rocks really do look like Easter Island!

    1. You guys would love it. Edsel 2 would ride it like a champ.