Thursday, May 13, 2021

Tucson: Mount Lemmon - From Desert to Sky

Mount Lemmon Highway ascends the Santa Catalina Mountains above Tucson. It's one of the most scenic drives in the United States.

A summary from my 2016 visit . . .

I toured the town via car and eventually drove over to the University of Arizona campus to have a look. It was a school I was tempted to apply to when I was graduating high school but decided it was not viable. The campus is mostly unremarkable except for a particularly dramatic green or common lined with palm trees. It looks like something more appropriate to Florida. They also have an interesting street car line that I didn't think to photograph. Other than that it is a pretty typical large university.

Palms on the University of Arizona campus. It's a nice enough campus, but thoroughly urban in character, which I didn't really expect.

By that point I had pretty much had enough of the city and was ready for some outdoor adventure and scenery. I went over to the Tucson Mountain County Park to view the saguaro cacti. This is an amazing park adjacent to the western division of Saguaro National Park in the small Tucson mountain range. Rain clouds were threatening but I never got more than a few sprinkles so my escape from the very, very long winter in Flagstaff was successful, and the clouds were lit from a low angle by a revealed sunset to create beautiful views of the mountains and desert. It was spectacular!
Slopes of the Tucson Mountains under gathering cloud.


The view over a pass towards Tucson. Looks like it was raining in the distance. I recall a few sprinkles but it never rained properly on the park.

The hour was getting late so I did not do any real hiking or riding but it was still worth a visit.

The next day, I did some mountain biking. I visited a local mountain bike trail system called Fantasy Island. There I rode winding trails through mostly flat Sonoran Desert. It was light on saguaro but heavy on cholla and other desert plants and I came across a pink rattlesnake at one point. I kept my distance. Later research indicates it was a Mojave Green Rattlesnake (even though it was pink). This is the most poisonous of the rattlesnakes.

The Fantasy Island Trail System was full of these cholla "trees." It's not a good place to crash your mountain bike, but on the other hand it's very smooth and you are unlikely to crash there. Very fast trail.

Fantasy Island was a decent trail system, but not something worth driving several hours for on its own. It's right next to an Air Force base and I got the feeling most of the other riders there were off duty military. My Dad served 27 years of combined active and National Guard duty and you get to where you can tell, even if they aren't in uniform.

Rattlesnake in the trail.

The Santa Catalina Mountains from Fantasy Island. Headed up there later in the day. I have noticed that locals often refer to the Catalinas as "Mount Lemmon" collectively, even though that is just one peak. People from greater Phoenix do this with Flagstaff, collectively referring to the entire area as "Snowbowl," even though Snowbowl is just the name of the ski resort. People are funny.

The next bicycling location on my list was Mount Lemmon. I wasn't in shape for trails on this notorious mountain, but I wanted to get up out of the desert into the high country, and the Mount Lemmon Highway itself is well-know for scenery. This turned out to be an understatement. I have driven many scenic drives but this is one of the tops I've been on anywhere. The drive up into the high country was winding and somewhat busy with traffic and bicycles. I have to admit there was some type of permit system in place but I couldn't figure out how to get one, so I took a chance. I simply found a place where I could park and ride at least a couple of miles near the top, with open views onto the lower slopes of the Santa Catalinas and adjacent mountains, such as the Rincons.

There are amazing rock formations in several places along Mount Lemmon Highway.

By now, my knees were shot and my leg muscles dead. I wasn't yet fully in shape from moving to Arizona, though I had adapted to the altitude at least. The Mount Lemmon highway exceeds 8000 feet above sea level. The air temps were drastically cooler than in Tucson. I rode a little along the highway and then down a gravel side road to where a trickling stream flowed near some houses. The rough track seemed to head over a crest toward the tiny town of Summer Haven, but it was so steep that I declined to keep riding as I did not want to have to ride back over the top or take a ride of unknown length on the paved highway to get back to my car.


I stopped in Summerhaven at the end of the highway for some meatloaf at the small restaurant. The village has been threatened by wildfire several times in recent years and some houses have burned.

I was impressed with Mount Lemmon, and if I lived in Tucson, I would probably be up there many weekends during the hot part of the year. Mount Lemmon actually has a ski area, but it seems inferior to Arizona Snowbowl. It's still amazing it even exists though, providing skiing to the people of southern Arizona. Since I spent my childhood in flat Indiana, far from any real mountains, I have never ceased to be amazed by the differences in climate provided by mountains within a short distance.

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