If you have never been to Arizona, you may be surprised to know that the state is not only covered in cactus and canyons. Known as one of the sunniest places in United States with its fair share of desert landscape, Arizona is also home to over 193 mountain ranges with several over 10,000 feet and the highest point being Humphrey’s Peak ( elevation 12,633 feet) near Flagstaff.
Home to the largest Ponderosa Pine forest in the United States, the flora and fauna of Arizona is quite diverse and offers a fantastic number of amazing hikes ranging from the immense Grand Canyon, to the cactus-coated desert and rugged, pine-scented mountain tops.
The Southwestern city of Tucson where my parents live, is a true hikers’ paradise as the city is almost completely surrounded by mountains. There are five major mountain ranges in Tucson, each with its own flavor and appeal. To the north of downtown Tucson lies the majestic Santa Catalina Mountains which slowly rise to almost nine thousand feet. To the east lies the Rincons which are less rugged than the Santa Catalina Mountains and the Santa Rita Mountains which rise to the south. To the west lie the craggy Tucson Mountains and to the northwest lie the fifth mountain range, the Tortolita mountains.
Nestled high above the Catalina Foothills lies a spectacular place for a day trip: Mount Lemmon. At 9,157 feet, Mount Lemmon is the highest point in the Santa Catalina Mountains and is part of the Coronado National Forest. It is a special place affording stunning views and a nature lover’s retreat.
A drive from balmy, sunny Tucson up to Mount Lemmon is the perfect way to find peace and also a little winter in Arizona. On top of Mount Lemmon is an actual ski resort which is hard to believe. Yet the Mount Lemmon Ski Area receives about 57 inches of snow annually and its short but steep runs offers “winter on demand” for those living in the desert town below.
Around an hour and fifteen minute picturesque drive from Tucson brings you to another world. As you climb up the breathtaking Santa Cathalina Mountains following the Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway, slowly the desert landscape begins to disappear and suddenly majestic ponderosa pines line the road. The views along the way are arguably some of the best in Southwestern Arizona with sensational views of the city below and the shadowed mountains in the distance.
The landscape is dramatic. I find the raw beauty to be serenely peaceful and divine. As you climb higher and leave behind the cactus, you enter instant winter or “winter on demand” as my parents like to call it.
It’s a Saturday afternoon and we notice a lot more cars heading up to Mount Lemmon than usual. Many of the cars have Sonoran (Mexico) plates. We are confused. Yet as we slowly climb up and the snow appears suddenly we understand. Winter on demand. For many, it is the very first time they have seen snow and Mexico is not too far away.
We notice that lots of cars are pulled over enjoying the multitude of picnic areas. There are families, sleds and bonfires. There are many, many smiles.
We reach the ski resort and although the ski runs aren’t open, the ski lift is running to take people up to the top. We decide to reach the top on foot.
There are people sledding everywhere and families playfully throwing snowballs. It is a beautiful day in the mountains, the perfect day for a hike.
Like many parts of Arizona, the Santa Catalinas have been devastated by fire. A rampant wildfire ran through the resort town of Summerhaven years ago destroying the town and all the pine trees in its path. The remains of burnt tree skeletons were eerily beautiful.
But the view on top was quite lovely despite the destruction.
From Tucson, follow the Catalina Highway on the northeast side of town. Follow the road up 27 miles towards the town of Summerhaven. You can stop there and grab lunch at one of the local diners or else you can continue on to the ski resort and hiking trails. To get there, follow the road just past the “welcome” sign for Summerhaven and turn right on to Ski Run Rd. There is a parking lot where you can leave your car behind and explore the beautiful world around you.