We gave our new Jeep its initiation by driving the 28 miles up the Catalina Highway (also called the Mount Lemmon Highway) into the Santa Catalina Mountains from the east side of Tucson. The whole area is embraced by the Coronado National Forest, which includes about 1.78 million acres spread throughout mountain ranges in southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. The beautiful, curving Catalina Highway is a favorite drive for tourists, for locals escaping summer's heat and cyclists, and has been recently designated as the Sky Island Parkway, part of the US National Scenic Byway system.
We were completely unprepared for the beauty we encountered. Essentially, we spent the day in two completely different zones. Starting in Tucson, at about 2,000 feet elevation, we rose through spectacular arid terrain, sprinkled with hoodoos, between 4,000 and 6,000 feet.
We reached a section where spectacular towers of rock sprung up on each side of us, and we couldn't resist hopping out of the Jeep to take photos and explore the dramatic environment. Here, Kathy perches on a capstone of one of the hoodoos:
If one hoodoo is good, many hoodoos are much better, so we'll share with you some of our best new friends:
We especially liked the drama and depth of this photo, looking down into a canyon from above one of the hoodoos:
Thoroughly excited, we jumped back in the Jeep and continued up the road, making a stop at the Ranger Station for information and hiking suggestions. The ranger on duty was friendly and suggested we hike to the top of Mount Lemmon by the Aspen Draw Trail. While not long (only 5 miles out and back) it is steep, with 1,350 feet elevation gain, most of that in the last mile of the climb. Our ranger reported to us that fires in the early 2000s burned large areas of the mountain, changing the terrain along sections of nearly every high elevation trail. The Aspen Draw Trail is a beautiful exception; while some small sections had clearly seen small ground fires (probably from lightning strikes), there was no impact from large forest fires along our hike.
By the time we reached our trailhead in Summerhaven, we had reached 7,800 feet, and we were surrounded by an old growth forest of Ponderosa pine and aspen. Here is the scene that greeted us as we started hiking up from where we parked the Jeep:
Only at the last minute before we left the RV did we remember to bring our microspikes, and just about at this point, we became grateful we had remembered them. Nearly the entire trail was icy or snowy, with maximum snow depth only 6 inches or so. But what a bonus: SNOW!
At the bottom, our trail followed the fetching little Turkey Run, which showed off some little cascades from the melting snow:
Perhaps half a mile up the old forest road, we arrived at the official trailhead, which David cuddles up to in the photo below:
The soft, fresh, powdery snow was a pleasure to hike on, despite some icy spots. The snow also set off the forest and every little detail with an iridescent glow:
Along the stream, we encountered this unexpected, quirky construction on the top of an old tree stump. The sign reads, "Welcome to Abigail's Good Luck Fairy Village":
Further along the trail, upslope from the trailhead, we skirted the edge of one of the ski runs on Mount Lemmon. While the ski runs are not yet open due to lack of snow, daytrippers were able to ride the ski lift up the mountain and enjoy the views and scenery. We, on the other hand, looked at this scene and imagined ourselves schussing down the gentle, curving trail in deep powder:
In due course, we reached the top, shed our packs, and sat down to a scrumptious lunch of peanut butter and strawberry-and-rhubarb-jelly sandwiches (YUM) with Reese's Peanut Butter Cups for dessert (DOUBLE YUM). While we at, we had a 360 degree view from the top of Mount Lemmon, south toward Tucson and north toward Saddlebrooke, Arizona.
As we started back down, we paused for a selfie at the junction of the ski runs near the top of the ski lift --
-- and took in the gorgeous view this sunny day:
We couldn't have picked a better outing if we had known what we were doing. The weather was perfect. The hike through the snow was perfect, the climb was invigorating. We got breathtaking view of the Catalina Mountains. It whetted our appetite to come back and try hiking some more of the maybe 50 picturesque hikes in the area around Mount Lemmon.
If you happen to be in the Tucson area, don't miss this wonderful, scenic wonderland.