When you full-time in a RV, you meet a lot of people who are excited to share their adventures. Many of the people we have met in Arizona have encouraged us to visit a high mountain peak near Tucson. It features a beautiful drive and consists of multiple ecosystems due to the substantial elevation change.
Mount Lemmon is the highest point in the Santa Catalina Mountains and it is located in the Coronado National Forest just north of Tucson. Mount Lemmon’s elevation is 9,159 feet. To access this peak, you drive the 27 mile scenic byway that winds its way to the summit. This scenic drive goes by many names: the Catalina Highway, The Mount Lemmon Highway, and more recently, the Sky Island Parkway. Whatever the name, this curvy road with many, many pull offs and overlooks treats you to breath-taking views of the surrounding mountains and the valleys below.
Mount Lemmon was named for Sara Plummer Lemmon. Sara and her husband, John Gill Lemmon, and a local rancher, E. O. Stratton, arrived at the summit in 1881. Reaching the summit was challenging not only physically but also because there was a lot of tension between the American Indians and the US Cavalry in this region. Sara and John Lemmon were both botanists and were intent on cataloging the plants of southern Arizona. Sara Lemmon was the first white woman to have climbed to the top of this mountain.
On the mountain, it is about 20 degrees cooler than it is in Tucson so it is a popular destination in summer and, in winter, many people enjoy skiing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing at the Mount Lemmon Ski Valley resort. There are many cyclists and runners that challenge themselves on this scenic byway as well. In 2010, the Mount Lemmon Marathon was run for the first time. Personally, I cannot imagine biking or running up to the summit of Mount Lemmon.
At the top of the mountain is the Mount Lemmon Station Observatory. The Observatory was a military radar base and was used to track the Space Shuttle missions. Today it is part of the US Forest Service and the buildings are leased to the University of Arizona. Located on this site is the largest public telescope and the University of Arizona uses it for astronomical research. Also, the Observatory offers nightly stargazing programs.
The Mount Lemmon Station Observatory is part of the small town of Summerhaven that sits atop the mountain. There are nice cabins there that house the area’s hikers, skiers, bikers, cyclists, and other visitors throughout the year. One of the highlights of Summerhaven is the Cookie Cabin. They offer a variety of pizzas, sandwiches, etc. but they are known for their extra, extra large cookies. These cookies are the size of a large plate. (Unfortunately, they don’t have any Gluten Free cookies.) There were several groups of cyclists who were rewarding themselves with pizza and huge cookies after their grueling trek up Mount Lemmon. They certainly deserved a reward after that feat.
There are three campgrounds on Mount Lemmon but they appeared to be closed when we were there. There are also a number of picnic areas along the scenic byway. They do charge a day-use fee if you decide to picnic there.
We were thrilled to be able to take a day trip to Mount Lemmon. If you are in the Tucson area, we would highly recommend taking this beautiful drive through the mountains.